JOURNEY WITH AYAHUASCA
The Essential Guide to Having an Amazing Ayahuasca Experience
PART 1 – What Is Ayahuasca?
I’ve Lived in Peru For 13 Years and Used to Run a Retreat Center. Here’s My No Nonsense Guide to Experiencing Ayahuasca…
I’ve lived in Peru since 2009, and I was involved in organizing ayahuasca retreats since 2011, working with 3 different retreat centers over a period of 9 years. The last one was Gaia Tree, which I founded and co-owned. Like all retreat centers in Peru, we were forced to shut down in March 2020 due to the Covid lock-downs.
Peru re-opened to foreign travelers towards the end of 2020, but we’ve decided not to re-open Gaia Tree for the time being. Whether we will ever re-open is anyone’s guess. There’s still too much uncertainty in the world for my tastes, and I’m happy to not be involved in tourism right now.
Most of the following text is from a short ebook I wrote back in around 2016. I’ve decided to publish it on the web because I think it will be useful to anyone who searching the internet to learn more about ayahuasca and especially if they are hoping to come to Peru.
Over the last twenty years, Peru has seen ayahuasca tourist numbers increase from a trickle to many tens of thousands of people compelled to learn how this experience can transform them. Many hope it will heal the rifts which have been caused by a modern society that creates a terrible sickness in many people.
People of all ages, backgrounds and from all over the world are traveling to South America to take this powerful plant medicine. Its reputation is such that author Graham Hancock suggests potential world leaders should only take up office once they’ve been initiated by ayahuasca and Terence McKenna who inspired many to follow his lead said in his book, The Archaic Revival ‘you are not a fully matured human being in touch with the potential of reality unless you have had a psychedelic experience’.
Several documentaries have been made about ayahuasca. A number of Hollywood celebs and famous musicians are raving about it. And barely a week goes by without some kind of reference to ayahuasca within the mainstream media.
But even something as sacred as these ancient ceremonies can get eroded by greed and corruption.
A darker side of this booming industry has come to light, resulting in confusion about ayahuasca’s efficacy and a great deal of trepidation about embarking on an ayahuasca journey to begin with. Reasons for this include:
– South American countries have a reputation for being dangerous.
– The media has featured several frightening accounts of people dying from taking ayahuasca.
– Bad (or fake) shamans have been accused of witchcraft, stealing and/or molesting people.
– People have lost their minds taking powerful psychedelic drugs.
None of these points are entirely untrue; however, I believe that safety issues should not be a huge concern so long as you do your research and know exactly what you’re getting involved with.
The purpose of this e-book is to help you do just that.
This book does not aim to be a comprehensive guide to what ayahuasca is and how it works; there are several excellent books and documentaries that will educate you on that subject.
My goal is to provide you with enough information so that you can make informed decisions on how to travel to Peru and have a safe and reliable experience.
While I recognize that Peru is not the only country where you can experience genuine ayahuasca ceremonies, it is the country which is most considered the ‘home’ of ayahuasca, and it’s the country where I live. The information in this book will also help you make more informed decisions, even if you choose to experience it elsewhere.
If you decide to participate in an ayahuasca ceremony, I hope this book will add to an unforgettable and possibly life-changing experience.
What Is Ayahuasca
Ayahuasca is the name given to a sacred plant medicine that comes from the Amazon rainforest where the indigenous people of the jungle have likely used it for thousands of years.
However, ayahuasca is no garden-variety plant medicine. The effects of ayahuasca are as extraordinary as they are profound. Most other plant medicines do not heal you by altering your entire perception of reality!
Working with ayahuasca is an intense, profound, and usually an incredibly transformative experience that can facilitate deep healing on all levels of your being – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Ayahuasca is a doorway to inner worlds that allows us to enter expanded states of consciousness and the experience of spiritual awakening. For many people, ayahuasca reveals the multidimensional nature of both reality and ourselves, and it leads us back to the knowledge of what we truly are – spiritual beings having a human experience.
The word ayahuasca is derived from two Quechua words (Quechua is an indigenous language of South America). ‘Aya,’ which means spirit, ancestor or deceased person, and ‘Huasca,’ which means vine or rope. Therefore, ayahuasca is sometimes referred to as ‘vine of the soul’ or ‘vine of the dead’.
The history of ayahuasca is relatively unknown, and will always be uncertain because there are no written records from the Amazon region from before the time when the Spaniards invaded. There are only various myths and oral traditions passed down through generations by the indigenous. However, a ceremonial cup was found in Ecuador, believed to be well over 2500 years old that contained traces of ayahuasca, so it has been used at least that long, and probably much longer.
