The Ayahuasca Retreat

Martin O'Toole
10 min readNov 19, 2019

Profound plant medicine healing in Peru’s Sacred Valley

Band of brothers: Chilean, Shipibo, and Noke Kuin Shaman together.

Back in July, I was in my bathroom thinking about my birthday, how lovely it would be to visit Peru and how I would like to do more deep work with plant medicine. At that very moment, I received a message inviting me to attend the very plant medicine retreat I’ve just completed — in Peru’s wondrous Sacred Valley. Here’s the skinny of what occurred.

So I made epic plans for a trip to South America — with the retreat coinciding beautifully with my birthday — or my “rebirthday” as I came to know it. Fourteen days working with Ayahuasca, Huachuma, and Kambo medicine. I can honestly say this was the best birthday I’ve had to date. So much love, so much happiness, so much healing, leaving me 44 years young.

The Sacred Valley

For anyone who hasn’t had the unspeakable pleasure of visiting Peru, the Sacred Valley is a most beautiful stretch of land about 60km long, around 9,000 feet above sea level. Situated in the Andean highlands, this awe-inspiring valley follows the rushing, winding Rio Sagrado and is framed on either side by the most breathtaking range of rugged hills. As our taxi followed the twists and turns of the road from Cusco, I couldn’t help but stare in wonder at the cacophonic clouds, which are very much a part of the dramatic scenery of this countryside. The altitude makes them all the more powerful against the rich blue, bombastic sky.

Just one of the many wondrous views I had to endure in the Sacred Valley

As it formed the heart of the Incan empire, the Sacred Valley is steeped in mystical history; littered with ancient ruins, and thankfully, many ancient civilisation practices are still kept alive to this day. And so we rolled on towards the tiny town of Arin and to the Yoga Mandala centre, nestled most perfectly at the base of the majestic hillside.

In The Beginning

My first plant medicine experience was in Morocco’s Atlas Mountains, an entirely unforgettable location and an essential phase of my own healing journey. The experience had such a profound effect on me that I returned to London after that weekend and closed down my creative agency before leaving the UK forever. While this situation did not suit many around me, I was unequivocally sure it was the best thing for me. My mental health was at an all-time low, and it was clear that I needed to make some drastic changes to the way I lived my life in the hope that I might create a far happier and healthier version of myself for the future.

Meeting of worlds: Noke Kuin face-paint, Balinese sarong, Peruvian poncho.

The purpose of my initial exploration into plant medicine was inspired entirely by my brother James, who told me that working with these plants would help me heal while expanding my consciousness. A byproduct of this work would be to put my addictive tendencies to bed once and for all.

My brother once told me, “We’re human beings; not human doings….”

In fact, that weekend changed my entire perspective on life, love, death, and the Universe, and in five short days, my eyes were opened to an entirely new world view; one of forgiveness, love, oneness, and of finding my true purpose (my dharma).

A Brief History of Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca is a Quechua term meaning “vine of the souls”. While in Brazil, the Quechua word translates into Portuguese as ‘hoasca’, my new friends from the Noke Kuin tribe call the medicine ‘Uni’. The brew is made from a combination of two plants: the bark of the Banisteriopsis Caapi vine and the leaves of a shrub called Chacruna (Psychotria viridis). The common theme in any variation of this is the existence of DMT (Dimethyltryptamine). Indeed, the brew depends on this unique combination for its effectiveness.

Ayahuasca preparation

Traditionally, Ayahuasca is made by boiling or soaking the plant mixture together. The brew has a very powerful psychoactive effect with hallucinogenic results. I could write all day about Ayahuasca, but this isn’t the time or place. Suffice it to say that the plant (and the use of DMT and traditional medicines in general) have been widely vilified and even demonised by the West and are thus largely misunderstood. Horror stories and irresponsible video blogs are regularly distributed online — most of which are due to grossly irresponsible use of the medicine, either not following the strict diet required pre-consumption or working with untrained charlatan plant medicine practitioners in unsafe settings.

The negative propaganda around the use of plant medicines is fuelled by the Western public’s general ignorance surrounding the subject. One cannot help but ask who benefits from such fear-porn. Is it Big Pharma?

Ayahuasca and countless other psychedelic healing plants have been used in the Amazon Basin since the dawn of time. While first discovered by an English botanist (Richard Spruce) in 1851, physical evidence of the brew’s use dates back as far as 1,000AD. My new friends — shamans hailing from the Amazonian Noke Kuin tribe (more widely recognised as the ‘Katukina’) say that their tribe’s medicine use dates back to the dawn of time. The Noke Kuin soon-to-be village leader, Mõcha *(‘Mun-ja’), told me a story of how many generations ago, a trible shaman was in the jungle when he met a large Anaconda snake. The snake gave him visions, which encouraged him to follow it into the jungle. Here, the shaman was led to the location of the Ayahuasca and Chacruna plants, and then showed the mysteries of how to make the medicine. From thereon, the technique has been passed down through the generations.

Painting by Pablo Amaringo: Ayahuasca and Chacruna

The negative propaganda surrounding the use of plant medicines is fuelled by the Western public’s general (propagated) ignorance surrounding the subject. Whilst the myriad benefits are still essentially unknown to modern medicine, there is plenty of scientific research now emerging supporting the healing benefits of these plants. In fact, the leading addiction psychologist Gabor Maté now regularly works with the medicine and has produced many credible materials on the subject. One wonders whether this will ever come to light, though, As the mainstream use of Ayahuasca would undoubtedly put an end to a great deal of the arguably needless distribution of prescription drugs (also ironically referred to as ‘medicines.’ Either way, one thing that cannot be argued is that plant medicines (and Ayahuasca in particular) have a very important part to play in mental health and wellbeing (specifically neuropharmacology, neurophysiology, and psychiatry). It’s this area in particular that interested me from the offset. You see, the ancient and shamanistic delivery of this plant, combined with the brew itself, reaches deep into our emotional, energetic, and psychological roots of trauma. Simply put, Ayahuasca can heal depression. Moreover, it can and does heal addiction.


