I want to relate my experience of taking the ancient hallucinogen psychedelic Ayahusaca, which has received media attention lately after a British man died during the ritual.
The preparation, process and post-ritual ceremonies were all eventful to say the least and for that reason I’m going to break the story into two parts.
Day 1 (today’s entry) will explain my first night of taking it aswell as the process leading up to the ritual which includes the purging, fasting and preparing your body and mind to be cleansed before taking the medicine.
Next week covers Day 2 and the after effects (6 weeks on). Hopefully this will clear up any misconception about Ayahuasca and give an insight to those interested in trying it, or curious about what is involved in light of recent media attention.
We begin with the reason why I chose to do it.
The retreat into the jungle sounded interesting as my travels skirted me around the huge Amazon basin. Travellers I bumped into along the trail filled my head with wild visions of what they had heard through the gringo grapevine. None of the people I spoke to directly had actually tried ayahuasca, because by and large it was out of their budget, somewhere in the region of $400-500.
Considering it was only a couple of days experience, it was quite an investment and I wrestled with it in my head for a long while. It was only when my buddy from Amsterdam decided to join me that the momentum carried me over the line, infected by his enthusiasm and curiosity.
When we decided to commit we researched all the resources we could find online about the experience and the medicine.
Ayahuasca is a powerful, psychedelic brew that is sourced from plants in the Amazon rainforest. They are specially selected for the drink and Shamans had decades of expertise, starting as young boys who would use the medicine on animals, then infants before graduating to adults. It has been used for thousands of years by tribes who believe that it can cure a wide variety of conditions including depression, grief over loss of loved ones, addictions and even cancer.
The idea, they believe, is that the medicine opens up a portal into another dimension (or subconscious) which strips away the ego and connects the person to a higher state of being which was said to produce mind altering hallucinogenic experiences that could shift a persons energy.
Obviously, these were very bold claims. I don’t have any of the aforementioned ailments, nor any debilitating pain of illness. My main goal for signing up was a genuine interest and curiosity to experience this altered state which almost sounded unbelievable. The glowing reports I had read almost seemed too lavish in their praise but I decided to suspend my judgement and keep an open mind.
We set about comparing various agencies, poring over traveller experiences on blogs and forums until we finally opted for one outfit, and slotted it into our itinerary. My buddy was only joining me for seven weeks so we had to make tracks to reach the agency which was located in Cusco, Peru.
A lot of companies were quite competitive on price, but we specifically chose Etnikas Shamanic Retreat because of the strength of the reviews. There were of course cheaper options but according to what we read, this is one experience you shouldn’t be cost conscious about, corners being cut by other companies to devastating effect.
We had read horror stories about unqualified Shaman’s accidentally overdosing guests and in some gruesome cases dumping the bodies in the forest.
Also, there were reports of murders and rapes. With my being over 6 foot, and my buddy 6 ft 5, we were fairly confident that if it did kick off we’d be able to hold our own!
I’ve since read a number of articles talking about the illegality of ayahuasca, as if putting it on a par with heroin or cocaine. I’m not disputing the effects of this powerful hallucinogen, but it isn’t banned in South America, and in Peru is an integral part of their culture.
There are a number of outlets that freely advertise and publicise the medicine through agencies and hostels so it is certainly not as taboo or secretive as some media would have you think. The problem lies in those cases where it is misused, or misappropriated. In the wrong hands it can be fatal as on average one or two backpackers each year unfortunately discover.
The package we signed up to was a 3 days/2 nights experience. This included two instances of taking the Ayahuasca. When we went to the offices to make the reservation, the young manager there was very informative and explained the process in a no nonsense way. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect and he made no bones about the fact that this was a very intense, potentially life changing experience.
His tone was serious and it turns out that his father was a Shaman for many years, and the staff had all taken the medicine. He went on to explain in detail the ritual, including the Blessing to Mother Earth (Pacha Mama) and what we would experience during the process.
After filling out a pretty exhaustive questionnaire, accompanied by a staff nurse taking our vital signs (blood pressure, heart rate), the manager explained that we would need to enter a fasting state in the days leading up to the retreat. It was already a Tuesday and we were due to participate in the group event that Friday.
We were given a checklist of what to eat, what not to eat and forbidden acts in the days beforehand, e.g. no sex, no alcohol, no salt, no strenuous activities, no red meat, no chocolate, no soda e.t.c.
