November 30, 2016
“Are you here for ayahuasca?” I was asked on multiple occasions during my visit to Iquitos. Despite being called “The Gateway to the Amazon,” many young tourists only know Iquitos for the popular brew that comes out of the nearby jungle. I, on the other hand, had only briefly heard of ayahuasca and was there 100% for the Amazon. I didn’t know much about ayahuasca, but the couple horror stories I had heard were enough to turn me off.
Ayahuasca is a tea made of a particular root and leaves by shamen who use it as a traditional spiritual medicine in ceremonies among the Indigenous peoples of Amazonia. The name comes from the Quechua language spoken in the Andes, where it’s been used among tribes for more than 5,000 years.
From the little I had heard, it gave people an intense high, a sense of euphoria. “It’ll change your life,” hippies and punks on the streets of Iquitos would say.
Here’s what Wikipedia has to say: “People who have consumed ayahuasca report having spiritual revelations regarding their purpose on earth, the true nature of the universe as well as deep insight into how to be the best person they possibly can. This is viewed by many as a spiritual awakening and what is often described as a rebirth. In addition, it is often reported that individuals feel they gain access to higher spiritual dimensions and make contact with various spiritual or extra-dimensional beings who can act as guides or healers.”
Ok, so that doesn’t sound too bad, right? Almost sounds pretty wonderful, so you’re probably wondering what deterred me.
Here’s what the next paragraph in Wikipedia says: “Vomiting can follow ayahuasca ingestion… Others report purging in the form of nausea, diarrhea, and hot/cold flashes. The ingestion of ayahuasca can also cause significant, but temporary, emotional and psychological distress… ayahuasca may increase pulse rates and blood pressure, or interact with other medicines taken, such as antidepressants.”
This is consistent with what I heard that immediately deterred me. The thought of a group of people vomiting in a room together sounds absolutely horrendous. And not actually being one of the high vomiters could be worse, because then you’re stuck listening, watching and smelling it all during the lengthy ceremony (several hours to 2 days). If the brew doesn’t work its “magic” on you, then you’re just a spectator to this literal shit show.
Despite, people come in droves for the experience. So much that centers are popping up throughout the region and prices are skyrocketing. Like any “it” drug, ayahuasca has become a global craze. This has indigenous tribes worried about the dilution and monetization of their tradition, especially as unqualified people start conducting the ceremonies.
It has me thinking about the people who do ayahuasca. I’m not going to judge their character or try to say my thoughts and observations apply to everyone who’s tried it. I just couldn’t help but form some opinions about the people who approached me about it on the street or those who never left Iquitos because of how it’s “changed their life.”
Before visiting Iquitos, I had obviously done research about the best places to visit the Amazon jungle. I read in Lonely Planet – my go-to travel resource, in print of course – that a lot of expats ended up settling in Iquitos. I took this to mean that a lot of foreigners liked the city; thus, it must have a lot to offer and there must be a decent number of English-speakers there. So in my planning, I set aside two days to explore the city.
That ended up being a mistake. I realized very quickly after stepping foot outside my hotel on the first day of exploring that there wasn’t actually much to do or see in the city. All the sites and sounds and activities were outside the city, in the jungle (duh!). So really all I did on that first day was eat and drink, while leveraging the WiFi at the respective eateries.
While having a beer at one of those eateries I met a rattled Australian woman about twice my age. She had just arrived to Iquitos to both a hostel and a city that were much different than what she saw online. She too had understood the city to be worth visiting, just to be gravely disappointed. Aside from needing a drink to ease the day’s stress, she was also “looking for the first boat out of town.”
So why were foreigners like us being caught off guard by the gritty, underwhelming city, while others love it so much they go so far as to establish roots?
That question was later answered while I was eating at the popular expat restaurant, Dawn on the Amazon Cafe. An American at a table nearby started chatting with me about my travels. “I came for the ayahuasca seven years ago and never left.” After she left, a group of “artists” sat her table and also started chatting with me. “Are you here for the ayahuasca?” I shook my head no. “You should try it; it’ll change your life.”
The chatty guy’s (much older) friend was nursing a fresh juice, still hungover from the night before. When I told them I was from LA, their eyes lit up and they started trying to sell me other drugs. Lovely. Because I was a foreigner, I must be there for the ayahuasca, and because I was from LA, I must be into partying and drugs. I wasn’t offended by the LA assumption – I’m obviously not originally from there and, instead, choose to personify with my native state. But the assumption about ayahuasca was annoying because it means that foreigners looking for the experience are in such abundance now that everyone is just thrown in the same pot. It’s assumed that all the nonnatives are here for the ayahuasca, rather than the amazing experience right across the river that the city used to be known for: the Amazon. Even locals like the party boys at the restaurant quickly dismissed it for the region’s new main attraction.
Though I am disappointed, I am not surprised. That’s the way it works everywhere. Monetization and globalization of ayahuasca is inevitable. Heck, the native state I proudly hail from has gone through its own evolution. The legalization of marijuana in Colorado has already caused quite an uproar – both positive and negative – and it has already given back millions to state schools in the form of tax dollars. But the price that comes with it, is the assumption that if you’re from Colorado you must be a pothead. I am not, but it has given me a perspective for viewing the situation in Iquitos.
Still, I’ll take the humidity and bugs of the jungle any day. And so that was what the Australian and I did.