“A land where intuition flows form jungle roots to palmy sunsets illuminating barefoot friends with cheeky smiles. People, animals, plants, and spirits feel equally welcome living without internet, alcohol, or other distractions from the delights of being alive. We are NOVALIS” – Charles A. Wilde
NOVALIS found Chuck at the end of a year-long quest, which he spent hitch-hiking around South America.
To put things in perspective, one month before Chuck made it to the jungle, he was living in the Atacama Desert of Chile with a bunch of dirty hippies (intentionally withering away to nothing in a physical and mental sense) so naturally a lush rainforest environment seemed like the next logical step upon his hero’s mission: to embrace life in the most uncertain manner possible.
I began searching the internet for “jungle experience” options and stumbled upon NOVALIS—a conservation research platform and medicinal plant retreat center located in the South Western Amazon Basin near Puerto Maldonado, Peru. Then
When first reaching out (which I did using workaway.info) I was not aware the retreat offered ayahuasca ceremonies and honestly didn’t have any intention of participating (due to some old deal I made with myself that I would wait until age 25 [I was 22]). The main draw for me was the opportunity to help build a “Living Library of Plants,” as it was described on their workaway.info profile.
There were 3 other retreats and I messaged them all. I waited in the desert until getting restless and eventually hitchhiked into Perú from the Atacama (12 rides, landing me with a bunch of sick drunks outside a crowded hospital in Arica, at the Chilean border) and I still had enough time to get a job for two weeks as a waiter and cook at Spices International Café in Pisac, Peru—before Cassandra was able to graciously crystalize my arrival dates . . . and I was on the next bus to Puerto Maldonado.
Cassandra’s husband, Juan (dressed in a Batman baseball cap and thin yellow t-shirt) met us at La Semilla—Cassandra’s inimitable open-air cafe—located on the North East corner of Puerto’s Maldonado’s premierest of community plazas. We shared in jolly conversation, discussing experience and growth, laughing about how Juan looks just like my second best friend from Freshman year at college. We talked about the events that would follow.
A truck would arrive, and we’d load it up with backpacks and bodies. Sitting in the truck bed, we jostle as Immigrant Song blasts from the cab and las nenas wave and smile to us from their white plastic lawn chairs outside the concrete brothels. About 40 minutes out of town we meet a man I would later come to know as Frijol, who had a long wooden river boat prepared for our 40 minutejourney down El Rio Las Piedras. Upon docking at a stairwell made of sandbags, we hiked another 40 minutes into camp while Frijol transported our stuff by a motorbike saddle. Dense forest abruptly shifted to scorched earth. What I mean by that is that between NOVALIS and El Rio Las Piedra their neighbors had burned over 20 hectares of forest to accommodate for beef cattle production.
Note: On my second journey to Novalis, a year later, the number of hectares burned was close to 200 hectares. 10X in one year. And they want to purchase more.
In the heart of camp a group of volunteers sat waiting with big smiles on their faces and an affinity for hospitality. Somebody gave us a tour of all the communal buildings constructed using traditional techniques and materials sourced from the land itself, which sat beautifully amongst the dense array of plant species, including: banana plants, pineapples, coffee, cacao, copoazu, cion, hot peppers, sweet peppers, pona, barbon, misa, bobinsana, capirona, chacruna, and ayahuasca. The buildings are connected by sandy trails you can walk barefoot on—that zig-zag to and from the treehouse accommodation, where I consistently had the greatest sleep of my life. The air is warm enough that you can comfortably sleep without a blanket, or with a blanket, while a gentle symphony of creatures sings you a soft lullaby, tuning your being to the jungle vibe, so that upon waking, your senses are tickled by even the slightest of sensations.
Each morning everybody gathers in the kitchen to share a fantastic vegetarian breakfast after practicing yoga or meditation with trained on-site instructors. The land itself was clean and well managed with sustainable systems in place for water collection, compost disposal, and cooking. During the day, between jungle walks guided by one of the volunteers and afternoon Reiki sessions, everyone is more than welcome to choose a book from the extensive library or lounge out in a hammock. The smaller group size meant everyone truly had a chance to become a temporary family (when compared to some of the larger retreats, that might funnel 100 people through in a week). The most people we ever managed was 16, including all the volunteers and operators, so we spent a lot of time talking and creating together instead of sitting by ourselves. As Juan puts it, “I have this bubble of interesting people here, always coming in and out. It is the best job in the whole world.”
