At the age of 60, Luis Benavides was starting over. Nine months after stepping through the front gate of the Takiwasi Center near Tarapoto, Peru, a steamy town in the Peruvian Amazon region, he was heading back to Lima, Peru to begin a new life.
And he was nervous.
“I’ve spent 35 years doing drugs and 60 years living a lie,” he said.
And although he had been undergoing intensive therapy at Takiwasi, he still saw a bumpy road ahead. “I don’t think nine months of spiritual retreat, of treatment with plants, is enough,” he said.
As Benavides tells it, most of his life has been a downward spiral. Introduced to marijuana by a brother when he was 23, he soon learned to mix it with an unrefined form of cocaine that is cheap and easily available in Peru, one of the world’s leading cocaine-producing countries.
He married and had three children, but his wife took them and left as he got worse—a move that kept his children free of drugs, he said. He hints at some involvement in crime. Finally, he said, he hit bottom.
He had decided to check in to a treatment center run by a Catholic religious order in Lima when his son, who had recently visited Tarapoto, told him about the Takiwasi Center, where Dr. Jacques Mabit, a French physician, treats addictions with a combination of psychological therapy and medicinal herbs traditionally used by Amazonian shamans. “It was one of those coincidences that, when you stop to think about it, aren’t coincidences,” Benavides said.
In March, he found himself settling into the spartan dormitory amid tropical trees on the outskirts of Tarapoto. It was a big adjustment.
He had always been accustomed to ordering other people around. “And when somebody comes and tells you to sweep.…” He trailed off, then added, “But that’s part of the therapy—changing old habits.”
And the center became home. “Takiwasi has a methodology for treating patients that’s out of the ordinary,” Benavides said. Part of it is the use of medicinal plants, including the hallucinogenic ayahuasca, that are used by Native shamans throughout the Amazon region. And part is the way the staff treats the patients, he said.
“It’s a home. It isn’t a center. They love you, they give you affection and trust. They treat you like a human being, but they teach you discipline, to understand things, that you have to change your life.”
After a detox period in isolation to clear drugs out of his system, Benavides moved in with the other patients and started therapy, including rituals using ayahuasca.
He said he has “a lot of respect for ayahuasca—it’s a plant that guides you.” It also gave him visions he described as “colors—thousands of colors. Figures, signs, but especially colors.”
While he took ayahuasca during a group ritual, Benavides also made three solo sojourns into the forest for a “diet”—a 10-day retreat when the patient takes a particular herb, which varies depending on the person and the issue he needs to face. The diet requires strict discipline—only certain foods are allowed, so as not to interfere with the plant’s effects, and the isolation requires the patient to turn inward. “The diet is a unique experience. For me, it was the best part. You discover yourself. You gradually open yourself, you meditate, you think about what you’ve done, you have mixed feelings, you cry, you laugh.”
As difficult as it was, he said, it put him on the road to healing. “I rediscovered myself. I rediscovered God, whom I’d lost along the way.”
Several months later, he did a second diet, this time focusing on forgiveness. “I asked forgiveness of all the people I’d hurt in one way or another. The best thing was that I asked forgiveness of myself. And I forgave myself.”
A third diet regimen centered on flexibility. “Before,” he said, “I didn’t talk—I yelled. I didn’t ask—I demanded. I didn’t listen. I didn’t look.”
Benavides said he has changed physically—he lost weight and shaved his head (a son who came to visit early in his stay didn’t recognize him at first)—and emotionally, but he still walks on a thin edge. The day before he was to complete the program, he lost control and nearly walked out.
But he hung on, and three days before Christmas, as he waited for the car that would take him to the airport, the expression on his lined and lively face swung from excitement to apprehension and back. “I’m sorry to be leaving, but I have to face reality, and that reality is my family,” he said.
During the final months of his stay, his therapy had focused on the future—where and how he would live so as not to fall back into his old ways. He planned to stay with his ex-wife, with whom he is still on friendly terms, until he could afford a place of his own. He looked forward to the reunion with his three grown children, three grandchildren and great-grandson. And he hoped he could eventually move to Tarapoto, where he could continue therapy as an outpatient.
What would he tell others who were on the same downward spiral he’d been on? “To think of themselves, of the harm they’re doing to themselves and everyone around them,” he said. “They need to understand why” they take drugs. “It’s not the drug. It’s something deeper, something that leads you to drugs. Drugs comfort you, but then comes the discomfort and you look for more comfort. It’s a vicious circle.”
Having grown up in a family that owned a trucking company, Benavides dreams of having his own transportation business. He drew up a plan during the 10 days of his third diet, and will ask his children to help him refine it. “I feel I have the strength to start over. I’m starting from zero, but what capital I have is up here,” he said, tapping his still-shaven head.
He already has a name for his business: “New Age in Transportation,” he said with a broad smile. “A new age in everything.”