Ayahuasca is used in many South American countries including Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, and by at least seventy different indigenous tribes of the Amazon.
The Ayahuasca Medicine
From a tangible, material perspective ayahuasca is a foul-tasting liquid medicine brewed from two plants that grow in the Amazon jungle. One of those plants is a jungle vine known as Ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi). The other is a green leafy plant called Chacruna (Psychotria viridis), or alternatively another Amazonian plant called Chaliponga (Diplopterys cabrerana) can be used instead of Chacruna (or both together).
The Importance of the Ayahuasca Vine
All Amazonian shamans consider the ayahuasca vine to be the most important plant of the brew. This is because they understand it is the spirit of the vine that provides the healing and insights, hence why the vine is also called Ayahuasca.
What is truly fascinating about the ayahuasca brew is the complexity of the chemical interactions that take place to enable the experience, especially when you consider that so-called ‘primitive’ tribal people discovered it.
The Chacruna/Chaliponga plants contain high quantities of DMT (dimethyltryptamine), a potent psychoactive compound that enables the powerful visionary effects common to ayahuasca experiences. What is unique about DMT is that it already naturally exists within the human brain. Many people believe that DMT is created in the pineal gland, which some spiritual traditions associate with the third eye.
American researcher Dr. Rick Strassman investigated the effects of DMT by giving high doses to sixty volunteers over five years. He later hypothesized that the pineal gland releases DMT when a person nears death, and that DMT connects us to the spirit world. You can read about his work in the book DMT: The Spirit Molecule.
However, under normal circumstances, DMT cannot have any effect when ingested orally because it is destroyed in the stomach by an enzyme known as Monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A).
This is where the chemistry of the vine comes into play. The ayahuasca vine contains three primary harmala alkaloids – the β-carboline derivatives harmine, tetrahydroharmine (THH), and harmaline. These three harmala alkaloids are potent inhibitors of MAO-A enzymes. In other words, they prevent the enzymes from destroying the DMT, allowing it to pass through the stomach and eventually into the brain where it produces its incredible visionary effects.
However, what is not commonly understood is that there is far more to an ayahuasca experience than just the effects of the DMT. As stated earlier, all shamans say the vine is the most important plant of the brew, and not the plants containing the DMT. A useful analogy I like is to imagine that Ayahuasca is a cave and that DMT is like a torch beam illuminating the cave.
As a final note, do not let the complex sounding chemistry fool you into believing the Ayahuasca experience is nothing more than just chemical interactions in the body and brain. These chemicals somehow enable the ayahuasca experience, but they are not the experience itself.
You could say that it is like the physical components of your computer all work together to enable you to experience the internet. However, your computer is not the Internet – it just allows you to access and interact with it. Likewise, the chemicals of ayahuasca somehow enable you to enter and experience the spiritual dimensions of the universe. You could say they allow you to access the cosmic internet!
Ultimately, it is up to each individual what he or she wants to believe. It is good to be skeptical, but with an open mind. Even the most cynical person must soon acknowledge – from their own experiences, or from the testimonies of countless others, that there are too many strange experiences that simply cannot be explained away by saying they are ‘your brain on drugs’.
People often report out-of-body experiences, visiting friends and relatives back home and being able to verify what they encountered during their spiritual flights. Others report group-experiences, where people who take part in a group ceremony all report seeing, hearing and experiencing the exact same things. Telepathic communication is also not uncommon.
Ayahuasca is about healing and spiritual growth. For example, it has shown incredible success rates in the treatment of old traumas, like in rape and abuse victims and war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Some people report the advantages of ayahuasca when treating chronic illness such as cancer and a host of other afflictions, as well as depression, alcoholism, and drug addiction. The list of things that people have healed using ayahausca is almost endless!
Common Misconceptions About Ayahuasca
I’ve seen quite a bit of nonsense written about ayahuasca over the years so I want to share a few things about what I think ayahuasca is not.
Not a recreational drug
Ayahuasca should not be considered a drug, or certainly not in the recreational sense. The dictionary definition of drug is ‘a medicine or other substance which has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body’. Within that extremely broad definition, then you could classify ayahuasca as a drug. However, calling ayahuasca a drug evokes many negative connotations in most people. People who work with ayahuasca like to refer to it simply as ‘the medicine’ because that is truly what it is. Shamans often refer to it as La Medicina.
I believe that almost all psychedelic substances, particularly LSD and psilocybin, have medicinal and/or therapeutic qualities and some recent research has begun proving their effectiveness in treating certain conditions.
