Traveling to the Amazon
Traveling to the Amazon to participate in an ayahuasca ceremony can be a very enriching experience. However, it is easy to fall into idealizing the shamanic world and get a wrong idea about what you are going to find there. You can find travel agencies that offer retreats. There are many shamans offering sessions in their towns and cities, and there are shamanic centers offering such services as well. Although everything may seem very attractive, there are many factors that could turn this trip into a nightmare.
Culture & Customs
The jungle is a fascinating environment with lush flora and fauna, fabulous scenery and very interesting indigenous groups. At the same time, it is also hostile and full of threats. The inhabitants of the Amazon basin have adapted to this environment over centuries. Their way of life, culture and customs are inseparable from the environment.
The native people’s survival has constantly been threatened by unpredictable insects, diseases, predators, evil spirits, shaman’s dark magic, torrential rains, rivers and so on. Therefore, the values and vision of life, death and survival are very different for Westerners. Native Pragmatism may surprise the Western traveler.
One should realize that concepts such as “personal growth” and “self-awareness” are not existent in their traditional culture. It was with the arrival of the white man and the mestizo when these concepts have begun to be incorporated in the shamanic context. The traditional role of the shaman is to cure diseases and protect the community. It is not that of the master or spiritual guide. One of the major errors committed by travelers in seeking experiences with ayahuasca is trying to find a shaman that fulfills the role of teacher, mentor, guide, and a spiritually elevated being. As in all professions, those exist, but not all of them are like that…
The master plants and diets
In shamanism, many plants are used, and ayahuasca is only one of them. Tobacco, toé, yawar-panga, chiring-sanango, chacruna, ayahuasca… All of these plants have a role in Amazonian medicine. Some of them are used for purging, a very important concept in this tradition, to cleanse the body and prepare it for the lessons of the ‘teacher plant’ that will be taken afterwards. Others are used to heal specific ailments or obtain knowledge in the initiation process into shamanism. The traditional way of taking these plants is through the diet (la dieta), which is more or less a prolonged period of time in which the individual is living in isolation, has very strict dietary and behavioral restrictions and ingests preparations of a ‘teacher plant’. The shaman guides the individual doing the diet through the process.
Therefore, you should not understand shamanism as the simple act of taking ayahuasca. It goes far beyond that, although it is true that both tobacco and ayahuasca have a central role in the Amazonian shamanic world. However, the ritual use of ayahuasca is the common thread that links religion and spirituality of almost all indigenous peoples of the upper Amazon, including the mestizo population. It seems likely that the shamanic practices of most part of the Upper Amazon – Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia – form one religious cultural area.
The worldview of the native cultures of the Amazon basin is very different from the one found in occidental society. Ayahuasca and other plants are used not only to cure, nor only for religious purposes. In his book Singing to the Plants, Stephan Beyer explains:
“It is through the hallucinogenic power of the ayahuasca drink that the hundreds of healing plants, including the plants used for magical attack and defense, reveal their appearance and teach their songs; it is through the power of ayahuasca that the shaman can see distant galaxies and planets, the wellbeing of distant relatives, the location of lost objects, the lover of an unfaithful spouse, and the identity of the sorcerer who has caused a patient to become sick. It is the ayahuasca drink that nurtures the shaman’s phlegm, the physical manifestation of shamanic power within the body, used both as defense against magical attack and as a container for the magic darts that are the shaman’s principal weapon.”
The way in which the ayahuasca ritual will be conducted depends on the tradition to which the shaman belongs. While there are similarities in ayahuasca ceremonies that are held in different countries of the Amazon basin, there are also notable differences.
Since Peru is one of the countries with the largest tradition of ayahuasca tourism, many of the people who have taken ayahuasca in a shamanic context have done it in the tradition of Peruvian tribes such as the Shipibo-conibo, Ashaninka, etc.
Ayahuasca ceremonies in Peru are held at night. The complete darkness facilitates the individual going into the experience because of the elimination of external visual stimuli. Participants gather in a “tambo,” a typical Amazonian construction above ground with no walls and a roof of palm leaves. The shaman decides how many participants can attend, which is normally a limited amount of people.