I never had any feelings that this was a tourist business with an intention of draining you of your money; but rather infinitely that it was a community of genuinely caring people who would offer anything they had to help you heal and grow. Our volunteer group (4 vivacious and courageous gringos from Colorado, Germany, and Austria) was essentially volunteer soup by day two. As in, we got along deliciously. And eventually the permanent brigade of heroic Peruvian handymen became my best friends. Shouts out to Yuri and Frijol! #MuchoMejor
We followed the traditional Ayahuasca diet, eliminating alcohol, salt, marijuana, and meat—which was extremely important when it came time for the actual ceremony. So definitely follow the health guidelines Cassandra provides for you before arrival. I would strongly recommend turning off your cell phone as well. The more you give up, the more you will get out.
Our group gathered in the Maloka (ceremony building), after a day of emotional integration and meditation, around 8:00 pm. We sat in a circle waiting for the ceremony to begin. The resident shaman, or ayahuascero, Loyver, led us through the opening ritual, starting with an intention circle, which was succeeded by a palo santo smudge and group OHHMMMMMMMM. Eventually, Loyver asked each participant to come up and individually take their dose of the ayahuasca brew. He stares at you, pours a bit, looks again, then pours some more, daintily, from a plastic bottle full of brownish purple spirit nectar. (As you’ve probably heard, it’s not your morning cup of orange juice, so I recommend taking it like a shooter and having some fresh water at hand.)
The sun is usually down by now so everybody sits in complete darkness, waiting for the medicine to take effect (anywhere from 5 minutes to 1.5 hours, in my experience). When he feels the spirit’s presence, Loyver begins singing his songs (Icaros) in the trippiest voice you’ve ever heard, which accompany your experience better than Pink Floyd or Flying Lotus ever could. I guarantee you that. He’s in there with you the entire time, giving personalized attention when necessary, playing an array of instruments such as the Quena flute, pan flute, drum, and guitar. I’ve never felt more immediately comfortable around any person in my life. He speaks slowly and with total attention, listening warmly to anything you’re willing to share with him.
I’ve never been to any other Ayahuasca retreats, but at NOVALIS it was very possible to interact with the shaman on a daily basis outside of the ceremonies. I would consider him an actual friend at this point, beyond some mystical dude who gave me jungle root that one time in Perú. I felt entirely safe from start to finish in his care, despite the intensity of my experience at times.
The medicine itself was of selectively high quality. They brew it on site over the course of an entire week using ayahuasca vine and chacruna leaves from a part of Perú where the plants grow more readily.
Note: in 2019 they began brewing with plants grown on-stie, naturally, surprisingly, from a spot deep along the river several thousand meters outside camp. Chacruna also grows there regularly, now.
NOVALIS is also exceptional in that they accommodate people who wish to engage in a professionally administered traditional plant Dieta. The ayahuasca plant Dieta involves a commencement ayahuasca ceremony, followed by an extended period of isolation and silence— sleeping in a small hut called a tambo, without any influence from books or other people, eating only rice and potatoes or yuca, without salt. And then a closing ayahuasca ceremony, followed by a ritual the next morning when the shaman asks you to consume a large quantity of salt from your hand.
After two ceremonies I felt a particularly direct (and obvious) call to start a Dieta and eventually asked Juan if it was possible. He explained the significance of this process before arranging everything with Loyver, and I began within a couple days. Typically, they will be 10 days or 14 days—or 2 months if you are a legit shaman. Mine was more of a Dietita, as Juan called it, at 6 days. But I still finished with a bang, singing a song I wrote during the week called “La Tema de Chuck” at the closing ceremony, and Loyver flew home to Pucallpa and his 6 kids the next morning.
What I learned by myself and about myself during that week has been more influential than anything I experienced during the entire 10 month journey leading up to it. A Dieta must be experienced to be understood.
I cannot praise or endorse the people and plants of NOVALIS for making my time in the jungle so memorable. A rare collection of souls on the inside and out. Thank You.
Stay wild folks,
A.C.E. the Theorist ?
P.S. visit the Novalis website for more information about planning a visit.