Flashback Friday: Tripping In Amazonia On Ayahuasca

A writer/adventurer travels to Peru and partakes of a powerful hallucinogenic in an ancient ritual.
Flashback Friday: Flashback Friday: Tripping In Amazonia On Ayahuasca
Ayahuasca ceremony, set on floor of Dr. Jerena’s home. Two leaf objects are maroella fans (shakers); candle, typical of Amazon region; in bottle is ayahuasca, a dark liquid. Photo by Peter Gorman.

From the June, 1986 issue of High Times comes Peter Gorman’s firsthand account about taking ayahuasca in Peru.

In July, 1984, I traveled to Peru with two friends from New York, Chuck Dudell and Larry Lavalle. We spent three week in the river town of Requena unsuccessfully searching for a guide to take us into the Amazon jungle. However, it wasn’t until we backtracked to Iquitos that we finally met a guide—Moises Torres Vienna.

He turned out to be a remarkable character. The former head of the Peruvian Jungle Forces Training School, Vienna had served as an instructor for the U.S. Special Jungle Forces. After helping map out the modern boundaries of Peru, he assisted several major river and jungle expeditions (most recently a Costeau expedition).

Moises offered to take is into the jungle and suggested we try the hallucinogenic ayahuasca. “It’s the fastest way to get to know the jungle,” he said.

Though all of us had taken hallucinogens, none of us were familiar with ayahuasca. Moises, who claimed no knowledge of drugs outside the jungle, doubted ayahuasca was like anything we’d taken before. “The properties of ayahuasca change from area to area in Amazonia,” he said, “but many of the primary effects are the same. It will make the jungle your friend. Your night vision will be improved and it will make your journey easier. Should the drug be friendly with you, you will be permitted to visit any part of the world you wish to see.” Unfortunately, the first brujho Moises brought us to refused to make the drug for us. She was a beautiful Shipibo woman, strong and old, but she told Moises we were dilettantes who had no business using the drug at all, much less using her as our ayahuasca seer. There were many more worthy candidates for the drug than us, she said, and no amount of pleading on Moises’ part would change her mind.

We traveled by dugout on a small river for two hours, made camp, and walked through the jungle to a second brujho’s house—an unwalled platform shack and smaller medicine hut built next to a clear stream. Alphonse, the brujho, wasn’t at home. His two wives were though, along with his children. Alphonse’s main wife, a surprisingly fat woman for a jungle diet, told Moises it was too late in the day for preparing the drink. It was nearly noon and Alphonse was gathering manioke and roots and might not return for several hours. Why didn’t we return in the morning when Alphonse would start it properly at 6:30 a.m.? Moises cajoled the woman, joked with her and finally demanded the drink be made. She begrudgingly agreed to pass the message along. Moises left her some presents in return: a bottle of agua diente (a local liquor), black tobacco cigarettes and some shotgun shells.

After hiking for perhaps an hour we suddenly found ourselves back at Alphonse’s camp. This time the brujho was home. A strong, thick, bull of a man, Alphonse sat by a great cast iron pot, tending the fire beneath it. He wore raggedy clothing and an old painter’s cap. His feet were bare, covered with small scars and thick calluses. He had a radiant smile which split his face in half and showed the only full set of teeth in Peru. The ayahuasca was being made, he said, but he feared it would not be at full strength, owing to the late hour at which it was started. Still, it would be more than strong enough for the gringos. He told us to return at eight that night.

Chuck, Larry and I just looked at each other. Our camp was miles from this place! How were we going to walk through the dense jungle at night when we found it nearly impassable during the day? Moises must have read our thoughts. “We can make a road of jungle torches from tree sap if you’re afraid of the dark,” he laughed.

That night we set off for Alphonse’s. There was no moon and we had no lights except our flashlights. Since none of us was willing to ask Moises to make his jungle torches, we traveled in utter and still blackness. We walked carefully, crossing several single-log bridges flung over deep gorges. We managed to avoid boggy areas and didn’t stick ourselves on the several types of spiny trees common to the area.

We arrived at Alphonse’s home within a hour. He greeted us casually, and spoke almost exclusively to Moises. He said the ayahuasca, though weak, was prepared as best as possible under the circumstances. We walked from his medicine hut to his home and climbed a wooden ladder to his split-level bamboo platform. Both of his wives and his children were asleep under mosquiteros in hammocks.

