How NOT to find Ayahuasca Retreats in Ecuador
Fuck, it’s well past dawn, and I’m finally awake, covered in sweat, and using my mosquito net as a light sheet.
“His mosquito net is still very intact. He’s laughing at me.”
My feet and veiny arms are hanging off the bed, completely exposed.
I touch my face frantically. It is numb from sleep. I search for bites, bumps, napping insects. I put on my glasses and I can make out my brother from underneath the white mesh hanging from his bed canopy. His mosquito net is still very intact. He’s laughing at me.
DEET and half-assed mosquito netting are the extent of the precautions my siblings and I have taken on the Pacific coast of Ecuador in the province of Esmeraldas. We subscribe to a completely unscientific belief that a constant infusion of aguardiente and ron with limes is making our blood toxic enough to deter the flying parasites. “Los Pacheco’s tienen sangre muy asqueroso. Chupamos otros Gringos.”
I’m barely fazed from the endless reggae last night and the moonshine cane liquor. At 6 am it’s time to leave this town with its dirty pregnant dogs, muddy children, and $1.50 plates of rice and fish cooked in coconut milk.
Yesterday Mompiche was a warm smile and a welcoming big brown bosom. Cheap drinks, beautiful beaches, and locals’ whose response to tourists ranges from benign to indifferent. Mompiche, a tiny village hours from the closest city of Esmeraldas, is still under-commercialized and barely exploited:
Maybe it’s the lack of electricity, services, or malaria pills that keep Mompiche out of Lonely Planet.
Today the fangs in Mompiche’s smile are starting to show. My siblings and their friends got bit by tropical bugs and touched by food poisoning. One by one each of us got infected with jungle paranoia.
On the final full day in Mompiche, we swam out in the ocean to a hidden beach that can only be reached by land at low tide. From there we hiked over crab covered volcanic rocks and skirted tidal pools. The beach offered a small sliver of leisure between the action of the sea and the menace of the dense green wall of rain forest vegetation to our backs, breathing and chirping with mysterious life like a Werner Herzog movie.
High up on the cliffs in the horizon, where the pelicans perched, was a local cemetery marked with bleached white crosses. In the lush green dank forest stood an ancient necropolis. This was a zombie playa.
As the sun set that evening, I knew it was time to bounce out of Esmereldas, before I disappeared as lunch for the insects, the tigrillos, or the fishermen of Mompiche. And before returning to New York, it was definitely time to try some Ayahuasca.
Well after dawn the next morning, after I checked myself for bites, the four of us, Javier, my brother, Mari, my sister, and Andres, her boyfriend departed, leaving our friend Crissy at the hostel in a hammock with a new surfer boyfriend and a bad case of food poisoning.
Our mission led us to Santo Domingo de Tsachilas de los Colorados, a bustling city in a cloud forest identified by its one main avenue, crowded with petrol trucks, potholes, pick-ups, and speed bumps.
The Ayahuasca Hunt
It’s early afternoon.
Our strategy for copping local hallucinogens is simple. Once we hit the heart of the city, we stop at a gas station and ask for the Tsachila part of town. A pretty young gas station attendant draws us a map of the city on a napkin and we are on our way to the indigenous ghetto.
After an uneventful drive through the gray industrial cloud forest city, we turn off onto a side street and into the outskirts of town. The Tsachilas run an autonomous community on the border where the forest meets the city. We park across the street from a walled off compound. Typical in South America, walls advertise political slogans for the local alderman, or a local soft drink, and on this one particular barrier is painted with an advertisement for Don Manuel’s Traditional Herbal Healing Services. In the painted portrait, he has the traditional Tsachila hairdo, a kool-aid red bowl cut. I can tell he is legit.
My sister’s boyfriend, a native of Ecuador, brokers the deal while we wait in the car. We pay half up front. Don Manuel tells us to come back at 7pm with Saca Sal soap, and the brew will be ready.
“Be prepared to bathe in the river and trek through the bosque in my pick-up. The ceremony is from 9pm to 2am. Eat lightly, fruits, bread, drink plenty of water, no meat. ¿Comprende?”
