4 months into what would be 13 travelling through Latin America, I spent a week in the Bolivian rainforest. This is an account of that week long stay on the edge of the Amazon rainforest and the 3 ayahuasca ceremonies I took part in. The site was across the river from Rurrenabaque, near to San Buenaventura, Bolivia.
I’d decided that 2016 was the year for me to do ayahuasca in South America. I’d done ayahuasca two times before, in 2014 in the South of Spain, without heeding any great lessons, profound spiritual truths or any other things of the sort that ayahuasca is known for. In fact, it had been a little disappointing. Those two times I drank 1-2 cups each ceremony and didn’t really experience anything other than feeling sick and woozy and then disappointment. Zero visions. I got some insight and introspection after the ceremonies but ultimately felt at a bit of a loose end having had high expectations only to come out feeling more or less the same kid with the same problems.
Weeks later I left for Asia and after a year of working, travelling, and saving for my great American adventure, I was ready. I will go to South America, the home of ayahuasca, drink it there, in the Amazon basin, where it grows native and has centuries of tradition and practice, and I will finally have an ‘ayahuasca experience’. I will have powerful, profound and ineffable experiences and come out spiritually refreshed, a better person, with a greater understanding of myself and the universe.
That’s what I thought.
Finding the Shaman & Getting There
After my experiences in Spain I wondered whether the reason for my lack of feeling anything was due to lack of sufficient amount or quality of ayahuasca. Perhaps I hadn’t drunk enough. So when I heard about a shaman who’d learnt in the Santo Daime tradition doing ceremonies in Bolivia – where participants of the ceremony drink a strong ayahuasaca brew, and a lot of it – I knew that was the one for me. I contacted the shaman months ahead, before I’d even left for South America, and decided to stay for a week and do 3 ayahuasca ceremonies. We stayed in contact while I made my way from Brazil through Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, Chile and on to Bolivia, exchanging messages every now and then about my arrival date, what I would need and the preparatory ayahuasaca diet.
When I finally got to Bolivia after five months of awesome adventures through the continent, I could hardly believe that my date with Ayahuasca was finally up. My last stop before heading to Rurrenabaque where I would meet the shaman was the capital Sucre. The topic came up with some other people at the hostel and a Dutch girl named Sophie was very interested about what I’d said about ayahuasca, having never heard of it before and with zero experience of psychedelics. I invited her to come along with me and after a little more research into the topic the days before I was due to leave, she was on board. I sent a message to the shaman about bringing a friend with me and with the go-ahead received we made our way on an overnight bus to La Paz, before taking a 20 hour bus ride (yep) on the world’s most dangerous road from La Paz to Rurrenabaque.
1st Day & Arrival to Base Camp
After the scariest bus ride of my life we arrived to Rurrenabaque early morning and Guillermo, our shaman, a dark Chilean man in his thirties with a coarse beard, met us at the bus station. Greeting me with a broad smile and friendly way I quickly had a good feeling about him. I rode on the back of his motorbike into town through the dusty streets surrounded by greenery, no building with more than a second storey. The scene was offset by mountains surrounding the town and covered in lush greenery, the air sticky and thick with moisture. This was another side of Bolivia. With all my belongings on my back, my tent and sleeping bag grasped in one hand, the other on to some part of the motorbike, the air rushed over my face, and through squinted eyes I admired my new surroundings; I felt free and alive. I was ready.
We took a boat from Rurrenabaque over the river to San Buenaventura and from there were back on motorbikes for a bumpy ride away from civilisation and further into the greenery. On the ride, as we crossed rivers and streams (yes on the motorbike and yes still with my entire belongings on my back and in my hands), half Spanish-half English, I spoke with Guillermo about my previous ayahuasca experiences. He understood that before I may have not drank enough or it may not have been a strong mix, and reassured me that his brew was good and we would drink enough. He told me they were having a ceremony that night and that I could join if I wanted, or if I preferred I could take the first day to settle and attend my first ceremony the following day. I was tempted to dive right in but having arrived expecting the first ceremony to be the second day I opted for the latter. I thought an extra day of diet for preparation would probably be a good idea too.
