It is well done to travel through South America and not hear about Ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is a natural hallucinogenic drink made from boiled plants used by shamans to achieve a higher insight to their spirituality or guidance. Since most backpackers are of the exploring kind, legal and natural drugs have a lot of travellers opening their wallets. I find that most people though, are actually interested in the spiritual guidance part that both San Pedro and Ayahuasca ceremonies are said to offer. I was one of those.
Ayahuasca has originally been used in jungle villages by medicinal leaders or shamans, but as its popularity with the new age-gringos grew, so came the retreats and overpriced and overserviced sessions. In Cusco some of my fellow travellers paid between 300-700 USD for two or three ceremonies, and that’s without accommodation. If you want to stay at a place where they conduct the ceremonies you have to expect to pay around 1000 USD for a week. For a some cups of wood and leaf concoction!
I really wanted to try an Ayahuasca retreat, but there was no way I was going to blow a months budget on one week in a hut. So I kept my eyes open and waited for something to come up. They say that you should let the Ayahuasca find you, and it did. As art of my trip into the jungle, far away from any retreat or mainstream tourism, there it was, a natural medicine man practicing Ayahuasca healing. I couldn’t say no to that. But, they also say to watch out for dodgy guys holding the ceremonies and fake Ayahuasca. This guy seemed pretty legit though. He wasn’t asking a lot of money for it, he wanted to help people. And it wasn’t just going to be one, quick ceremony, we had to join in on the whole preparation process. And so we did, two other girls and myself.
The Ayahuasca vine (photo: theretreatnetwork.com/eyesee.no)
The section of a vine looks just as hippie as the people drinking it (photo: kerryfargo.com)
It started with a three-day diet of clean eating. That meant no red meat, no fish, no sugar, no oils, but vegetables, rice and chicken. The Ayahuasca was going to cleanse our bodies, so this would help the process. While we were preparing our bodies, the Ayahuasca had to be prepared too. We went into the jungle, cut Ayahuasca vine and collected Chakruna leaves. While the Chakruna leaves contain the DMT (hallucinogen), the Ayahuasca vine contains an inhibitor that allows the DMT not to be broken down through the digestion system and therefore reach the brain. The vine then has to be bashed up and layered with the Chakruna leaves in a big pot for three days of continuously boiling.
The boiling pot of Ayahuasca
When the concoction was ready there would be a ceremony every night for three nights. There are several theories about how the three ceremonies work, but as I understood it, the first one is about cleansing the body of old problems you carry with you. The second one is about your spirituality and the third about seeing the world as one.
After waiting for three days, preparing for what was to come, we were pretty excited and probably a little anxious the night of the first ceremony. By nightfall we were more than ready. The medicine man had other plans though, we had to wait. There really isn’t much to do in the jungle after dark so waiting for two-three hours was challenging. I fell asleep. Suddenly there was a lot of rummaging around in the cabin, and I woke up feeling wide-awake at once. It was finally time.
We all sat facing our guide with a vomiting tray in front of us. The medicine man lit some tobacco and blew it around the hut before pouring an orange liquid into a little round, wooden cup. He would then pass a full cup to each one of us. The drink was awful. It tasted like something fermented organic stuff that had been rotting for a few weeks. It was sour and very bitter at the same time. But I managed to get it down. And then we waited. And waited.
After about twenty minutes the girl next to me seemed to be experiencing something but I literally couldn’t feel a thing. After about an hour, she was obviously tripping, running in and out of the cabin to vomit. Me, I still couldn’t feel a thing. Just sat there, waiting for something to appear, just one, little hallucination. But no. Nothing. After a while I could feel my body revolting and I started vomiting. Hard. I don’t think I have ever vomited that much that quickly before. By this time, the other girls both had some kind of mental reaction to the drink, whilst my head was still clear and f-ing empty. Our guide did a round of tobacco blowing on all of us for protection and calming of whatever nerves might be giving us the bad jujus. By now, I was getting pretty tired, so I lied down and fell asleep.
At 5am the medicine man woke us up. It was time for our cleansing bath. I knew we were going to have a bath, but I figured it was like around 9-10 am when the air was warm and I was sweating anyway. But this early?! I was not very happy. In fact I was absolutely crappy about it, I felt like a kid being told to do something you don’t want to do and the only way to protest was to put up a sour face. There was no way around it though if I wanted to continue this process, so the bathing in the river happened (without me washing my hair as instructed).
The rest of the day I felt like shit. It was like I’d been out partying all night and my body was now in absolute hangover mode. I could barely do anything, and I could definitely not eat anything. I was also slightly annoyed that I hadn’t been blessed with the vision like the others, but our guide said that it was common not to have any visions on the first night because the Ayahuasca was busy cleansing your body.
By the second night, my expectations had been lowered. I was told that if I felt like I needed to drink more I should just ask for more. So that was my plan, drink more. We started off like the first night, with waiting, and then it was time again. He smoked the tobacco, cleansed the air, and poured us our drinks. I think it took 10-15 mins before I could tell the girl beside me was hallucinating. So I started getting a bit impatient after that. Surely I would feel something soon too? But no. I let pass, what I think was half an hour before I let the guide know that nothing was happening. He told me to wait. I did. One hour passed and nothing. Well, actually, the vomiting started again.
After making sure I was fine, the guide then finally gave me another cup. Considering I just vomited up the first cup, I didn’t really think a new cup would make a difference as it felt like starting over, but I tried anyway. As the hours passed I just got more and more disappointed. I sat there stone cold sober, not feeling or seeing a thing, whilst the others seemed to feel the effect. So I gave up and let myself fall asleep.
The next morning I was frustrated and so disappointed. After taking the mandatory river bath, I decided to leave. I’d had enough, this was clearly not working and I was getting sick of the jungle. This was supposed to be an enlightening experience, but I just felt left out. And the heat and bug bites were killing me. So filled with more determination and energy than I’d had at any time in the jungle, I walked back to the village, packed my stuff and waited for the morning bus, keen to get out of there. It was strange wanting to leave this place I so badly wanted to get to and was so excited to see, but not achieving what I was hoping for was just too difficult, and I was not hanging around to put a damper on the other girls’s third and final ceremony.
After 11 hours on a bus I arrived back in Cusco. As I hadn’t eaten properly in four-five days, the first thing I did back at the hostel was getting myself a huge hamburger with fries. Not the smartest thing I ever did. The next morning I had fireworks in my stomach and I was pissing out my ass. So I went on a new involuntary diet for the next three days. If nothing else, at least the Ayahuasca cleansing process was still going strong.
Hanging out in Cusco, there were quite a few people talking about doing Ayahuasca or their experience with it. None of them had ever heard about it not giving any effect like it did to me. They had all had the most amazing experience, seeing wonderful visions, getting beautiful guidance on their way. I tried being happy for them… As I told them my story though, one guy said something that stuck with me though, “You just didn’t need it”. And I chose to cling to that. I just didn’t need guidance, simple as that. And to be honest there might be something to it. I have no real problems right now, I’m living the dream, there is nothing to solve. I’m thinking just living in the present and not overthink, is only lesson I need. And I’m learning it a little more every day.