This is the story of how I’ve come to ingest the strongest hallucinogens known and what I’ve learnt from it.
What is Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca (pronounced AYA-wa-ska) is a liquid concoction made by combining two plants native to the Amazon rainforest.
When ingested, this jungle juice gives one hallucinations and visions, and triggers deep philosophical realizations.
In present days, Ayahuasca is still used by many shamans and tribal people around the Amazon River. The native people regularly imbibe it in intricate ceremonies dictated by tribal tradition.
The local people will frown upon calling it a drug – it holds a very different place in their life and does not serve as a recreational drug at all.
The significance of Ayahuasca in local cultures can perhaps be compared to the Bible in western cultures – it is the source of ancient godly wisdom.
On an interesting side note, the active ingredient of Ayahuasca, DMT (Dimethyltryptamine) is present in every human body, but is not released into the bloodstream usually. It is likely to be the cause of “seeing the tunnel” – a commonly reported near-death experience.
My friend in Melbourne
I first heard about Ayahuasca bumping into a friend in Melbourne in 2012.
Despite us being pretty distant friends and not having seen each other for a long time, we quickly sank into a very private and intimate conversation.
I remember feeling like I was floating on a cloud just chatting to him – he seemed to listen with his heart, completely attentive and effortlessly engaged. My previous experiences of hanging out with him never felt this way.
I asked him what allows him to be so completely relaxed and focused on the person he’s speaking with.
In reply, he mentioned the Ayahuasca ceremonies he had done in Peru a few months beforehand and said they caused the biggest transformation in his life.
Me: “Sounds cool. Maybe I should try it out when I go to South America.”
Him: “Sure. But it’s no game. It’s a very strong experience, and it’s not always pleasant. It can feel like you’re dying.”
Me: “Yeah. But you didn’t die. Does anyone die?”
Him: “Not really. It’s pretty safe. Oh and one more thing – you’ll probably throw up drinking it.”
Me: “Throwing up a bit? No problem.”
Miki mentioned having gone to various Ayahuasca ceremonies, and he told me the best ones he’s experienced were in Ayahuasca Wasi (currently renamed “Sacred Valley Tribe“).
Armed with this very basic knowledge, I followed that recommendation and booked a 7-day retreat with them.
This is how, during my first week in Peru in June 2012, I was about to drink Ayahuasca for the first time.
I was picked up from my hostel in Cuzco and taken to Pisaq. This is where the workshop would be held.
When I arrived at the house I was surprised by how incredibly beautiful the location was.
Our hosts – and workshop facilitators – were a married couple called Diego and Milagros. Their house, located in the middle of the Sacred Valley, was quaint and full of natural light.
Around it in every direction stood the towering lush peaks of the Peruvian Andes mountain range.
It was magnificent, awe inspiring and very peaceful.
I instantly felt at home.
Looking around me, I was surprised by the other 20 or so people that were there for the workshop. I had expected everyone to be in their twenties or thirties, but the age range was much wider.
There was an 18-year-old who came with his mother and his aunt. A few other people were a little under 60 years old.
Whereas I was moving to South America, most of these people took a week from their busy lives specifically to be at this retreat. Many travelled far to be there, from Europe and even Australia.
In a sharing session, we all said why we were there. Everyone treated the occasion seriously and shared the issues that were going on in their lives.
I’m quite used to sharing and intimacy, but getting so deep, so quick was amazing and intense. This set the tone for the rest of the week – we would become very close to each other by the end of it.
The schedule of the workshop included 3 days in which we drink, and 4 other days.
On the drinking days, there was an Ayahuasca ceremony, which started around 9pm and finished at around 2am.
On the day after drinking, we would go for trips around the beautiful Sacred Valley area. Then, at 5pm in the afternoon we met and shared our experiences from the night before and what lessons have stayed with us.
As mentioned before, the people around the Sacred Valley respect Ayahuasca immensely. They always refer to it as ‘the medicine’, ‘Mother Ayahuasca’ or even as a Guru that has something to teach you – never as some kind of recreational drug.
Consumption of Ayahuasca is best done only in a ceremony. The purpose of the ceremony is to create a better, safer and more blissful experience for everyone involved.
Having drunk a few times now, I can say a good ceremony determines the quality of the experience with Ayahuasca. The structure of the ceremony and doing with people you trust is very important.
The ceremony was held in a small temple built on the grounds -right next to where the facilitators live.
