The Lure of Ayahuasca – The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

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Written By Hossein Soltani

There was a time when if you wanted to get your well-deserved moment of spiritual realisation, you would pretty much be packing your bags, getting a load of shots and going down to some rainforest in Peru, then searching for the nearest shaman to serve you up with a nice mug of Ayahuasca.

Things change though, and these days, the psychedelic juice can be found on the streets of London, New York and Berlin without the need to trek halfway across the Andes. As with most ‘experiences’ using natural ‘substances’ from South America, Ayahuasca has gone from being a way of life for rainforest people, to discovered by the odd tourist, on to being a slightly underground sub-culture-type movement, to trendy and cool, to totally mainstream. And when you learn that people like Sting, Paul Simon, some guy out of Fleet Foxes, some actress from Gossip Girl and the lesbian singer Tori Amos count themselves as fans of the liquid…. Well, yeah, there’s no hidden, underground Ayahuasca scene anymore guys…. It’s even featured in Vice Magazine every week now.

That said, it is still brewed and administered by shamans (or people who think/say they are shamans), so it’s not like you can pop down to the Portobello Rad, hang about for five minutes looking shady, and wait for some dirty little sad act to pass you a wrap whose contents must be considered questionable at best, in exchange for a hard-earned fifty. No, Ayahuasca is a different kind of arrangement. So let’s get down to it.

The Beginnings

Ayahuasca has for a long time been regarded by traditional shamans in Peru as having medicinal healing qualities, it was discovered by Christian missionaries in the 16th century being used by indigenous South Americans. They reportedly described it as the work of the devil. It wasn’t until the 20th century that Ayahuasca became more widely known across the world, as revered American novelist William S. Burroughs actively sought out the herbal liquid, convinced that it would cure his on-going addiction to heroin, something from which he never recovered up until the time of his death in 1997.

Predictably, a number of religious movements have emerged base on Ayahuasca use, and many of these combine elements of Christianity with animistic and shamanistic aspects. In essence combining the idea that we are all immortal spirits simply passing through vessels (human bodies) on our approach to ultimate fulfilment or a destination unknown. Many of these movements began in South America, but churches devoted to the use of Ayahuasca can be found across the USA and Western Europe to this day.

Some western Ayahuasca enthusiasts have teamed up with South American shamans, choosing to set up spiritual retreats for those seeking the opportunity to escape from the difficulties reality can so often impose upon one’s self. Many of these retreats are still operational across South America, and they attract quite an expansive sub-section of functioning modern day society.

What does it do?

Ayahuasca users have reported experiencing near outer-body experiences during use, while others recall deep psychological disturbances during the “trip”. A single dose can often create effects that last over six hours, and unlike magic mushroom (when drinking a litre of Coke will basically bring you back down to Earth if you’re on a bad one), once you’ve consumed it, you ain’t coming back until it’s done with you.

As with almost all recreational drugs, Ayahuasca is similar in the way that much of what the user experiences during its use will depend on their state of mind beforehand, and the comfort of their surroundings (specifically the people) during. It is widely claimed that the experience is something like taking the globally popular LSD or magic mushrooms, but with a far more intense, spiritual edge that can potentially turn dark very quickly. It’s most certainly a journey, but which route you take on it depends upon a variety of overriding factors.

One of the additions sometimes placed in to the brew is called toé, widely known as the witchcraft plant. It is 100% toxic, and shouldn’t be put anywhere a human’s digestive system, however a recent trend is to add a small amount of the plant to the brew to intensify the light shows and overall experience. It has had varying levels of success, with the uninitiated often completely losing it and going wandering off through the forest alone, convinced the plants and trees are talking to them and telling them how to live their lives, smoking cigarettes which aren’t there, talking to invisible humans and generally acting like they’ve taken 20 pills in the space of a few hours.

Ayahuasca contains DMT, and despite shamans making such claims that it can cure cancer among other medical conditions, or that anybody feeling anxiety, depression or any symptoms of a mental disorder are empowered to be able to face their demons head on and revert back to an equilibrium in their state of mind, there is no scientific evidence to show that consumption of Ayahuasca is of any medical benefit whatsoever.

While it is easy to see how mind altering substances can give users the feeling of immortality, being touched by a higher-being, opening the doors of perception and generally experiencing something tantamount to life-changing, anything with hallucinatory elements will help your mind to believe whatever it wants to – good or bad.

