As the premier ayahuasca retreat in Peru, the shamans of Refugio Altiplano offer an authentic healing experience that attracts travellers from around the globe. Coming from all manner of occupations and backgrounds, these travellers venture to the rainforest seeking the same things. Personal exploration, self-awareness, and a higher, more profound state of consciousness.
One of, if not the first ayahuasca retreat in the Amazon to offer a complete travel and hospitality package that met the expectations of the average western traveller, Refugio has remained at the forefront of shamanic healing since it’s conception in 1996. And has, since then, opened the experience to a far wider audience while keeping loyal to the traditional practises, ceremonies, and recipe.
Offering retreats that usually last seven to twelve days, with a twenty-five day “Immersion” option for those guests with specific aspirations, the refuge’s schedule focusses on the ceremony in the evenings coupled with the opportunity to rest and reflect during the day in an entirely natural environment.
Jose Huanaquiri, who is still the master shaman at Refuge Altiplano, has guided thousands of ceremonies since he and a small team set up the first buildings amongst the trees. Be them bankers, lawyers or doctors, writers, artists or spiritualists, the grounds of the refuge have been flattened by the footsteps of humans seeking something hidden behind a curtain.
LET’S TALK ABOUT THE LOCATION.
Situated in a 1200-acre reserve, surrounded by dense, pristine Peruvian rainforest, the location is far from roads and vehicles. Reaching it, takes a two-hour boat ride up the Amazon and Tamshiyacu rivers allowing guests the opportunity to witness the “modern world” disappear into trees older than recorded history and so thick it’s impossible to walk between them in a straight line.
Speaking with business director Dennis Nisbet, he explains that the maximum size of a group is eleven people. Larger groups are distracting and require more attention while a smaller number ensures a better experience and space for guests seeking solitude.
“All casitas have the expected amenities such as running water, showers and toilets,” Dennis says, “Most often, guests can have one to themselves. But for groups that prefer to stay together, four people can comfortably fit in one.”
The hub of daytime activities is the El Centro, a large three-story building with a spacious kitchen, screened dining area and modern restroom facilities. As one may hope to see in a jungle, it includes the prerequisite hammock section where guests can relax and watch the neighbouring wildlife. Dennis reveals that the grounds are policed by a troop of tamarin monkeys that live here and stop in once a day to collect a tax of bananas and fruit from the guests.
“Each morning, our staff drop off a jar of herbal tea and freshly cut fruit at each of the casitas for the guests,” Dennis says, “But they have to pick it up quickly or the tamarins will assume it’s a donation for them.”
Freshly made meals are served at El Centro in the afternoon and evening. Drinking and cooking water is sourced from the city Iquitos and cleaning and laundry services are provided.
For the bibliophiles, or those who just enjoy a good read, in a recently extended section of the El Centro is a comfortable sitting area and a library. Containing over two hundred useful and informative books on shamanism, ayahuasca and plant medicine as well as psychology, anthropology and other literature, there is bound to be something of interest there for everyone. There is also a sauna, inspired by Native American sweat lodges that sits near a clear, cool stream. Refreshing and rejuvenating this is a guest favourite in the evenings to cleanse the body, mind and spirit.
The spacious casitas make great use of natural light with balconies overlooking the rainforest and river. Each accommodation is screened and protected against mosquitoes; although mosquito repellent is still recommended and available (This is the jungle after all). Separating each house from their neighbour is a cushion of forest and Dennis explains this was deliberate to allow guests to have a greater sense of peace and privacy.
As mentioned earlier, each casita comes with its own modern bathroom, including shower, sink and flushing toilet. Rooftop rain collection systems provide water for the bathroom or is sometimes filled from the property’s freshwater streams. The beds are raised from the floor and covered with mosquito netting for extra protection and, naturally, there is an adjoining hammock area.
A spacious two-story building, the Ceremony House, also referred to as a ‘Maloca’ was the first permanent structure built at the centre. It is fifty feet (15.24m) in diameter with a thirty-foot (9.14m) rise to the roof. A bench runs its circumference with comfortable mats where guests can sit or lay down as they experience the Ayahuasca ceremony.
As the sun sets and the ceaseless buzzing, chirping and grundling of frogs, birds, insects and other animals changes pitch, the ceremony, led by Jose Huanaquiri begins. Dennis explains that there are always at least two shamans in a ceremony, usually a Shipibo male or female shaman to accompany Jose as he gives the brew to each guest before using his accomplished musical and vocal talents to set the tone of the ceremony with traditional singing.
“The ceremony usually lasts about four hours,” Dennis reflects, “With the most intense part lasting for two and a half. During this period the shamans act as a guide, helping each participant along their own unique journey.”
Over the course of nights, the participant can acclimatise to the use of ayahuasca. Previous experience is not required as the dosage is adjusted to suit the individual’s needs and goals. Following the first gentle introduction, the following nightly ceremonies allow the participant to progress at their own pace as they partake alongside others in a group and within the safety and guidance of the shamans.
Ayahuasca is a fascinating traditional plant medicine, known to lead to an enlightening and transformative experience. Originating from the Amazonian indigenous cultures, the traditional plant medicine has been used for centuries as a means of spiritual exploration and healing. Under the shaman’s supervision, participants may gain profound insights, confront personal challenges, and connect with a higher consciousness. Ayahuasca’s active compounds, such as DMT and harmala alkaloids, trigger introspection and self-reflection, fostering emotional healing and personal growth. When approached with respect and intention as is found at Refugio Altiplano Healing Center, this sacred ceremony can provide individuals with a deep sense of interconnectedness, purpose, and inner peace.
“Many of our guests visit for spiritual exploration or to begin to heal deep emotional trauma,” Dennis says, “But it is nonetheless unfamiliar territory for many, which is where the efficacy of the ceremony and the experience of the shaman are needed.”
A HARMONIOUS PLACE FOR REFLECTION
Less of a holiday destination and more of a purposeful retreat, Dennis explains that during the daytime, when guests are resting, shamans are on hand to speak one to one. Either to dissect the emotions and visions, or simply to listen while the guest puts them out.
“Not everyone wants to talk about what they see or feel as everyone processes the experience in their own way,” he says, “However someone works through it, guests can relax, rest. Eat. Listen and think.”
And it doesn’t simply end at the Refugio Altiplano when the guest departs. The ceremony, the shamanic therapy and the jungle environment introduce the guest to an exotic, mysterious world unlike anything they’re accustomed to. Dennis says that the benefit of healing is that it leaves with you.