Writer Wells Tower traveled to the jungles of Peru to experience an ancient ritual. What happened next pushed him to his limits.
WAY DOWN DEEP IN THE JUNGLE, we watch Shaman Percy brew the medicine. Nobody says “drug” out here. “Medicine” is what they call it on the ayahuasca trail.
What does the medicine cure? asks a bearded young traveler.
Cancer, depression, black magic, says the shaman, turning a palm in a the-list-goes-on sort of way.
As the believers have it, there is nothing this medicine can’t do. Overcome your diabetes, drug addiction, PTSD. Blow out the past lives that clutter the attic of your soul. Reveal the future. Facilitate communion with God, dead relatives, and elves. Disintegrate the bonds of ego and disclose the meaning of consciousness.
Known to indigenous South Americans since centuries ago, ayahuasca is now having its global moment. You can find ayahuasca “ceremonies” (we do not say “trip”) from Berlin to Brooklyn and even in my little town in North Carolina, where some of the village folk are known to get astral in a tobacco barn.
But those who seek an ayahuasca experience at the source flock to the medicine’s ancestral headwaters in the Amazonian jungles around Iquitos, Peru. Hawkers flog ayahuasca at the Belén Market in Iquitos and at stands along the main highway. Local backpackers’ cafés offer ayahuasca menus—bland foods for travelers on the cleanse. Ayahuasca retreat centers infest the forests here almost as densely as the ayahuasca vine itself.
The medicine is, by all accounts, no joke. Ayahuasca is to LSD or psychedelic mushrooms what pure grain alcohol is to a chardonnay spritzer. The effects can last eight hours. They include vomiting, diarrhea, severe hallucinations, extreme disorientation, and debilitating dizziness. So choose your retreat with care. There are shoals to avoid. Example: My travel companion, Jesse, and I came close to booking at another establishment until we learned that months before, during a session, one of their guests reportedly threatened another with a kitchen knife. But we could find only positive comments about Shaman Percy, by all accounts an experienced curandero (healer), whose retreat occupies an unelectrified tract of jungle an hour from the city.
And so here we are at the healing center—where we arrived late last night—and it feels authentic enough. There is no juice bar, no massage room, no yoga studio. Accommodations are thatched shanties without running water. Our group bathtub is a gooey bend of beige river. The air strobes with emerald hummingbirds and iridescent blue butterflies the size of dishrags. Men with large-bore shotguns patrol the grounds at all hours—whether against jaguars or bandits we are not told—lending a tang of risk to the whole experience.
While his cooking fire flares, the shaman explains to his visitors (11 of us) the medicine’s pharmacological basics. The stuff we’ll drink in the ceremony is a highly potent extract whose active ingredients are the ayahuasca vine and the leaves of plants called huambisa and chacruna. These latter vegetables—which Percy calls “the eyes” of his brew—contain dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, a powerful hallucinogen that is activated by chemicals in the ayahuasca vine. Percy adds the leaves and shredded vine to his gurgling boil-pot. The water takes on a rich caramel tint. To achieve full potency, the stew will go on stewing for 24 hours, reducing 60 liters of water to a single viscous liter of medicine.
Percy’s distinctive recipe also calls for 12 adjunct botanicals, among these, a leaf of datura. “Datura is very toxic,” Percy says through his translator. “It can give you death.” So, why, exactly, Shaman Percy, do we need to drink something that can give us death? He does not volunteer this information, but he does offer the tip that if your house ever gets robbed, you can put datura leaves under your pillow, and the burglar’s identity will come to you in dreams.
I’m thinking, Sheesh! As if that would hold up in court! But my fellow campers are all nodding like, Wow! For real? I suppose I get it. A shortish, fortyish, shirtless, round-bellied man in Crocs and gym shorts, Percy nevertheless emanates authority. Some protuberant intensity around the eyes. He could be the actor Peter Lorre’s Peruvian twin. His career in ayahuasca is extensive. His training began when he was 10 years old. The child of farmers, he grew up in a jungle village a three-hour trek from the nearest road. Hiking to town on market days, Percy’s grandfather, a curandero himself, would point out various plants and their properties. Percy first drank ayahuasca at age 14. In order to, in Percy’s word, “graduate” to full shamanhood, he had to stay drunk on sugarcane moonshine for three days. His training also required him to eat lots of manioc porridge and drink both cologne and perfume.
Let me restate that drinking ayahuasca is a medically serious business. It can kill people with heart problems and inflict severe damage on people with psychiatric disorders or who are using other medications. Hence the question in my mind: Am I the only one a wee bit anxious about placing my health and sanity in the hands of a practitioner whose credentials include “can drink perfume” and who believes that a pillowcase full of toxic leaves is a good way to find out who stole your stuff?
