What is Ayahuasca?
All things Ayahuasca … for the newcomer
A definitive guide to the Mother Vine’s purpose, effects, ceremony, dangers, benefits, side effects, cost, and overall experience for Westerners
If you’re just beginning your research into Ayahuasca, you’ve landed well. Welcome. We at Retreat Guru aspire to help guide you to your first experience with the Vine of the Soul.
The majority of Retreat Guru’s employees have deep experience working with the Great Medicine. Our pledge is to help you find your ideal Ayahuasca retreat to further your journey to health, self-discovery, wisdom, personal peace, and connection to Spirit.
What is Ayahuasca and where does it grow?
Ayahuasca is an ancient entheogen (best translated as “God-connector”) concocted by combining two plants native to the Amazon Basin. The Shipibo, indigenous people of the Peruvian jungle, have long claimed that Ayahuasca has been used by humans since before Christ. This folklore gained recent credence when scientists announced in 2019 that a 1000-year-old medicine bundle discovered in Bolivia included Ayahuasca.
One of the great mysteries of Ayahuasca (in Shipibo, Iowaska, in Quechua, Ayawaska, in Colombia, Yagé and known by dozens of other names, including la purga - the purge) is that unlike other natural entheogens such as peyote (mescaline), magic mushrooms (psilocybin), salvia, or cannabis, which are self-contained in a single plant, Ayahuasca is a recipe combining two distinct plants, each one inert on their own.
Indigenous medicine men and women claim the plants themselves revealed their combined power more than two thousand years ago. The ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) contains alkaloids that act as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs, commonly used in antidepressants), which allow human bloodstreams to absorb the dimethyltryptamine (DMT – known as the “death molecule”) from the leaves of the Amazonian jungle shrub chacruna, (Psychotria viridis). The MAOIs in the caapi vine are what stops our bodies’ natural mechanisms from preventing the psychoactive harmines and DMT in the chacruna from leading us to altered states of consciousness.
The Shipibo and other tribes that work with Ayahuasca consider any scientific attempts to understand the Spirit Vine to be nothing short of absurd. Science cannot explain what the elders know to be, quite simply, supernatural. They may refer to Ayahuasca as “medicine,” but actually consider the concoction a spirit; indeed the Mother of all Spirits, and speak of “her” in the anthropomorphic feminine.
Before the advent of the current ceremonial use, the tribe's curandero would examine the sick person, then go into the jungle alone, drink the medicine to consult the Mother Vine, then pray and sing icaros (hymnlike songs) until they were guided to the plant or combination of plants that would heal the patient.
How does Ayahuasca work? Is it toxic? And what will it do to my brain and body long term?
The Ayahuasca tea (a term preferred by the Western press, but not quite accurate) is prepared in a labor-intensive process and cooked for many hours into a brew. The ultimate consistency is more like a watery molasses, which it also resembles in color. The liquid is usually served at room temperature and, unlike tea, is often gritty.
Most people find the taste of Ayahuasca ranges from reasonably awful to horrible.
The potion targets the brain’s serotonin production. Ayahuasca is experienced by some as hallucinogenic, but is both non-toxic and non-addictive. You can neither overdose on it, nor (unlike LSD and psilocybin that lose potency without rest periods) does usage create tolerance, even if you drink it daily. For most people, the long-term side effects are solely positive. While some studies have suggested that Ayahuasca can affect your liver by making it work a little harder during ceremony, there is also potential for affecting the liver positively by avoiding alcohol before and after drinking Ayahuasca, as part of the prescribed diet. Recent research has also noted significant reductions in alcohol consumption and generally healthier lifestyles among participants following an Ayahuasca experience
Short term physical effects can include increased heart rate and changes in blood pressure, but most sensations occur inside the mind.
After drinking the brew, the chacruna’s DMT – which occurs naturally in many plants and animals, including humans – stimulates the pineal gland, the part of the brain where introspection occurs and emotions are processed. It’s in this state the self-work is accomplished.
People come to the vine for many reasons, but the literature is growing daily, ream-upon-ream, to support the medicine’s ability to heal difficult addictions such as alcohol, tobacco, and opioids, to alleviate depression, reduce anxiety, ease symptoms of Parkinson's, and even cure cancer. The science is still unclear as to precisely how these healings occur, but there is little dispute that they have through guided use of Ayahuasca.
Ayahuasqueros, those who serve the medicine (also known as shamans, maestros, or curanderos), watch ceremony participants for purging, which in Peru is called la limpieza (“the cleaning”). The elders explain that the medicine “wraps itself around” what the participant no longer needs, whether it be an addiction, an aged trauma, or a circular thinking pattern; then removes it through purging. The limpieza happens typically via vomiting, but also through tears, laughter, yawns or moans, as well as shaking, sweating, and excreting.
