Discovering the Ayahuasca Experience of the Amazon

One thing that always pops up on the list of “Things To Do” for young and adventurous travelers in South America, is the Ayahuasca ceremony. For those that don’t know what in the hell Ayahuasca is, look no further than Google.
Multiple sources explain how Ayahuasca (pronounced ayawáskha) is a vine that grows in the Amazon and is known for its hallucinogenic affects. The name comes from the Quechua language and means (aya) corpse and (washkha) rope, so basically corpse rope. The name itself isn’t too inviting, and it’s not meant to be. The indigenous peoples of the Amazon know the strong effects of Ayahuasca and treat it with the fear and respect it deserves.

The actual ceremony involves ingesting a drink that is made from the Ayahuasca vine. The hallucinogenic brew is nothing new to the locals of the Amazon region. For centuries, the drink’s ingredients have been cultivated and turned into caapi (one of the indigenous names for the drink).

Its effects have multiple meanings depending on the individual culture and their beliefs. One of the first written accounts of an Ayahuasca ceremony can be found in the book —. The North American explorers documented their trip deep into the Amazon Rainforest, where they came into contact with a tribe that drank Caapi. After earning their trust, the explorers were allowed to join the tribes Ayahuasca ceremony. What ensues is a glimpse into a unique cultural practice that would appear terrifying to some. To keep it brief, it involves fighting off shamans dressed as evil spirits with whips in a Caapi fueled rage.

Whether for better or for  worse, the practice is gaining popularity worldwide through the drug culture and those seeking spiritual direction. They arrive in droves to the Amazon Jungles of Peru, Ecuador, Brazil and Bolivia in search of the mythical brew. Dawning large backpacks and trekking gear, these thrill seekers can be found at every Jungle border town asking around for Ayahuasca in their broken Spanish.

For those just looking for a new thrill, I wouldn’t tell them to not try Ayauasca, but I would ask them to please think deeply before taking the leap. The powerful effects are to be feared and respected. You’re NOT going to buy Ayahuasca off the guy on the street corner and go back to your hotel room to enjoy your night like you would a joint. That being said, it is easy to find shady dudes selling the brew to gullible tourist. DO NOT BUY OR DRINK IT OFF THE STREET. First off, you won’t know what exactly you are getting. Second, Ayahuasca can be deadly if mixed with certain medications or if you have medical complications. Lastly, Ayahuasca is freaking powerful. There is a good chance you will need babysitting.

The true guides, also known as “Shamans,” for Ayahuasca ceremonies have been trained from a young age to harness the strong power of the brew. Your hippy-gringo friend Kenny does not have the knowledge that the true Shamans have. Please keep an eye out for con-artists offering traditional ceremonies. Remain patient and take the time to find a true and respected Shaman in the area you travel to.

All in all Ayahuasca is a drug. It contains Dimethyltryptamine or DMT, which is known as the most powerful hallucinogen on the planet. Ingesting it causes a profound impact on your body and mind.
For those that drink it for spiritual and religious purposes, it has much more meaning. Science aside, after taking part in an Ayahuasca ceremony I can personally say that I didn’t feel like I was on a drug. Rather I did feel a sense of spiritualism that was very freeing.

Our shaman brewing the Ayahuasca

There is an argument for hallucinogens, that they allow our mind and body to connect with nature and ourselves in a way that otherwise would take years of meditation to achieve.

Whether it’s all just new-age mumbo-jumbo or hallucinogens actually do make us connect with the energy of the universe, I will never know. All I am sure of is the experiences I had and how Ayahuasca personally affected me.

My Journey with Ayahuasca

Our search for Ayahuasca began in the Amazon town of Tena, Ecuador. My wife and I had been living in Ecuador for the past year and were making our first trip to the Amazon. After one week of traveling around the the region, I became more curious of the Ayahuasca ceremony that was spoken about during late nights at the international hostels.

I knew what the drink was, but didn’t realize how popular it had become as a tourist industry. I had previously watched the movie Embrace of the Serpent, which gives an artistic account of indigenous cultures of the Amazon and their practices around Caapi. The story follows two white explorers, from different time periods, who have their first experience with the brew after traveling deep into the Amazon. I still had the impression that you had to travel deep into the jungle and convince colorful tribes to let you try the drink.

Our search for a Shaman in the area started where every great modern expedition begins, on Google. What I immediately found was quite disappointing. The rich cultural practice of Ayahuasca had been perverted. No longer was it just a thing of the Amazon, but retreats with “experienced shamans” could be found everywhere in the world. Many of the retreats looked like a bunch blankets laid out in dirty rooms dawned with Buddhist imagery. I pictured backpackers all sitting in a dingy Amsterdam basement talking about connecting with nature. Like many other sacred cultural ceremonies such as the Holi festival, Ayahuasca seemed to have been stolen by new -age westerners in search of anything spiritual.