Apparently, yes. When Percy opens the floor to questions, Will your potion kill me or make me insane? is something no one asks.
Instead, my fellow guests ask things like, Is it true that curanderos have wives in the astral world? During the ceremonies, can you see our visions? And, Do psychedelic mushrooms have a spirit?
“Every plant has a spirit,” Percy replies.
So when we eat vegetables, are we ingesting the spirit of the plant?
The shaman looks fatigued. “No more questions,” he says.
YET I DO HAVE QUESTIONS, chief among them: What are we doing here?
“I want to be a better version of myself,” offers a middle-aged Irishwoman who will be staying at the center for a six-month stint, doing as many as three ceremonies a week. “I’ll either go home nice and shiny or in a straitjacket, or somewhere in between.”
She has drunk ayahuasca a staggering 32 times. I ask her: Does the medicine get gentler the more you do it? The answer is no, she says, recalling a recent ceremony. “I was clearing past lives and just vomiting and vomiting and vomiting,” she says. “They said there were sounds coming out of me that weren’t even human. I was burning hot, and I had taken off all my clothes, stark naked. At the end of the ceremony, I was just laughing, laughing, I was so pleased it was over. But the vomiting: oh, my God. Well, they say the medicine doesn’t give you what you want, but she’ll give you what you need.”
So what do I want from the medicine? What do I need? Why am I here? Plain old curiosity is a big part of it. I’m interested to know whether ayahuasca is in fact the magical soul tonic its adherents claim it to be. I’m also excited to see what this stuff might do for me. People I respect say that ayahuasca has liberated them from the bad habits of their own psyches, that it has made them less wrathful, more compassionate and creatively expansive. I’m guardedly optimistic that it might do the same for me. I would like to get my novel finished. I would like not to get so mad at people who stand still on airport walkways. I would like to be the most patient and loving father I can be to my infant son. It’s probably fanciful to think the medicine can smooth out my assorted wrinkles in the mere two ceremonies we’ve booked. But perhaps it’s a start.
AT 7 P.M. THE DAY AFTER OUR ARRIVAL, we report to what is called the maloca. This is an octagonal wood-and-frond tabernacle whose flying-saucerish design came to Percy in an ayahuasca vision.
Inside, we are each assigned a mattress and a vomit bucket. The shaman sits on a wooden throne and tokes a roll-your-own cigar. Before him on a low table is a dusty array of shamanic goods and fetishes: plastic bottles dark with occult fluids, herbs, crystals, folk textiles, a ceremonial wooden goblet black and sticky with pungent residues.
The sun sets suddenly, as though a pot lid has been slammed over the maloca. Nearby, two shotgun blasts ring out. This is to discourage the locals from plundering our shanties while we are off in the astral. A practical gesture, but one not exactly designed to soothe apprehensive nerves. One by one, we are invited to Percy’s throne to take our dose.
My own trepidation is really pretty minimal. I have done LSD. I have done mushrooms, though not in about 30 years. I go to the throne. Percy pours a dollop into the goblet and passes it to me. A quick shot, straight back. One is not prepared for such black viscosity. One is not prepared for such a very horrible flavor. It tastes like licorice and Fernet-Branca stewed in a flaming tire. One is especially not prepared for the quantity of cigar smoke Percy blows into the cup before he forks it over. I accidentally drink the smoke straight down. The immediate upshot is that my lungs stop working. I go to my mattress, belching vile vapors, making sea lion noises and leaking at the eyes. I can’t draw breath for what feels like minutes, an inauspicious and frightening start. Moments pass. Percy sings a gentle shamanic ditty and shakes a clutch of dry leaves. Sounds of a general vomit rodeo begin resounding through the tabernacle. I can hear my friend Jesse suffering wrenchingly into his bucket.
I would like to go help Jesse out, but I am too busy lying in the fetal position awaiting the medicine’s fearsome gifts. Behind my eyelids, visions take form. Blue neon. Dark figures in silhouette. It is a familiar image. It is the cabinet artwork from the old Space Invaders arcade game. The picture shifts, assumes a rounded head, a stern mouth, and piercing blue eyes. Is that you, Jesus? No, it is...RoboCop. What does RoboCop want? I don’t get the chance to ask because now I am eye to eye with Batman, who playfully sprouts a platypus bill.
Fair enough, subconscious, but I know what you’re up to here. I drank some terrible goop in search of moral illumination and help with my book, a fatuity for which my brain is ridiculing me with a mindless supply of kitsch. Fine, brain. Amuse yourself. And thank you, by the way, for not making me hurl.
