Updated October 24th, 2020.
Every year, thousands of travellers head to Peru searching for the shamanic vine, ayahuasca (also referred to as yagé). This traditional plant medicine has been used in the Amazon for millennia, however, it is rapidly growing in popularity with backpackers looking to have a spiritual experience and find enlightenment.
Disclaimer: South America Backpacker strongly warns against regarding ayahuasca as just another travel experience to tick off of your bucket list. It is a seriously powerful hallucinogenic and many travellers take the drug without understanding the dangers. Always do your research and be extremely careful as psychological problems and even deaths have occurred from ayahuasca ceremonies in the past.
What is Ayahuasca?
This really depends on your viewpoint. The ayahuasca brew is made from the stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub. Both of these natural ingredients have hallucinogenic properties and the latter contains Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a powerful psychedelic substance. In the USA and the UK, DMT is classified as an illegal drug, however, in South America, many view ayahuasca as a sacred plant medicine.
Peru is the leader in ayahuasca tourism and the ‘plant medicine’ is completely legal there. This is because it is believed to be an integral part of the indigenous peoples’ heritage and culture. Brazil is another popular country in which to do a retreat and ayahuasca has been legal for use there since 1992. In many other South American countries such as Colombia, there are no specific laws regarding the use of ayahuasca. However, much like in Peru, it is assumed to be a religious sacrament.
The name ‘ayahuasca’ comes from the Quechua language. ‘Aya’ translates to ancestors or soul and ‘huasca’ is similar to ‘wasca’ means rope or vine. Using these two translations, it is believed that the word literally means ‘vine of the soul’.
What are Believed to be the Benefits of Ayahuasca?
Many people argue that consuming ayahuasca can put you on the pathway to a profound spiritual experience. Indeed, some claim that their visions on ayahuasca have changed the course of their entire life.
There is a limited amount of research from using ayahuasca in clinical settings. It is believed that the drug can improve psychological wellbeing and could be helpful when treating anxiety, addiction and PTSD, to name a few.
This study shows that the use of ayahuasca correlates with a reduction in depression. The improvements seen lasted for more than six months. This study from the NCBI (National Centre for Biotechnology Information, based in the US) also claims that taking ayahuasca can effectively treat substance dependence and help the mind to better deal with stress.
Despite these promising results, more research is needed before anyone can form firm conclusions into the potential benefits of ayahuasca. It is also worth noting that when you take part in a shamanic ceremony, the setting is not controlled to the same extent as it would be in clinical studies.
What are the Side-Effects of Ayahuasca?
The most common side-effects of taking ayahuasca are intense vomiting, diarrhoea and sweating. In shamanic circles, this is known as ‘la purga’ (the purge) and is believed to be the body’s way of releasing negative influences from your life. It is a very important part of the ayahuasca ceremony and sometimes, shamans will even supply visitors with liquid tobacco to drink, to induce la purga.
Is Ayahuasca Dangerous?
Ayahuasca can be a dangerous drug, especially when it is not administered correctly. When deciding to have an ayahuasca experience, it is important to choose an experienced shaman or curandero who can guide participants through the trip and also monitor individuals for safety. In some retreats, there will be medical staff present, in case of emergencies.
Taking ayahuasca leads to a temporary increase in heart rate and blood pressure which can be dangerous. There have been deaths following the ingestion of ayahuasca tea, largely assumed to be related to undiagnosed heart conditions, incompatibility with other drugs or the use of substances such as nicotine and alcohol. Therefore, many people believe that it is important to prepare for your ceremony under the strict guidance of your shaman.
If you have been diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder, such as schizophrenia, you should not take ayahuasca as it could push you into a manic episode.
Choosing to take ayahuasca is a personal choice and it is important to note that shamans are not regulated. If you are considering partaking in a ceremony, be very careful when choosing a curandero. There have been stories of shamans taking advantage of women who are having an ayahuasca trip.