I’m elated. 6 months ago I’d never heard of Ayahuasca. Now I’m 3,000 miles from home on my way to buy soap so a Tsachila can bathe me in the river and dose me with jungle acid.
“I’d never heard of Ayahuasca. Now I’m 3,000 miles from home preparing to get dosed with jungle acid.”
We drive frantically along Santo Domingo’s streets during rush hour in search of this elusive Saca Sal. We hit up dozens of pharmacies on a grail quest that looks more and more like a wild goose chase as the hour approaches 7 pm.
Finally, we get a lead that takes us down onto the narrow dingy streets of the city’s center market.
The mercado is teeming, and the sky is drizzling. It’s like a combination of Manhattan’s Chinatown and Blade Runner’s Los Angeles. We locate the soap in a makeshift pharmacy kiosk made out of a patchwork of tarps and PVC piping. We ask for the soap and the merchant winks at me as he hands it over. The Saca Sal soap packaging is appropriately lascivious, with an image of a naked Adam and Eve bathing in a river.
We race against dusk back through Santo Domingo to make our 7pm appointment, past half-constructed low-rise concrete buildings, corrugated steel rooftops, scores of auto repair shops, and metal works, back to the Tsachila autonomous zone.
Meet the Polygamous Shaman
Back at Shaman Manuel’s compound, his assistants, four or five young Tschila men greet us. We sit in plastic chairs in the dirt outside the main building. We wait and wait. The compound is alive with women and children, and the four or five tiny buildings spread out around the camp are filled with lights, sounds, and dogs.
“Those are all Don Manuel’s sons and wives. He’s got 3 wives.” Andres whispers to me.
The shaman lives like the consummate Mormon.
Don Manuel makes a grand appearance. He’s draped himself in a bright orange shirt, fluorescent ties hang from his neck. His hair is a spiky shock of bright red. He looks like a clown at Burning Man. I can tell he’s the real deal. We’re in good hands.
He shakes our hands and leaves us with his adult sons. There are quite a few of them. They wear white linens and look the part of spiritual disciples. We drive with the head assistant, Carlos, to a local bodega to pick up some Taboo cologne and a soft pack of Marlboro. I’m starving after a day of attempted fasting. I wolf down crackers and durazno juice whenever the assistants aren’t looking.
We drive off into the selva along a tiny dirt road. The path is muddy and rocky; in the jungle is swallowing us. The city seems miles and centuries beyond us.
The RAV 4 crosses a small bridge, and the otherwise silent Indian says, “stop”. He turns to us in the back seats and points to my brother and me.
“Now two of you come with me.”
Javier and I stumble down a slippery narrow path through the undergrowth along the riverbank. The only light is coming from our jeep’s headlights in the rapidly widening distance. Ahead our guide is a faint spectral white shirt.
We reach the river’s edge and Carlos asks us to undress. This is a John the Baptist reenactment.
I go first and try not to get mud all over my clothes. I immediately step knee deep in mud. I can see the insects swirling in the headlights; mosquitoes, ticks, tropical wasps, chupacabras, cuycuys, and I’m in the river in my underwear and Carlos says, “think of all the bad things you can to let go of and let them be washed down the river.” Then he hurls bucket after bucket of water at me. I’m in the splash zone at SeaWorld. There goes my DEET protection. I wash with the Saca Sal 3 times and rinse 3 times. Javier is on the sidelines waiting his turn. He can barely contain his laughter.
I’m drenched but totally awake. The hunger is gone. After the 2nd bucket of river water hits me, I adopt a pretty “fuck it!” attitude. Like waking up 3 hours late for work. There’s nothing I can do to change this situation now.
As I reach a modicum of acceptance about my current situation, Carlos pours some cologne in his hands and drinks it. He’s chewing something. Roots? Tobacco? He outstretches his palms and takes mine in his. Then he spits all over my face, hair, and chest. I’m covered in grime. It stings and I smell the cheap cologne. Then he blows smoke all over me. Now I feel like the floor of a dancehall at dawn.
