Should I travel to South America (Peru) for a real Ayahuasca experience?
Over the last few years, the availability and visibility of ayahuasca have changed a lot. It is no longer essential to visit the Amazon jungle if you want to experience ayahuasca because ceremonies are now happening all over the world, mostly in secret, but some more open, and so there is now a greater variety of choice for anybody wanting to experience ayahuasca.
Chances are, somewhere in your nearest big city there is an ayahuasca ceremony about to take place soon. So you’re probably wondering – if you can find ayahuasca ceremonies closer to home, is it worth flying all the way to Peru or South America for your ayahuasca experience?
My answer is a definite YES.
Of course, representing a Peruvian based ayahuasca center, Gaia Tree (https://gaiatree.center/) I am biased; however, I do have some genuine concerns about the worldwide ayahuasca scene which I’ll share with you and then you can make up your own mind about what is best for you.
First, I’ll state that I’m not some kind of ayahuasca purist that believes everyone should only drink ayahuasca with a genuine Amazonian ayahuasca shaman inside the Amazon jungle. I myself have taken part in ceremonies in a few different non-amazonian countries (three in Europe) and been served the medicine many times by non-native shamanic healers. I was perhaps a little younger and more naive at the time, but my experiences were mostly all positive.
But, as I said I do have some concerns which are based on my own experiences and many different accounts and stories I’ve heard from others, both in person and ones that I’ve read online over the 15 years I’ve been involved in the global ayahuasca scene.
First of all, I’ll tell you about a couple of my own experiences.
My very first ayahuasca ceremony was in Amsterdam back in 2002. I flew over from the UK, especially for the experience. It wasn’t a bad experience but I remember there were about 40 or 50 people in a room all drinking the medicine and there were very few helpers. It turned out that I didn’t need any help, but I’m not sure if I would have received any had I needed it.
The 40-50 people (or more) in a room is a common theme I’ve heard from many different people. I know several people who have drunk in London with similar or greater numbers of people. Now that I’m a little more experienced and wiser, my personal belief is that drinking with so many people in one room (often without a real shaman present) is not advisable. When you purge all those negative energies from your being they don’t just disappear into thin air. They can hang there in the space and even be taken on by other people. So, I’d say it’s possible to attend a ceremony thinking you’re going to purge all your own ‘stuff’, but actually taking on someone else’s ‘stuff’!
Even in Peru, there are some centers that do ceremonies for large numbers of people but I always advise people to stay away from places like that. in my opinion, smaller groups are much better for reasons I’ll get to later!
One of the main roles of a shaman during a ceremony, in my opinion, is to keep clearing the space. When you have a whole group of people purging their stuff in one place, things can get energetically pretty messy (sometimes physically too!) and as I said, if this stuff isn’t cleared it could end up inside someone it’s not meant for. I’ve heard plenty of accounts of people taking on other peoples stuff. Not cool!
Which brings me to my biggest concern of all. I believe that most of the people around the world who are serving ayahuasca, particularly in home-based ceremonies are not sufficiently trained. In fact, many don’t have any training at all. I’ve heard of people who have been on one or two retreats in Peru and then started serving the medicine back home. In my opinion, it doesn’t matter how many times you’ve drunk ayahuasca, if you haven’t received any kind of proper training with the medicine then you’re not qualified to serve the medicine. Maybe serve to a couple of close friends perhaps, but you should not be inviting strangers into your house for ceremony.
Beware of fake shaman
So, my first recommendation, if you’re considering joining an illegal ceremony close to home is to do your due diligence and find out as much as you can about the person who is serving the medicine. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because someone serves ayahuasca that they must be some kind of awesome light warrior that has your best interests at heart. Trust me, there are some real assholes out there serving medicine (even in Peru). So, don’t be afraid to ask difficult questions. Ask them what kind of training they’ve had and what qualifies them to be serving ayahuasca. If you feel they’re not being completely honest with you, or you don’t like their answers then my advice is not to drink with them. Above all else, trust your intuition. Do they feel right? Do they feel genuine? Do they feel like they really care about you and have good intentions?
