Our retreat center (the Marosa Healing Center) set the stage for my first ceremony. It was a quiet place, recessed in the Amazon jungle about an hour outside of Iquitos, with small bungalows and other facilities for sleeping, eating, reading and contemplation. It had no internet, no TV, and no cellular reception, which meant leaving the constant barrage of sound and information from our machines behind and listening to the fall of rain and chirps of jungle birds instead. We spent our initial days reading and befriending the rescue animals there whose personalities ranged from “I’m social and I want your love” to “I’m a little nervous guard dog but we’re cool” and “I’m a cat and my sleep is more priority number 1.”
Our first of four ceremonies was a solo experience, as our two fellow guests were Korean and had their connecting flights delayed due to covid. It would just be my partner and I, alone with the shaman and her helpers, and I would be the only newbie! I was more than a little bit nervous.
Before we started, one of the center’s helpers prepared a special “plant bath” for us made of local roots and herbs. It smelled like a well-kept spice cabinet and felt wonderful on our skin. From there, we returned to our cabin, to meditate and journal. When it came time for the ceremony, we dressed in our candlelight in our room as the sun sank low and the wind rustled the leaves of the trees outside, then made our way across the bridge to the maloca: the main ceremonial room. Inside, the shaman and her two helpers were seated, waiting for us in the candlelight. We sat on cushions, made sure our water, buckets (for vomit) and other baubles were ready, then began to pray. It is both normal and customary to throw up during the ceremony, and it’s seen as part of the purging and healing process. It’s also totally normal to bring necklaces, beads, stones, or other objects to hold and pray with.
Finally, the time came. Each of us walked up, knelt and received our dose in a small cup. They’d consulted with us about our experience, so my SO took a ‘full’ dose, while I had a half cup. It was thick and syrupy, quite flavorful like an espresso syrup almost, but not unpleasant. Afterward, we sat on our cushions, the helpers blew out the candles, and we sat in the dark to wait for our journey of healing, meditation, and exploration to begin. Outside, bats chirped and landed on the building and the stars began to wheel overhead.
As I said, I was nervous, both wondering if I was ready, or conversely if it would work as expected, or I would feel nothing as some people report. But just as things were kicking in I heard a meow and the cat pushed her way into the maloca to say hi. Anyone who knows me will know I love cats, so this felt like my spirit animal arriving to send me off safely. More traditional spirit animals in ayahuasca ceremonies are creatures like jaguars, jungle frogs, snakes, birds, or butterflies, but there I was being visited by a normal house cat.
I burst out laughing at our little visitor, who didn’t visit during our other ceremonies, but who did make a habit of dropping by my room for cuddles and attention.
Not long after she left, the nausea overtook me and I vomited, clearing some of the fluid from my gut, along with water I had been drinking. It felt good, honestly, and though it may have been a little early (20–30 minutes in) the medicine was certainly in my system.
From there, the first night was cerebral for me. I felt the lingering traces of the potent potion still to working inside my gut and brain, like a strong cup of coffee mixed with mushrooms. My thoughts wandered to my family and friends, my job and life, and I began to work through my feelings and relationships, including some hangups in communication with people in my life. The message seemed to be Just call them! although it never feels so simple when the time for action comes. My intention was also to think through my career as a scientist and a writer, but they say ayahuasca sometimes has its own messages for people and that seemed to be the case for me.
One curious thing that first night was an admonition in my head not to drink too much alcohol. It was as if ayahuasca itself were speaking to me, showing me images of skulls and crossbones, and warning me not to overdo it from here on out. My partying days are generally behind me, but I took it took heart and have tried not to drink very much since. Some folks with stronger relationships with alcohol or pain killers report that it even cures their addiction. Given the powerful psychological and neurological effects of such psychedelic medicines, I can believe it, though some folks say it takes more than one retreat before they’re fully free of their bad habits.