The night bugs were awful and our repellents were worthless. Alphonse laughed and promised the ayahuasca would eliminate the bothersome insects. Moises reiterated what he had said earlier in the day: we would be sick and then we would be permitted to see whatever we wanted anywhere in the world for a few hours. Alphonse asked for an hour of silence. We sat quietly, listening to the occasional rustle of night animals searching for food and the cries of distant tigrillos and ocelots.

After the hour was up, Alphonse retreated to a corner of the house and returned with a small pot of dark liquid. He also brought a serving gourd, the agua diente, a bottle of camphor, a fan made of maroella leaves that had a percussive quality when shaken, and the black tobacco cigarettes. He placed the objects in a cleared area of the platform and began chanting. We were told to form a circle around his things. All candles in the house were extinguished save one in the center of the circle.

Moises didn’t join the circle. “Someone has to watch out for you guys,” he said. It was unsettling to realize we were on our own, but he assured us this was the way it was done.

With the one remaining candle Alphonse lit a black tobacco cigarette and, still chanting, blew the smoke into the little pot of ayahuasca. He filled the gourd with the thick yellow-brown liquid (what was now a quart had been perhaps five gallons of liquid earlier in the cast-iron pot), chanted and passed the serving gourd to Chuck. Chuck emptied the gourd, made a face as though he’d just bitten into a sour fruit, then passed the gourd back to Alphonse. I suddenly found myself anxious. What did I know of these people anyway? What if they meant us harm? It wouldn’t be difficult to make a few gringos disappear in the Amazon. In fact, it probably happened all the time. Or what if the drug should have a bad effect on me? Or Chuck or Larry did? What would we do?

By the time the gourd reached me I decided to forego my fears and trust my instincts. I raised it to my friends, wished them luck and drank. It tasted like burnt grapefruit juice that had been infused with dark, dank smoke. I almost choked.

Alphonse drank last and then passed the bottle of aqua diente around. We were invited to drink a little and smoke cigarettes. Suddenly Alphonse leaned over the unwalled platform and vomited. We’d been warned we would all vomit, but there was something unusual in the way Alphonse did it. He continued for several minutes, long past the time he could possibly have anything in his stomach. Instead of a dry heaving sound, his vomiting sounded like a rushing river washing through the jungle. Louder and louder it rushed, crashing against rocks and stones, boiling up like a rapids, louder and louder until the clarity of a mad spring seemed to pervade everything. I couldn’t believe the sound was issuing from his stomach. It was a fantastic sound, moving, powerful, and thrilling to hear.

And then suddenly I realized I too was beginning to heave. I lunged for the side of the platform. My own sickness was more ordinary, just a tightening of the stomach muscles, as though I’d eaten bad food, When I finished, however, Alphonse was still not through. His rushing river was calming, though, the rumbling and boiling in his stomach settling. I looked to Moises, sure I’d imagined the sound. Moises, however, refused to confirm my thoughts. “He’s a man of great power,” said Moises. “He doesn’t do anything in a small way.” I looked to Chuck and Larry and they confirmed they too had heard the sound.

Through with being sick, Alphonse began chain smoking and had us do the same. We were instructed to make ourselves comfortable and took positions near one another on the platform. Only Moises stayed alert, assuring us he would maintain watch over our external world. “Just relax and don’t try to see or do anything,” he said. “Enjoy the beautiful night.”

Alphonse began chanting and shaking the maroella leaves, creating a sound similar to that of a drummer’s brush being scrapped across a snare drum. His chanting was haunting and untranslatable because of his use of obscure Spanish and local words. There were even scattered Latin phrases, no doubt due to the missionaries who have combed the area for a hundred years. It was a clear and beautiful song, repetitious and eerie.

The night grew peaceful. The mosquitoes stopped bothering me. Suddenly a strange image appeared to me. I saw a bird flying over snow-crested mountains. It was a huge, brown bird with long, broad wings tipped with white. I was looking at the bird from a great distance when I suddenly felt myself merging with it. I saw from the bird’s perspective, my sharp eyes picking out the most minute details of the landscape. I flew over a range of mountains, searching for something. While traveling at great speed, I looked down into a stream and saw fish moving slowly in shallow water. Although I was thousands of feet in the air, I could see sunlight glinting off individual scales on the blue and green fish. The colors were unimaginably rich. Suddenly I tipped off the face of the earth and plummeted toward the stream, nearly visionless. I don’t remember any feelings of fear. I knew I was hungry and wanted a fish. I split the water with hardly a splash and in an instant was racing skyward again, the fish in my beak split in half. Unchewed, the pieces entered my stomach whole. I remember thinking I didn’t generally eat food that way. Suddenly, however, the instant I thought of myself as apart from the bird, I was back in Alphonse’s home, sitting on a platform with my friends. After realizing my flight was over, I became immensely sad. I tried to bring the image back but found nothing but blackness. No images, nothing. I wanted my new perspective back and was sure that if it returned, I wouldn’t try to separate myself again.