After a few minutes on a jungle track we pulled up. We made our way through a lightly forested area on a dirt path downwards from the main track. As we reached the bottom we came out to an opening; a clear area with a few tall trees dotted about and a few crude man-made shelters spread over a wide area. Amongst various flora there were small banana trees and yucca plants and the call of exotic birds intermittently penetrated the air. In a strange way I felt at home.
Guillermo pointed to us the areas of the camp, gave us some basic info about the area (don’t speak negatively if you go into the temple and don’t go to the river alone at night because Jaguars can be about… good to know), showed us where we would pitch our tent, told us he’d be back later for the ceremony and was off and away again.
While setting up camp a little kid with long blonde hair of about 7 years came over. Seeing that we’d left the zips of our tent open he came over and closed them, advising us in Spanish that they should be kept so… jungle kid. After some chitchat with him while he played with a stick and we finished unpacking, we ventured over to the kitchen to meet the others. We were greeted by three faces; Augustino and Maria, parents to the blonde child, and Carlos, Augustino’s nephew, who was hacking away at the base of a tree stump with an axe.
Augustino, a tall slim Argetinian in his thirties, smiled broadly and welcomed us with a vibrant energy. Amongst other jobs around the site he was in charge of the kitchen and our meals, our principal ‘host’ for the week there, offering us advice, calling us for meals and bringing water from the town. He would also be Guillermo’s right hand man during the ayahuasca ceremonies. His partner Maria was a quietly friendly Spanish lady with long dark hair and a beautiful yet somehow slightly intimidating face. Carlos, a shorter but broader, swarthy guy, another Argentinian and also part of the project there and assisting in the ceremonies, paused his chopping to greet us.
A few minutes later a French couple came down to the kitchen; Mabelle, a cute small girl with curly light brown hair, and her boyfriend Jean, a lightly bearded typically French looking guy with a stone hanging tightly round his neck on a piece of string. They’d already done one ayahuasca ceremony there and would be taking part in one more that very night. They were working around the camp in exchange for their stay, only paying cash for the ceremonies. Mabelle was a natural medicines student, she spoke English with us and told us about their first ceremony; that there was a lot of vomiting and ‘cleansing’ but not much psychological effect for her. She spoke very seriously about it and with a certain intensity. She had hopes for something more profound that night:
‘Tonight is a full moon so I think there will be lots of energy for the ceremony’
I was again tempted to opt-in, but having brought Sophie along with me I felt partly responsible for her, I didn’t want to rush her into it nor leave her to do a ceremony alone the next night.
A little later on we met Maja, the only other person staying at the site. A slender Swedish girl with long blonde hair, she had some spots on her skin around her ankles and wrists – a medical condition she’d had since a young age. She’d spent a week camping at the site, also doing some work around the site in exchange for her stay. She hadn’t yet drank ayahuasca there, but was also going to be drinking with the others at the full moon ceremony that night. After a while chatting with the others around the camp, I went with Sophie out to the river where I meditated and relaxed by the running water.
As the sun began to set we moved down the river to an area still in the sunlight. Maja came out and sat with us. I asked her how she felt about the ceremony that night and she thought it’s good not to think too much about it. She wasn’t nervous, in fact she was only worried about not really experiencing anything rather than experiencing something scary or chilling – those experiences are only temporary after all, she pointed out. Sophie headed back to the camp and I stayed to chat with Maja for a while. I liked her, she was friendly and had a good sense of humour. We chatted about our previous ayahuasca experiences, she’d done it once before in India with a Russian doling out the ayahuasaca to a large group before leaving everyone be- no icaros, no guidance, just the brew. It didn’t sound like a particularly metamorphic experience. Ayahuasca is a strange thing – capable of inducing colossal experiences but never guaranteed. We also talked about meditation, she was going to do a 10-day course in India later that year and I told her of the courses I’d done. She told me about the rainbow gathering that she’d recently been to in Peru and her love of India. After I while I left her with her shamanism book and headed back to camp for dinner and an early night.
