What really goes down on a South American Ayahuasca retreat.
There’s a scheduled pick up for the retreat leaving from the airport arrival lounge at 11am. I get my gear packed and leave my surfboards with the hostel. When I arrive at the airport, I meet three other retreat guests, and I can’t help feeling a little disappointed; they are all middle class, middle-aged, mostly white males. One of them even works in IT. I was hoping to meet some really far out characters on this adventure, but it looks like I will have to wait. However, the guys are decent enough, and we’re getting on really well as we are picked up and driven to the retreat location.
We arrive in a valley surrounded by forest and start unloading our gear. People come from everywhere, and we are warmly greeted by each of them with a welcome hug. There appear to be many eclectic personalities amongst this new bunch. I had no need to be concerned.
I explore the retreat grounds in the afternoon and bump into some volunteers and retreat helpers as I walk. I stop to chat and ask various questions about the upcoming ceremonies. One girl called Autumn claims she regularly dies and is reborn during the sweat tent experience. I’m not sure what to make of this, and I can’t help feeling that it sounds kind of silly. The intense look in her eyes causes me to reconsider.
I meet a guy from the UK called Danny. He has been volunteering at the retreat for several months and freely gives me his opinion of the ceremonies. His accent is a touch hard to follow, but he reports that someone shat their pants during a recent retreat and that people sometimes experience panic attacks. However, his enthusiasm for the plant medicine (Ayahuasca, San Pedro) is obvious, and this takes the edge off his words. He blesses me with an unexpected bear hug before wandering off towards the kitchen.
We do a more formal meet and greet before dinner. It is overwhelming being amongst such a large group of new people and combined with the afternoon’s conversations, I’m feeling anxious about what lies ahead – it’s all well and good to lose your mind and control of your bowels with your friends – they will probably just think it’s funny. Having a psychotic episode with only strangers for company is far less appealing. We play a game of football on the grassed area in front of the dorms, and this provides a good distraction.
I’m up early and make my way to the kitchen where I meet an older Ecuadorian man. He generously offers me some coca leaf tea. As I sip at the steaming mug, he gives me some background on the Coca plant, which is native to the Ecuadorian Andes. He states seriously that Coca plant vibes are very strong in this area and that sometimes you can tap into them. I nod in quiet contemplation and then make a mental note to channel the coca plant vibes during my next meditation. He goes on to say that the drug lords have taken the coca plant elsewhere to cultivate. But that the plant will never grow as well away from its natural environment. I nod again, knowing exactly where the inferior coca leaf goes. It’s sold directly to tourists just like me.
I throw myself into the morning yoga session. The Coca leaf tea coursing through my veins adds to my mental focus and the intensity of my poses. After yoga, I head over to the kitchen area and notice Danny is putting up a large custom-made sign. I brace myself for the now-familiar bear hug and then get around to reading his handy work. It appears he has lost a pair of sacred underpants. Further text on the sign implores the residents of the retreat to assist in locating them.
Caught up in the moment, I propose brewing some more Coca leaf tea then launching a full-scale search. We’re soon marching purposefully around the retreat enthusiastically scanning the horizon for any sign of the holy crotch garment. The sacred underpants are eventually located in a shower cubicle, and a robust celebration takes place involving several more Danny bear hugs.
By the early afternoon, I’ve secured a reliable source of Coca leaf tea and am spreading the word amongst the group. I have even managed to recruit Jaspreet; an Indian lad who has never taken any drugs or drunk alcohol.
“You’re sure it will be ok Ben?” he asks me in a thick Indian accent.
“Don’t worry, the locals drink this stuff all day” I respond in a soothing manner.
I leave the teabag in his brew for an extended period just to add some extra strength, before passing him the cup.
Later we meet in a nearby field. The retreat staff are preparing to build a large Tipi for the upcoming Peyote ceremony. As part of the retreat, we are required to spend an hour a day assisting with tasks around the retreat grounds. Jaspreet works like a man with a purpose, quickly earning the respect of the local workers. Then during our late afternoon football game, he dominates the forward half – the Coca leaf vibes are strong with that one.
The day of our first Ayahuasca ceremony dawns bright and sunny, and you can feel the buzz of excitement around the table at breakfast. There’s a yoga class mid-morning, followed by a walk to a nearby waterfall. After lunch, we have a sharing session where we are asked to state our reasons for attending. It goes for over an hour and is quite difficult at times. Many of the people have come for healing, and several break down while speaking to the group. There are stories of lost loved ones, childhood trauma, and broken relationships. Some are attending to continue a previous spiritual journey.