Legality of Ayahausca
I once attended an illegal ceremony in the UK, probably around 2007. I think there were around 15 people in the room, and I remember a man arrived late after everybody else. He was supposed to drink like everyone else but when it was his turn he refused to drink the medicine for some reason. He was allowed to remain in the ceremony and the lights went out. Not long after there was a bit of commotion. It didn’t last long but it was too dark to see what was happening. I found out after the ceremony that the shaman had noticed the man had got out some recording equipment after the ceremony had started. It turned out he was really a journalist looking to do some kind of exposé and was immediately asked to leave. The shaman was called Peter Aziz and some years later there was actually a real documentary made about him for British television and not long after that, he was arrested, charged, tried and imprisoned for several years just for serving ayahuasca.
This brings me to my other concern of worldwide ceremonies which is the legality.
The fact is, most ayahuasca ceremonies and retreats operating outside of South America are either operating illegally or within grey, murky areas of the law.
For example in Portugal, where there are a few centers operating, all drugs have been decriminalized so nobody can be arrested or prosecuted for personal possession, even with hard drugs like heroin. However, it’s generally still illegal to sell or supply drugs to people. And wouldn’t a retreat center essentially be supplying you a drug? I’m no expert on Portuguese law but it doesn’t seem totally legal to me.
In many countries, ayahuasca is not strictly prohibited, and usually the raw plants are perfectly legal; however, in most countries DMT is illegal and the ayahausca medicine obviously contains DMT.
The law is often murky and uncertain but currently, a lot of people seem to be getting away with it. Perhaps the government and police are deliberately turning a blind eye or just don’t care, but politicians, lawmakers, and police chiefs come and go and laws are often relaxed and then tightened so it’s often impossible to know what the situation will be from one year to the next.
The law may not be a concern to you and I’m definitely not saying it should be; however, just know that you are taking certain risks particularly if you’re sending a payment to a retreat center in advance. There’s always a chance the place will get shut down, the owners arrested, and your money confiscated with no way of getting it back. So, that’s something to keep in mind.
Finally, another issue I have with these kinds of one-off ceremonies is that I think most people will not really get what they need. Most of the centers operating in Europe and also the States are mostly offering short weekend retreats where people usually take part in 1 or 2 ceremonies.
How many Ayahuasca Ceremonies Do You Need?
Which leads to an important question – how many ceremonies do most people need?
There is no one-size fits all answer. It really does depend on each individual. I have come across a few people who seemed to receive everything they needed from one ceremony. However, those people tend to be the exception rather than the rule.
Since 2011, I’ve facilitated hundreds of people across dozens of retreats. In my observations, working with ayahuasca is a process that takes at least 3 or 4 ceremonies for most people to get the full benefits out of it. In fact, many people don’t usually get a whole lot out of the first ceremony except the important act of purging. But often the real insights and visions don’t come fully until the 3rd or 4th ceremonies.
If the only reason you want to take ayahuasca is purely out of curiosity then, by all means, go take part in a single ceremony in someone’s living room somewhere close to home. But if you’re looking for deep healing and real transformation then my recommendation is that you do a minimum of 3 ceremonies within the space of a week or two. And it’s certainly quite common for people to need 4 or 5 ceremonies to really complete that initial process and feel they’ve had a rebirth.
Now that I’ve rambled about some of my concerns, let’s get to the final section of this article and cover the main reasons why I think most people would benefit more by coming to South America, and particularly Peru, to experience Ayahuasca.
I’m going to focus mainly on Peru because this is the country where I have lived for 10 years and I know the scene here. But I know there are good ayahuasca centers in Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil and Bolivia that might be worth considering.
