Demystifying Ayahuasca: An Expert Guide Through the Ritual

A healer starting a Yage ceremony in La Calera, Cundinamarca department, Colombia.
A healer starting a Yage ceremony in La Calera, Cundinamarca department, Colombia. Eitan Abramovich / AFP / Getty Images

Over the last decade, the Amazonian hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca has swept through the West, becoming famous for affecting powerful (and often lasting) change in people who take it. Eager Western seekers have descended on the Amazon and the high jungle of the Andes, flooding towns like Iquitos and Pucallpa with both ayahuasca tourists and shamans who serve them — along with scam artists and shady practices. 

In the interest of demystifying an entirely over-mystified ritual, here are the best practices for anyone seeking out an authentic and safe experience, as outlined by noted ethnobotanists, anthropologists, and journalists.

Your Shaman and His Brew
"The best practice is pretty straightforward — know your curandero," or shaman, says Wade Davis, a Canadian anthropologist and author who has written over a dozen books on traditional practices, including ayahuasca ceremonies. "Spend some time with him or her before you start taking the powerful psychedelic. Get a sense of whether they're a decent person or a mail-order mystic."

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Davis says you should also ask around about their particular brew. Ayahuasca is the result of a tea made from combining an extract of the woody Banisterios caapi vine with any plant containing the hallucinogen dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. Basically, the DMT creates the journey, and the ingredients in the vine make it possible for your body to metabolize it. These will either be cooked for hours over a wood stove or, less commonly, decanted in a sort of Amazonian cold-brew.

But that's not all that's in your brew. Curanderos may add any of a few hundred different admixtures to create specific physical and psychological effects. Some of these are relatively benign: additions for taste, for anti-inflammatory properties, to cause or remove nausea. But others are powerful and potentially dangerous additions, like datura, which deepens visions by bringing a temporary technicolor madness; or tobacco juice, which is psychedelic but poisonous if not thrown up quickly.

"Concentrations can vary tremendously based on how many ingredients are used," says Davis. And since the boom in ayahuasca tourism, becoming a curandero, with or without any actual training, has come in many communities to mean a good job. This can be unpleasant or dangerous when inexperienced Amazonians brew their own ayahuasca. An incompetent curandero, Davis says, may not know to strip the tannin-rich bark from the ayahuasca vine, creating an acrid brew that can make people violently sick. Or their brew may simply not work. In a sense, the problem for ayahuasca tourists is the same as that for anyone seeking enlightenment through black-market substances: there's no way of knowing for sure what you'll be ingesting, so know your source.

What to Expect
In the tourist towns in the Peruvian Amazon, tour-outfitters will offer ayahuasca with startling casualness — often as an excursion on par with a wildlife tour or fishing trip. Davis finds this trend worrying. "People should know it's not for the faint-hearted," he says. "It's a serious encounter. It shouldn't be, 'Oh, we're in Iquitos, what are we gonna do? Let's take ayahuasca.'"

Davis emphasizes that you'll be incredibly vulnerable on ayahuasca: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. He has drank ayahuasca a dozen times, always in very traditional environments, and though he's a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, accustomed to trekking to distant and dangerous parts of the globe, it still scares him. (He prefers mescaline, which he described as "sort of delightful.") He recalled one experience in a native community where he told some men about how scared he was about taking it. They looked at him like he was crazy.

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"They said, 'Of course it scares you.' A common metaphor is: You have to face down the jaguar. If you read what native people say about taking the ayahuasca, it's something like: You face jaguar woman, and as you suckle at her breast, she throws you off into a pit of vipers. It's a terrifying experience in many ways — you're prostrate before the gates of awe."

Just as important as a good brew and shaman is something more prosaic: a safe and physically comfortable space. Ayahuasca is powerfully sedating, as well as being a purgative, and the effects of vomiting or diarrhea combined with being unable to move can be rather unpleasant. "It's such a powerful thing, and you're putting yourself in such a vulnerable position," says Peter Gorman, an award-winning environmental journalist and author who, as editor of High Times, wrote one of the first mainstream features on ayahuasca. "You need to know that you're somewhere where your needs are being watched after by someone other than the curandero. Who is changing the pants of someone who just pooped themselves? Who is going to make sure if they vomit, they're in a good position so they don't choke?"

