An ancient indigenous healing remedy, Ayahuasca is a mixture of Amazonian plants which culminate in the release of DMT, a powerful hallucinogenic compound. By themselves, these components have no effect on the human brain. But when the crucial Ayahuasca root is added to the mix, which contains special alkaloids that act as a catalyst, the full psychedelic effects of DMT are unleashed.
How it was discovered
How this combination of plants was discovered many thousands of years ago before the advent of modern medicine remains a mystery. Indigenous folklore tells of forest spirits beckoning ancient tribesman into discovering the psychedelic cocktail
However, a far more plausible explanation is pure trial and error. Food in the Amazon is scarce so early human inhabitants ate whatever they could to survive. Most likely someone, someone in the Amazon tried eating these two plants together, experienced profound hallucinations and reported back their tribe. Word about the mystical concoction then got around, eventually becoming a cornerstone of spiritual beliefs across vast sections of the world’s largest rain forest. At least that’s my theory, anyway.
Ayahuasca pre-dates European colonialism by untold generations. Indigenous people from all corners of the Amazon were using the concoction as a traditional medicine and for spiritual guidance long before written records were kept.
These days, ayahuasca is an ultra-hip tourist attraction for new age hippies. Hordes of alternative types fly to South America to cleanse their soul and experience spiritual healing from an exotic yet vastly misunderstood natural remedy.
Professionally organised and outrageously expensive ayahuasca healing ceremonies offer to cure westerners from anything from cancer to a broken heart, made popular by countless anecdotes of life changing experiences during multi-day retreats.
As a skeptic, I suspect ayahuasca’s healing qualities come down to the power of placebo. If you go into a ceremony truly believing it will change your life, then in some way it probably will. The scientifically proven physical benefits of ayahuasca are debatable at best.
As part of the package, most westerners insist on hiring an “authentic” shaman to provide healing ceremonies. This begs the question, what exactly is an authentic shaman? Wikipedia’s definition is someone who “has access and influence to a spiritual world, enters a trance like state during ritual and practices divination and healing”.
In reality, few of these qualities can be accurately measured. I used to live in the same building as a shaman in La Paz, your typical Argentinian hippy type with a scraggly beard and yellow teeth. Many would scoff and label him a fraud, even though he had studied shamanism for over five years. Tourists want their shaman to conform to the romantic notion of an exotic tribesman from deep in the Amazon jungle, largely uninfluenced by the modern world.
Ayahuasca is legal in Bolivia, even available at the La Paz Witches’ Market, because it is considered an integral part of indigenous culture. Those wishing to imbibe should take caution, however, as the drug renders the user virtually paralytic, likely to vomit or even soil themselves.
Despite the extreme reaction, there has only been one death linked to ayahuasca in recent times. In 2012, an American teenager flew to Peru to take part in a healing ceremony and was later found dead in his cabin. His shaman reportedly panicked, buried his body and told police he left the retreat voluntarily.
There have also been reports of theft, assault and even rape of those under the influence of ayahuasca by dubious shamans. That said, travelers considering an ayahuasca retreat should definitely do their research.
On a more positive note, ayahuasca has recently been used to help rehabilitate prisoners in Brazil. After numerous sessions, inmates say they feel more remorse for their crimes and a greater desire to contribute positively towards society upon their release.
First hand experience
A friend of a friend sent me his personal experience with Ayahuasca in the Madidi National Park near Rurrenabeque.
Some years ago while in Rurrenabeque I had the urge to sign up for an Ayahuasca ceremony. I asked my guide from my previous tour for a recommendation and he directed me towards a travel agency called Ayahuasca Dreams off the main tourist street. They quoted me $50 for a two day camping trip in Madidi National Park which seemed reasonable enough. My travel mates weren’t that interested so I decided to do it solo.
After a day of fasting from food and water (to cleanse the body) we trekked off into the jungle towards our camp. My Shaman was a pot bellied, coca leaf chewing indigenous man named Miguel who wore football shorts and a dirty Manchester United T-shirt. I was kind of glad he didn’t try to put on a show by wearing a loincloth and feathered hat.
After a couple of painful hours walking through sweltering heat without drinking any water we arrived at a clearing in the forest. The Shaman explained that this was his favourite spot as there were many spirits in the area. Both of us spoke pretty bad Spanish (he mostly spoke his indigenous language) so communication was a little difficult. After relaxing in the wilderness for some time night began to fall so it was time to begin the ceremony. He poured a stagnant looking green liquid out of a plastic water bottle into a wooden cup and began chanting. I drank the Ayahuasca and can honestly say it was the most vile thing I’ve ever tasted. The urge the vomit was overwhelming but I somehow kept it down as he circled around me, chanting and blowing cigarette smoke in my face. I was then instructed to lie down on a hammock and concentrate on the spirit world. After an hour or so passed without any effect, I began to wonder if I’d been cheated out of 50 bucks.
Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I noticed a glowing orb about the size of a soccer ball slowly circling around my campsite. I didn’t feel like I was tripping so the premonition took me by surprise. I debated in my mind what this thing was because everything felt too real to be a hallucination. I finally shone my torch on it to try and find out what was going on. The orb of light exploded into a million tiny pieces that scattered across the forest, into the sky above and slowly faded away, leaving me in complete darkness. At that moment I felt a sensation of indescribable sorrow. It was as if everyone I had ever known was dead and I would never walk the earth again. I was alone and scared, trapped in a joyless parallel dimension. Reality and consciousness had slipped away. I felt destined to remain in this miserable, pitch black universe for eternity.
Some time later, it could have been seconds or hours, the orb returned and I felt tremendously relieved and at peace once again. It then began a psychic communication with me, transmitting messages directly to my brain rather than using words or language. It told me that it was a spirit of the forest and had lived there for millions of years. It would keep me safe and we would go on a journey together through another dimension. The orb then dematerialised and I felt strangely sober again.
As I lay back in my hammock, processing what had just happened, I began what can only be described as Astral Travel. I floated upward through the jungle canopy and into the sky above. I travelled through patterns of sacred geometry infused with animals like snakes and scorpions. I soared past stars and planets and moons, discovering secrets of the universe which made complete sense at the time, but in real world make none. At some point in the trip I vomited and the Shaman ran over to check I was okay. The intense hallucinations continued for at least several hours. Finally they faded away and I gathered the strength the drag myself to my tent and sleep.