Blinded by the Taboo, my glasses in Javier’s hand, an assistant ushers me to the riverbank. I attempt to wipe off the wet plant matter before putting my muddy damp clothes over my cologne-drenched body. As I stumble back to the headlights of the jeeps, I hear the sea lion sputtering sounds of Carlos baptizing Javier in cologne and tobacco.
Then Javier and I wait on the bridge and we hear Mari and Andres getting the same treatment in the darkness, buckets splashing, chanting, Mari squeals. More sea lion sounds.
More Indians are on the scene. A little boy stands sentry over us, swinging a thin stick in the air keeping himself entertained conducting a phantom orchestra.
Another canvas-covered truck has parked behind our jeep. An adolescent girl emerges from the bed, escorted by some more apprentice shamans and her mother. They guide her through the drizzling rain down to the river. It’s a spooky procession. Seeing them taking the sick girl to the river makes me feel optimistic about this Ayahuasca we are about to sample. Even the locals bring their sick to these guys.
After our whole party has finished with the ritual bathing and the adolescent girl come back in the high beams shivering wet and disappears into the truck bed, the four of us get back in the RAV 4 with the head assistant, Carlos.
The Secret Tip
He asks us to give him a “secret” tip, for taking us to the sacred river at night and having us meet the powerful spirits. We look at each other in confusion. We already paid Don Manuel. Carlos implores us to give him more money for the sake of the forest and in the name of the forest spirits. He wants about $20 more per person. We tell him we don’t have it.
The agitation level in the jeep is rising by the second. Carlos can sense the group mood swing and drops the request. He leads us through a guided meditation. We focus on the things we want for the New Year. I juggle my attention between the meditation and admiring Carlos’ sneaky little side swindle. He’s Don Manuel’s eldest son. Who’s going to blame him for trying to make a few bucks behind his dad’s back? He’s the one spitting tobacco on gringos.
We end up giving him $10 extra each.
“Wait here my friends, I will see if Don Manuel is ready with the medicine.” Carlos slides out of the jeep.
We’re back at the compound.
“What a fucking asshole” Mari says.
“I know” I mumble shoveling crackers into my mouth.
Mari looks at us as we wolf down galletas waiting for the Don. She’s aghast at our rebelliousness against the no-eating instructions. Javier still has tobacco on his face.
Minutes go by. Is this deal going down? We’ve paid full price. $380 and a $40 “tip” to the river spirits. I’m tired of sitting in the car. We break another arbitrary rule and get out to investigate the compound. Just then, another assistant emerges from one of the huts and calls us over to the ceremonial room.
It’s a small concrete box. The initial smell when we walked into the cinderblock square: vomit and musky smoke…
The Ceremony Shall Begin
The room is dark with a curtain in the middle serving as a partition. A glow comes from the other side of the curtain; the far side of the room is illuminated by candles. We cross to the other side of the curtain, which reveals a long bench covered in colorful indigenous cloth.
In front of us is an altar. With crosses, bottles, a glass sphere, and a skull. “Wow, I didn’t expect it to be so freaky deeky…” Javier whispers. His face is still covered in tobacco. A cockroach the size of a Twix bar crawls across the skull.
“So you are here for the Ayahuasca ceremony. A sacred ritual, used to heal you, of all sorts of problems, mental, spiritual, physical, the Ayahuasca will show you the way. She is used by the people of Columbia, Venezuela, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. She will open you up to the knowledge of the cosmos…” “DA ME MAS GASOLINA, COMO LE ENCANTA LA GASOLINA, DA ME MAS…”
I wonder if the shaman pays extra for the Daddy Yankee ringtones on his cell phone.
“‘A lo? Bueno…Not right now….Yeah, what’s up?…In an hour. Call back, I’m in the middle of a ceremony. Where were we? My friends, I have macho Ayahuasca and embra Ayahuasca. Macho es muy fuerte. For the chicas Embra is better. Since there are 3 men and one woman, you will all be getting Macho. Sound fair?”
“That’s fine with me.” I say.
An assistant hands me the cup first. It’s tin, warm and full. I start to chug. The brew is bitter, pulpy, like regurgitated maté. It’s almost too much to handle. We finish drinking our cups and the lights go out.
