I recall a conversation I had with my mother 6 or 7 years ago. We were standing in the kitchen and she was telling me about a story she’d heard: a friend of a friend had a daughter that went to the Amazon and drank some sort of brew that made her throw up uncontrollably, over and over again until she eventually died. My mom was horrified telling me this story. Her intensity kept the memory of that conversation deeply ingrained in my mind. At one point she even grabbed my hand and said,
“Andrea, please just promise me that you would never do anything like that.”
I looked her in the eyes and assured her that I would not.
At the time of this exchange I didn’t know anything about the Amazon and had never heard of anything remotely close to that happening. I didn’t yet know the word “Ayahuasca” or that it involved ceremonial purging. It wasn’t until I started planning a trip to Colombia that the story of Ayahuasca started to surface. I immediately knew that this must’ve been the poison my mom warned me about.
Considering that predisposition, it was a quick no when a friend of mine who was already in Colombia asked me if I’d like to try it while I was visiting. She said she’d been doing quite a bit of research and that she was keen to experience Ayahuasca, as it’s known to provide spiritual healing powers, providing you’re in the right mindset and it’s done ethically with a legitimate shaman. She insisted that any reported deaths were from fluke health complications.
I was pretty confident that I wouldn’t change my mind, but I decided to take my friend’s lead and do some research of my own. Ayahuasca has been around for hundreds of years so there is no shortage of information, but there are many conflicting reports. Depending on the location, certain groups disagree on physical preparation and required diets. There are also many ethical issues, from people holding ceremonies without proper shamanic training, to some shamans abusing their power within the community. It was tough to know which shamans would be legitimate, especially with huge variances in price, which range from $40 for a ceremony to $4000 for a multi-day retreat.
While researching, I was specifically looking into the purpose behind Ayahuasca: what sort of preparation is required, the details of those that have died in ceremony, and personal accounts of other people’s experiences.
Once I felt comfortable with my understanding of the process, it sat on the back burner of my mind for around 8 months before I felt called to seek it out. My readiness presented itself with a list of intentions for the experience, a main point being that I wanted to connect with my mother. I thought Ayahuasca would break down my spiritual barriers and help me feel closer to her, especially after I was told in a previous spiritual experience that my mother was trying to communicate with me. I was told I couldn’t hear her and that I needed to let her in, and since I couldn’t figure out how to on my own – maybe Ayahuasca could help.
That probably sounds ridiculous considering that when she was alive she made me promise I’d never consume strange substances like the one in her story. Nevertheless, here I was going against her wishes, feeling secure in what I’d learned and ready for the experience.
Once my friend and I made the decision to take Ayahuasca, an opportunity for a ceremony presented itself very shortly after. The place came highly recommended by her co-worker, and we felt good about the fact that they only accepted small groups (13 people max). One of the leaders in charge of organizing thankfully spoke English, so he was able to give me the full details on how to prepare. He stressed the importance of not having any expectations, following the dieta, and to bring an extra pair of pants just in case I shit myself.
I followed the dieta for two weeks before the ceremony – this meant no sex (or masturbation), no alcohol or drugs, no coffee, no meat, no dairy products, and no spices. Food should be as bland as possible to allow for the Ayahuasca to connect with your spirit. It’s said that the more strictly you adhere to the diet, the greater that Mother Ayahuasca will reward you in the experience. On the day of the ceremony we were advised to fast entirely or only have a light breakfast of fruit.
When the day arrived, we met up with the rest of the group at the bus station before heading out of Medellin. It was mostly Colombians and a couple other expats, and we all piled into a jeep that was much too small for our group and embarked on a bumpy ride into the mountains of a nearby town called Guarne.
We arrived at an isolated cabin in the woods and waited for hours around a fire pit before the ceremony began around midnight. I’m going to assume most people reading this have never done Ayahuasca and have no idea what I mean by ceremony, so I will explain what happened.
We arranged inside the cabin side by side on yoga mats and in chairs, shivering in blankets because the temperature had dropped significantly with the sun. Thankfully, the first step in the process was something called infusions – which involved throwing a blanket over your head as a personal tent, stripping down to your underwear, and having a bowl of boiling hot water with herbs placed under your blanket tent. The steam was enough to warm us up, at least momentarily.
After we put our clothes back on, the shaman went around administering Rapé to each individual, which is a a sacred shamanic snuff made of herbs and tobacco used medicinally in Indigenous circles. He did this by putting some of the tobacco powder into one end of a wooden straw, then hooking it into our nose and blowing air into the opposite end so it shot into each nostril – one at a time.
This was painful. It burned my sinuses in such an uncomfortable way that I wasn’t sure I could handle the second nostril. Thankfully I had tissues on hand, because after surviving the process I subsequently sneezed at least ten times. Others in the group had different reactions, some getting dizzy and even vomiting. Once I was able to blow my nose, I wiped away my watering eyes, and eventually was able to enjoy the desired effect of the Rapé: a clear mind.
Finally, it was time to drink the Ayahuasca. After a ceremonial blessing which involved some harmonica playing, smoky incense, and leaf shaking, we were invited up 1 by 1. The taste of Ayahuasca is not really comparable to anything else I’d ever tried before. It’s very earthy, thick and unpleasant, and since this first experience I’ve realized no two batches taste the same. As the shaman passed me the cup, I nervously took a moment to repeat my intention to myself, then tilted my head back as if taking a shot of bad tasting alcohol, attempting to swallow it all at once.
After everyone drank, we arranged on our mats and waited. Some people fully laid down and went to sleep for the rest of the evening, but it was recommended that we try our best to stay awake all night. By this point I knew that purging would be a part of the process, and we each held our buckets close by, ready for action.
Throughout the night the shaman and others played music. This was a new genre to me: medicine music – made up of guitar, drums, harmonica, and singing. Because of how small the cabin was, the songs were extremely loud and powerful. Each song made the experience feel more intense. You could feel the music working with the medicine, pushing the inevitable purge up and out of your body.
This is probably the part of the story where you’re expecting me to describe the life-changing insights and visuals I experienced, but unfortunately for you (and for me that night) - I felt nothing. People around me were sobbing, laughing, and moving their bodies to the music. My friend was clearly having an intense journey next to me, and all I could think about is that I must’ve done something wrong. I tried to center myself and focus on my intentions, but nothing worked. I went up for a second cup, puked after an hour, still nothing… then I went for a third full cup (three cups is a LOT), and once again purged and felt nothing.
By this point I was completely exhausted and fighting back sleep, so I decided to cut my losses, close my eyes, and surrender. I accepted that I could not force the medicine, and it was not my time.
In the morning, the shaman assured me that to feel nothing during your first ceremony is extremely common – almost expected. While I was disappointed listening to the others recount their lessons and experiences from the night before, I knew this wouldn’t be my last opportunity with the medicine.
Since then I’ve had the pleasure of attending 6 more ceremonies, and I’m happy to report – I’ve definitely felt things! But more on that later.