However, many psychedelic substances, particularly when taken in lower doses, can also be enjoyed on a purely recreational level. Many people who take mushrooms and LSD-like substances often do so to ‘trip out’, have fun, or enhance their creativity (not that I am saying there is anything wrong with that!).
No matter what dosage you take, ayahuasca is never a recreational psychedelic. Even at small doses, it can make you purge heavily, and you may experience loss of physical coordination.
Ayahuasca is a powerful natural medicine, but what is it a medicine for?
In many respects, experiencing ayahuasca is very often a form of psychotherapy, but on a much deeper level than even the most skilled psychotherapist could ever reach. Even an experienced psychotherapist may have difficulty getting you to look deeply at feelings, emotions, or events from your past that you may prefer to avoid.
Ayahuasca, on the other hand, has little difficulty in getting you to confront all the things that you have been avoiding. However, you still have the choice of pushing it away and refusing the insights and healing that ayahuasca offers.
All human beings carry pain with them to varying degrees. We have all experienced loss, abandonment, rejection, sadness, bullying, abuse and quite a high number of us have suffered severe emotional or physical trauma in our lives.
All these painful experiences leave emotional scars on our being, but unlike a physical scar that remains visible, emotional scars are invisible, and often it’s difficult to see the influence they still have on our lives. The wounds from our past, if left forgotten and unhealed, can profoundly affect our behaviors of today.
If you really want to get the most out of ayahuasca, then it is important to have a willingness to look deeply and honestly into yourself and be ready to heal the wounds from your past.
If you’re only drinking ayahuasca because you have read about some of the incredible cosmic and spiritual experiences that are often reported – and you quite fancy some of that for yourself – then you may want to reconsider. It is unlikely you will get what you want – or at least not straight away.
Not a miracle cure-all
There is no doubt that ayahuasca has assisted in some remarkable, some would say miraculous, healings. You can find all kinds of testimonies from people claiming ayahuasca cured them of cancer, brain tumors and a wide variety of life-threatening conditions from which Western medicine generally provides little relief. Yet, not everybody gets the healing they desire, particularly concerning terminal conditions. So please do not look at ayahuasca as a miracle-medicine guaranteed to heal you. You must have no expectations.
Also, you must never expect the medicine to do all the work for you. There are three components of successful ayahuasca healing. The first is the ayahuasca, the second is the work of the shaman, and the third, and equally important, is you. You must have a strong willingness to work with the ayahuasca. If you do not play your part in the process, then you almost certainly will not get the results you desire.
Not a religion
Real shamanism is not a religion. It is the art of healing and has nothing to do with the worship of any kind of deity. Having said that, shamans will call on spirits, and possibly also on biblical saints and figures such as Jesus, Mother Mary, and the Holy Spirit. Integrating Christian figures into the traditional culture is not strange to the shaman; to him, it is all the same thing.
Foreign-born shamans or Westerners who like to call themselves that sometimes tend to turn the shamanic ceremony into a religious-like event. While some people may have a need for worship of the gods, or religious bells and whistles, it has nothing to do with real shamanism.
Not a shortcut to enlightenment
If someone ever tells you that he or she is enlightened because of ayahuasca – slap them! – Just kidding, please don’t use any form of violence, but at least have a little chuckle to yourself.
I am quite certain that nobody has ever become permanently enlightened from drinking ayahuasca. You will certainly not find an enlightened shaman in the Amazon, and they have surely drunk more ayahuasca than anyone else has.
However, Ayahuasca can certainly allow you to experience expanded states of consciousness that may seem profound and enlightening. Sometimes it may seem like you have access to all knowledge in the universe and that you are enlightened and one with Source/God. However, this is always a temporary state and not something that stays with you for long after the ceremony ends. You always come back down to earth eventually!
Is Ayahuasca Right For Everyone?
An idealistic view of many who have healed with ayahuasca is that if everyone in the world experienced this medicine, we could all heal ourselves, expand our consciousness, resolve all the problems of the world, and then all live happily ever after.
It is certainly a beautiful idea. However, leaving aside the fact that there is nowhere near enough ayahuasca in the Amazon for everyone in the world to experience it, I think it is fair to say that most people are probably not quite ready to work with such a powerful medicine. Therefore, it is not something I recommend for everyone, or at least not for everyone where they are right now. Often people grow, develop, and become ready later in their lives.
If you’re not ready to experience the medicine, it may have some rather unpleasant and less than positive effects on your psyche.
If you are considering drinking ayahuasca, here are some questions you may want to consider first. If you answer ‘NO’ to half or more of the questions, it probably is not the right time for you to experience ayahuasca.
- Have you felt a strong call to work with the medicine?
- Do you have a particular reason for wanting to work with ayahuasca?