But it was only when I let the image go that it would return. I would suddenly be flying, sometimes with the bird, sometimes just below it, looking up at the arrangement of the feathers on the wing tips, thinking that each feather moved individually to control our flight, each hair on each feather seemed to be controlled by an individual muscle. I’d never thought of birds as being that complicated before. Of course, each time I became introspective, I found myself back with my friends.

Twice I was able to ask the bird to take me somewhere. First, I wanted to see my wife, who was at that time living in California. Instantly, I was in her room, hovering on the ceiling. For a moment I watched her making love with someone and nausea came over me. However, the minute I felt jealous, the image was taken from me. The second image was of our apartment in New York, sublet to friends. My two friends were both reading, one in the living room, one in a small center room. They spoke occasionally. It wasn’t the most interesting of images, but it was clear and effortless. I noticed they were wearing clothes I’d never seen before. (Later, when I returned to New York, I saw they’d bought new shirts exactly like those I’d seen.)

At one point, when I thought the image of the bird was returning, I found myself not flying with my brown bird but looking at a large birch tree. Like all the images, I first saw the tree at the end of a darkened cone, as if viewed through a pair of binoculars. I traveled down the tunnel and stood in front of the tree. My vision zoomed in on one of the burls of the tree. I saw thousands of ants moving about on the burl. I saw them in such detail that I could count hairs on their bodies. When I looked across the rings of the burl, it was as if I was looking across a vast, cavernous plain.

There were other images too, but they were less clear. I would lose them quickly or they would merge with such speed that I wasn’t able to focus on them.

And then I realized I heard talking and the others were saying they weren’t having much effect from the drink. All they felt was ill. I protested but was overruled and we prepared to leave. Upon leaving the platform, I threw up effortlessly. We thank Alphonse and left his home, easily navigating the precipitous log bridges and dangerous jungle around us. We hardly used our lights. The others grumbled about “a waste of time,” but I knew differently. All that night while I slept I flew with my bird, seeing cities and mountains and oceans, pulling fish from the sea for food and resting on small rocks when I grew tired.

The following morning Moises had us take a cold river wash, saying it was necessary after ayahuasca. I did as told and immersed myself in the freezing water.

The following year, early in August, I returned alone to Iquitos for a longer stay in the jungle. This time there was no discussion on whether to take the drug. “You must do it, Peter,” said Moises. “We’re going out into the jungle for two weeks and I need you to know it. You could get hurt. We won’t be where it is well traveled. You need your night vision and you need the jungle to be friendly to you.”

Moises, myself and two assistants took a motor launch from Herrera, a city on the Ucayali, up the Auchyaco to a small settlement. Moises said we would stay in the settlement for a few days for me to practice canoeing and for taking ayahuasca. “There is a good doctor here,” he said. “He has an apprentice. He is very powerful.”

We were permitted to use a small hut near the doctor’s land, and Moises made arrangements for me to do ayahuasca the following night.

On the day of ayahuasca I knew not to eat past noon. All day I could hear the doctor and his apprentice pounding the ayahuasca vine and could see the smoke from their fire as they boiled the liquid. Though I was without the allies I’d had the first time I felt less anxious. I knew some of the effect of the drug and my anticipation for flying was high, but not my nervousness.

When it was time to take the short walk through the underbrush to the doctor’s house, I nearly flew through the underbrush. The ceremony was taking place at the old doctor’s home, Julio Jerena, a brujho from Pulcallpa. His apprentice, who had just finished his apprenticeship, was named Salis Navarro. He was strong and bright, with clear black eyes and a thick neck. The old doctor was lithe and strong. Even though he was in his seventies, I suspected he was very powerful, someone not to be taken lightly in a scuffle. His home was shared by three wives and several children. He had an old wife, a middle-aged wife, and a teenaged wife. Each had children, so they were woman of all ages living there. They seemed comfortable with the arrangement and the doctor made several jokes about his virility, claiming it an accident of birth, something his medicine hadn’t been able to put a stop to.