Each person experiences the medicine uniquely, but it’s critical that those seeking a spiritual experience through Ayahuasca choose to work with well-experienced and reputable curanderos who will protect them from any potential spiritual harm.
How long is an Ayahuasca “high” and what happens in an Ayahuasca ceremony?
Ayahuasca is traditionally served at night, with ceremonies usually starting about an hour after sunset. This is because the visions the medicine promotes are – paradoxically – easier to see in the dark. (Note bene: Not everyone experiences Ayahuasca visually.) The visions are not hallucinations per se, according to the Shipibo, but rather a glimpse behind the veil into the spirit world. Some "see" the music of the icaros; others are transported to interplanetary worlds or different dimensions; while still others experience more internal journeys. There are no two Ayahuasca experiences alike.
A typical Ayahuasca ceremony in Latin America takes place in a round yurt-like building with a high ceiling called a maloca. But it can as easily be held in a midwestern barn. Participants, commonly between 10 and 20, are always provided a personal plastic bucket for purging. Retreat centers that cater to Westerners provide mattresses and even blankets and pillows as most people lie prone for the bulk of the ceremony.
A single candle burns. The ayahuasquero whistles icaros to the medicine into the mouth of the bottle to ask for healing. When summoned, one-by-one each participant makes their way to the center of the maloca and kneels. They state their desired pour in a whisper. The shaman delivers what they request into the communal cup. This is the time to focus on their intention, hold the cup with reverence, and drink the medicine.
Once all have partaken, the leader extinguishes the candle and the maloca is silent for 30-45 minutes while awaiting the medicine’s effects. The curandero then begins to sing the icaros, the sacred songs that summon the medicine's spirit for healing and well-being.
The ceremony usually lasts about five hours, but the effects of Ayahuasca can be prolonged, occasionally lasting through the night, depending on many factors, including – some say and many believe – the medicine’s mood. The ceremonial icaros play a crucial role in the quality of the experience.
Is Ayahuasca illegal in the United States?
In the South American countries where the sacred plants grow naturally (Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru), Ayahuasca in powder form can be purchased at any public market, not just in the Amazonian rainforest, but also in the booming capitals. Ayahuasca tourism has grown tremendously in those countries, which can result in some potentially dangerous situations when the medicine is served by people who claim shamanism but have insufficient training and are motivated solely by profit.
The global legality of the medicine is complex. For example, and somewhat surprisingly, it is totally legal in the Ukraine. In Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, where the laws prohibiting it are either imprecise or non-existent, it falls into a grey area and arrests are rare. Elsewhere in Europe, DMT is prohibited by law.
Interestingly, in the US, where DMT is classified as a Schedule 1 substance (in the same league as heroin), recent legal decisions have put chinks in the law, notably Oakland’s 2019 vote to decriminalize Ayahuasca (along with other entheogens) and a US Supreme Court decision in 2006 to permit two churches, Santo Daime and União do Vegetal (UDV) to import Ayahuasca as part of their religious practices. Similarly, in Canada in 2019, churches in Toronto and Montreal have won their own legal battles. In other Anglo countries, including the United Kingdom and Australia, DMT is illegal in all forms.
Emerging fascination with Ayahuasca as a powerful medicine has taken on a life of its own in the West, certainly stoked by Michael Pollan’s bestseller How to Change Your Mind, even though his focus is on other psychoactive plant medicines. In the Canadian province of Ontario, police recently publicly admitted to using Ayahuasca as medication to relieve their job-related PTSD. Even conservative media have reported positively on Ayahuasca’s efficacy in helping war veterans tackle the same malady through the Heroic Hearts program.
Do I have to go to Peru to experience Ayahuasca?
Photo by Matthew LeJune
Peru has indeed become the hub for Ayahuasca retreats and many of our Retreat Guru partners operate in that country and other parts of South America, both in the jungle (especially around Iquitos and Pucallpa) and in the Sacred Valley between Cusco and Machu Picchu.
But the wave of curiosity currently swirling around Ayahuasca globally and the increasing number of people serving it means there are probably several ceremonies within 50 miles of you every weekend. Or if you’re in New York, possibly dozens or more every night. If you decide to source a ceremony locally, especially for your first time, do be careful with whom you drink. The leader should have extensive experience and training – preferably at least seven years with a lineage-holding shaman – and their intentions must be pure.
