South America Living

“Are You a Birder?” – An Ayahuasca Journey in the Peruvian Amazon

The grounds at the Hummingbird Center - an oasis of calm and contemplation in the Amazon jungle

The grounds at the Hummingbird Center – an oasis of calm and contemplation in the Amazon jungle

(Editor’s Note: Fellow Traveller Marty West had a life-changing experience when she went to Peru, all the way from Ketchikan, Alaska, to experience an Ayahuasca ceremony. She kindly shared her story with us. For details on the places she stayed and ate and other things, check out this link.)

“Are you a birder?”, the happy man from Kansas City asked. He was on his way to a treehouse in the rainforest for his honeymoon. “Is that why you’re here?”

No, I’m not a birder. But birds are a good place to start this story, that begins in a tattoo parlor in Seattle’s Pioneer Square and leads to the end of a road in the Amazon jungle outside Iquitos, Peru.

I was getting my fourth tattoo, my third hummingbird. It now shares space with two others and the bright flowers and twining vines that give them something to do on my back. The artist, who has done all my work, was telling me about trips to Iquitos to spend time at an Ayahuasca retreat.

“I keep going back. It heals. It changes your life. It’s not easy. Nothing is the same.”

The artist had found a path to get from here to there. I was intrigued.

Ayahuasca pot cooking

Ayahuasca pot cooking

Ayahuasca is psychedelic brew. It’s the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, often cooked up with other leaves into a thick brown cocktail with a distinctive smell and an indescribable taste. Well, it is describable. It’s seven shades of nasty. It’s been described as liquefied toads and feet with lemon. I think I’d go with spitoonesque. Here I am a week back home and it only takes a ladylike burp to bring it all back.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The theory is that Ayahuasca makes herself, – yes, that’s right, herself – known to you when you’re ready. So we began bumping into each other.

I started researching…. Magazines. Rolling Stone – an article on Robin Quivers and her trip to Peru. Marie Claire (I was at the hairdressers’, all right?) about the latest cocktail chatter – no longer “Who’s your yoga instructor?”, but “Who’s your shaman?” Gag. Vanity Fair weighed in with their usual boatload of condescension.

Kept looking. A friend’s brother, a son; articles about PTSD, outrunning depression, searching for meaning, curing addiction; medical journal reports of increased serotonin levels. Roads leading to Ayahuasca.

Can’t hurt to see what’s out there.

A bridge leading to the Main House at the Hummingbird Center

A bridge leading to the Main House at the Hummingbird Center

An internet search immediately turned up the Hummingbird Healing Center outside Iquitos owned by Jim Davis, late of Seattle, and his wife Gina, who is from Iquitos. Hummingbirds, Seattle. Sounds like a Yes. It’s not the place where my friend the tattoo artist goes but it felt like the right place for me, so it fell into place and I began counting down the weeks then days to my 12 day retreat.

It’s a long way from Ketchikan, Alaska to Iquitos, Peru. Twenty four hours plus. Alaska Airlines to Las Vegas and then Copa Airlines to Iquitos via Panama City.

Iquitos and the Amazon

Iquitos and the Amazon

Iquitos can only be reached by plane or boat. It’s the largest city in the world with no roads to connect with the outside world. It is a city of almost a half million but you wouldn’t know it from the airport. Two arrival gates, two more for departures. Clearly, not many people travel by air. Very soon you understand why.

I never saw any indication of prosperity. Poverty – the usual adjectives are “grinding” and “abject”. Piddly words for the physical circumstances, but there wasn’t a sense of futility or desperation. People hustle – which can be annoying when you just want to take a stroll – but there is a palpable sense that better times are ahead. Most travel by motorcycle or mototaxi – a rickshaw sort of improvisation – in a chaotic free for all down roads that were unpaved within recent memory.

I arrived on Saturday, August 30th, and spent two nights at the La Casona Hotel near the Plaza d’ Armes before meeting Jim and the rest of our group Monday morning.

We looked warily at each other over our last cups of coffee before the 12 day moratorium. Who were these people? They looked normal; normal-ish anyway. We boarded our air conditioned bus (last of the AC too) and headed out of town.

About 15 miles out we turned up a dirt road and bumped a few more miles past houses, a farm where they raised paiche (huge freshwater fish with the largest scales in the world), and a birding retreat that had gone out of business by the time we bumped back out 11 days later.

The building where we slept on the Hummingbird Center grounds

The building where we slept on the Hummingbird Center grounds

The road ended near a pond and a fenced area. We walked up a small hill to the main house. I expected the Hummingbird Healing Center to be a magical place. It is, but this wasn’t what I expected.

