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Peru: Hell and Back—Video Exclusive
Deep in the Amazon jungle, writer Kira Salak tests ayahuasca, a shamanistic medicinal ritual and finds a terrifying—but enlightening—world within.

Continue:  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  Next >>

Adventure Guide: Peru

The National Geographic Channel sent a film crew to Peru to shadow a pair of Americans on their quest to try ayahuasca. See                 for yourself how the ritual ceremony begins.

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[To view this video, you need the latest version of Quicktime.]
It's 9 p.m.—time for the first ceremony. We all meet in the main hut. Outside, night has taken over the jungle, which resounds with piercing insect calls. We will have five such ceremonies before going back to civilization. Each takes place at 9 p.m. We've fasted since lunch. One of the apprentices spreads out foam mattresses in a circle for us to lie on. Hamilton and Don Julio sit in front of us, in chairs, lighting their mapachos, with their apprentices seated on either side. Hamilton asks Lisa, the would-be Duke political theorist, to sit next to Winston, but she immediately protests.

"I don't want to sit next to any aggressive male energy," she says. "Can I change places?"

Winston glances at her forlornly. Lisa is probably the most physically attractive of the women on our tour—thin, dainty, with delicate porcelain-doll features. Winston rolls his eyes as Lisa moves away from him, and Hamilton puts me next to him instead.

Before we start, Hamilton takes out a liter of the ayahuasca he'd prepared during the day. This he hands to Don Julio, who blesses it with his mapacho, blowing tobacco smoke inside the bottle and over his body. He clears his throat several times, sounding like a horse whinnying, and hands the bottle to Hamilton to do the same. Hamilton pays homage to the ayahuasca spirits, speaking to them in Spanish and entreating them to help us.

Everyone receives a plastic basin—known ominously as a "vomit bucket"—and a roll of toilet paper for wiping our mouths after puking; this can be expected during most ceremonies, unless, as the shamans say, people are used to suppressing their feelings. Many mistakenly think that holding back emotions is a sign of strength and control; actually, Hamilton says, it's the opposite. Avoidance, a refusal to face painful feelings, is a weakness; unless this suppression stops, a person will never be healed of physical and psychological issues.

Perhaps the worst thing about taking ayahuasca is the taste. It is a thick brown sludge, gritty and triggering an immediate gag reflex. The closest taste comparison I can make is Baileys Irish Cream mixed with prune juice. The shamans say that the spirits tell them how much each of us needs to drink. The more healing a person needs, the more they get. I must need a lot of healing, then, as nearly a full cup is passed to me, versus the baby helpings poured for Lisa and Christy. The good news, I tell myself, is that no one to my knowledge has ever died from ayahuasca.

I drink it as if I were a contestant on Fear Factor, in two big, quick gulps. When everyone in our circle has drunk, including Hamilton, the kerosene lamp is put out and darkness fills the hut. Hamilton and Don Julio start shaking their chakapas, or leaf rattles, and singing their spirit songs. Nothing happens for about 20 minutes. I close my eyes and wait. Soon I start to see a pale green glow; colorful, primordial forms, resembling amoebas or bacteria, float by. Alarmed, I open my eyes. And this is uncanny: I can see the rafters of the hut, the thatch roof, the glow of the stars outside the screened windows—but the same amoeba-like things are passing over that view, as if superimposed.

"You're seeing with your third eye," one of the apprentices explains. Also known in Eastern spiritual traditions as the sixth chakra, the third eye supposedly allows for connection with other dimensions. And what if I am actually seeing two worlds at once? It seems too incredible, and I close my eyes to limit the confusion. Fantastical scenes glide by, composed of ever-shifting geometric forms and textures. Colors seem to be the nature of these views; a dazzling and dizzying display of every conceivable hue blending and parting in kaleidoscopic brilliance. But then the colors vanish all at once as if a curtain has been pulled down. Blackness. Everywhere.

Dark creatures sail by. Tangles of long, hissing serpents. Dragons spitting fire. Screaming humanlike forms. For a bunch of hallucinations, they seem terrifyingly real. An average ayahuasca ceremony lasts about four to five hours. But in ayahuasca space—where time, linear thought, and the rules of three-dimensional reality no longer apply—four to five hours of sheer darkness and terror can feel like a lifetime. My heartbeat soars; it's hard to breathe. But I have done this before. I remind myself that what I'm experiencing now is my fear taking symbolic form through the ayahuasca. Fear that I have lived with my entire life and that needs to be released.