In some of the most well-known areas for ayahuasca taking, there are ‘brujos’ (sorcerers) who pretend to be shamans and encourage tourists to drink the shamanic vine in their presence. This is believed to be an attempt to steal the energy of the tourist, which it is believed everybody has a limited amount of.
Preparing for an Ayahuasca Ceremony in Peru
Many curanderos will advise participants to follow a strict ayahuasca diet in the days or weeks before the ceremony. These dietary guidelines have been developed by the indigenous people who have used this medicine for thousands of years.
Suggested diets will often last for around 2 weeks prior to your first ceremony and another 2 weeks after the ceremony. Whilst the dietary advice might vary depending on the views of your shaman or curandero, many advise avoiding spicy food, red meat, salt, caffeine, alcohol or oil. Many will also insist on sexual abstinence (including masturbation) as well as avoidance of recreational drugs.
Travellers who we spoke to told us that it is very important that you follow any advice given by your shaman about getting your body and mind ready for the ayahuasca ceremony.
What Happens in a Peruvian Ayahuasca Ceremony?
Usually, the ayahuasca ceremonies occur at night. Participants will often sit in a circle, with the curandero or shaman in the middle. The ceremony will open with a prayer which requests protection for all of those taking part.
The ayahuasca tea is then distributed around the circle for consumption. There will be a bucket next to each person for purging. The shaman will then begin to sing ‘ikaro’ which is a type of chant used to attract healing spirits.
The ayahuasca usually takes around 30 minutes to start taking effect and when it does, it is very common for participants to vomit. The ceremony will usually have a soundtrack, whether this comes from the shaman singing or playing the drums. Sometimes the curandero may blow tobacco smoke or incense around the room to stimulate the participant’s sense of smell.
As well as the shaman who leads the proceedings, there may be other assistants and medical professionals present. This serves two purposes, both to keep the participants safe and to assist them with their basic needs whilst riding the ayahuasca trip. An example of the latter includes using the toilet.
What is an Ayahuasca Trip Like?
Please note, the following is one backpacker’s personal story. South America Backpacker Magazine does not endorse drug-taking of any kind.
The Native Community and Meeting the Shaman
I shot up out of my sleeping bag, waking to the early morning jungle as two small, olive-brown faces stared at me. It appeared the local kids had found us and were intrigued by everything, from our plastic sleeping huts to our shiny gas cookers. Us Gringos had woken to another world but so had these kids… Here were four strange, tall, white men sleeping in their jungle.
Myself, two Americans, Scott and Monty, and a French-Canadian, Pedro were staying in a remote native community along a wide river, deep in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon. We were here to document the shamanic culture of the native Machiguenga people and in particular, to learn about the powerful and mysterious plant medicine, Ayahuasca.
The local kids spoke Machiguenga but we were able to communicate in Spanish. We showed them our things and talked to them about their daily lives in the jungle within such an isolated community. We were a long way from Cusco and what we called normal life!
We told the children we were here to find the community Shaman and asked if they could take us to him. The kids jumped up and lead us into the rainforest, eager to spend more time with the foreigners from distant lands.
We ran down a narrow trail through the cool jungle. Vines and ancient trees surrounded us as we jumped logs and dodged trails of marching ants carrying carefully cut up leaves for their nest. Then a clearing appeared ahead and we approached a small hut on stilts with a thatched palm roof. Just as we walked up to it, an old man emerged from the forest staring at us, and a suspicious expression on his face and a machete in his hand.
We waved and greeted him with a handshake which relaxed his machete grip.
He was a man of around sixty-five years old with a weathered face and lean body. Wrinkles stretched around his mouth and crows-feet spread from the corners of his eyes. He maintained a reserved personality and was frankly not sure what we were doing on his property. We had found our magic man.
We talked briefly, asking if it was possible to partake in a ceremony of Ayahuasca, to which he replied positively, “Sure, tomorrow”. Smiles appeared across everyone’s faces as we all relaxed and the excitement grew. He added, “You can come with me to harvest the plants tomorrow morning”.