A lady called Elspeth claims she is on a mission from God. She has apparently been instructed to build a shared consciousness aggregator of some type. The aggregator will allow humans to communicate with a race of beings with a higher intelligence. She asks for volunteers to assist with her journey, but everyone just sits around looking confused. It is soon my turn to speak, and I make some vague statements about wanting to deal with my failed marriage. My reasons for attending seem to be less important compared to many others.
In the late afternoon, we make our way down to the maloka, which is a round open structure with a tiled roof. We sit on thin mattresses in a large circle, and three shamans enter the space. They are dressed in long flowing robes and are adorned with majestic feathered headpieces. A fire is started in the exact centre of the circle. Surrounding the fire pit is an elaborate array of candles, sacred stones, and herbs. I glance around at others in the group; the air is thick with nervous expectation.
The shamans work through a number of prayers. Ritual is obviously an incredibly important part of the ceremony, and every act is conducted with reverence and care. I can feel the impatient Westerner within wanting to get things moving. A part of me wants to stand up and request that we get straight to the drug-taking, but I decide to respect the process instead, and the shamans are soon circulating anyway. First liquid tobacco is offered. The one catch is that you are required to snort it up your nose. I give it my best shot but end up spilling half of it. As I’m sneezing and spluttering, I’m assured that it will open my third eye and make me more receptive to visions. I glance around at others. They also appear to be having some trouble inhaling the liquid tobacco.
Next, the shamans circulate with the first dose of Ayahuasca. It comes in a shot glass and has a tangy rotting vegetable flavour. The after taste lingers and it feels a bit like I’ve been drinking stagnant pond water. The group settles in, and the shamans take up some of the most unique instruments I have ever seen. Flutes and chimes are used to set the mood. A bow-like contraption makes sounds much like a highly tuned wobble board.
The first of the Icaros are sung. These are beautiful and often haunting renditions that are delivered to guide the ceremony and invoke spirits for good. Someone soon vomits. People purging during the ceremony is seen as a way of shedding negative energy. It appears there could be something to this idea. When the next person purges, it sounds like it is coming all the way from the very core of their being.
I can feel some nausea building along with a slight ringing in my ears and a light vibration through my body. We must be about 45 minutes in, and the shamans begin to circulate with more Ayahuasca. The effects continue to build, and I'm still nauseous, but the other sensations feel quite pleasant. I take my second dose and watch the shamans continue around the circle.
When I close my eyes, I begin to notice brief flashes. Thin rainbow coloured laser beams shoot inwards from the darkness behind my eyelids. I look on in fascination as basic geometric patterns begin to form. They seem to be constructing themselves as I watch, gaining in both intricacy and intensity. The colours brighten and appear to solidify. They have a perfect rich texture, and the beauty is breathtaking. As I gaze deeper into the evolving kaleidoscope, it seems to gain mass then its own momentum. It threatens to sweep me up, and I feel the beginnings of unease.
I open my eyes, and the lights and sounds in the maloka jump into me. The fire is burning with a million different shades of brilliant bright orange, and I can hear people purging violently. Someone cries out in intense fear, and this is followed by a peel of deranged laughter. One of the shaman is slowly wandering around the fire, smoking a long pipe. His ceremonial robes sway slowly, giving him a ghost-like appearance. All the while, a lady shaman is singing the most stirring Icaro. The melody seems to drift from another place and time; her voice stands far apart from the fevered atmosphere in the maloka.
I close my eyes and am immediately consumed by speeding geometric patterns. They move with a colour and intensity that is beyond my ability to observe or comprehend. When I open my eyes, the brightness of the candles and fire is just as overwhelming. The sound of the purging rattles in my head, and my stomach begins to roil in earnest. It feels like there is no escape and nowhere safe or quiet.
I plunge my head into the purge bucket. I can feel my heart racing; my hands and face are clammy and feel like they are burning up. My jacket is suffocating, so I try to get it off, but it’s beyond me. Electric pulses are rippling up my arms and through my hands. I do several heavy dry reaches into the bucket, but nothing comes up. All the while, one last rational thought is circling in the back of my mind...
“Ben, your second dose hasn’t had a chance to kick in yet. When it does, you’re in trouble”.
The first real signs of panic begin to set in. The reality around me starts to disintegrate and is slowly replaced by a giant swirling multi-coloured whirlpool. My distress rises as it is slowly but surely drawing me in. I am about to scream out for help when the final words of the shaman come to me...
There is a blinding flash of light and I am transported to another dimension…
The writing above is an excerpt from a recently published book…
Eyes To The Horizon
One man’s psychedelic journey into dating apps and perfect waves on foreign shores
Written by Ben Simon Smith
Available on Amazon, Apple Books, Google Play and with other good eBook retailers