“Must one really schlep to the Amazon and guzzle psychotropic tar to discover that life is not all peaches and cream?”
The visions begin to shift away from anything so jolly and recognizable as Batman with a platypus bill. I am now an eyeball on the end of a very long rope, swinging through a breakneck suite of psychogeographic terrains—broken cathedrals, mountains of raw rock, the red rooms of the heart. They hurtle past too quickly to decipher, but the emotional texture of the montage is immediate and palpable: wreckage, desolation, loneliness, and ruin. I have no control over the images or the pace of their emission. This is distressing. Even more troubling: The part of my mind that makes words has broken. I cannot generate a single inner syllable of reason or consolation. Robbed of language, I feel terrifyingly stripped of whatever makes me me. Groping after something comforting and familiar, I try to summon the faces of my wife and son. This produces a painful jolt, like reaching for a lamppost from a whirling merry-go-round. My neurons buckle and sprain. The drug (this is no medicine), I come to feel, is fascistic in its demand for complete obedience. Think of nothing. Do nothing. Do not move. Do not breathe. To breathe angers the drug. Do not breathe and you will be OK. Actually, you won’t. Now I am hugging the bucket, barfing like an open hydrant.
In time (about six hours after taking the stuff), the astral gears cease reeling. I can speak. What an absolute goddamn nightmare are the first words I whisper to myself. When, close to 3 a.m., we can at last sort of walk again, Jesse and I stagger from the tabernacle and compare notes. Independently, we have done the simple arithmetic and found the same answer: Explosive Nausea + Nightmarish Hallucinations = No Way Are We Doing This Again.
But the following morning, the group—most of whom, judging from last night’s chorus of misery in the maloca, had just as wretched a ride as we did—effuses over what a lovely time everyone had.
“The medicine gave me so much love last night,” says a young woman from Alaska. “A lot of my experience was making a list of why I love myself.”
“I was taken up by Ganesha,” says someone else. “I had waves and waves of joy going through my body.”
“It was so beautiful,” says a fellow from Romania. “I was on the wings of a fly that carried the entire universe.”
Someone asks me how my ceremony went. I allow that it was rather a rough ride and that I won’t be doing another. They tell me, more or less, that what I’ve misinterpreted as pointless misery was in fact a precious teaching.
“You can’t have light without the darkness,” says the Romanian guy.
“You can’t have rainbows without the rain,” says the Alaskan woman.
In other words: Drink more crud or keep stumbling along in a delusional, bourgeois smog of general hunky-doriness. Not to be a stick-in-the-mud, but I’ve never understood that a shortage of discomfort was an existential pandemic howling for a cure. Taxes, marital friction, parenting, professional stresses, leaky roofs, global warming, the Islamic State, Donald Trump, the daily march toward the grave—all yours to fret over from the comfort of your living room. Must one really schlep to the Amazon and guzzle psychotropic tar to discover that life is not all peaches and cream?
Most of what happened last night is unreconstructible, but what I remember most keenly was the joy and relief I felt when the visions subsided and the faces of my wife and child returned to me. The sensation left this admonition resounding in my head: If you take this drug again, you are sinning against your family. In this sense, ayahuasca imparted pretty vehemently the wisdom I was seeking about how to be a better dad. The lesson is this: A good father does not leave his family and journey to the Amazon in order to risk his sanity and commune with Platypus-Batman.
With all the politeness I can muster, I tell the group thanks anyway, but the medicine told me in the plainest terms not to go back for seconds.
“How can you be sure it’s the medicine talking?” the Irishwoman asks. “Maybe it was ego telling you that because ego wants you to be enslaved.”
I could confess that my idea of freedom is not puking into a bucket and begging for mercy from RoboCop. But I don’t. Jesse and I simply tell Shaman Percy that he can keep the money we’ve already paid him, but we’ve had all the healing we can handle. Percy is dismayed. He insists that we come to the next ceremony as planned, though we are permitted to abstain when the doses are ladled out.
And so, at ceremony o’clock, we prostrate ourselves in the maloca and listen to our fellow travelers purge, pant, and hurt. When, toward midnight, a chime tolls, announcing that the ceremony is at an end, Jesse and I spring up from our mats and go skipping back to our huts, feeling fit as absolute fiddles.
“It’s very beautiful, the inner peace that washes over you when you’re lying in the dark, listening to people who aren’t you going through utter hell,” I observe.
“Totally worth the price of admission,” Jesse says. “I’ve never been so glad to not do something in my entire life.”