That night as I drifted off to sleep, faint but clearly audible, I could hear the icaros from the temple amidst the incessant undercurrent of the bugs sounding from the surrounding rainforest. I woke up briefly several times that night and could hear the icaros being played, I wondered what was going on there for them. It seemed barely believable: to me – just the faint sound of quaint guitar and singing, but perhaps for them – travels in another realm? As I continued to drift in and out of sleep throughout the night I continued to hear the songs; the ceremony seemed long, really long, seemed they were going all night.
2nd Day – Day of the 1st Ceremony
The next day I awoke and after crawling out of the tent headed to the kitchen for breakfast. The sun had risen a good few hours before. Music was playing from a small speaker and Augustino was there preparing breakfast in a cheerful manner. The French couple were sat around on the benches, looking considerably altered in their own ways. Mabelle looked like she had seen a ghost and was gazing into the distance with eyes wide open. Jean seemed more with it but like he was still traversing distant landscapes in some part of his mind. I asked them about the ceremony. As he passed a joint to Augustino, with eyes half closed, Jean told me he was still up in the clouds (well he actually just whistled lazily while flying his hand through the air like a plane). None of them had slept yet. After the ceremony they had left the temple and sat out under the full moon, and had indeed continued to play music and sit together until sunrise. Mabelle was staring fixedly at the ground, her face in awe, her mind clearly turning over the things she’d experienced.
Augustino offered advice ‘Mabelle, I can see you are thinking, but don’t think too much about it, it won’t serve you.’
Mabelle briefly snapped out of her trance with a nervous smile, and got up from the ground. Sophie came down to the kitchen and was soon followed by Maja. Maja had been to the river, it had been her first wash in about a week.
‘I needed to go and wash; wash my body and wash my mind.’ she explained.
Sophie asked her about the ceremony. Maja hesitated and looked unsure of what to say. Sophie asked again and couldn’t subdue her curiosity, starting to press with her inquiries.
Mata shuffled awkwardly ‘I don’t know, it’s hard to say now. Maybe later.’
Later on, by our tents, Mabelle told me about what she had experienced. She’d completely lost concept of space and time; it was ‘hermoso’ – beautiful. She spoke with incredulity, almost as if she were doubting her words as she spoke them. She was in another way and in the coming days her presence was lighter, totally different from the serious French girl I’d met on the first day. Now she was still up in the stars. She’d experienced something profound, and I was beginning to feel a mix of anticipation and apprehension about the first ceremony that night.
That afternoon I went to the river to cool down, meditate, and try to relax myself ahead of the ceremony. I returned for lunch, my last meal before due to the fast, and then took it easy around camp. Augustino recommended Sophie and I get some rest before the night. Around 7, with the sun setting, we climbed into the tent and dozed off. They would come to wake us for the ceremony, due to start around 11pm.
After a few hours sleep I woke in a haze and wondered how long it would be until ceremony. I checked the time and it was almost 11, must be pretty soon I thought. Having been told they’d come and get us, I drifted back off to sleep. I woke up again a while later and checked the time: 11:25pm. It’s past the scheduled start time, maybe we aren’t doing the ceremony tonight. Nah, they must be running late. I drifted back to sleep. Next time check: past midnight. As time drifted on I wondered what was going on. Why hadn’t we started the ceremony? Where was Guillermo? Maybe we weren’t going to do a ceremony tonight after all. I wanted to go out and ask but I was tired and still in a sleepy daze. I’ll speak to them about it tomorrow, I thought, and went back to sleep.
Soon after, I awoke to the sound of shoes rustling just outside the tent. Guillermo’s voice sounded gently…
Continue reading: Elusive Ayahuasca – Part 2