Hamilton explains it this way: Everyone has an energetic body run by an inextinguishable life force. In Eastern traditions, this force, known as chi or prana, is manipulated through such things as acupuncture or yoga to run smoothly and prevent the buildup of the negative energies that cause bodily disease, mental illness, and even death. To Amazonian shamans, however, these negative energies are actual spirit entities that attach themselves to the body and cause mischief. In everyone, Hamilton asserts, there is a loving "higher self," but whenever unpleasant thoughts enter a person's mind—anger, fear, sorrow—it's because a dark spirit is hooked to the body and is temporarily commandeering the person's mind. In some cases, he adds, particularly evil spirits from the lowest hell of the "astral realms" take over a person
permanently—known as full-blown demonic possession—creating a psychopathic mind that seeks only to harm others.

I work on controlling my breathing. But such thick darkness. Clouds of bats and demonlike faces. Black lightning. Black walls materializing before me no matter which way I turn. Closer and closer, the darkness surrounding me, trapping me. I can barely breathe.

"Hamilton!" I belt out. "Help me!"

"On my way, Kira," he says calmly. "Hang in there. Don't give in to the fear."

That's the trick: Don't give in to it. But it's much easier said than done. I must tell it that I'm stronger. I must tell it that it has no effect upon me. But it does. I'm terrified. The darkness presses against me; it wants to annihilate me.

Hamilton is standing over me now, rattling his chakapa, singing his spirit songs. Inexplicably, as he does this, the darkness backs off. But more of it comes in a seemingly endless stream. I see dark, raging faces. My body begins to contort; it feels as if little balls are ripping through my flesh, bursting from my skin. The pain is excruciating. I writhe on the mattress, screaming. Hamilton calls over one of his helpers—a local woman named Rosa—with directions to hold me down.

"Tell the spirits to leave you with ease," Hamilton says to me.

"They won't!" I yell out. And now they appear to be escaping en masse from my throat. I hear myself making otherworldly squealing and hissing sounds. Such high-pitched screeches that surely no human could ever make. All the while there is me, like a kind of witness, watching and listening in horror, feeling utterly helpless to stop it. I've read nothing about this sort of experience happening when taking ayahuasca. And now I see an image of a mountain in Libya, a supposedly haunted mountain that I climbed a year and a half ago, despite strong warnings from locals. A voice tells me that whatever is now leaving my body attached itself to me in that place.

Haunted mountains. Demonic hitchhikers. Who would believe this? Yet on and on it goes. The screaming, the wailing. My body shakes wildly; I see a great serpent emerging from my body, with designs on Hamilton. He shakes his chakapa at it, singing loudly, and after what seems like an infinite battle of wills, the creature leaves me. I grab the vomit bucket and puke for several minutes. Though my stomach has been empty for over eight hours, a flood of solid particles comes out of me.

The visions fade. My body stops shaking. Hamilton takes his seat again and Rosa releases her grip on me. I examine the vomit bucket with a flashlight: Black specks the size of dimes litter orange-colored foam. The shamans believe that what we vomit out during a ceremony is the physical manifestation of dark energy and toxins being purged from the body. The more that comes out, the better.

"Good work, Kira," Hamilton says to me from across the room.

My entire body hurts. My head throbs. I can hear the others in the room, whispering to each other. I had barely been conscious of their experiences, they had seemed so quiet by comparison.

"Is Kira OK?" Christy asks Hamilton.

"She just had a little exorcism," Hamilton explains with relish. "She's fine."

"Bloody hell; was that what it was?" says Katherine.

"She just picked up some travelers," Hamilton says. "We had to get rid of them."

"Bloody hell!" Katherine says again. "Is this what you'd consider a normal ceremony, Hamilton?"

"About one out of a hundred ceremonies is as intense as this one. We kicked some real demon butt tonight."

The apprentices agree that they've never experienced anything as intense as tonight's ceremony. I hope it's not true, though. It's hardly a distinction worth celebrating.

"Once you get the upper hand over demons energetically," Hamilton says to me, "they leave you without any trouble. That'll come. One thing at a time."

Continue:  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  Next >>

Adventure Guide: Peru

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Pick up the March 2006 issue for more secrets of the Southwest, nine Caribbean adventures, the best gear for runners, and our World Class outfitter trips.

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