There were seven of us present on the platform for the ceremony: the two doctors, Moises, his two assistants, myself and a man who was living at the doctor’s house while the doctor cured his snake wound. The women remained out-of-sight. (Although women I know claimed to have taken ayahuasca, sometimes as a coming-of-age ritual, none were present at either of the ceremonies I attended.) One of Doctor Jerena’s dogs climbed about on the platform and walked around restlessly. It was inordinately hot and the bugs were moving in swarms. I looked forward to the insect-repellent effect of the ayahuasca.

Doctor Jerena said there were only two of us besides himself and Salis Navarro who were taking ayahuasca. Moises and the two assistants and another man who arrived after us were there to see that no harm came to us should our visions drive us off into the river or jungle.

The old man who joined us told how the doctor had performed an operation on his stomach recently. He showed me a scarless stomach to prove it. He said the doctor had used a knife to cut him open, had extracted his stomach, washed it in waters and replaced it, and then sewn up the incision. I asked him when the operation had taken place, given that I could see no scar. He answered it has been performed two days ago. “All Doctor Jerena’s scars heal quickly,” he said.

Everyone laughed when I looked skeptical. They said my believing it or not didn’t alter the facts.

The night had grown pitch dark. A sliver of moon like a smiling mouth hung over a dark canopy of trees. I was told to make myself comfortable on the platform floor while Salis and Doctor Jerena began to collect things for the ceremony. A green sheet of plastic was placed on the split bamboo floor and moroella leaves were brought out. Moises provided a bottle of agua diente and black tobacco cigarettes. A book of Latin incantations (highly prized from the way it was handled) was produced by Salis. Doctor Jerena brought a candle, small brown bottle of ayahuasca and serving gourd. The bottle had a cap and looked to have formerly been a fancy beer bottle.

Salis Navarro, the young brujho, was the primary performer and chanter. He permitted me to take photographs prior to the drinking and allowed me to tape the ceremony as it progressed.

When the chanting began, the two doctors, myself, and the man with the wounded leg made a sort of circle on the plastic while the others sat further away. We drank the ayahuasca, which was nearly as dense as Alphonse’s preparation. We passed black tobacco cigarettes, sipped agua diente and waited. Vomiting came easily, though I was disappointed that neither of the doctors regurgitated with Alphonse’s wild style.

However, the chanting was similar to Alphonse’s: a mix of Latin, Quechqua, obsolete Spanish, local dialect and typical Peruvian Spanish. I have tried to have the tape translated on several occasions, but could only decipher one small section, which went as follows:

Dominating, the occult science.
Dominating, the occult spirits.
Calling the occult spirits.
Calling what moves under the current.
Calling the spirits in these moments.
White magic.
Green magic.
Red magic.
Black magic.
Vampires of the demons.
Cover us with your shadow.
In these moments I want to be granted my desires.
Fly, fly little body that was born free.
Fly, fly little body that was born free.

There were no visions this time, no birds to fly with. Instead, I felt a great rending of my spirit, as though the chanting of the doctors was a wedge splitting me in half. Part of me made sense of the split, but another part was terrified I would not be able to put myself back together. (Jokes were made that I was occasionally delirious, but I could find no evidence of this on the tape.) I walked 50 yards to the river and listened to the music of the night, unmolested by mosquitoes. The river had a similar rhythm to the chanting, but I dared not go in as the eyes of several cayman stared at me from across the bank.

The ceremony lasted perhaps two hours, and then Moises said it was time to return to our hut.

The next morning Moises sent me out to bathe. I considered ignoring his suggestion, but in the next second I slipped into the muddy river bank, forcing myself to “become whole again.”

I didn’t have another opportunity for taking ayahuasca. Moises said the magical effects I’d experienced the first time were not to be sought for or missed. When I needed the bird, the drug would guide me, but when I simply needed to become friendly with the jungle, the drug would guide me in a different way. I don’t know if he was justifying the apparent lack of effect or telling the truth. I do know that for the next two weeks I rarely used my flashlight except for reading and that I could see, without actually seeing, the dangers of the jungle when hunting or fishing.

And now, months since I last took the drug, I wake sometimes and think I hear ceremonial chanting. And sometimes I realize I’ve been flying with my bird, seeing strange things clearly that I should have no knowledge of.

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