Photo by Herman du Plessis / Getty Images.

Why People Are Drinking Tobacco in the Amazon

Westerners flock to the rainforest every year to drink psychedelic ayahuasca, but that's only scratching the surface of the “plant diets” that promise to help them detoxify physically, mentally, and emotionally.

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Jul 15 2016, 8:00pm

Photo by Herman du Plessis / Getty Images.

Smoke rises from a cigarette in a quiet wooden hut in the Amazon rainforest. Two men sit on the floor, facing each other across a lit candle that provides the only light in the evening somber.

The cigarette belongs to David "Slocum" Hewson, an American who is founder and owner of the Amaru Spirit healing center, carved out of the jungle near Iquitos, Peru. He says a protection prayer in Spanish and speaks his companion's name out loud: "Julian Moran."

Moran, pulling on his own cigarette, repeats his name, his hands facing upward across the candle. "Will I purge?" he asks.

"I don't purge much with this one," Slocum answers, blowing a puff of tobacco smoke over a bowl of liquid derived from a jungle plant called chiric sanango. "This is the strongest of all the sanangos," he says. He warns Moran to expect his upper lip to go numb after he drinks it. "The element of this is earth. It's much more gentle than tobacco."

"You should take a shower after drinking it," Slocum advises. "Your body can get cold and that will lessen the effect."

Moran gulps down the contents of the bowl in two swallows.

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Julian Moran sits in his hut after starting his chiric sanango diet. Photo by Ada Kulesza.

"When you get up, take it slow because your balance might be off. You don't want to twist an ankle," Slocum warns. "You might get this interior coldness coming in. But afterward, you're flush with big body heat."

The bowl was the first of seven chiric sanango drinks that Moran will drink over a week or so as part of a shamanic apprenticeship program. The sanago is known for treating arthritis and other bone and joint issues, but also for bringing on emotional healing and self-realizations. "In plant diets, every individual will have different things come up," Slocum says. "You can go back and right a wrong."

Moran listens calmly to his guidance and nods. "You can't be a broken healer," he says.

***

Thousands of Westerners flock to the rainforest every year to drink the powerful ayahuasca psychedelic. Some are trying to address physical health ailments, while others seek to heal mental disorders like anxiety and depression. Some people want to treat addiction, some are spiritual seekers, and some just curious about what the substance has to offer.

People who spend more time in the jungle, however, soon find that ayahuasca is just scratching the surface of the medicinal or spiritually useful plants found in the Amazon. Many end up spending weeks or months in the woods, sequestered from the connectivity and excesses of the modern world, ingesting "plant diets"—subsisting primarily or entirely on drinks and shakes made from particular jungle flora—that promise to help them detoxify physically, mentally, and emotionally.

Most plant diets are more subtle than the intense journey brought on by ayahuasca, but their ultimate effect is to bring the user toward a greater understanding of the self. "For people looking for healing, they're receptive to the plant diet," Moran says. "The plants want to help. They want to help us resolve human issues."

The jungle around Iquitos is teeming with visitors from the United States, Europe, and Australia, all searching for something missing from their day-to-day lives. "I've had experiences in plant diet, and ayahuasca, I could feel the plant downloading new info to my DNA and uploading the shit I didn't need," says Leila, a physician's assistant on her sixth visit to Iquitos, there to mitigate the trauma and addiction she experiences in her job. "I believe it's beneficial to anyone if you're willing to go down that path."

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Davis "Slocum" Hewson, founder and owner of Amaru Spirit healing center. Photo by Ada Kulesza.

There are dozens of healing centers to chose from in the Iquitos area alone, which offer varying degrees of credibility and attentiveness to guests. To get to Slocum's center, visitors walk down a trash-strewn alleyway in a ramshackle part of Iquitos and hop in a motorboat for a 20-minute ride up the Itaya River, quickly leaving behind the hustle and mototaxis of the city for the quiet and calm of the rainforest. Soon enough, the boat noses its way into a small tributary and goes upstream a short distance through thick jungle before arriving at a landing in a clearing. The center has a number of wooden buildings scattered across the property, including living spaces for guests and staff, a big house for eating and congregating, and a large maloca (an Amazonian longhouse) for ayahuasca ceremonies.

Most guests stay for a week or two, but those who feel called to truly immerse themselves in the world of healing undergo a series of plant diets as an initiation into shamanic training in the long tradition of indigenous healers. "It's very stark, but not difficult," says Javier Arevalo, a fourth-generation shaman from the Quechua tribe, who spent two years living in the jungle taking initiation diets as part of his training. "Nothing is fast. You need humility, patience, and confidence in yourself."

"We didn't have friends or family," says Arevalo, who now runs his own healing center near Iquitos. "Just plants, God, and mother ayahuasca."

Today, more and more Westerners like Slocum and Moran are finding themselves called to the healing life. "Anyone can be a shaman, depending on the diets they take," Arevalo says. "It depends on what's in your heart."

There are hundreds of master plants in all. Not every shaman will diet on every one, but instead follow a path dictated by whichever seem important or necessary at a given time. Each plant helps teach the apprentice how it functions to treat physical or spiritual illness.

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Thick rainforest between the buildings at Amaru Spirit provides isolation for guests taking plant diets. Photo by the author.

"We want to get to the root of the problem," says Moran, who left an unsatisfying business career in Australia to pursue a life of healing. He compares plant diets favorably to pharmaceutical medicines aimed more at treating symptoms than resolving underlying sickness. "Healing comes from within," he says. "You essentially heal yourself."