Our bodies needed to be in a purer state to accept the medicine, and there would be a purging with volcanic water on Thursday. He had remained somber and serious throughout the conversation and very respectful. I got the feeling very quickly that this wasn’t going to be a group of people sitting around a campfire, smoking joints singing Kumbaya.
Myself and my friend followed the instructions to the letter and when we went to the office on Thursday, we were fairly hungry but felt cleaner – which wasn’t hard considering the heavy drinking sessions in various cities around South America up until that point. The nurse took us to a nearby hostel by taxi.
The reason we had to take a taxi was because she was carrying two 5-gallon tanks (about 20 litres). We sat nervously on the bed of a deserted hostel room, watching as she unscrewed the tops off the tanks and discovered they were full of dirty, luke warm volcanic water.
We were joined by a third member at this stage, and we all watched as she filled our tall glasses with the cloudy water. In her broken English she instructed us to take five full glasses in quick succession, before massaging our stomachs and allowing it to pass through us. She said that over the next 90-120 minutes, we would need to drink anywhere between 15-25 glasses.
You knew you were finished when your faeces had actually turned to water. The impurity of the volcanic water would apparently help to dislodge food in the stomach and further purify our insides.
As we knocked back the drinks, I stole a march on the others desperate to reach the 25 drinks mark as soon as possible. The water was rank and salty, something you might swish in your mouth to remove a mouth ulcer. It was a long, uncomfortable process not helped by our location. The hostel we were assigned for this mission had no toilet door, and because it was beside the hostel room, you could hear a lot of unpleasant splashing.
After the initial 30 minutes, courtesy was thrown out the window as well as any embarrassment felt and the stink was almighty. Eventually, I stopped at around 23 glasses with nothing else coming out of me except water. I was done and sat back content on the hostel bed watching the others struggle with their own drinks. My buddy got to 25 which was the maximum allowed (around 7 1/2 litres). The other person stopped at 15. Clearly his insides were cleaner than my own.
We were told then to take it easy that night. Our evening meal was Chicken Salad and I must confess I was feeling hollowed out but really fresh. Having been to the toilet about a dozen times that day we sat down to our meal around 7pm, eternally grateful that my blinking eye had finally sealed itself for the evening.
When we arrived at the offices next day, we were taken to the outskirts of Cusco. It was a little off road, and we finally reached a hidden point in the forest trail that was very isolated and tranquil. There was a small river nearby and it reminded me of a story I had read days earlier. Some users had tripped out so badly through their experience, that they decided to wander off through a forest unsupervised and had subsequently drowned in a small river where the water level was barely knee height.
My trepidation was growing, and I resolved to opt out if I started to lose control, but in all honesty, I had no idea what to expect, or how I would react. My friend, being from Amsterdam, definitely had the edge over me in this respect, having tried hallucinogens in the past.
We were told by a guide and translator during the drive, that a vow of silence was to be observed over the weekend. This was to save necessary energy for the experience which was said to be very stressful and taxing. When we eventually arrived at the lodge, we quickly found out that they weren’t too strict in this respect but we tried to remain calm in any case, reading or meditating in our beautiful surroundings, respecting others privacy.
We were a group of five. Myself, my friend, the older gentlemen who shared the shitty experience with us, and a young couple from Canada. As soon as we arrived, we were assembled outside on the lawn in front of the shaman who wore a multi coloured robe, and had leathery hard skin, scorched by a lifetime of being outdoors.
We gave a blessing to Pacha Mama, much of which I failed to understand but the ritual was very awe inspiring, with a lot of chants, blessings, potions and oils used. Everything was very serious and respectful but naturally we were all waiting for the main show to start that night, and everyone was apprehensive. No one knew what to expect but the staff had explained the format:
- We would all be in the same room lying down in our sleeping bags, with warm covers over us.
- There were buckets beside each one of us. We would be puking up to get rid of the pain and poison. The ayahuasca itself is slightly toxic and can’t be held in the stomach for more than 30 minutes. The visions arrived soon after, and could last for up to 4 hours. At the point you stop receiving the visions (around 12 or 1am) you can go to bed and sleep.
- The staff were in the corner and would assist you if you needed to get up, use the bathroom, or to rub your back when you puked up.
- This was all done in darkness.
When the ceremony did eventually happen around 8pm, we were all comfortably laying in the designated room. The shaman blessed each of us, and we used a healing oil to rub our bodies for protection. He also went to each of us and blew tobacco smoke over our heads. When it came time to give out the cups of ayahuasca, the shaman smoked some powerful tobacco and blew into each glass. There was a lot of stuff that went over my head, but you couldn’t help but feel awed by the whole thing, and I was pretty nervous.