The temple is round. Everyone sat in a big circle, with their backs to the walls of the room, covered in blankets to keep warm, and clutching to their own private purging bucket.
The ceremony started by burning Palo Santo incense, and some blessings spoken by Diego, the main facilitator, or Shaman for lack of better words.
In turn, everyone came to the front of the room, where they were given some Ayahuasca to drink.
The amount of medicine – as well as the strength of any single batch made – completely determines your experience. Too weak and you may feel very little, too much and it could get too intense, unpleasant and scary.
My turn came. I went to the front of the room, sat in front of Diego and was served with a cup of Ayahuasca. I could ask for a certain amount but ultimately, Diego determined the amount he thought would be right for me.
Nervous, I held the cup in my hand and concentrated on my intention for that night’s journey.
I then turned my head around, made eye contact with everyone and said “Kosai Pah” (“to life” in the local Quechua language) before drinking the gruesome jungle brew.
After everyone finished drinking their serving, the lights were turned off and the room was in complete darkness except for a bit of moonlight coming in from outside.
Ayahuasca makes you very photosensitive, and any light can be a distraction. Also, closing my eyes was when a lot of beautiful visions came – having light would make it harder to focus on that.
Sitting in the room, we were waiting for Ayahuasca to take effect. I usually felt my body turn a little numb. The quality of my thoughts changed to be more philosophical and introspective.
There was certainly a feeling of Ayahuasca “asking” me to surrender. Some people describe that as a tunnel they go through. For me it just felt like waves increasing in intensity. Eventually, I gave in and surrendered.
Then started the visuals– beautiful, colorful shapes and patterns, some intricate enough to have actual characters something resembling a storyline.
Other possible effects to Ayahuasca I felt were some physical shaking of nervous energy, cold sweat, a runny nose and needing to go to the bathroom. They are all explained as letting go of negative energies.
And then, there is the most infamous effect of Ayahuasca – throwing up (or ‘purging’ in Ayahuascero circles).
This happens in different times of the night for different people. The strongest brews actually don’t make you yack, which means even more DMT becomes active in your system. But in most cases, most people do purge.
Despite being memorable, purging is a relatively small part of the night. Sometimes it even feels pretty pleasant – like getting rid of a burden.
We were encouraged to associate whatever we wanted to let go of to the purge – for example shedding our fears.
Music and Nature
As the initial effects of Ayahuasca began, started my favorite part of the ceremony.
Some of the facilitators are very talented musicians, and they set up their instruments next to them pre-ceremony.
They started playing together, with instruments like guitars, harps, flutes and simple drums. They harmonized their voices together to sing beautiful medicine songs (called “Icaros”) in English, Spanish, and other languages.
This was quite a feat considering the complete darkness and the strong psychedelic effect of the Ayahuasca they were under.
The music is a really important part of the ceremonies. The lyrics and music elicit certain emotions and visual patterns which all seem to be in complete harmony.
There is a huge amount of Ayahuasca songs here, if you’re interested. Mind you, they were all recorded during ceremonies, so you might hear the occasional cricket or person throwing up.
After the first hour or so of ceremony, Diego “opened the bar” for more. This pretty much means that if I felt like the effects were not strong enough, I could drink more.
During ceremonies, we were encouraged to leave the temple, and spend some time in nature – especially if we were going through a hard time and couldn’t remain silent in the temple.
The few times I left, the stars looked particularly incredible and the fresh air felt amazing. Petting the dogs that lived on the territory, Simba and Nala, proved very relaxing. Ayahuasca definitely made me feel very connected to nature.
I thought long and hard about how much of my experiences I wanted to share. I wrote a version that contained 5 pages worth of experiences and I found it to be both uninteresting to read and too personal to share.
I understand most people would want to know about how various ceremonies felt, and I’m happy to give a broad strokes version. However, it’s important to realize that every Ayahuasca ceremony is different.
This is just a sample of some things that are possible.
The first ceremony
We did this one on the first night of the workshop and it was beautiful.
The music blended in with the visuals, so much so, it seemed like it was creating them – like a music visualizer on music player software.
I was rather tired and at times just wanted it to end. However, I was given beautiful lessons on the importance of doing what I want in life and what I was passionate about. I was shown how quickly life goes by. I felt the importance of being present in the moment.
As my heart burst open, I felt close to my family and other important people in my life.