The magic hit me immediately like an elbow to the nose. Although we were at virtual sea level, I found it hard to get my breath. I could only walk a short distance before I needed to rest. Mind you, I’m no athlete but I can walk a few flat miles without a hitch. I felt heavy and listless. My feet kept tangling up and I had to concentrate when I walked. My feet were drunk. They couldn’t walk straight. Despite my careful plotting they wandered from one side of the path to the other. Well, this is just stupid.

Maybe I would feel better if I washed my face. MY FACE. It was an ashen gray and heavily lined. I’m not young, but for the love of moisturizers who was that woman in the mirror? One eye looked significantly bigger than the other. I was seriously creeped out.

The Maloca at the Hummingbird Center

The Maloca at the Hummingbird Center

We met that afternoon in the Maloca, the hut where ceremony is held, to talk about Ayahuasca. What to expect – what not to.


There is no typical Ayahuasca experience. Some people have beautiful visions, heaven and angels, a trip through the cosmos and bliss. Others have a darker time – nightmares and specters. For some, nothing much happens. Not only do experiences differ widely between people but each individual’s experiences are never the same twice.

A very few people get what they need after one or two ceremonies, but most people leave with a good start on healing their lives and a lot of work ahead. Westerners provide the shaman with a lot of laughs I think, when we come with our schedules and expect to check off our issues and leave all fixed.

Our first ceremony was that night around 8. There were about 15 of us, the nine in my group plus people who come independently to stay additional weeks. We sat on thin mattresses in a circle around the edges of the Maloca and take turns going to the front to kneel and drink Ayahuasca. Good Lord I admire the courage of the first person who thought it was a good idea to drink this stuff. It is hard to gag down.

And then you sit and wait. It’s quiet at first except for the jungle noises. Maybe half an hour in, our shamanMaestro Manain Miche Amacifen (Manain) – started to sing icaros, the Ayahuasca songs. Some are in Spanish; some are in a local dialect. There are at least 85 dialects spoken in the Peruvian Amazon. I could feel the song start to thrum inside….

So began my first ceremony. It was terrible.

You are provided with a basin in which to purge, the nice way to say vomit. If you need to go to the bathroom to purge that way, someone is there to help. You don’t want to hang around outside. Ayahuasca opens you to the spirit world, and not everything in the spirit world is benevolent.

I wondered why so many people were outside and why they didn’t come back in. Instead they just walked around and kept looking in. Then I noticed that everyone was still in the Maloca. That was good for a purge.

I felt like I had the flu. I was hot and sweaty. My head hurt, and my heart. My stomach ached. Okay, I was ready for this to be over. Too bad for me. The ceremony is four hours long and I felt crappy the whole time. My neighbor asked for help. He said he was having trouble breathing, but I could hear him and he was breathing fine. Nothing labored or distressed. Jim had said it is entirely possible to have physical concerns that aren’t real. I knew I wasn’t in the grip of the flu, which was not particularly comforting.

Tambo at the Hummingbird Center

Tambo at the Hummingbird Center

We compared notes the next day. Some had unpleasant trips like me. Others had beautiful times, joy and delight. For some, Ayahuasca visited in the form of a great, majestic snake. An anaconda. There were mighty revelations and near silent whispers. We were excited about the next ceremony that night.

It was terrible. More darkness. It wasn’t scary or even bleak. Just dark and unhappy. I wanted great green flashes of light, angels and choirs! COME ON! At least a parrot! But no. Dark and rainy. Big yellow doors covered in black and yellow warning tape. Mean thoughts. Go away. Can’t come in. Funny, I thought at the time, that’s my voice.

The next morning after breakfast we compared notes in the Maloca. Even though there isn’t a typical Ayahuasca experience, mine didn’t fit. Ayahuasca doesn’t send people away. That voice that sounded like my voice? Well, that was me.

I met with Jim and Mainain later in the day and we talked about why I was there. They decided I needed a private healing ceremony, so after dinner Walter – the translator and all-purpose, go-to guy – helped me as I semi-staggered to the Maloca. I still had drunken feet and felt ancient. I avoided mirrors.

I was skeptical, but I was there to learn. Mainain used his rattle, said prayers and sang. After about fifteen minutes, I stood up and felt great. Really great. My feet were working right and I felt like the weight was lifted. I was happy. I checked myself out in the mirror. I looked like me again.

Magic. Like I said.

On the grounds at the Hummingbird Center

On the grounds at the Hummingbird Center

More magic when the bone doctor came to visit. Huesero (Bone Doctor) Jorge Vela Davila does a sort of massage and bone manipulation. I have had surgery for a torn meniscus (fell off my high heels) and a torn rotator cuff (not listening to zip line instructions) which left my shoulder and knee tender with a limited range of motion. After 15 minutes with the Huesero at a cost of 50 soles (about $17.50), no pain in my shoulder – even with silly windmill moves – and much less pain in my knee.