1) Genuine Ayahuasca Shamans & Professional Facilitators
It would certainly not be true to say that all native Peruvians acting as shamans are in fact the genuine article. No, there’s a fair few charlatans, scammers and shady characters here too, unfortunately. However, most professional retreat centers do their due diligence and research the shamans they employ. In most centers, you’ll be in the hands of people who have been working with the medicine for many years (often since being a child) and they know what they’re doing.
Now, if you’re backpacking South America without a plan and you turn up in a place like Iquitos, you’re going to have all kinds of people coming up to you in the streets and offering you ceremonies with some great shaman that no ones ever heard of. I strongly advise you not go with these kinds of people. This is where you’re asking for trouble! If you’re concerned about safety then stick with centers that are well established and have good reputations.
As well as good shamans, most centers will also employ good facilitators and this is equally important in my opinion, particularly if you’re drinking for the first time. Not only will facilitators be able to translate if you need it, but they can often be a deep well of great advice and understanding if you need it.
The ayahuasca process can often be extremely challenging and at times makes no sense (which is fine), but sometimes just having someone with you, who has been through the process themselves and can explain to you that it’s totally okay if nothing makes sense right now, can be of huge help to people.
2) Longer Retreats and Deeper Healing
As I said earlier, a single ceremony is usually not enough for most people. Working with ayahuasca is a process that often requires at least 3 to 5 ceremonies for most people to get the full benefits. Often the first one or two ceremonies are spent mostly purging and releasing stuff, and then ceremonies 3 to 5 are where you get many of the great insights that ayahuasca is known for. Of course, not everyone is the same, and some people do get amazing life changing ceremonies right off the bat, but this is fairly unusual in my observations.
Most Peruvian and South American retreat centers offer retreats that last at least 7 days (with 3 to 5 ceremonies) and sometimes last 2 to 3 weeks or more. There are even places you can go for several months if you feel you really need that. Healing can sometimes be a very slow process even with ayahuasca.
The truth is, nobody can be certain of how many ceremonies they will actually need, but generally speaking, the deeper the healing and transformation you feel you need, the more ceremonies you will require. In my observations, 4 to 5 ceremonies are usually enough for most people, but really tough cases may need more, particularly if dealing with serious addictions.
3) Smaller Groups
If the idea of purging and letting go of yourself completely in a room full of 50 other people really appeals to you then, by all means, go to one of those kinds of ceremonies. There’s plenty of them I keep hearing about. But if you really want to go deep, feel safer and not be distracted by dozens of people puking constantly then small groups are much better.
Even on Peruvian retreats, group sizes can vary considerably. Some centers work with very small groups of 4 to 6 people. Some have between 20 and 40, but I would say that most are typically between 8 and 15. Personally, I have no problem with anything up to 15 people, but after that things can sometimes seem a lot more chaotic for my tastes.
If you’re not that bothered about the group size then the most important concern you should have is the number of facilitators or helpers who are present during a ceremony. In my opinion, there ought to be at least one facilitator/helper present for every 6 or 7 participants in the ceremony. People often need to be helped for various reasons, whether it’s help getting to the bathroom (commonly needed) or help to calm down a little if you’re having a really intense and difficult experience.
4) Deeper Connections With People on Retreats
One of the most wonderful and often unexpected benefits that many people find while attending longer retreats is the amazing and deep connections they make with other retreat participants. Over the course of the week (or longer) retreat participants usually find themselves forming amazing deep bonds with each other. You can’t really understand what this is like until you experience it for yourself.
Generally, ayahuasca retreats attract similar like-minded people who are on a journey of healing and deep personal growth. You probably know yourself how hard to can be to find people on a similar wavelength back home. But come on a group retreat and you’ll find yourself surrounded by a whole bunch of soul sisters and brothers.
On a weekend retreat, you’re just never going to experience these deep and powerful connections.