Sometimes, before taking ayahuasca, a cleansing process, also called ‘purga’ is done with specific emetic plants. Some centers or shamans consider this essential, while others consider the purgative effect of ayahuasca sufficient in itself. Before taking ayahuasca, the shaman usually ‘blesses’ the brew. This process consists of singing an Icaro (a name for the songs that are sung during the ceremonies) and blowing smoke of mapacho tobacco (crushed tobacco leaf) in the bottle of ayahuasca. Then the shaman gives a cup of ayahuasca to each participant. He/she chooses the amount according to the need of each person as he/she perceives. The shaman often blows tobacco smoke and flower water (Agua Florida, a type of perfume with a characteristic odor), before, during, or after the ceremony.
When all participants and the shaman have taken the ayahuasca, often a moment of silence follows until the beginning of the experience. The shaman then starts singing and making music that serves as a guide during the experience, sometimes followed by periods of silence.
If the intention of the session is to cure an illness, the shaman can perform a healing ritual such as blowing tobacco smoke, ‘sucking’ negative energies, eliminating ‘darts’ (magic darts that shamans can use to ‘attack’ enemies) among others. If the intent of the session is simply to have an experience with ayahuasca, the shaman usually does not do this type of intervention unless he/she considers it necessary. If you are following a longer process of healing of a particular disease, the amount of plants that are given before and after the ceremony and the various healing techniques (baths with plants, massages, etc) is immense.
Sometimes a second or third cup of ayahuasca is taken during the session while the shaman alternates chants with periods of silence until the effects wear off. Then the shaman does the closing of the session, and participants can return to their own hut.
In other countries, there may be variations in the ritual, such as the presence of a fire, or musical instruments like maracas or drums.
If you are considering traveling to a country of the Amazon basin to take ayahuasca, you should get an adequate idea of what you will encounter once you get there and be prepared to deal with unexpected and potentially unpleasant situations. Traveling through South America is not like traveling through Europe. The pace of life is different, as well as the interactions between people. You can read our general travel advice.
Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, etc. are developing countries, and therefore they have some important social imbalances. The journey in search of shamanic experiences is not without a number of risks that must be taken into account.
Dangerous situations can occur when you travel to the Amazon to take ayahuasca. Some are preventable with common sense and caution, others are random and difficult to predict.
Security: Latin America is not Europe, and although we must not fall into paranoia, it is true that crime rates are higher. We must be particularly cautious in big cities, where the social imbalances and poverty are most visible. You should use reliable transportation and keep an eye on your luggage during the trip (in buses, vans, taxis, etc.). It is always best to arrange in advance who is going to pick you up at the airport and take you to the hotel. Be careful when walking through unfamiliar areas, and if there is any doubt, ask the locals about the convenience of going to a specific area. A robbery can occur when least expected and in a seemingly safe place.
Environment: we must keep in mind that it may take some time to acclimate to the environmental conditions of the destination. The jungle is very humid; it rains often; it can be very hot; there are many insects; wet clothes do not dry very well; constant sweating and the sunny weather conditions can turn into a thunderstorm in an instant. Taking ayahuasca in these conditions can be tough if you are not used to it. In mountain areas, you can suffer altitude sickness and get very hot in the sun and cold in the shade. The food is different; you may experience stomach upset and diarrhea, and therefore you should take some days to get used to the place and the food before taking ayahuasca. In some areas, malaria is present, so you have to make a decision about the use of medication.
Rip-Offs/Opportunists: ayahuasca tourism has become a profitable business in many parts of the Amazon basin. People living in poverty have discovered that foreigners are willing to pay very substantial amounts of money to access ‘indigenous knowledge’. On one hand, this has allowed ayahuasca traditions to be strengthened, but on the other hand it has led to the emergence of scammers. There are many people who call themselves shamans and offer all kinds of ayahuasca sessions. The session may be a rip-off, with an unprepared ‘shaman’ and virtually no effects of the ayahuasca. On some occasions, a shaman can be even a criminal who seeks to profit from, and take advantage of the vulnerability of those who seek a teacher. There have also been some cases of sexual abuse in shamanic environments. It is therefore very advisable to check that the person with whom you want to do the session is legit and to not participate alone.
Emotional/Psychological Risks: Taking ayahuasca can induce a very intense experience. For people with a history of mental illness, or a predisposition to it, psychotic episodes may occur. Also in healthy people, adverse effects have occurred in rare cases. It is highly recommended not to take ayahuasca alone and to have a person you can contact if necessary. Choosing a good context and a prepared shaman, being aware of one’s own state and taking care of yourself. Allowing a proper integration of the experience is fundamental for the prevention of risks.