The shaman insisted that you drink the ayahuasca in one big gulp. It was greeny brown, bitter and foul tasting. The dregs at the bottom of the glass were almost chewy. After that, we all sat in silence in the dark waiting for it to kick in.
I felt really cold sweats after only 15 mins, about to assume the puke position into the bucket but managed to come out of it. My ego didn’t want to be the first to puke with a bit of stigma attached to being ‘the weakest’. Around 30 minutes, the only girl of the group puked first, followed straight after by her boyfriend.
Then we all followed and it gushed out. Horrible filth pouring into the bucket. I lay back down after I had heaved.
This is when the hallucinations were due to begin and despite emptying my stomach moments earlier, I felt pretty strong physically at that point. The manager asked if I wanted another glass and I said yes. In fact, everyone felt well enough to take a second glass. We were closely watched and everything was safe and controlled. The staff encouraged us to drink a lot of water to make the puking easier.
As soon as everyone had puked and settled back down, the shaman began his chanting which was very difficult to describe. It was in another language that I later understood to be Quechuan. It was strangely hypnotic and as he sang, it came out in a throaty sound. The chanting came in waves and lasted for a couple of hours.
In short, I puked up twice. Some people had a terrible time of it.
For example, after about an hour the girl burst out crying uncontrollably and the staff quickly moved across to comfort her (she explained next day in our group discussion that she had seen her deceased mum again. It wasn’t painful at all, but she had so much sadness at losing her, she had to release it).
She later went on to have the flipside of that emotion which was a bit distracting. She was writhing around under her covers, moaning in ecstasy. It was clear to me what she was doing, and I stole a glance to see if anyone else was aware. They were, including the staff who were sitting crouched in the shadows ready to spring into action if someone had taken a sudden downward turn. I guess they had seen all sorts of things over the years and was used to such a reaction.
In fact, they mentioned that it was also common for people to get up and dance, or start singing. I felt neither the desire or energy to leave my warm bubble of comfort.
When I looked across at my buddy, I noticed he was very chilled and giggling throughout. We were actually cracking jokes to each other, and I was kind of a quiet observer looking at the madness around me of people puking.
Specifically, my own visions were fairly tame. At the beginning, I saw a kaleidoscope of colours that I raced through. Other fleeting images included running along a street and seeing faces of strangers floating in the sky, large and round, looking down at me as if I was in a hospital bed. Some of the faces implored me to keep running while others said I should stop and give up. I lost interest in the images in my head and began to scan my surrounding in the dim light.
A skylight above me resembled a door, and I watched it for about fifteen minutes convinced that the door, and whatever was on the other side would open it for me. I was desperate to see what was behind it (the next day when I explained this to the shaman to discover the meaning. He explained that the door signified my heart, and that I was the person on the other side. I needed to open the door and let love into my life.
This was quite a neat little anecdote but I was slightly sceptical given that in one of the questionnaires I had filled out that morning, I mentioned my last breakup experience and it wasn’t too much of a leap for them to make a connection like that with a little homework).
After several hours of my ‘trip’ I got bored and had lost any kind of imagery. I was one of the first to go to bed, and when I woke that morning, I wrote as much of the experience down as I could. I must confess, it had been an anti-climax for me and I envied the woman of the group who had clearly gotten her money’s worth experiencing the lowest of lows and some amazing highs that, much to her boyfriends chagrin, we all enjoyed.
At the end of our group discussion and reading that morning, we were asked if we wanted to take as stronger dose for our second and final night. Most of us agreed that it would help. The woman was still so rattled from her eventful night, she almost pulled out, but her boyfriend convinced her to continue.
I was desperate for something to happen on the second night, and even though we were told exhaustion was a common result of the experience, we felt really fresh and energetic and my buddy and I went hiking around the area taking in the beautiful views and weather.
I wasn’t expecting much from the second night, but when we had all assembled again under our sleeping blankets that night, I couldn’t help but feel nervous for some reason. Even more so than the first night. It was all or nothing and I was hoping that I would experience even a fraction of what the woman had gone through.
As it turned out, the experience I was about to have was more intense and action packed than anyone else’s and even now, six weeks after, my heart still races just thinking about it.
Second Part here.
Further Reading – Belfast Telegraph Article About My Experience (shorter)