So, Gorman says, it's important that a lodge owner and his helpers facilitate. He likes to have one helper on hand for every one or two people in the ceremony. A well-run lodge will have a crew of helpers to "sum up the people [drinking ayahuasca], make sure that people are watched by you and the crew; that someone there to help them to feet; hold them there if they need to vomit; walk them to bathroom; change their clothes if they don't make it to the bathroom on time."

These logistical questions aren't often ones that tourists may think to ask, but they are vitally important to a well-run ceremony. One community I visited near Cusco, for example, had a team of assistants who whisked in to take care of people having difficult experiences; when one woman began wailing just after the ceremony started, they quietly ushered her out for one-on-one attention before she could affect the rest of the group. Everyone I talked to emphasized: these details are important for safety reasons, but also because the safer you are, the deeper you can go and the better experience you can have.

Preparing Your Mind
When it comes to readying your mind, most think there's not much you can do. "I'd say let ayahuasca run the show," says Dennis McKenna, a famous ethnopharmacologist who, with his late brother, the psychedelic pioneer Terrence McKenna, helped launch the serious mainstream study of psychedelics. He suggested going in as open, and with as little expectation, as possible. "Because it is such an individual thing, the way everyone approaches it is up to them. I am in favor of minimal interference from the top down."

For many, the ayahuasca ceremony is as much a religious experience as it is psychological. In the ayahuasca religions, the vine is often seen as a sentient entity itself. One drinks it and is, in a sense, possessed by the plant. To McKenna, who has written a great deal on the evolution of psychedelics, this is no accident. When asked about the explosion of ayahuasca, McKenna paused, then said, "In the middle of an environmental and global crisis, there is a co-evolutionary relationship that we have with these plants. There is a certain intelligence in the biosphere that goes to maintaining a homeostasis that keeps things tolerable for life. And we as a species are challenging that. I think the plants are getting a little more concerned, and they're trying to get our attention." He laughs. "Now how mad does that sound?"

Ayahuasca at Home
McKenna says it doesn't really matter where you drink ayahuasca, as long as basic safety concerns are taken care of. He thinks that ayahuasca knowledge is a piece of human patrimony that has been stewarded for a very long time by native peoples. But he doesn't think they "own" it, or have a monopoly on figuring out ways to use it: it can be repurposed in a variety of contexts. Wherever you are, he says, the plant will speak. 

So if you want to take ayahuasca, should you go to the Amazon at all? McKenna thought it was, if not necessary, than at least a good idea: "indigenous traditions have been stewards for at least a couple thousand years, and they've learned a thing or two. But I'm not sure a traditional setting is better than a psychotherapeutic or neo-shamanic setting. Because it'll manifest in all of them."

Peter Gorman suggests that those without time or resources to make it to South America check out a ceremony in their home country, where visiting curanderos may pass through to minister to small groups. "The convenience is excellent — if you can hook up with one of those, it can certainly be a reasonable introduction. Will it have the jungle? No. But in exchange for the $2,000 for airfare, and not even counting someone's lodge, it might be worth someone's while to find out if this is something they would like to pursue."

Still, Gorman adds, there is something powerful and irreplaceable in the trip to the jungle — something less about the jungle itself than the idea of pilgrimage, which forces the pilgrim to leave their usual reality and enter a foreign place. The act of commitment involved in leaving home and flying around the world; heading downriver toward a jungle lodge on a slow boat, can facilitate a powerful journey long before the seeker presses a cup of ayahuasca to his lips. In the West, he says "you might be driving from your home to go see someone at 3 p.m. in the afternoon, and by 8 p.m. you might be drinking medicine. But you might still have whatever work you were doing in your head. You don't want to be sitting down on your mat holding your vomit bucket wondering: did I turn the coffeepot off?"

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