- Are you aware of emotional wounds, past traumas or illnesses that require healing? If so, do you have a strong willingness to heal them – no matter what?
- Do you usually cope well with stressful or challenging situations?
- Do you welcome change and new experiences into your life?
- Can you be comfortable with, or at least open to, the idea of temporarily losing control of your mind (and often your body) for a few hours?
- Do you understand that ayahuasca is much more than just a psychedelic trip or drug experience?
- Do you understand that consciousness altering substances can be medicinal and facilitate deep healing?
- Are you free of any religious or spiritual beliefs that may conflict with you having an ayahuasca experience?
- Do you consider yourself open-minded?
- Do you try to take full responsibility for your life and your decisions, instead of always blaming other people or situations for your problems?
- Do you have a desire to find a new or greater purpose in your life?
- Do you trust your intuition?
- Have you already done research into the effects of ayahuasca?
If you answered mostly ‘Yes’ then you’re probably ready to experience ayahuasca.
Is Ayahuasca Dangerous?
The short answer to this question is simply: No.
In the words of Terrence McKenna, “The only thing you’re likely to die of is astonishment!”
During your research, you may have come across some scary stories about people getting hurt or even dying from drinking ayahuasca.
Let me put your mind at ease. Nobody who has drunk ayahuasca responsibly, free of medications, in the right environment and with the guidance of a genuine, experienced shaman, has ever died from drinking ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is not toxic to the body and, to the best of my knowledge, there has been no recorded evidence of physical or psychological damage caused by ingesting ayahuasca in a responsibly held environment.
Having said that, there have been a small number of deaths and injuries related to ayahuasca usage. It definitely can be dangerous in some circumstances, like if you have certain health conditions, or you are taking medications contraindicated with ayahuasca. These are primarily drugs that contain SSRIs commonly used to treat depression, such as Prozac.
As a precaution, you should not drink ayahuasca if the following applies to you:
- You are taking any kind of antidepressants (for example SSRIs, SNRI, MAOI – a and b, TCAs Tricyclic, TeCAs and others) and some pain medications which influence serotonin. Before experiencing ayahuasca, you should stop taking MAOIs and SSRIs at least eight weeks before drinking ayahuasca (it could be less time depending on the drug and the dosage so you should consult with your doctor first).
- You are taking antipsychotic medication
- See a full list of drugs to avoid at ayahuasca.com
- You have a chronic heart condition or severe blood pressure.
- You have a history of mental illness, schizophrenia, severe bipolar disorder and/or suicidal tendencies.
- You are currently on – or have recently finished an antibiotic treatment.
- You suffer from diabetes (Some diabetics can drink ayahuasca safely, but you should discuss this with your retreat center or shaman).
- You have had surgery within the last six months.
- You are pregnant – this issue is hotly debated, and some people believe that it is totally okay to drink ayahuasca while pregnant. Others think it’s not such a good idea. This is something you should discuss with your shaman and also use your own intuition.
You should also be very cautious if you suffer from epilepsy. There is some anecdotal evidence that ayahuasca has been used to treat epilepsy successfully. However, if you have epilepsy, it is important someone monitors you at all times during the ceremony. The danger is that if you have a seizure while in ceremony and vomit at the same time, you could potentially choke to death on your vomit. Therefore, you should not take part in ceremonies with many people where it will be impossible for you to be monitored closely at all times.
There are a few other dangers as well, but these are related to drinking ayahuasca with people who lack integrity, particularly what we call ‘brujos’ in the Amazon. These are shamans who essentially work with the ‘dark side’ of the force, and who use their powers to harm instead of heal.
Although far from a frequent occurrence, there, unfortunately, are reports of people being robbed, beaten and even raped by such people. Worse, a few people have died because of their negligence. For this reason, you should never ever go and do a ceremony with someone you meet on the street, without any way of verifying who they are. In places like Iquitos, you may get many people offering you ayahuasca ceremonies including taxi drivers, jungle lodges/guides and jewelry sellers in the street. Please never do a ceremony with someone you do not know or have no way of reliably verifying.
There are also additional plants that some shamans add to the ayahuasca brew that can potentially be harmful to some people. One of these plants is Toé (Brugmansia suaveolens).
Toé has become notorious lately and is perhaps vilified a little more than it deserves. It definitely can be dangerous, but many shamans still consider it a master plant teacher like ayahuasca, and it can heal. However, it is also very toxic. Do not play around with Toé, it should only be used by people who are serious about shamanic training.
Use it with extreme caution and only under the close guidance of a genuine and experienced shaman. It should never be given to first-time ayahuasca drinkers under any circumstance because it can inflict long-lasting, even permanent, psychological damage. It can even kill people in large doses. Also, unlike with ayahuasca, it is possible for people to have dangerous allergic reactions to Toé.