Some of the more common plant diets include ucho sanango, which is used for treating fever and muscular disorders and is thought to stimulate memory and accelerate the release of toxins from the body. There is toë, a powerful but potentially dangerous diet which can provoke deep dream visions. Ajo sacha, a plant that resembles garlic and is used to ward off spirits and purify the body, is also believed to help with minor ailments like colds, inflammation, and digestive problems. There's ojê, which is used to treat intestinal parasites and clear out the body to allow the apprentice to focus on emotional issues, and piri piri, good for bringing up positive energies.

***

Tobacco, however, is by far the most prevalent master plant outside of ayahuasca itself. "Tobacco is the master plant of order," Slocum says. He spent seven years living in the rainforest himself training to become a tabaquero, with a three-year core focused heavily on initiation diets. During his tobacco diet, he took half-liter doses for seven days straight. Since he opened his center and started working with others, he has assisted with over 1,000 tobacco diets.

The plant has a rich history in the rainforest. In the book Tobacco: A Cultural History of How Tobacco Seduced Civilization, author Iain Gately describes the ubiquity of the plant in Amazonian cultures. "Tobacco was sniffed, chewed, eaten, drunk, smeared over bodies, used in eye drops and enemas, and smoked. It was blown into warriors' faces before battle, over fields before planting and over women prior to sex, it was offered to the gods, and accepted as their gift, and not least it served as a simple narcotic for daily use by men and women."

It continues to be integral to the culture today, part of nearly every other plant ritual in the form of smoke blown over the drinks for blessing and protection. Almost everyone involved in the ayahuasca culture constantly smokes big, fat, hand-rolled cigarettes filled with (they are quick to remind you) mapacho, a native Amazonian tobacco strain, distinct from the chemical-laden cigarettes sold in stores.

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Stacks of cigarettes made from mapacho, a strain of tobacco native to the rainforest, for sale in the Iquitos market. Photo by Ada Kulesza.

Most guests at Amaru Spirit are given a tobacco cleanse during their stay, a dose or two to release toxins, anxiety, and other undesirable elements from the body, especially useful for combating addictions. The cleanse is a less-intense version of going on a diet for a number of days. Purging is normal, intended to clean out the body and provide energetic release.

In large doses, tobacco drinks can bring on serious effects like trances—and even death. Slocum says he's never encountered a serious medical issue when administering the drink, although sometimes patients' hands go stiff in a reaction called "the flipper," which he says is caused by an energy block.

In isolated cases, however, foreigners coming to the jungle have lost their lives following tobacco cleanses. In 2015, Canadian Jennifer Logan began vomiting uncontrollably after taking a tobacco drink in Peru and died from a pulmonary edema. Later that year, New Zealand man Matthew Dawson-Clarke passed away from a heart attack, also after drinking tobacco.

In fact, the risk is part of the package for the most committed plant medicine devotees. "Shamans used tobacco, often in conjunction with other narcotics, to achieve a state of near death, in the belief that 'he who overcomes death by healing himself is capable of curing and revitalizing others,'" Gately writes. "Shamans undergoing initiation training were required to take enough tobacco to bring them to the edge of the grave."

***

While undergoing a plant diet, apprentices are isolated from distractions and other people as much as possible to focus on their own internal journey. The morning after his first chiric sanago drink, Julian Moran is quiet and contemplative. He says the night was pleasant, peaceful, and extremely calm. Some tingling in his lips and a cold feeling in his body were the only major physical reactions to the drink.

"It's a really gentle plant from what I can tell so far." he says. "Certainly for reflecting, it's pleasant."

"I got to a point where everything is funny," he says. "It's called the cosmic giggle. It's funny how much drama and how out of balance the world is. All you can do is try to find balance yourself and set a good example."

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Ayahuasca brewing over the fire, creating a potent psychedelic drink. Photo by Ada Kulesza.
amazontobacco_Iquitos 072 A boat ride just minutes from Iquitos takes guests into the tranquility and isolation of the rainforest. Photo by the author.

The sanango was much milder than the tobacco diet he had taken previously, which left him uncomfortably hot and waiting to purge. "Tobacco diet is like defragging the brain," he says.

"I like plant medicine. It's aggressive, and fast-working in a good way. It really has your best interests at heart," Moran says from a chair in his hut. "You have direct experience. It's not something someone is telling you—it's something you have to figure out for yourself."

The diets can be lonely, but isolation is required to reach the necessary emotional depths. "You miss talking to people, and eating at the big house," he says. "With tobacco, I was in the hammock for hours looking into the jungle."

Each diet he takes brings him closer to leaving behind the ego and gaining a true understanding of self. "It's an amplification of your own internal state," Moran says. "You have a higher self—then all these layers. Other people's belief systems."

"I don't want to be a product of my past," he says. "Situations that provoked emotional responses, back in the day—I can identify it, and take a breath. Am I responding proportionally?"

Early in his path, he says he left behind fear-based thinking, but it took longer to find the root of anger.

"Forgiveness is the other piece," says Moran. "Forgive yourself and everyone else."

He used to think his spiritual and emotional advancement was centered around ayahuasca, but now believes that complementary plant diets actually play a larger role. "This is studying. This is another form of university," he says. "It's a matter of collecting experiences along the way. It's constantly evolving."

During the sanango diet, he felt a message telling him to be careful with his thoughts because thoughts lead to words, words lead to actions, actions lead to behavior, behavior leads to character, and character becomes reality. "All I care about is today. The future is created in the moment," he says. "You lose that ego. That ego disillusionment can be very difficult."

"The benefit of all this stuff is beyond the sum of its parts," he says, smiling. "I won't know what I got until I finish."