Physical Risks: Under the section interested in taking ayahuasca you can find important information about exclusion criteria, interactions, risks, etc. In South America many plants are used in the ayahuasca decoctions, some with higher toxicity. Therefore it is important to know what you are going to get. For example, ayahuasca preparations that are high in scopolamine and atropine, alkaloids that are present in the Brugmansia, also called ‘toé’, can cause delirium, real hallucinations, serious poisoning, dehydration, transient loss of sight, convulsions and, in extreme cases, death. It is also important to make sure you are never left alone during the session. Anything can happen if you are left alone: a snake bite; choking in your own vomit while lying on the floor; falls and physical injuries, etc.
Choosing a proper place
Given the myriad of centers and individuals who offer their services as shamans, it is vital to make the right choice of a location and person you are going to take ayahuasca with. Here are some recommendations that may help:
- Do not trust a person who approaches you on the street and offers his services as a shaman.
- Learn about the center you are interested in. Check out their website, the programs they offer and prices. Read the feedback of the visitors that have been there and contrast them with direct testimonials (social networks can be an important source of information).
- It is a good sign if your questions are all answered clearly and directly.
- Some people say that a good shaman does not present him/herself as such, and that in general, he/she doesn’t talk much.
- Find a shaman who belongs to a lineage or tradition. One who talk about his/her teachers and ancestors and honors them. It is not a good sign if the shaman presents him/herself as very powerful or special, or “the only level 5 shaman of the region.”
- A shaman is a ‘normal’ person that is well adapted to his/her environment and society. If he is married and has a stable family this is a better sign than if he is solitary and mysterious.
- In the communities, children are a good source of information. They usually know who the healer is and might even give recommendations if there is more than one.
- The cleanness of the place also says a lot about the people that work there. Check out the facilities.
Preparation / Safety
In addition to the general safety information about traveling to the jungle to take ayahuasca, it is important to take some personal safety considerations into account.
Financial issues, traveling safely
Ayahuasca tourism has gotten quite popular and many travelers go to cities such as Iquitos in search of ayahuasca and authentic contact with shamanism. However, it is easy to attract opportunistic and false shamans. To avoid this, it is extremely important to get good contacts and references before leaving. It is relatively easy to learn about the experience of someone you know who has been in the Amazon and request information firsthand.
Having established contact with the shaman or the facility that provides the ayahuasca sessions, you should deal properly with all the economic issues before the session: how much you have to pay, what is included in the price, and how and when to pay. Doing this before the session can prevent uncomfortable situations.
Virtually the entire population, both native and mestizo, speak Spanish, which can facilitate the communication. However, one must know that even though you understand the same language, the way of communication might be different. This may lead to misunderstandings if you don’t know enough about the culture (e.g. ‘now’ can mean in several hours). Furthermore, it should be noted that in many native communities, the language used is their own language.
Getting prepared for the session
We mentioned the importance of planning your trip in advance and have some days to adapt to the environment, food, people, weather, etc. The jungle may seem an idyllic place but can very uncomfortable if you are not used to it. You should get informed about the weather forecasts and the season most suited for traveling.
Before doing the session, it is important to get prepared, both physically and psychologically. In the section Interested in taking ayahuasca you can find information on pharmacological incompatibilities with ayahuasca. If you are taking any incompatible medication, you should consult your doctor before deciding to travel and take ayahuasca.
In the shamanic worldview, food can be very important in relation to the use of ayahuasca. You can ask the shaman which diet he recommends for you to follow before the session. The purpose of the diet is to prepare the mind and body for receiving ayahuasca, so you can use it as a process to gain awareness about yourself and your intentions for the ayahuasca session.
It is also important to be conscious about your own physical and emotional state. An experience with ayahuasca can be very intense and it is normal to feel some anxiety before the session, but it is important to be completely convinced about your decision to take ayahuasca and the context in which you will do it.
Reserve a few days after the session to rest and be comfortable. It is best to avoid long and complicated traveling the day after the session. Planning a few days in a nice relaxed environment for after the session is a good way to prepare the ‘landing’ of the experience and taking care of yourself.