The dark side of Ayahuasca – death in ceremony
This is a separate but vital conversation. There have been a handful of Ayahuasca-related deaths reported since 2015 (although none from drinking the medicine), which found their way into international media and naturally stoked fears. These incidents fall into four broad categories:
1. Mental health issues among participants resulting in violence;
2. Irresponsible ceremony leaders who laced their medicine with poisonous psychedelics such as datura or toé (both avoided by even the most intrepid of psychonauts);
3. Non-Ayahuasca rituals, particularly vomitivos, a pre-Ayahuasca purging ceremony that involves drinking copious amounts of water infused with mapacho, the local tobacco, which is considered sacred, similar to the role it plays in North American indigenous culture;
4. Underlying health conditions in the participant, such as high blood pressure or cardiac issues.
All the recorded deaths are heartbreaking, both to their families and to those of us in the Ayahuasca community.
In response to the tourist deaths, in 2018 a group of Peruvian ayahuasqueros formed the Ayahuasca Safety Association, which is working with the government to establish safety and ethical guidelines for those serving medicine. Observers hail this as a giant step towards monitoring what has been an entirely unregulated segment of the economy.
But considering the thousands – possibly tens of thousands – of people who “use Ayahuasca” (we prefer the term: “work with Ayahuasca”) every day all over the world, these tragedies have no statistical significance. To put into perspective the half-a-dozen reported deaths related to Ayahuasca since 2015, more than 70,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses in 2017 alone, and 88,000 die every year from alcohol.
Still, every time a death occurs in or around a maloca, a rigorous examination follows in the online forums to determine exactly what happened and how to prevent it from transpiring again. For example, responsible Ayahuasca retreat businesses halted the tobacco purges immediately after a Canadian woman died following a vomitivos exercise.
While it may be tempting to pinch pennies if you decide to experience Ayahuasca in Peru or elsewhere in Latin America, there’s a solid safety reason to seek a reputable retreat center, even though they are more expensive. For example, the retreat organizers we work with routinely screen participants for certain medications that would indicate mental health issues, which could be exacerbated by drinking Ayahuasca.
Bottom line, we all face risks every day we walk on this planet. You’ll probably sign a waiver before you take your first sip of Ayahuasca, but your ego’s unfolding is the only demise you should expect.
How long is an average Ayahuasca retreat and how much does it cost? Do I need a 'real' shaman?
Photo by Jeison Higuita
The ability to book a safe Ayahuasca retreat online has normalized what was previously an experience reserved for either committed psychonauts or those with underground connections. We’ve certainly come a long way since the ethnobiologist McKenna brothers traipsed through the Colombian jungle in search of enlightenment.
A proper Ayahuasca retreat usually lasts seven to ten days, with four or five nights of ceremony. We do not recommend you squeeze a single Ayahuasca ceremony between Machu Picchu and your exit flight from Cusco, especially if you’ve been enjoying the pisco sours en route.
The decision to journey with Ayahuasca takes mental and physical preparation and should be approached with a profound respect for the medicine. In the container of the retreat, where you will be vulnerable around strangers who will likely later become life-long friends, a full week and four or five ceremonies is enough to peel away the layers of whatever is blocking you from achieving your full potential.
A seven-day retreat in Peru averages around US$1,400 and includes a comfortable shared room and healthy meals. Most retreats offer daytime and non-ceremony evening activities such as yoga, meditation, massage, dance, and art therapy. Higher or lower pricing tends to reflect the level of luxury in the accommodation and food as well as the popularity of the center.
Many people wonder whether it matters if the experience is led by an indigenous shaman. Most of our trusted partners in Latin America offer a mix of indigenous and Western facilitators. The latter act as cultural translators, which participants from abroad tend to appreciate because they can communicate without a language barrier. (Many Shipibo maestros speak limited if any Spanish, and rarely do they speak even a word of English.) Ceremonies outside of South America are usually led by committed non-indigenous ayahuasqueros who have spent many years apprenticing with a known lineage and eventually been given permission to pour the medicine alone. If a ceremony leader cannot claim such tutelage, you might consider waiting until you can find a qualified shaman, rather than someone who merely claims that title.
What happens post-Ayahuasca?
Returning to real life after a week-long Ayahuasca experience of transformation and rebirth can be jarring. It’s critical that you follow proper integration guidelines. The best centers and teachers will offer to assist you with reintegration into the world. Solid strategies include: time in nature, meditation, yoga, and continued connection to the people with whom you shared the maloca. These are useful tools to help alleviate anxiety, keep you mindful, and fully unpack and integrate the medicine’s teachings.
Where can I read first-hand reviews of Ayahuasca experiences?
Photo by Helena Lopes
We have reviews from hundreds of real people who booked their Ayahuasca retreats through Retreat Guru and took the time to share their experiences. There’s no character limit, so people can share deeply, honestly and completely.
Many blessings on your journey.