The second ceremony
This ceremony was different. I asked to drink a bit more, but it was also a different, much stronger brew – so my experience was much more intense.
In this ceremony, I was shown of the uniqueness and beauty of all human beings. It was a strong reminder to be a good listener and allow other people their space.
I was once again reminded to follow my gut and do what I really want.
Physically I had excess energy and my body felt compelled to thrash around – but inside I was feeling blissful. I didn’t even realize, but my movements were distracting people in the temple from their experience.
Milagros (Diego’s wife) took me out of the temple. She held me by the hand and reminded me to focus on my breath. She reassured me everything was OK. Being outside of the temple I was also affected by the beauty of this world, and felt very fortunate to be part of creation.
The following night
The night after the second ceremony, I had a weird experience. At about 9pm – my heart started beating quicker, I was breathing heavier and was feeling woozy.
I initially thought it was just the altitude and thin air – but the feeling wouldn’t go away. It stayed when I woke up the next day, and all in all lasted a full 24 hours. I thought it was prolonged effects of DMT – but that’s physically impossible, as it was all out of my system by then.
In retrospect, I was experiencing my first ever panic attack. These happen when one doesn’t sleep enough, eat enough and have a lot of emotions come up.
So, it was a very long day. I felt moments of terror, thinking, “Will I ever go back to feeling normal?”
I had moments of bliss – crying when seeing a flower or taking a picture of the most beautiful sunrise I had ever seen (pictured at the top of this article).
Overall, I can safely say it was the scariest day of my life. But I learnt how important it was to have people next to me when I was feeling bad. The facilitators and friends may not have been able to help much, but at least I didn’t feel alone.
I decided not to drink on the 3rd ceremony of the workshop, which happened on that night.
Instead, I to had a big meal and got some much-required sleep. It was exactly what I needed. I felt much better (though still very vulnerable) the following day.
My third ceremony
Not wanting to finish the retreat with such an experience, I decided to stay for one more night after the retreat was over.
The local community in Pisaq drinks every Monday and Friday and I decided to drink with them during that Monday. There were locals and visitors at a ratio of about 50/50.
This ceremony felt very different, like a celebration. Various other musicians showed up – some of them Israelis – which made everything more fun and special.
The brew was the same as the one on the 2nd ceremony, which was still very strong.
This time, I was still very full of excess energy but I wasn’t feeling the bliss – just my own resistance. I knew I had to let go, just breath and surrender, but couldn’t.
The terror I felt during my panic attack kept me psychologically protected and not able to give in. I felt myself running away from the experience and struggling. It was very real.
I had a lot of weird physical effects – for example, wanting to move in various weird ways, like humping a tree for example. I even let out a strong scream when I was outside the temple at some point.
A friendly German named Jakob supported me all throughout the experience. He was wonderful.
As the stronger effects wore down I went back into the temple and joined all the others. The woman sitting next to me, who did the retreat with me, lent out her hand and we held hands for the rest of the ceremony.
Afterwards, the locals stayed up till 8am and I stayed with them – just playing music, chilling out and connecting. It was lovely.
The lessons I got from this ceremony were again, to trust my own intuition and gut. I was also surprised at how well Hebrew made me feel when I was struggling through the effects, as one Israeli came to help me.
I also really appreciated it when Jean, who facilitated this ceremony, mentioned to me later how he appreciated my courage in doing it. I was certainly afraid after the night before. Overall it was a challenging but beautiful experience.
Would I recommend Ayahuasca?
That depends. I don’t think drinking Ayahuasca is for everyone.
First off, it’s important to find a Shaman you trust. More and more people out there run ceremonies for money’s sake. A recommendation goes a long way if you can get one.
The experiences are intense and unrelenting. You will feel like you’ve lost control.
For most people who don’t have heart problems or don’t take anti-depressants I believe Ayahuasca is physically safe (do your own research!). However it may not feel that way.
There were certainly times I felt like I was dying or something was terribly wrong. Even though my friend in Melbourne warned I would feel that way, no mental preparation could ever do. You just have to be brave, and accept it might not be easy.
If you are ready to take a hard look at your life, your fears and insecurities and also potentially feel pure beautiful bliss – it can be for you. If you’re looking for an easy, fun experience – this may not be it.
Like %90 of the people that I did the retreat with, I felt that despite being on my edge some of the time, Ayahuasca was an overwhelmingly positive experience. Not easy perhaps, but very worth it.