I don’t blame westerners (like myself) for seeking spiritualism in other cultures, because many times their major religions have failed to connect with their modern thought. But, by warping other cultures practices to the point that they aren’t even recognizable, we have stripped them of any true meaning. Rather there is just a shell left that we fill with our own beliefs and never really discover anything new.

After the initial shock I began to discover some hope for an authentic ceremony amongst the pile of westernized crap on the internet.

We found an organization that held group retreats a few times per year with a respected Shaman. They had an updated website, photos, reviews and a mission statement that made us feel a bit better about their organization. We called them and realized our dates would not match up, but they still gave us the number of the Shaman they hire to do their ceremonies.
When we called we were a little unsure about what to expect. The son of the Shaman answered and said that his father could do the ceremony the following day. Before we comitted, the son asked to meet us near our hostel in Tena. At the time we were having drinks at a bar, so we invited him to meet us there.

Sitting down and chatting with his son eased our concerns. He explained to us what to expect from the ceremony and how to prepare. We berated him with an array of questions, which he answered calmly and put our mind at ease further.
That night before the ceremony we slept in our hostel. We were told to eat a light dinner and nothing for breakfast and to refrain from sex. I understood the no eating part, because Ayahuasca makes you vomit, but I didn’t understand the no sex part.
The next morning, my wife and I were picked up by two men who would drive us to the Shamans retreat, which was located about 1 hour from Tena.

During the drive, we passed through winding roads that headed deeper into the Jungle. One thing that visitors to the Amazon will soon realize is that you are heading into the end of the earth. When you begin going deeper and deeper you will see less developed areas and more rusted remnants of the oil and rubber industry from times passed.

During the final length of the drive, we headed down a dirt road surrounded by thick forest. I peered out the car window and suddenly caught a glimpse of something strange. I still don’t know if it was actually there or I had just made it up in my mind, but on the hillside appeared a large black bird tied to a tree with its wings spread out. It was a eerie sight that set the mood for the rest of the journey.

When we arrived at the end of the dirt road, an older gentlemen in rubber boots with wrinkly and sun-dried skin, met us at our car. This average looking man was our Shaman.

The shaman’s wife, the shaman, me and my wife

We bid adieu to the drivers before they sped-off back to civilization, leaving us with our new Shaman guide. After introducing himself we began our hour and half trek into the jungle. Along the way the Shaman explained to us his history and how he had started from a young age learning to make the Ayahuasca brew.

His native language was the local Kichwa, but he spoke Spanish to us. My wife, who is Ecuadorian, acted as my translator from Spanish to English. So, needless to say, by the time I heard the whole story parts were missing from the overall narrative. Regardless, I received enough valuable information to understand the basic gist of things.

His farm and the retreat where we would experience the Ayahauasca ceremony, was tucked into a dense forest. There was no running water or electricity, so we could completely avoid modern distractions if we chose to. Exploring the farm was an adventure in and of itself. Fruits and other foods were growing everywhere we looked. There were multiple parrots in cages that we got a kick out of talking with. The chickens and dogs seemed to run freely around. It seemed like a place where one could really lose their mind and relax.

To begin the night long ceremony we first did a cleansing ritual which was similar to a sweat lodge. I went in first and was placed naked under a tarp on small wooden seat that straddled a whole in the ground. A large cauldron was taken from the fire and placed in between my legs, so I could straddle it under the tarp. The boiling concoction was full of aromatic leaves we had earlier picked from the jungle. My nostrils were immediately hit with a powerful aroma that made my eyes water. My nose was stuffy at the time and my nasal passages felt like dam breaking as the mucus cleared out of my nose.
After twenty minutes the “sweat tarp” was removed and I came out into the cooler air feeling fresh and cleaned.
Throughout the day, we began brewing the Ayahuasca. We started first by shaving the dirt and bark from the vine until it there was just brownish-red wood left.

For those who have ever seen the Ayahuasca vine it can be identified by the unique design that can be seen when cut in half.
Next we collected 40 leaves each and did small ceremony that involved pointing the leaves towards the sunrise and sunset followed by a few specific turns, before placing them in the cauldron with the roots.

For the next few hours we listened to the Shaman tell stories as the Ayahuasca boiled over the fire.
We received a clearer glimpse into his life as a shaman during this time. From what I had translated to me,  he began making and drinking ayahuasca at a young age when he was chosen to be a shaman. To better become connected with nature and to learn to survive on his own, he journeyed alone deep into the jungle as a child. During this time he had a vision of a lady that helped to guide him home. At one time in his life, he was a very powerful shaman that was both feared and respected. He had also traveled around the world sharing his practices in places like the United States and France.

After listening to him talk for hours the Ayahuasca had nearly finished brewing. We were led to a large dirt floor hut as the sun set over the jungle.

Boiling the brew

Just before entering the structure is when things became strange. We heard thunder echo in the distance as we simultaneously walked through the door of the dark hut. At the far end of the hut sat the shaman on a wooden chair. He was shirtless and wore a feather head dress. Around him hung animal skulls, spears and other cultural decorations.