Time passed like a flowing river current and before I knew it our helper declared the ceremony was over. We got up on shaky legs and made our way outside, where the stars were a bright splash across the sky and the evening air was alive with bats and birds. I babbled away to my partner about it, explaining everything I had been thinking about, though it was so tough to get it all out — even as it’s tough to remember it all now. From here, I can definitely see the benefit of a longer retreat and more ceremonies to think through problems and obstacles in life.
On nights 2–3 I took a larger drink and whew, was it a journey. The ayahuasca made its way through my stomach like larvae or worms as the shaman chanted her powerful encanto at us. I’ve had stomach issues throughout the years, so during the most intense moments I tried to focus on the medicine’s neurological effects and the idea that it was helping heal me and clean my system. The effects were so strong that I had to ask for help to walk out to the bathroom, which wasn’t as easy as it sounds in the dark. Some folks even lose control of their bodies entirely during these moments, and require help from the staff to clean up — though I was lucky in this case and just needed to make sure I didn’t fall down the stairs.
Those nights also came with powerful visions, of faces and eyes watching in the dark, and strange creatures from other dimensions. For example, I saw a brown and blue alien-like creature with large big spiky brown hair (like anime characters’) reach out and examine my shoulder injury and try to tweak things inside. I also saw rainbow gnomes, huddled around an object called a white hole, pouring our universe out into existence.
It was basically everything you’ve heard of or imagined when reading about DMT, but with an added dose of intestinal distress. And of course, the point isn’t just to see cool stuff, but to think and work through things, and the helpers often reminded us to focus.
I vomited repeatedly, trying to get the medicine and the water I drank out of my system, and on the third night I had to use the bathroom several times to really get things out, so to speak. I keep drinking and drinking, feeling my body needed the water, then going in and out again under the curve of the milky way to find the bathrooms just down the path. After those sessions of throwing up and purging, there were such sounds and sights around us! The shaman’s song, the bats squeaking electronically, the other guests and my partner as well, sometimes crying or talking or laughing. I thought of my partner and our relationship a lot, and how grateful I was that she brought me along for the journey. I also thought of ways to be more attentive and loving to her, which I hope to carry forward as we return to our normal lives.
Besides my SO, I also connected with Jin, a fellow guest and a younger Korean women who sat to my left during each ceremony, and sometimes we would echo our good-spirited laughter off of each other, especially on our fourth and final night. For the our final ceremony, the shaman’s son joined the ceremony to send my SO and I off with extra energy. Whereas the main shaman sounded to me like a moth or larva or butterfly at different stages of her song, her son sounded like a poison dart frog, chirping with strength and masculine energy. Together, mother and son formed an alternating duo and I couldn’t help but dance a bit on my meditation cushion and feel the positive energy flow through me as I thought from small to big, from the fungal spores in the jungle outside, to ‘aliens’ I saw which I realized were the bats outside — listening to us as we made our crazy human noises inside the maloca — to the planet as a whole, trying to reproduce by sending creatures like us out into space. It was a bit of a relief compared to the intensity of the previous two nights, though I cherish the week as a whole experience.
Overall, it was a wonderful experience and an intense psychedelic journey, although one I feel I needed a little more time to engage with and experience. Many centers will recommend 2–4 weeks, and although it sounds challenging to find that much time off, I feel I understand why. There is often so much from our lives to think through and process, to feel, work through and overcome, that a single week isn’t really enough. Even so, it helped my relationship with my SO, and was lovely getting to know the shaman’s family and our fellow guests. Certainly, it was intense and a bit wild, and perhaps not for everyone, but I’d recommend an experience like this for those interested in ayahuasca and the beautiful jungles and traditions of the Amazon. Although there’s just as much history and culture in the land’s cities and archaeological wonders, and I was sad to miss out on Machu Picchu and Peruvian coffee, I wouldn’t trade the experience for any of that. It was a one of a kind week, and not one I’ll soon forget.