Preparing the Sacred Brew
At 7:30 am, our Shaman arrived at our shelter and took us into the jungle where we walked a trail for an hour to the selected spot. We twisted along an earth camino, bordered with beautiful, diverse plant species and bright butterflies that cruised above the understory in search of flowers. Radically-coloured caterpillars with bright white hairy spines rhythmically pulsed their bodies along branches.
We stopped suddenly, the Shaman had spotted it. It was a vine as thick as a thumb which extended from the forest floor into the canopy. He had found the Sacred Plant of Vision, the Ayahuasca vine. With one swing, he hacked it down with his machete and pulled it out of the treetops. It had a slightly coarse texture and was cylindrical, with slight twists along its length.
We snapped it into pieces and placed it in a plastic bag before continuing into the forest to examine a group of very standard-looking ’green plants’. The Shaman grabbed the leaves and examined their veins before cutting handfuls of them. The leaf had the typical teardrop shape with veins extending from the center and a slender stem. This was chacruna, the other ingredient required for the brew.
Back at the Shaman’s property, we had the cauldron on the fire boiling away as we all sat and smashed the shamanic vine apart with stones, then placed the fragments in the pot.
The ayahuasca vine contains a red and green oily wood that oozes out when crushed and cooked. This is the Alkaloid that contributes to the full-body purging of the drinker. However, it is the chacruna that contains DMT, a powerful psychoactive compound that reacts synergistically with the vine, creating an intense hallucinogenic experience.
The broth boiled away for six hours until it was reduced down to a concentrated brown tonic, free of particulate matter. It was ready and so were we.
The Ayahuasca Ceremony
Night had fallen as we sat on the wooden floor of our rainforest shelter. Monty was in meditation to my left, Scott was smoking Mopacho cigarettes and Pedro was in mental preparation to the right. A candle flickered in the center of the room and tobacco smoke drifted slowly past us.
The Shaman arrived and sat quietly next to us, placing a small metal pot next to the candle. He told us his people had been using this plant medicine for six thousand years. This was to increase their hunters’ vision and stamina as well as to cure all kinds of various sicknesses of the body, mind and spirit.
He told us he was three years old when his grandfather gave him his first drink of the ayahuasca brew, during a family ceremony where the children, parents and grandparents would take it together.
The Shaman slowly scooped a cup of Ayahuasca out of the pot with a coconut shell and passed it to me. I took it with two hands, thanked him and drank it down quickly.
The first sip hit me in the back of the tongue with an acrid, bitter taste that felt like it burnt. It was probably the worst drink I had ever had and tasted, unlike anything I had ever tried before.
I took another cup after we had all finished our first and sat back in meditation on the floor in total relaxation. We asked the Shaman if there was any advice he could give us for our journeys tonight. He paused for ten seconds then looked at us and said, “mirar despacio”. “Look slowly”. He then blew out the candle and left us in the darkness.
Out of Reality and Into the Mind
After twenty minutes, I noticed flashes of light that streaked across the jungle night sky. There were bright blue and white beams that turned at geometric angles like artificial fireflies. An unearthly drone started ringing from all around and I started to sway as a drunk feeling took over my entire body.
I tried to walk across the deck but couldn’t, it took my utmost concentration just to place one foot in front of the other. It was a bit like I had just downed a whole bottle of Vodka.
A jaguar materialized, standing in the jungle next to our shelter and staring into me with its bright yellow eyes. It then quickly transformed into a native man who continued to watch me. The rainforest around me also began to change as I looked into its vegetation. Stonework of human origin, vine-smothered pyramids and ruins appeared all around us. It was clear my world was very quickly changing.
I returned to my place on the floor and slipped into a powerfully vivid sub-sleep. Flashes of memory slammed into my minds’ eye too fast for me to understand. My body shivered uncontrollably and my heart pounded as the tonic took full effect.