From the minute he began the ceremony until the very end, it was if the shaman became an entirely other person. He went from the average farmer to the respected and enthusiastic shaman.

My wife and I were placed on different ends of the enclosed hut. Were told to remain separate as “Mother Ayahuasca” as she would remain known, was an experience for each person individually.

As we sat in the pitch black hut the thunder outside began to increase. With each lightning flash the room illuminated casting an eerie glow around the shaman sitting at the far end of the hut.

To add to the string of strange events, a glowing orange light emerged from the doorway of the hut and floated through the air before landing on the shamans head and disappearing. To be honest, I was already nervous enough to soon be trying Ayahuasca that the orange light terrified me. It glowed like the ember of a fire and passed through the 50 foot hut from the door exactly to his head. After the ceremony, I asked my wife if she had also seen the light, in which she admitted that she nearly ran out of the room when it floated by. We asked the Shaman what it was, but he had no explanation either.

The next part of the ceremony was by far the worst part. One of the side effects of Ayahuasca is feeling lethargic. To counter this effect, liquid tobacco is snorted to keep the body awake. I sat in front of the shaman as he poured the liquid tobacco into my palm. I quickly snorted it and was immediately hit with an intense burning sensation. I felt queasy as the tobacco dripped down the back of my throat. I had almost puked before the ceremony even began.

Where the ceremony took place

After waiting for about twenty minutes, the Shaman’s wife and daughter entered with our puke buckets. The worst side effect of Ayahuasca is that it makes you vomit. This is seen as mother Ayahuasca finding the bad energy in your body and cleansing it. We  patently waited as the Shaman treated his daughter with a healing ceremony and then came our time for the Ayahuasca brew.

As I sat in front of the shaman, I was given a gourd cup filled to the top with our brew. I swiftly drank it in one gulp. It tasted bitter, but this seemed mild after the tobacco snorting. After we each drank our portion, which included the Shaman, we sat back into our separate places and waited. We were told that after about 15 minutes, we would purge and vomit into the bucket in front of us, This one then be followed by intense hallucinations.

I first started to shake and my palms became sweaty as I nervously waited for the effects to kick in. I felt the drink starting to take effect as my hands began to tingle as the sensation climbed up my arms. After fifteen minutes and right on time, I purged into the bucket. As I was puking the pitch-black room began to become more colorful. The first moment I realized I was hallucinating was shortly after purging. I stared down and could see that the outline of my hands radiated with all the colors of the rainbow. When I moved them streaks of colors would flow with them. It was like painting with my mind into the pitch black canvas.

Over the next few minutes, the shaman sang and played a strange stick and string instrument that he echoed with his mouth that sent my mind drifting off. To try and explain the full mental effects of what I had experienced is impossible, so I can only explain the visuals even though a lot more had occurred. It felt like fireworks of color and thought were exploding in my brain. I tried to calm my mind and focus on one thing, but it was impossible.

I could create artwork in my mind that even the world’s greatest artist would be jealous of. I thought that if I could only paint in detail what I saw in those moments, then I could make a profound artworks that would stun and amaze.

I then began to have an out of body experience. I didn’t journey far, but I felt as if I was walking around the farm and the hut. It wasn’t a completely clear vision, but more like a dream. I was convinced that I was outside and not where I sat. This lasted only for a short time, but was quite confusing to me.

I had many intense and emotional visions, but by far was the one in which I imagined myself as a child being held by relatives that are deceased. This brought me to state of sobbing. It wasn’t a bad memory or sad, but rather so happy that it brought me to tears.

Before doing Ayahuasca I feared that I would have bad thoughts, but luckily I was protected by a snake in my visions. Every time a negative thought came to me, an intense flash of a snake trying to bite me would appear and I would be distracted from the thought immediately.

My mind continued to explode with visions and thought, when I was suddenly broken out my trance by the sound of my wife puking. She purged, very late which made me a bit nervous. I believe this concern brought me out of the journey I was on. Over the next hour I would drift in and out of visions, but not as intense as they were shortly after vomiting.

My wife had her own unique journey as she sat across the room from me, while I waited for her to finish.

After  most of the effects wore off we were given a cleansing ceremony by the shaman to close the adventure. At night we were placed in separate beds that were secluded in jungle. We were made to sleep alone, so we could begin to drift off and meditate through the remaining Ayahuasca effects. After climbing under the mosquito net and onto the mattress, I laid staring into the darkness. The whole forest echoed with life and nighttime critters. Paranoia got the best of me and I slept with my camping knife in my hand, while I imagined pumas and witches wondering around outside.

The purge buckets

The next morning we woke up for a nice breakfast before trekking back out of the jungle. The shaman and his wife rode back with us to Tena and where we said goodbye as changed people.

To book your Ayahuasca ceremony with the Shaman Jose Licuy contact his son Claudio Licuy at 06-288-8206.  If you are non-Spanish speaker it would be best to have an English guide with you to translate you through the journey.