The best way to have your own Ayahuasca journey is to ask the first gas station attendant you meet…
We are in a cocoon of black velvet. The voices of the Shaman and his assistants become our focal point. Javi is by my side; I can feel his presence, even though we don’t touch. I can’t tell where the sounds are coming from.
The apprentices and Don Manuel perform a call and response incantation. They imitate the sounds of the wind, the ocean waves, the birds in the air. They sing snippets of Catholic prayers, and Indian chants. Hands materialize from this void and touch my face, my head. I’m sweating. I open my mouth to talk and I’m paralyzed.
Oh shit! The juice is kicking in. And I’m catching visions faster than I can process them.
I’m traveling back to a shag carpet basement in Bethesda Maryland, smoking weed in high school…I’m in the cock pit of the Millennium Falcon and we are about to go plaid…Tylenol is just a drug…the rate of venereal disease transmission is highest among the elderly, thanks Viagra…How does Santa get back up the chimney…I am a walking bacteria colony…Me and all of the organisms on the Earth have just reached a Christmas Day cease-fire in the Planetary War for Evolutionary Supremacy….what was I thinking? I forgot.
Don Manuel cackles hysterically. We jump. He’s a menacing parrot. He coos and rubs our heads one at a time. We settle. He’s a benevolent koala.
He says our names. That’s the only way I know my siblings still exist. It’s a lullaby from our soothing guide.
The Shaman begins to speak in tongues. It’s a Judas Priest album backwards. Mari cracks up laughing.
“My friends, are you all ready for some more Macho? “
“No…” Emphatic groans from my siblings. I sense them writhing in the Ayahuasca’s clutches.
I go for second swig. My shaky hands go for the warm tin cup. Let’s see how far we can push the envelope.
“You gluttonous fool! What the fuck!”
I hear my sister say (telepathically) over the glugging sounds I’m making. The Ayahuasca dribbles down my chin.
DA ME MAS GASOLINA…The Shaman’s phone chimes in.
An hour must have past.
“Look I’m busy!”
“You told me to call back”
“I’m in a ceremony! Let’s buy that…no wait…I need some reassurance….well, if that’s what the market will bear…hold on.”
Is he buying real estate in the Galapagos Islands?
“My children excuse me, I have to take this…”
We are left alone…sort of; the apprentices are still standing guard in the darkness, melting into the shadows. I hear them breathing. Or the walls are breathing.
I hear Mari wretch. She’s the first one down. My stomach feels fine. She and Andres evacuate the room. Stumbling and I hear the assistants helping them. I have no idea how they can even move.
They come back and so does Don Manuel. Thank god our guide is with us!
“Well my friends, the ceremony is over. Feel free to stay as long as you want.”
And that’s it! He leaves us to our own devices, tripping balls in the concrete box.
His youngest son helps move us, one by one on his shoulders into the humid night air. And we need the help. The Ayahuasca has made me a cripple.
The four of us lay limp on the bench outside of the cinder block ceremony room. From the outside it now resembles a small town jail cell, a carcel.
The night sky is swirling with phantom bats and crystalline Donnie Darko energy ripples in the fabric of time and space. I am aware that I only see the surface of things, the movie screen upon which reality is projected and everything is covered in a thin plastic membrane. And Adderall snorting hedgehogs are chasing each other behind the movie screen.
The highway is nearby and I can hear the roar of 18-wheelers whizzing past us on dangerous roads.
“That’s a very nice young man” I think I say, regarding the helpful assistant.
“What young man? You mean the black jaguar?” My sister responds.
She blurts out:
“Every time I close my eyes, I can see flashing images of the Garden of Eden. Only I keep having my access denied.”
“I feel a lonely desperation. Has Don Manuel abandoned us?”
“He bailed. That’s just the shaman way man. They are shady fucks, that’s the nature of the beast.”
More 18-wheelers roaring by.
“The bats are swooping down on us,” Mari reports.
I sink as low into the bench as possible to keep from making contact with the bats.
Our legs will not work. The painting of the Don Manuel on the cinderblock wall in front of us comes to life. It’s the closest we’ll have to a guide for the rest of the madness.