5) Better Value (sometimes)
Can it really be better value to come to the Amazon? Well, that depends. I’ve heard of many people paying $300 to $400 for a single ceremony in the USA and other countries. Perhaps most are a bit cheaper, but often they are pretty expensive just for one night.
It’s certainly cheaper to pay $300 for a single ceremony than come all the way to Peru and do it, but what if you really require 4 or 5 ceremonies? The price can soon add up. Many Peruvian retreats are pretty good value in my opinion and you can find several that offer a week-long retreat for $1000 or much less.
Unfortunately, one of the biggest expenses is the flight here. There’s no getting around that, unfortunately; however, really good deals can be found at various times of the year. I’ve seen flights from the US to Peru for around $500 and from the UK for around £500. You can’t get these deals all year round, but they do exist and are affordable for many people.
6) Better Safety
Safety concerns may be a big reason why some people are reluctant to come to a country like Peru. Personally, I feel that so long as you’re going to a well established, professionally run center then you’re going to be in safer hands here than anywhere else in the world.
Yes, there have been a few serious and tragic incidents here over the years. People have died or been seriously hurt and there’s often quite a buzz about it in the media when it happens. For example, in 2018 a Canadian guy allegedly went crazy and shot dead a female shaman he was working with and then he was lynched by the local villagers. That’s enough to scare anyone away. But when you look at the facts, he was by himself in a fairly dangerous part of the jungle where tourists really ought not to be living (I have friends that know that area well). He was living there by himself and not at any retreat center or under the care of anybody. The Amazon is a huge jungle and in some remote parts, there is certainly a lack of law and order; however, the vast majority of professionally run retreat centers operate in places such as Iquitos that receives many thousands of tourists per year.
Most professionally run retreat centers live or die by their reputation and it’s in their own best interests to keep their guests as safe as possible. Over the years most centers have learned from their own mistakes and the mistakes of others and safety has been improving all the time and is taken very seriously now more than ever.
7) No Legal Issues (Usually)
If legal issues are a big concern for you then you can relax easier in Peru and most South American countries, knowing that you’re not going to get into any troubles with the law.
The main issue you have to watch out for is that not all centers are operating legally. In other words, the owners have not registered a legal business in Peru, they do not pay taxes or have their workers on legal contracts. Ultimately, it’s not hard to buy some land deep in the Amazon and construct a small center out of the eyes of the authorities and some people take advantage of this.
However, most of the retreat centers that are long established, have solid reputations and show-up in your Google searches should be operating legally.
8) The Sounds of the Jungle
Not all Peruvian centers are based in the Amazon. There are several good ones in the mountains near Cusco and other locations. However, most are based in the Amazon jungle, usually around the cities of Iquitos or Pucallpa. As I wrote earlier, I’m no purist who thinks Ayahuasca needs to be taken in the jungle. However, I will say there is something I absolutely love about jungle ceremonies that adds an important dimension to the ceremony you can’t get hardly anywhere else, and that is the sounds of the jungle at night.
In the jungle, you have an incredible chorus of insect sounds, frogs and other jungle critters that all come together and create an unbelievable natural symphony that always seems to support you on your journey. It’s quite hypnotic, and along with the shamans icaros and chacapa (a leaf rattle that many shamans use), they all seem to work together to take you deeper on your journeys.
These sounds are not an essential part of an ayahuasca journey; however, I do really miss them if they are not present, and you’ll come to understand what I mean once you’ve experienced it for yourself.
Peruvian Retreats like Gaia Tree give you all this and more
It should be clear by now that experiencing Ayahuasca in South America, and particularly Peru, will give you a far greater experience.
There are dozens of retreat centers to choose from and each person needs to do their own research and choose the center that most appeals to them. If you want luxury, some centers provide that, and if you want a more authentic, rustic jungle experience there are plenty of centers that provide that as well. If you spend time reading through their websites and also their reviews and testimonials you should start to get a good feeling about which center is right for you.
Here are a few reasons why you should consider Gaia Tree:
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