Where Is Ayahuasca Legal?
Ayahuasca is legal in all South American Amazonian countries where people use it in traditional shamanic ceremonies: Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, and Brazil.
I am aware of ayahuasca retreat centers in both Mexico and Costa Rica and I believe it to be legal in those countries, but I’m not 100% sure.
In other countries, where ayahuasca is imported, things are often not so clear. In some countries, the ayahuasca plants, as well as the brew are legal, but the chemical substance DMT is not. This may lead to confusion about the implementation of the law. In the UK for example, one person who organized ayahuasca ceremonies was found guilty of breaking the law on selling DMT and convicted to jail time. Yet, another person with similar charges was never even brought to trial.
In some countries, ayahuasca users have found a solution in the form of organized religion. By registering as a church and claiming the use of ayahuasca as a sacred ceremony, they remain protected by religious freedom laws. Two such churches recognized by some European countries and US states are Santo Daime and Uniao Do Vegetal (UDV). However, one cannot just show up and expect to take part in their ceremonies; there is usually some form of application process and admittance criteria.
How To Experience Ayahuasca
If you want to experience ayahuasca, you have several options. Your choice depends on what it is you’re searching for, and of course on your available time and budget. Whichever you choose, always prepare and do your homework. Remember, there is no shaman school, no certificate or diploma, and essentially anyone can call themselves a shaman.
Since ayahuasca has gained worldwide attention, many people have become aware of the money they can make from offering ayahuasca ceremonies. This obviously attracts all kinds of elements – the good, the bad and the ugly. Sifting through the pebbles to find the true gems can seem like a daunting task. Many people find it a bit scary and confusing. That is why it is always a good idea to do research online, get references and read reviews. Fortunately, there are some good reliable information sources available to help you find your way.
Here is a brief description of the main options that are available to you for experiencing ayahuasca.
This is one of the most popular and safest options. You make a reservation for a multi-day retreat (usually 7 to 14 days), where you stay on location at a lodge, usually in the Amazon rainforest. Everything is included; your transportation (except flights); special meals; several ayahuasca ceremonies and possibly other shamanic or holistic treatments. Accommodations, particularly in the Amazon, are often modest to rustic, but that is all part of the experience.
Retreats can be very effective and there are several that come highly recommended. Keep in mind that this is often the most expensive option, although when considering the value of the experience (and in some cases the luxury of the lodge) everything is relative.
I would personally recommend retreats for most people, but there are certainly other worthwhile options, particularly if you’re a little more adventurous.
Another option, if you would rather find your own path, is to come to the Amazon and find a good shaman who works alone. Talk to the people you encounter, and you will soon hear about their personal experiences. This option is a lot more adventurous and certainly comes with a few more risks, but it could save you quite a lot of money. Not speaking Spanish can be a problem, so take your time finding your way.
Some shamans have their own centers, and can sometimes be just as expensive as western owned retreat centers, but many provide ceremonies in their homes at a much cheaper price. If you work with a single shaman for a period of time, then you are likely going to get much more personal attention than you would at a retreat center.
Local Ceremonies & Ayahuasca Churches
If traveling to South America is not an option, due to time, money or other considerations, finding an ayahuasca ceremony in your own country can be a reasonable alternative. However, keep in mind that these can be illegal, depending on where you live.
You can find people running ayahuasca ceremonies in most major countries in the world, but they may not be easy to find. Due to the legal issues, they do not openly promote what they do. Finding where and when these ceremonies take place can be difficult. It is often a case of knowing the right people, at the right time. Try befriending the owners of your nearest new age bookstore or natural healing center, and perhaps they can point you in the right direction.
Keep in mind as well that it is almost impossible to find online reviews and testimonials for such ceremonies. My suggestion is that if you do come across someone who is running ceremonies, then you should talk to them beforehand and see what kind of impression they give you. No matter how desperate you are to experience ayahuasca, if someone gives you a bad feeling then my advice is to say ‘thanks, but no thanks’ and walk away.
Another concern is that the police may bust your ayahuasca ceremony (this has happened a couple of times). You will surely understand that being arrested while under the influence of ayahuasca would be an extremely unpleasant experience. Please educate yourself about the local laws and the risks in places where DMT is outlawed.
Ayahuasca churches: You will find the UDV (Brazil and US) and Santo Daime chapters in several countries. Also, other organizations worldwide offer ayahuasca ceremonies. You could do a search on Facebook, where you will find many groups. As always, do your research and get references and reviews if possible.