* Please note this is one backpackers personal story only. South America Backpacker Magazine does not recommend drug taking of any kind in South America. Backpackers must be extremely careful, as psychological problems and even deaths have occurred from Ayahuasca ceremonies in the past. See at the bottom of this article for more info.
The native community and meeting the Shaman
I shot up out of my sleeping bag as two small, olive brown faces stared at me as I woke to the early morning jungle. It appeared the local kids had found us and were intrigued with everything from our plastic sleeping huts to our shiny gas cookers. Us Gringos had woken to another world but so had these kids, 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, in particular to learn about the powerful and mysterious plant medicine, Ayahuasca.
Enroute via Longboat to Shipetiari down the Rio Madre de Dios in the Peruvian Amazon
The local kids spoke Machiguenga but we could communicate in Spanish so we showed them our things and talked to them about their daily lives in the jungle in such an isolated community. We were a long way from Cusco and what we called normal life.
We told them 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 these 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.
Two of the many curious native kids of Shipetriari
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 with a machete in his hand and a suspicious expression on his face. We waved and greeted him with a handshake which relaxed his machete grip.
He was a man of around sixty five years 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, 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 7:30am, our Shaman arrived at our shelter and took us into the jungle up from his property 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.
But then we stopped suddenly, the Shaman had spotted it, a thin 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.
The Chakruna plant
With one swing he hacked it down with his machete and pulled it out of the tree tops. It had a slightly coarse texture to the bark 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 Chakruna, the other ingredient required for the brew.
Back at the Shaman’s property, we had a cauldron on the fire boiling away as we all sat and smashed the Ayahuasca vine apart with stones, then placed the fragments in the pot. The vine contained red and green oily wood that oozed out when crushed and cooked, this is the Alkaloid that contributes to the full-body purging of the drinker. But it is the Chakruna 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.
Silverio the Machiguenga Shaman cooking the Ayahuasca brew
The Ayahuasca Ceremony
Night had fallen as we sat on the wooden floor of our rainforest shelter, Monty in meditation to my left, Scott smoking Mopacho cigarettes and Pedro in mental preparation to the right. A candle flickered in the center and tobacco smoke drifted slowly across the room.
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, to increase their hunters’ vision and stamina as well as to cure all kinds of sicknesses of the body, mind and spirit. He told us he was three years old when his grandfather gave him his first dose during a family ceremony where the children, parents and grandparents would all 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. 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”. “See slowly”, and then he blew out the candle and left us in the darkness.
Scott (left) and Monty (right) waiting for the tonic to take effect
Out of reality and into the mind
After twenty minutes I noticed flashes of light that streaked across the jungle night, 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, each step took utmost concentration just to place one foot in front of the other, like I had just downed a whole bottle of Vodka. A Jaguar materialized, standing in the jungle next to our shelter staring into me with its bright yellow eyes but then quickly transformed into a native man who continued to watch me. The rainforest around me 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 affect. Then suddenly I was shot back into my distant past, I saw myself in third-person as four years old and playing in my hometown in the countryside. My family and friends were with me as we swam and enjoyed life down at my childhood lake, emotions were real and I could feel everything from that time twenty years ago. An overwhelming sense of gratefulness hit me as I felt how incredibly lucky my life has been.
Then I gasped and I was back in the Amazon with the Shaman who was singing and flapping a feather fan while he blew tobacco smoke over my head to repel the dangerous spirits. My mind fell back into vision and all of a sudden I was studying myself as if through an out-of-body experience. I was eighteen years old and it showed me in various different social situations and all my egotistical characteristics that dominated in a time in 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 blow more smoke over my body then he 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 next to me who held another cup of Ayahuasca to me, 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 could 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”.
The worldwide potential of Shamanic medicines
This experience has opened my mind to memories I thought I had lost long ago and has reinforced a sense of gratefulness for life. It was a frightening, powerful and ultimately profound experience, one that will be burnt into the deep recesses of my memories forever and remains one of the most important life decisions I have ever made.
The lure of partaking in a ceremony of a mysterious and powerful hallucinogenic plant in the Amazon jungle is bringing more and more Gringos into these areas. Such activity is also helping to preserve the shamanism culture in the Madre de Dios area as well as bringing some income to the communities.
It has huge potential to help many people and professionals in the west are finding it incredibly promising in the treatment of addictions, personal issues and deep-seeded emotional problems throughout the world. After all it has been effective for Amazonian and Andean people for up to ten thousand years as the ultimate in medicinal therapy.
If you too are thinking of partaking in a ceremony of Ayahuasca or other Shamanic medicines, here is some valuable advice from those already experienced, including myself:
- Research different Shamans and Curanderos (Medicine men/women) by asking around, look online and talk to other people about how their experience was with a particular Shaman.
- Choose a location you feel comfortable in. Whether it’s in a city like Cusco or deep in the Amazon jungle, it needs to feel right if you are to put yourself through up to fourteen hours of ceremony, where you will be extremely vulnerable, mentally and physically.
- Have a reason to do it. It could be to overcome personal problems, to learn more about yourself or to gain guidance in life. It’s very important to have a goal.
Callam Reynolds – the author
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@example.com.
South America Backpacker Disclaimer:
South America Backpacker does not recommend backpackers try Ayahuasca in South America. Ayahuasca is an extremely powerful Hallucinogenic. Many travelers embark upon a ceremony without proper research and without being fully aware of the dangers of Ayahuasca to someone who has never done it before. We strongly warn against regarding this as just another ‘travel experience’ like climbing Machu Picchu or visiting the salt flats of Bolivia. THIS IS A SERIOUS DRUG.
A note from Melanie Swan; Experienced Therapist, Medicine Woman and Backpacker Ambassador
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 after care are required in order 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 my website and I’ll point you in the direction of getting some suitable support.