Psychedelics expand your consciousness. And, if you believe as I do, they are ancient biotechnology naturally designed for just that. In addition, they do much more. They take you deep within yourself and show you your own personal life stories — free from judgment or regret. They exist to show us our inner being with the utmost clarity and the truth of who we are. This newfound understanding of ourselves allows us to reflect, accept, and learn to forgive and love everything that we are and everything to which we are connected.

But it’s not just us that we see.

Sitting in ceremony

They take us to other dimensions, to places of great love and of healing. They take us to a place of pure and unfettered bliss. Where we are one with all, with the source of all Universal energy.

It’s also a place where we receive a full reset — of mind, body, and soul. A cleansing that allows us to go back to the ‘real world’ and share some of that which we have learned; that cleansed energy coursing through our bodies. It’s good energy, brimming with high vibes, which I’m sure anyone in the world would be incredibly happy to experience.

Image credit: Cosmic Collage

This work with plants will be seen by many as “taking drugs.” As a recovered addict, I must emphatically disagree with this notion. These are natural plant medicines, the healing properties of which are largely unknown by the Western world. Though as an aside, it’s encouraging that some American cities have recently decriminalised the use of psychedelics. I suspect in years to come, as more scientific research is done in support of this area, many more eyes will be opened.

In a nutshell, our ego and humanity cast dark shrouds over our feelings. Plant medicine sets that shroud alight with a brilliant white glow. It invites us to feel and simply to be. My brother James once said to me, “We’re human beings; not human doings”… A wonderful thought indeed, but one which I often worry crosses our busy minds all too seldom.

Mõcha said to me: “If the whole world took the medicine, then the whole world would be healed.”

Talking With The Noke Kuin Tribe

With the help of Andres translating, I had the great pleasure of sitting with Tamá, Pajé, and Mõcha, of the Noke Kuin tribe. We talked about the tribe’s extensive work with plant medicines. In previous writings, I’ve discussed my lofty aspirations for unity consciousness. Following that, I’ve often hypothesised that a global Ayahuasca ceremony would bring about world peace. The tribe put it even more beautifully:

Mõcha said to me: “If the whole world took the medicine, then the whole world would be healed”. Pajé summarised by way of expressing his core aspiration: “With Ayahuasca, we can heal the planet.”

Interviewing Andres, Pajé, Mõcha, and Tamas

After our interview, I sat with Pajé, Mõcha, and Tamá. They served me Rapé, played guitar, and we shared songs by the fire; Mõcha performed some of his tribe’s ancient songs. I’ve affectionately branded him as the ‘Amazonian Axel Rose’, as he often wears headbands and my-oh-my, the lad can sing. I introduced them to a song called ‘Protect Me’ (by James), which they seemed to enjoy despite the language barrier. It was a truly harmonious experience in many ways. One Chilean and Three Brasilian brothers joined by one cause. They welcomed their new British brother with open arms — ever hopeful of a time in the future when we might well achieve an entirely new level of oneness within our communities. Lofty aspirations, I know. I guess that Andres put it best: “It will happen; perhaps not in our generation. But in the meantime, all we can do is heal one person at a time and slowly but surely welcome more people into our family.” Aho! to that, Andres, my brother.


Doing this kind of inner work and sharing such time and space with a close-knit group of people is a truly special experience. Indeed, witnessing another’s journey in this way is a most intimate and humbling process. While there is a great deal of community about plant medicine retreats and ceremonies, we are also there to heal ourselves. We attend as individuals on our own healing journey. We are there to address trauma, addiction, grief, insecurity, physical ailments, or simply to continue our psychological and spiritual growth. It’s psychonautical exploration on a new level.

The beautiful thing about this work lies within its symbiosis. We all go through the process together, and thus we hold space for each other. Superficiality has no place in this arena; we talk openly and honestly about who and why we are. We trust one another as we share our life stories; the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Almost the whole ‘tribe’ (missing my dear brother, Andres)

And as the medicine works with each of us, we all become more connected. More like a family who understands one another on an entirely new energetic level. Of course, in parallel, we learn more about ourselves and how to communicate our true selves. One cannot, I believe, come out of this kind of experience without adding new members to one’s soul family. I can safely say that each and every beautiful soul I was lucky enough to meet on this retreat became family. I remember walking out of my final ceremony in Peru— suddenly surrounded by lush green mountains. As I left the ceremonial hut, the gigantic hills hugged me as my lungs filled with fresh air. I breathed a deep sigh of love and gratitude. And as my heart sang to me, I knew I’d acquired more members for my soul tribe. All beautiful beings and friends whom I will cherish forever. I have their hearts, and they have mine.

So my next stop is the village. My wonderful shaman brother (Andres) and I have been invited to visit the Noke Kuin village in the Amazon Basin. Next stop: Brasil…


My most heartfelt thanks to Andres, Pajé, Tama, Mõcha, Alisa, Amy, Bri, Dan (AKA “Amigano”), Isis, Robin, Seba, and Taylor. Ever in my heart, I hope to see you soon, my wonderful and dear friends.


Between us, there were ten musicians. Music is a huge part of the plant medicine experience. We recorded some songs during the retreat. These songs are sung from the heart and in situ. You can listen to a few here.

Bashing out ‘Lucky Man,’ by The Verve, on the morning of my best birthday ever



Martin O'Toole

Psychedelic integration coach and counsellor, How To Die Happy author, podcaster, and mental health advocate writing about healing and the Anatomy of Happy.