Suddenly, I was shot back into my distant past. I saw myself in the third person as a four-year-old, playing in my hometown in the countryside. My family and friends were with me as we swam in the local lake from my childhood and enjoyed life. My emotions were real and I could feel everything from that time twenty years ago. An overwhelming sense of gratitude hit me as I realised how incredibly lucky my life has been.
Then I gasped and I was back in the Amazon with the Shaman who was singing. He flapped a feather fan while he blew tobacco smoke over my head to repel the dangerous spirits. My mind fell back into the vision and all of a sudden, I was studying myself as if through an out-of-body experience.
I was eighteen years old and the vision showed me in different social situations. All of my egotistical characteristics dominated this time in my life when coolness was paramount. It showed all my idiosyncrasies and weaknesses in a kind of intimate movie where I was the lead actor.
But suddenly I returned to the real world. I was awake again but something was wrong. Then my whole body lurched to the side and I purged everything out of my stomach onto the deck.
The Shaman continued to sing and blew more smoke over my body. He then took a swig from a small bottle and sprayed it out over my hair. It smelt of sweet herbs and had a calming effect. But it wasn’t over, not for many hours.
The Shaman sang louder, triggering more hallucinations which warped my real world into an abstract dreamscape. Dogs and human figures roamed around me silently as if studying my presence and my progress through the ceremony. A beautiful woman appeared by my side and passed me another cup of Ayahuasca. We shared it before my mind catapulted back again into my memories.
This time it involved an ex-partner and all the emotional volatility after a breakup. I was able to enter the mind of the other person and feel all the pain and angst they felt at that time in all its rawness as if I had tapped directly into my conscience.
But as dark as it got exploring my subconscious, I began to close it up and return to the light. After twelve hours, the warmth of the jungle night air returned and I woke on the floor of the shelter. The Shaman sat silently in meditation and the last thing I remember hearing in my head before collapsing into exhaustion was, “Welcome back”.
Realising the Potential Shamanic Medicines
This experience opened my mind to memories I thought I had lost long ago and reinforced a renewed sense of gratitude for my life. It was a frightening, powerful and ultimately profound experience and one that will be burnt into the deep recesses of my memories forever. It remains one of the most important life decisions I have ever made.
The appeal of partaking in a ceremony involving a mysterious and powerful hallucinogenic plant in the Amazon is bringing more and more Gringos into these jungle areas. Such activity is also helping to preserve the shamanism culture in the Madre de Dios area, as well as bringing income into the communities.
In my opinion, this drug has huge potential to help many people and professionals in the west are finding ayahuasca to be an incredibly promising treatment for addictions, personal issues and deep-seated emotional problems. After all, it has been effectively used by the Amazonian and Andean people for up to ten thousand years as the ultimate medicinal therapy.
Written and co-photographed by Callam Reynolds. Thanks to the expedition crew: Scott Lipe, Scott Montgomery, Pierre-Alexandre Duchaine and the Machiguenga people of Shipetiari.
About the Writer: Callam Reynolds is an Australian travel writer exploring Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. Feel free to contact him for more information or to discuss his writing projects: [email protected]
Should I Take Ayahuasca in Peru?
Unlike climbing the stairs to Machu Picchu or trekking Rainbow Mountain, ayahuasca should not be viewed as a tourist ‘must-do’ activity in Peru. Taking ayahuasca can be life-altering and the drug can come with very powerful side-effects.
Many retreats and shamans will refuse ayahuasca treatment to what they deem to be ‘psychedelic tourists’ and instead, you will have to demonstrate why you want to try the plant medicine. Many people take ayahuasca as a way of dealing with past trauma or mental health issues (e.g. depression), whereas others are looking for guidance before taking a new direction in life.
A note from Melanie Swan; Experienced Therapist and Medicine Woman
Whilst Ayahuasca can sometimes be helpful to awaken us to different aspects of ourselves when used as part of a longer-term apprenticeship with an experienced Shaman, some people are turning to it as a ‘quick fix’ for emotional issues and the desire to have a ‘spiritual experience’.
