For centuries, shamans in the indigenous communities of the Amazon Basin have been preparing a hallucinogenic brew known as Ayahuasca for spiritual, self-improvement, and healing purposes. Apprentices spend years studying the healing properties of individual plants and the spiritual associations of each under the guidance of an elder shaman. During this time each apprentice develops his own spirit songs, icaros, believed to be taught to them by the spirits of the Amazon.
Recently, Ayahuasca’s popularity has been on the rise, along with other shamanic services, as a segment of what’s commonly referred to as mystical travel has been on the rise throughout Peru, thanks to promotion by government tourist agencies which even sponsors ayahuasca festivals. Travelers interested in trying Ayahuasca can visit healing retreats where they can take part in multiple ceremonies. Many do so for a spiritual experience, increased self-knowledge, or, increasingly, as part of their struggle against depression or addiction. If you’re interested in arranging such an experience, contact Pirwa Travel Service for more information.
Preparing the Brew
The Quechua name is rooted in the native belief that ayahuasca is the cord which permits the spirit to leave the body without dying- aya means spirit and waska, cord. Preparations can include a varying combination of leaves, seeds, and bark, but the caapi vine, considered the gatekeeper and guide to otherworldly realms, is always present. In its natural state, the vine is a purgative, but boiled together with other plants it has hallucinogenic effects.
There are many other barks and plants which can traditionally be added for their spiritual properties; Remo Caspi bark, for instance, is used for healing dark energy, and Capirona bark for cleansing. Each plant which could be added has a recognizable spirit. For example, Ayahuma bark, used for repairing fractured souls, appears as a headless giant.
Ceremonies last about four hours and begin during the dusk following a brief midday fast, when the shaman blesses the ayahuasca with mapacho tobacco to ward off negative spirits and pay homage to the ayahuasca’s spirits, asking for their assistance. Each participant is then given some of the bitter brew and the lights are shut off. Unfortunately vomiting is to be expected, and is considered part of the purging of dark energy. The shamans will begin to sing or whistle his icaros to the rhythm of their chakapas, leaf rattles, to call forth the unique assistance of different plants and to guide participants through the process. The visions begin after about 20 minutes; many feel that they are traveling among realities and wrestling with their fears. Sting speaks very favorably of his experience trying Ayahuasca in a Brazilian church, during which he says he had a vision of chasing a bee through a Joshua tree for hours.
Popular Ayahuasca Destinations
The most popular Ayahuasca destinations are in the Amazon, especially in the large jungle city of Iquitos and the outlying Shipibo indigenous community, San Francisco. If you are unable to make it to the jungle, you can also participate in Ayahuasca ceremonies in the Andean region, including the Sacred Valley of the Incas outside of Cusco.
CAUTION: As most shamans are unfamiliar with Western pharmaceuticals and preparations vary widely, it is your responsibility to research possible severe adverse reactions with prescription medications or allergies. If you are taking prescription medication, you are advised to abstain, as trying ayahuasca without being certain which plants and in what quantities your shaman has chosen could be risky.