The Ucayali region in Peru is named after the winding tributary that feeds into the Amazon River.
An hour flight from Lima northeast over the Andes mountains takes you to the regional capital of Pucallpa, a bustling city of more than 200,000 that sprawls from the banks of the Ucayali into the surrounding rainforest.
The region is home to a number of Indigenous peoples, including the Shipibo-Conibo, who have lived in the rainforest for centuries. Marginalized and poor, the Indigenous peoples of the Amazon have been in constant conflict with powerful oil, mining and logging interests, which have stripped away much of the rainforest and polluted the waterways.
Over the past two decades, more and more Western tourists have been coming to the Peruvian Amazon in search of another natural resource, ayahuasca, a sacred medicine that Christian colonizers tried in vain to outlaw centuries ago. The Shipibo believe the visions conjured up by the hallucinogenic can help heal the body and mind.
Ayahuasca is a dark tea derived from mixing a leaf and a vine. The leaf, Psychotria viridis, contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT). Taken by itself, the leaf is benign, because enzymes in the stomach neutralize the DMT. But the Shipibo figured out hundreds of years ago that when the leaf is boiled down with the ayahuasca vine, Banisteriopsis caapi, it blocks those stomach enzymes, and creates a potent psychedelic brew.
Ayahuasca is not a recreational drug. The ritual is physically and mentally demanding. The curandero prescribes strict dieting and fasting beforehand, because the ceremony often starts by smoking a strong, sacred tobacco — mapacho — that, along with drinking the ayahuasca, can cause severe vomiting.
The drug trip can last three to four hours. Participants lie on mats in the dark and fall into a dreamlike state. The curandero will sing icaros. People who have taken ayahuasca say the visions can be intense and life-altering, often calling up past traumas buried deep in the subconscious.
“It’s a fascinating compound, and until recently, it was largely unknown to the West,” said Charles Grob, a psychiatry professor at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) who has done field studies on the effects of ayahuasca in South America.
Grob said he has also found “the whole area of hallucinogens or psychedelics to be of great interest and great potential for future psychiatric treatments.”
Psychotherapy that incorporates hallucinogens has been making a comeback in North America. With the efficacy of prescribed opioids coming under greater scrutiny, hallucinogens are getting a second look when it comes to treating depression and addiction.
In 2011, the CBC’s Nature of Things followed doctor and author Gabor Maté to Peru, where he was exploring the use of ayahuasca to help patients in downtown Vancouver get at the root cause of their drug addictions.
“In the right context, with the right intention, with the right support system, ayahuasca can be remarkably therapeutic, and that’s what’s drawing Westerners down to the Amazon basin,” said Grob.
Monetizing this ancient ritual has become a big part of the economy in Ucayali, and a major source of income for the Shipibo. A two-week ayahuasca experience, which involves dieting and ceremonies, costs thousands of dollars.
Maestro Olivia Arevalo Lomas was one of the most recognizable shamans in the Peruvian Amazon, and had worked at some of the ayahuasca retreats aimed at tourists. Members of Arevalo’s extended family also established ayahuasca retreats and became sought-after shamans themselves.
A small, frail-looking elder, Arevalo had a child-like demeanour that belied the fact that she was a powerful curandero.
“What struck me most about her was she was just full of kindness and light, and she would giggle and laugh,” recalled Mick Huerta, an author and ayahuasca researcher.
Huerta, who grew up in St. John’s, N.L., has travelled throughout South America and written extensively about it. He now lives most of the year in the Peruvian Amazon, where he is working on a new book called Ayahuasca, the Amazon Path to Yourself.
He said Arevalo held a huge amount of plant knowledge. Huerta said he was told that “a shaman of her level would know 500, 600 plants that can address a wide range … of maladies.”
Huerta has met all kinds of people in the jungle, including soldiers who have come to treat PTSD, and others who have OCD.
“I’m a believer in the Western science,” Huerta said, “but when there are holes in that, I believe that these people here in the jungle have the ability to heal things that we in the West have never ever been able to touch.”
Woodroffe first journeyed to the Peruvian Amazon with the money he raised back home. He went to Baris Betsa, a retreat in Iquitos that was managed by Arevalo’s cousin Maestro Guillermo Arevalo.
“The first time [Woodroffe] went to Peru, I was not concerned,” said Yarrow Willard. “I thought, great, take this journey, find yourself, come back and probably you’ll have some deeper insight and awareness.”
The trip seemed to go well. When Woodroffe returned to B.C., he doubled down on his exploration into ayahuasca as a healing tool for himself and others.
Ayahuasca is illegal in Canada and the U.S., but there are underground ceremonies from coast to coast, often guided by gringo curanderos who have been trained in the Amazon. It’s not uncommon for an organizer to fly a Peruvian shaman up north to guide a ceremony.
Woodroffe’s former diving colleague Mike Kelly said he often overheard him on the phone, arranging ayahuasca ceremonies in Comox, B.C.
“They had a shaman that would come up and perform the ceremonies,” Kelly said.
But right away, people in Woodroffe’s circle sensed that something was off. He could be aggressive, and at times he seemed mentally unstable. The ayahuasca seemed to be hurting, not helping him. The organizers eventually told him he could sit in ceremony with them, but not drink the tea. But it didn’t matter — Woodroffe arranged ceremonies on his own.
Close friends and family also started to notice a change. He was obsessed with plant dieting. He was more introverted, and his personal life was in turmoil. Around this time, another long-term romantic relationship he was in broke up.
Willard, who has a philosophical way of speaking, had this theory: “Once he had seen beyond the curvature of his own earth on a number of occasions, that challenged maybe the mental paradigm he had previously believed in, and created a little bit of conflict and instability within himself.”
“He was sad about the way life was going at this time, I guess.”
“I know the idea,” Willard said, “the dream of working with people as a healer, and helping support others’ addictions was a really powerful [idea] that he held strong. Yet the reality of coming back to Canada, and having to work as a diver and having to step back into the real world, was a bit of a disconnect to that dream vision.”
Woodroffe’s father, who retired after serving four decades in the Royal Canadian Air Force, advised his son to seek professional help.
“He was sad about the way life was going at this time, I guess,” Gary Woodroffe said. “We all have times in our life where things are down, and things come back up, and if you can get some help and you can get some assistance, then you can work your way through it.”
What worried Woodroffe’s family most was when they lost track of his whereabouts, only to learn that he was back in Peru.
On July 26, 2017, Woodroffe posted on Facebook: “Anyone like to see me. Feeling low. Reaching out.” He appeared to be back in B.C.
But that summer, Woodroffe turned up in Pucallpa. A young American who would not give his real name but goes by Daniel Love recalled seeing Woodroffe walk into a café popular with expats.
Love, who was building his own jungle retreat in Peru at the time, said he saw Woodroffe have a strange conversation with one of his friends.
“As [Woodroffe] left, my friend came up to me and asked me, ‘Do you know that guy?’ And I said, ‘Not really, I’ve just seen him today in the café,'” Love recalled.
To which Love’s friend responded, “‘Well, he just asked me for a gun.'”