After ingesting the brew, users will usually begin to feel some kind of effect after around 30 minutes, when quite strenuous vomiting usually begins. Shamans view this as being an integral part of the whole experience, as, rather than the body rejecting something it really doesn’t think should be in it, which is the traditionally accepted medical stand point, they see this act as relieving the body of negative emotions and energy, thus preparing the user for the Ayahuasca journey.

Depending on the amount consumed, the trip can last up to six hours, or longer if more is taken, but it is perhaps advisable to exercise caution upon first time use.

Is it Illegal?

In the US and Europe, it most certainly would be. Anything that contains DMT is kind of frowned upon, putting it mildly. But in South America, shamans are able to smuggle the brew through airports with little or no scrutiny. One shaman expressed the fact that South American authorities understand that Ayahuasca is a medicine, and they have no problem with it’s exportation in hand luggage. At Washington Airport, a relatively well-known shaman was arrested for smuggling Ayahuasca in 2013, but subsequently all charges were dropped and he was released from incarceration after a mysterious intervention by a Columbian envoy.

But, despite the widely acknowledged use, police stateside and in Europe have never been known to raid any Ayahuasca parties or gatherings, preferring to focus on drugs whose abuse often has a far wider effect on society. While it is technically illegal, you are unlikely t ever be busted while taking it or carrying it, although smuggling it, or indeed anything really, across a border would be ill-advised.

How much does it Cost?

It’s definitely not cheap. This is how it works. You aren’t really ever likely to be in a position where you would be able to obtain this from anyone other than a shaman who has brewed it themselves, or at least if you did, it would be more likely to be something less than authentic. So you will usually be taking it in the presence of the shaman himself, and whoever else has got involved.

Much of course depends on where and when you have found the shaman to buy it off. If it’s in South America, you will most likely be at a retreat with several others, and a weekend experience (where you get to chant, do a bit of primal screaming, find God or whoever, be sick, shake some leaves, smoke, and generally act weird) will set you back maybe $500-$600. If you want the same, extended experience courtesy of a touring shaman in your own town, it could set you back over $1000 (the additional charges are probably to cover the associated smuggling costs). One ‘sitting’ or session on the Ayahuasca will be about $300, and you and 10 strangers can get right to it. Hopefully none of them will be another Columbine kid in the making.

Should I do it?

Well, here’s the thing; as with any kind of drug, art form or actually any avenue of popular culture, once it gets slightly popular the worst kind of wrong people get involved, looking to jump on the bandwagon, and what went before simply degenerates into something far too diluted to be of much worth – both in terms of purity and eventually, appeal. Examples of this are cocaine, popular music, and conceptual art, well the list is endless really.

So once word got out about the amazing experiences people were getting out of Ayahuasca, it came as no surprise to see a great number of new retreats with fraud shamans coming to spoil the party for everyone else. Word has been rife that a number of South American travellers have found themselves leaving having been spiked, overdosed, beaten up, mugged, raped, and some never go home at all.

Is it a good idea to do it? That question can only be answered with another question: Are you happy with how you perceive the world now? If you are, why bother changing it? If you feel that there must be something more, you’re relatively stable in mind, your body is quite good at handling substances, and you’re with some pals in a rainforest somewhere in deep Peru, why not?

Otherwise, just buy a few 100% pure grams of that stuff they make from cocoa plants for about $10, and see exactly what we mean when we say that popularity and the wrong people getting involved causes the end product to become very much diluted.

There are certainly some good tips for you if you are planning to go and reawaken your inner spirit. Never take Ayahuasca if you are on any kind of medication (this includes anti-depressants, aspirin, and paracetemol), if you have a heart condition or high blood pressure, any kind of liver dysfunction, and if you are a serious abuser of alcohol or drugs.

The next tip is really aimed at ensuring that you remain safe within the sanctuary, retreat or front room that you decide to use to experience the wonders of this magical brew. Shamans will generally have a great reputation among users, on forums and with locals if they are actually to be trusted. Many of the best ones are native to South America, they insist on overseeing the entire process of brewing the Ayahuasca they serve up, and they always ensure they are conservative in their portions to begin with.

Going to one of the knock-off guys because he’s cheaper or speaks better English is probably going to end up as the wrong decision. Be safe. Although negative stories of Atahuasca are few and far between in comparison to the huge numbers travelling to South America to partake in its use, they do exist. Exercise caution, and only once you’re 100% comfortable with who you’re entrusting this experience with, should you go all in let your mind run free. See you on the other side…