This is a very potent plant medicine and a lot of preparation and aftercare are required for it to be a safe and helpful healing journey. I have seen a fair amount of travelers really struggling as a result of an Ayahuasca ‘trip’. There’s a tendency to become addicted to the experience, with travelers lost as to how to access their inner selves without taking drugs again.
I want to be clear that we CAN access these states without taking anything. Finally, as in all areas of life, there are lots of unscrupulous people out there running the ceremonies just for the cash, without knowing what they’re doing.
If you need any help or advice following an Ayahuasca experience, you can contact me through my website and I’ll point you in the direction of getting some suitable support.
Is ayahuasca legal in Peru?
Ayahuasca is legal in Peru when taken as part of a spiritual ceremony.
How long does an ayahuasca trip last?
Generally, an ayahuasca trip lasts anywhere between 2-14 hours. However, the average for most people is between 4-6 hours.
How much does an ayahuasca ceremony/retreat in Peru cost?
Prices for ayahuasca ceremonies and retreats in Peru vary hugely. A rough ballpark figure is to budget anywhere from $50 – $255 USD per day. However, this varies depending on the overall length of the retreat, what is included and the number of staff present.
Some travellers recommend spending a bit more for safety and peace of mind. For example, if your retreat has not only shamans but also doctors and psychologists, it is likely to be more expensive.
What else happens at an ayahuasca retreat?
As well as the ayahuasca ceremonies, retreats will usually include accommodation, food, other mindfulness activities (such as meditation or yoga), potentially other plant medicines (such as San Pedro) and additional extras such as visits to local villages, hikes and the opportunity to explore the local area.
You are not recommended to use electronics or busy yourself at the retreats. There may sometimes be a library of drawing materials but it is usually advised that you allow yourself space and free time.
What is the food like at an ayahuasca retreat?
This will often depend on the specific retreat you attend. However, usually, you will only be allowed to drink water or herbal tea and the food supplied will often be plant-based.
How big are the groups at a retreat?
This varies depending on the retreat or shaman that you choose for your ayahuasca experience. However, generally, the more expensive the retreat/ceremony, the smaller the group and the more intimate the experience. The average group size tends to be between 5-20 people.
Where to do Ayahuasca in Peru
The most popular place to take ayahuasca in Peru is the Amazon jungle. This is where the plants needed for the brew naturally grow and it has been consumed in these regions for millennia. Tarapoto, Iquitos and Puerto Maldonado are all popular places to do ayahuasca in Peru.
Aside from the jungle, the Andes is also a popular choice, with many ceremonies taking place in Cusco and the areas in and around the Sacred Valley. If you are planning on taking ayahuasca in a high-altitude city, make sure you allow time to acclimatise and speak to your shaman about any altitude sickness medication you may be taking.
Choosing an Ayahuasca Retreat in Peru
If you are thinking of partaking in an Ayahuasca ceremony or plan on experimenting with other shamanic medicines such as San Pedro, here is some valuable advice:
- Research different shamans and curanderos (medicine men/women). Ask around, read reviews on Tripadvisor and talk to other people about how their experience was with a particular shaman. The South America Backpacker Facebook Community is a great place to get recommendations from travellers just like you!
- Do read about other people’s experiences but try to forget about what you’ve read on your retreat. Don’t assume you’ll have the same experience as anybody else.
- Choose a location you feel comfortable in. Whether it’s in a city like Cusco or deep within the Amazon jungle, the place needs to feel right if you are to put yourself through up to fourteen hours of ceremony. Remember that you will be extremely vulnerable, mentally and physically.
- Have a reason to do the drug, whether it is to overcome personal problems, learn more about yourself or gain guidance in life. It’s very important to have a goal.
- Be wary of choosing a shaman you can’t communicate with. As this plant medicine can have serious effects, you need to make sure that you understand all of the dietary requirements and advice. You need to prepare both your body and mind.
- Take it seriously. Partaking in an ayahuasca ceremony is an extremely intense experience. Don’t take it lightly.