Day Four: The third Ayahuasca ceremony. I was ready for visions and bliss. Nope, still dark – but at least it wasn’t terrible. I accepted it and spent the ceremony in internal conversation. With whom? I’m not sure, but this time it wasn’t me.

On day six we had the San Pedro/Huachuma ceremony. This is an all-day event. San Pedro is akin to mescaline. A cactus that grows in the Andes, it is the brother medicine to Ayahuasca. Not as dramatic and a great deal more fun, it is, nevertheless, hard to swallow. You mix the powder with water and gag it down. It is gritty and thick.

San Pedro lasts most of the day. Jim monitored us for sunburn and played music from someone’s ipod. Most of us floated in the pond during the hot part of the day. Ah, high on mescaline and floating in a pond in the Amazon jungle. Life can be full of pleasant surprises, can’t it?

In the middle of the day, in the middle of a Sarah McLauglin song, I found myself in tears. Then sadness fell away. It was like cards shuffling, and a new hand was dealt. I had gotten what I needed from Ayahuasca.

I went to the next ceremony but didn’t drink. I listened to the icaros and felt happy to be within this circle of people. I slept and apparently snored like a freight train. Sorry for that.

On the tenth day, the day of the last ceremony, several people including me decided to drink San Pedro instead of Ayahuasca. The Maloca seemed hot and close so I spent the evening in the main house. Two others who were taking San Pedro joined me later. We could hear the icaros and felt the strong pull of the songs. You can feel them, a sort of humming, as they travel through you. We talked, something we couldn’t have done in the Maloca.

We were regular tourists the next day. We took the bus to a dock after a quick stop at the airport ATM and climbed aboard boats and set sail on the Amazon River. Up here it is a dark, muddy river. Huge – even though it wasn’t the rainy season and the water level was low.

The Amazon is the World's Largest River

The Amazon is the World’s Largest River

I watched my friend trail her hand in the water as we buzzed along. I fought the urge to warn her about crocodiles.

Our first stop was a visit with the Bora tribe. They have a large Maloca where they entertain tourists and sell crafts. They danced and we joined in for the last one. We wove around the Maloca, then outside and in again. I was still woozy from the San Pedro but tried to be a good sport. I was glad to sit down again but found myself inundated with bracelets, necklaces and wall hangings. I’m not much at haggling so I didn’t really – the prices seemed fair and a dollar or two likely means more for them than it does for me.

Our next stop was a nearby wildlife sanctuary. Small tree sloths that look cuddly turned out to be cuddly. It’s nice when that happens. Snakes, a boa and an anaconda; not cuddly but cool to see. Several people held the boa. The anaconda was shedding, which makes them more aggressive, so we contented ourselves with looking at the snake who is Ayahuasca to so many. They can grow to 60 feet since they, like crocodiles, keep growing until they die. Monkeys, ocelots, turtles and tortoises – it was an interesting place. They don’t charge admission but instead rely on tips from visitors. I had given most of my money to the Bora and their children, so if you go there – give them a little extra for me.

Riding in a Mototaxi on the crowded streets of Iquitos, Peru

Riding in a Mototaxi on the crowded streets of Iquitos, Peru

And then it was over. The next day we took the bus back to Iquitos. Most of us met that night for dinner and goodbyes. It was harder than I expected to say goodbye to people I’d met less than two weeks before. We had shared an incredible, once in a lifetime adventure.

They are a wonderful group of people. Most from the United States, but there were some from Australia, Canada, Sweden and England via Spain. They came to recover from trauma and loss, to fight depression and anxiety, to overcome addictions, to seek a spiritual path or just out of curiosity. No one was there to party in the jungle or to ride the latest trend. I couldn’t imagine a better group of people to share my journey and it was a gift to share theirs. They had amazing stories which are theirs to tell and not mine.

The Hummingbird had been the exact right place for me to be. The people there – Jim and Gina, Mainain and Walter, who took such care of us all – changed my life. I can sleep at night. I don’t wake up sad. I doubt I’ll need anti-depressants again.

Ayahuasca isn’t for everyone. It isn’t easy. It was right for me and maybe it will be for you too. And if it is, if this is the beginning of your call, I hope you find yourself with kind, caring, loving people like I did. I wish you a good journey.

Follow your own path

Follow your own path

(Editor’s Note: For details about the places Marty visited on her Ayahuasca adventure, check out this link.)

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