Is he teaching us a lesson?
Javier’s hoarding the water. It doesn’t do him much good.
I hear him wretch. That’s two of us down. He vomits inches from where we’re laying paralyzed. At least he missed me. My stomach is iron.
The Shaman walks by us. We look like debilitated cholera victims. Our eyes rise in hope.
“Help us jaguar man.”
He steps over us, still on the cell-phone. Now it sounds like he’s holding a ceremony via satellite. I wonder how he charges for phone consultations. Paypal?
The Medicine Retrieval
“Javi?” I croak.
“Where’s the fanny pack? It’s got my inhaler and epi-pen in it.”
“I left it in the ceremony room.”
“Don Manuel is in there. I think.”
“I can’t move. Can you?”
“You have to get it.”
“We can’t leave it here.”
“How about later?”
“Dude I can barely remember your name.”
“Let’s get it tomorrow.”
“The ceremonial room might be locked then.”
He slithers like a caracol to retrieve my medicine.
Mari rolls over and croaks “I feel sick guys. I need a toilet quick.”
“Mari, take the toilet paper.” I toss her my only roll.
Andres helps her struggle to her feet and they zombie-shuffle off to the crapper. That’s love.
Javier leans up against the carcel. He’s moving like a polio-survivor in rehab. Its sounds like someone is playing salsa records backwards in the cell, strong magic and crazy voodoo shit is emanating from inside the ceremonial room. We’re surrounded by bats and vomit outside.
Javier musters the courage to knock on the door. The Shaman comes to the door speaking Spanish. The Ayahuasca kicks in with a second wave of intensity. Our Spanish escapes our brains leaving Javier with only his miming abilities.
And All is Well in the Cosmos
“You need some more Ayahuasca?”
“Are you sure?”
Javier falters. The black jaguar man braces him.
He makes the universal hand gesture for “fanny pack”, and the jaguar gives it to him. And all is well with the cosmos.
After Andres and Mari don’t return for what feels like an eternity, Javier and I attempt to get up, forge through the night air, full of crystal worms, phantom bats, and feathered serpents, to find the lovers by the outhouse.
Our sister is completely feral. The usually stoic Andres stands by in dismay. She has become a pixilated primate. When she speaks I hear the Tasmanian Devil. She’s wading through a stew of mud and feces, a Woodstock 94 grape-stomper.
The roll of toilet paper is in tatters. It appears that she’s lost a sandal.
Where could the sandal have gone? Eaten by the rainforest spirits, the black jaguar man, the sacred vine? I blame the phantom bats she keeps hearing.
Then I hear the bats. They seem to be inside of me. They are in a heated argument with the galletas I ate earlier. And from the sound of it, they are also mad at the fish and rice cooked in coconut milk I had back in Mompiche.
The Rancid Stench
I push my loved ones aside, burst into the outhouse, and get slapped in the face with by a rancid stench. There is no time to turn up my nose.
My bowels are rumbling like the walls of Jericho. I’m seconds from a 911 situation in my pants.
To this day, I pity that toilet and whichever of Don Manuel’s wives has to clean it. I force my pants south of my cheeks and a portal to hell opens in my behind.
Demons are literally flying out of my ass. I’m a human fire hydrant of excrement.
There must be an arc of shit as it jets out perpendicular to my ass cheeks and spatters the bowl. My ears are filled with the pitter-patter of staccato wet smacks like a bushel of boiled tomatoes have been tossed out a 3rd story tenement window and the fruits are splatting on the concrete. That poor toilet. I think of pheasants peppered with buckshot. I think of a St. Bernard buried in an avalanche. I think, “I must have lost serious weight with this shit.”
This type of uninhibited defecating leads to a state of unadulterated ecstasy. La Purga they call it. I feel like a standing ovation at the Apollo theatre. My new political platform is “Free Ayahuasca to the chronically constipated.” I look up to the heavens with a renewed sense of optimism, my core convulses with an audacity of hope.
