Ayahuasca in the Amazon: Part One

*Names not used because (shockingly) as hard as we look back and laugh at our stories, that doesn’t mean my partners in crime want their names Google-tagged to an Ayahuasca blog post.

Looking for a ‘legit’ jungle tour in Ecuador

The stars aligned for me during my time spent in Ecuador. A childhood friend coincidentally chose to travel there within the same time period, finished Spanish school on the coast and planned to meet up for a few weeks of general bus riding, hiking, and good times. Looking back, we didn’t have a clue what kind of times we were about to get ourselves into.

We decided at some point that we wanted to go on a tour of the Amazon. The options for Amazon tours are never ending: Do you want to go by boat, land or barely-above-water canoe? Is your preference to see more animals or do more hiking? How much do you value your life? Prices do vary and are quickly evident upon how many malaria gateways – I mean holes – can be found in your sleep netting.

First glimpse of the jungle from a hostel in Tena, Ecuador.
First glimpse of the jungle from a hostel in Tena, Ecuador.

We went into a dozen different agencies to compare itineraries with prices and quickly realized that they are all 99% exactly the same. But no! No way we were going to settle for any of the touristy crap. We wanted a REAL jungle tour! …because we know what that even means.

Oh, one more thing- we’re also pretty low on cash at this point, soooo we’d like a real, cheap jungle tour.

Not that you will necessarily want to take my advice by the time you’re done reading this, but don’t worry too much about deciding on a tour if you’re already traveling. Tight or big budget, there are constantly groups to join and tours heading out to pick and choose from until your needs are met. The closer you make it to the jungle, the harder it is to make it down the street without another tour guide siding up and telling you why they have the best deal. As always, go off a recommendation if possible. The easiest way to do that is asking in your hostel to the receptionists, or better yet, the travelers who can tell you first-hand.

Monkeys of Misahuallí

A man who appeared to be genuine (First lesson of travel: Trust no one, Second lesson: You have to trust people) talked to us about a two day, one night tour with a Quechuan guide. He promised lots of hiking and a campground by the river for roughly $40 USD a day. We could leave early the next morning. We talked it over and agreed to go with them, and super casually slid in a question asking what the chances may be of my friend and I arranging a visit with a shaman to try a deeply traditional, hallucinogen medicine whilst on our tour?

No promises, but there was a decent chance, he answered.

Thoughts turned to: what should we pack? do you think it’ll rain? we’re hunting for a shaman. should we bring snacks?

Fast-forward to four days later from my journal:

“WHY I thought I needed to go on a multi-day, deep jungle tour is delusional and beyond me.”

The happy times are what stick once days turn to weeks and we think back on the ridiculous treks we not only volunteered, but paid to do. Why else do we continue to put ourselves in these situations other than because we’ve forgotten the feel of wearing wet jeans for two days or flicking fossilized spider eggs off the pillow? You know, that thing you’re supposed to put your face on. I guess not every unpleasant memory fades.

Rewind again:

Waving goodbye to Misahuallí, we headed out of the sleepy jungle town overrun with thieving monkeys and started our journey into the Amazon.

Thankfully no rabies shot was needed after the taking of this photo.
Thankfully no rabies shots were needed after the taking of this photo.

The first day was spent mainly hiking through the jungle as we followed a path visible to our guide Javier’s eyes only. Although ‘hiking’ doesn’t feel like the right description; that would make our journey sound like a casual weekend activity with the family.

We slid as human-chains down muddy embankments with steep drop-offs. We huddled together as the four-hour hike turned to six thanks to pouring rain and dangerous winds. A serious look of concern often crossed Javier’s face in these moments. Speaking only in Spanish, he would sweetly ask us to please not fall off the embankments, keep a steady pace to avoid the tigers, and do we have many boyfriends? He clarified the tiger thing by explaining they are only small cats that maul humans without killing them.

Now, if that doesn’t sound like a good time already, let’s add the fact that my friend and I were not supposed to be eating. If we were able to find a shaman and drink Ayahuasca that evening, it’s advised you spend the day fasting. There are also a lot of other words of advice, like: don’t drink caffeine, alcohol, eat meat or commit sins a week in advance. Our meals had been primarily vegetarian up to that point and let’s not concern ourselves with any further details.

As we came across villages, Javier would ask after the shamans. Everywhere we stopped we were striking out and silently resolved ourselves to the fact we were most likely not going to get a sip of the psychedelic brew.

It’s pretty amazing to meet the families that live deep in the jungle. One mother with her young kids trailing like ducklings picked up her machete and led us through traditionally farmed banana plantations. We tasted cocoa beans – high-five to whoever managed to make that into chocolate – and giant hearts of palm cut straight from their trees. Javier showed us brightly colored flowers that look like lips — a quick thank you to Google for teaching me they are plants called Psychotria Elata, or, Hooker’s Lips. There’s a nice, educational factoid for this post. lip.flowers

Soon we knew which trees make the best canoes and which are used to build expensive furniture, had tried an exhausted hand at planting in the fertile dirt, and eventually reached our campsite for the night.

The cabañas built to fit three people each stood a stone’s throw from the river. The water rushed downstream a muddy brown color and reminder of the day’s rainstorm.

A volleyball net that didn’t look half bad for being an Amazon volleyball net divided the river from our eating area. We sat down at a roughly built picnic table with another group and played cards as the sun started to set. An enormous banana leaf covered the table from end to end with lit wax candles placed on top. By the time a pasta dinner was put out, everyone had their headlamp out and glowing.

The third leg of our traveling tripod with the good sense to opt out of this shaman search explained to the other group that my friend and I were currently starving ourselves in the hopes of a potentially nonexistent magic man serving us mind-altering tea. One of the more memorable introductions I’ve personally experienced.

Nearly ready to say screw it and grab a plate, Javier appeared beside us motioning for us to get our boots on and follow him as quickly as possible. He had a shaman.

The table went quiet as everyone’s heads swiveled our direction.

“Good luck, chicas!” our wise friend called after us, firmly planted to her seat as we scrambled out of ours.

Few words were said as we shoved on our boots and followed Javier along a snaking path into the night.


Continued in the next post: Ayahuasca in the Amazon: Part II

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