By Sean Colligan
Dan Cleland on Ayahuasca, Adventures in the Amazon and Building a Story
For many Americans, the Amazonian hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca is little more than an obscure facet of modern drug culture. It’s that thing your friend from high school keeps talking about, the one who’s always going to music festivals nobody’s ever heard of. Or that stuff you read about at the end of a late night online after plummeting down a rabbit hole of diversionary links. Whatever effects it may or may not actually have on people who have used it, ayahuasca is often dismissed as a pointless pastime for stoners, burnouts and aimless vision questers. There is, however, a growing community of people in the developed world who call ayahuasca the same thing that countless indigenous tribes have called it for centuries: medicine.
Dan Cleland, Founder of Pulse Tours’ Ayahuasca Adventure Center in Peru and author of the upcoming memoir Pulse of the Jungle: Ayahuasca Adventures and Social Enterprise in the Amazon, is insistent on regarding ayahuasca as medicine not only because of its cultural significance, but because he’s personally benefitted from its use.
“I didn’t know what medicine was before I took ayahuasca,” Cleland says, recounting his first experience. “It’s something that works on your mind, your body, your spirit. It’s basically a full body reset button, and it’s just incredible.”
Born in Ontario, Cleland has always had a thirst for adventure and exploration. This led him to a job in international tourism guiding travelers through numerous destinations in Central and South America. However, during an excursion to Australia in 2010, he found himself, as he describes: “at a point of rock bottom”. While reticent to discuss all the factors of this difficult period, Cleland mentions suffering a debilitating injury after a rock climbing accident, which then led to a painkiller addiction.
“Basically all my life circumstances were falling apart,” Cleland recalls. “I was in the worst state of mind that I’ve ever been in my life.”
In desperate need of solutions, Cleland remembered reading about ayahuasca some years before and began researching it online. “When I happened to find myself in such a bind I thought, ‘maybe this stuff’s gonna help me.’ And that began what was a multi-year, multi-country exploration of the medicine.”
Cleland travelled back to the Americas and studied the history of ayahuasca as well as the traditional methods of its consumption among Amazonian tribes.
A simple search will show you more than enough about the chemistry, but the brew is made primarily from two different plants, one of which containing DMT, ayahuasca’s main psychoactive ingredient. This is what causes the intense hallucinations for which the medicine is so well known. However, like other hallucinogens, it’s in one’s best interest not to take the trip alone. That’s why ayahuasca is usually given in a ceremony overseen by a trained shaman and other facilitators who remain sober for the duration. During these ceremonies, shamans also sing songs called “icaros”, which are meant to provide spiritual guidance. While each experience is unique, it takes a tight-knit group and a harmony between the participant and their environment for the medicine to be truly effective.
While exploring ayahuasca and its traditions, Cleland also came to explore himself as well.
“I was really putting myself to the test and exploring the deepest parts of my psyche. I was getting a grip on myself and my life and learning to love myself. It was pretty much a steady uphill climb from that first ceremony I did back in 2010.”
Inspired from his experiences, Cleland set out to create his own ayahuasca retreat center to share this medicine with others who might benefit from its use. Soon after, he began Pulse Adventure Tours and developed the Ayahuasca Adventure Center in the remote village of Libertad, Peru. Although the center was built in an already established community, Cleland has nothing but good things to say about the relationship between Pulse and Libertad.
“It’s a symbiotic relationship, everybody’s very happy with it. Right from the beginning we’ve worked in harmony with the local villagers. We’ve become a major source of employment and donations, and they provide a workforce and a wonderful community that we can all participate in.”
Revenues from Pulse as well as donations from guests have funded everything from infrastructure improvement to new uniforms and equipment for local children’s soccer clubs.
Not only are guests exposed to a unique indigenous community, but they are right in the middle of some of the region’s most breathtaking natural scenery.
“Basically we’re sandwiched between two huge reserves,” Cleland says, referring to the Pacaya Samiria and Yarapa national rainforest reserves on either side of the property. “When people come out here they’re immersed in this accessible wilderness. It’s not like you can’t go walking through the jungle. We have professional guides on staff, so every day there’s a jungle excursion we get to go out in the boats, go swimming, go trekking through the jungle, go wildlife spotting, go fishing. It’s really a jungle adventure and ayahuasca healing experience all in one.”
This might explain how Cleland’s Ayahuasca Adventure Center became one of the highest rated locations on AyaAdvisors.org, a trusted source for reviews and rankings of ayahuasca retreats. When asked what else might warrant such overwhelmingly positive feedback, Cleland has his own theory as well.
“We’ve got a team that’s like a family. It’s a very welcoming, very warm, very open and loving environment, so people feel safe.”
Cleland’s affection for his team and the guests that share his experience with ayahuasca may also explain the inclusion of multiple perspectives in Pulse of the Jungle to supplement the story of his own personal journey.
“It’s supported with personal stories from seven other contributors from diverse backgrounds. All of these people have experienced ayahuasca, and they tell their own stories in their own words about how ayahuasca has impacted their lives too.”
Among the contributing authors are the vice president of Pulse Tours (Tatyana Telegina), a former Army Ranger, an award-winning journalist, and a business executive. Cleland hopes these voices will help ground the book and make it resonate with a wide range of readers.
“The book is not about the science of ayahuasca, or the mythology or the ideology or the history. It’s really about how ayahuasca helps people who are looking to change their own lives and make an impact in the world. More than anything I just want this to be an inspirational guide for people in their formative years wanting to live a richer, more adventurous lifestyle. So I illuminate some ways to make money while going abroad, I talk about business advice and social entrepreneurship. I’m really trying to open people’s minds a bit to the freedom that they have. In a nutshell, I’m writing the book I wish I had when I was 25.”
With the pre-order campaign for Pulse of the Jungle starting on October 1, Cleland is planning to offer packages that include bonus material such as documentaries, live recordings of ayahuasca ceremonies, and discounts for retreats at the Adventure Center. However, Cleland still wants to take the opportunity to support the indigenous community that has been so supportive of his vision.
“We’ve set up an education fund for the village of Libertad. $2 from the sale of each book will go toward that education fund, and if we generate enough money we want to start a scholarship fund to help the students with the most potential study higher level courses outside the village. I’m really hoping that by writing this book and boosting my own amount of influence and leverage in the world, I can go on to make a greater impact with my social objectives. I’ve got a lot of really big ideas in that regard.”
In promoting effective self-healing, positive interactions with indigenous populations and environmental appreciation and conservation, Cleland’s work starkly contrasts with the notion that ayahuasca is an inherently a useless drug. When asked about how he deals with the negative stigma attached to his line of work, he is decidedly unfazed.
“It’s just a matter of educating the public and leading by example. I didn’t just sit in front of a tree and say ‘hey man, I’m not doing any work today.’ I became extremely motivated and dedicated to furthering my education, making a positive impact. I learned how to run a business. I went out and I got some great relationships. So my recommendation for people who work with ayahuasca isn’t to go home and tell everybody that they need to do ayahuasca, just go home and be a better person because of it.”
Despite the noise from those who doubt the effectiveness of spiritual medicine, Cleland seems too busy working for positive change to notice.
“Negativity,” says Cleland, “has a limited lifespan.”
You can preorder Pulse of the Jungle: Ayahuasca Adventures and Social Enterprise in the Amazon, now at publishizer.com/pulse-of-the-jungle