The spiders (probably poisonous), the citizens of the webbed metropolis on the outhouse ceiling hang upside down and smile at me. These eight-legged Planters Peanuts tip their top hats and dance a jig, and congratulate me, singing:
“That was a fantastic shit, boy!”
The mummified lizards in the corners snap their fingers in time. I look back at the bowl. I’m proud to say it’s completely obscured in the Double Dare mess I’ve made. As an afterthought I remember I brought extra toilet paper in case of a situation like this. It’s locked in the RAV 4.
Where do we sleep?
It’s time to storm the compound and usurp one of the Tsachila shacks. We are beyond any sense of rational propriety. The group consensus is “Fuck whoever lives here. The Pacheco kids need shelter!”
We would have kicked an endangered sea turtle out of her nest, eggs and all, for a protected place to rest.
So we split into teams and break into two of the shacks. Both are uninhabited and they become our crash pads. Javier and I take one primitive cot and bar the door to keep the wild dogs out. Mari and Andres find their own hut on the far side of the compound. I don’t venture near, as it looks haunted.
The rest of the night is a blur punctuated by a deep connection to all life on Earth, a deep respect for the wisdom of the rainforest. Basically it is like being in the film Avatar or an MGMT video. Eventually we bed down for the night, and Javier sleeps soundest as he finds the roll of toilet paper we stashed in the jeep and uses it as pillow.
We are awakened by a pack of wild dogs, dirty and pregnant, the customary alarm clock in Ecuador. And in the daylight I see the full grandeur of our sleeping quarters. There are claw marks on the walls, either signs of domestic violence among the Shaman’s family members, or the evidence of another less fortunate psychonaut’s vision quest. The table in our shack is covered in wilted vegetation, probably vines used to make the Ayahuasca.
The Aftermath of Ecuador Ayahuasca Seeking
My first thoughts are “We need to get out of here before they see what we did to their bathroom.”
My sister and Andres appear. They seem refreshed. Mari’s black yoga pants are caked and flaky in brown mysterious funk. Her sandals are missing.
We look like swamp things.
Carlos comes to pay us a farewell visit. His is in a new white linen outfit. He seems none the worse from last night’s activities. He asks with genuine concern how our ceremony was.
I’m too tender to respond critically. “Cool man…”
“Yeah, it was cool…until you guys abandoned us!”, says Shitty Pants,
“That part where you left us high and dry with the ‘forest spirits’– that part sucked.”
Carlos stares at us dispassionately and then his eyes wander to the window. “I have to go my friends. We have another ceremony today.”
I look out the window. The dogs have stopped circling our shack and are now chasing after the new RAV 4 driving into the compound. The rental is filled with more Ayahuasca tourists looking for an authentic ceremony.
“Hey Carlos, how many groups do you guys see in a year?” I ask.
“One to two each day, we’re drinking a lot of Ayahuasca.”
When I bring my children here for their first spirit vine ceremony–I wonder–will Don Carlos be the degenerate guiding them, or, will they get to meet the black jaguar man?
And with that, I check my pockets, find my fanny pack and gather my siblings up in the jeep for our ride back to Quito.
We bid farewell to the pre-Columbian crack house and look forward to long showers at the Hotel Quito. That’s is if a plane hasn’t crashed into it: it’s perched on a mountain, directly in the landing flight path of the international airport.
I’m aware I could have written more about the life-changing epiphanies I received from Ayahuasca. I know I experienced sacred revelations. I know I explored alternate reality tunnels during the ceremony, but the notebook with those reflections was stolen out of my rental car in San Jose Costa Rica a couple weeks later so this is all I have for you. The best way to have your own amazing Ayahuasca journey is to drive to Santo Domingo de Tsachilas de los Colorados and ask the first gas station attendant you meet to draw you a map to the Indian part of town. Look for the Plastic Shaman with the Reggaeton Ringtones.
About the Author
Gabe Pacheco is a graduate of Bard College. He has traveled extensively in Latin America. He currently lives in Brooklyn hustling as a writer, comedian, and life management consultant. He can also rent you an apartment.
Follow him on Twitter @Gabe_Pacheco & you can check out his official website at: Gabe Pacheco Comedy