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Drinking ayahuasca, an hallucinogenic brew made from vines found in the Amazon, is a central part of Indigenous culture in the region that, for better or worse, has become increasingly popular with domestic and international tourists.

“According to the myth, God had been cooling down nature and from the top of his head, he took two hairs and sowed them, and from this came the plant yagé. Over the years, he watched the plant, he made preparations with it, he drank it and became drunk; he perished, he vomited and then, when the plant was having its effect, he spoke.

“And he said: ‘He who drinks yagé without fear will know the divine light and will become a great healer; he who drinks it with fear will know darkness’,” says Víctor Quenama, the taita (spiritual leader) of Villanueva, a community in the jungles of Bajo Putumayo, close to Colombia’s southern border, over 440 miles away from the capital, Bogotá.

Banisteriopsis caapi, also known as the vine of the dead or vine of the soul, is an indigenous liana vine found in the Amazon. Photograph © Brian Van Tighem / Alamy Stock Photo.

Yagé, also known as ayahuasca, is a vine that grows around trees. According to Quenama, in the Amazon there are around 370 species recorded, each suitable for a different use, all playing a central part of Amazonian Indigenous culture in parts of Colombia, Venezuela, Peru, Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador.

“In general, the plant only needs the hot climate to be able to absorb water and breathe the Amazon air. It takes its powers directly from mother nature, without the need for fertilisers,” he says.

Because of its hallucinogenic properties and its mystical role in the eyes of Indigenous peoples, it is these communities that have cultural control over the plant. The places where it is cultivated are considered sacred and only healers and their assistants can step into those areas. It is harvested when it ripens - a specific measure of thickness is the indicator.

Indigenous priests have two ways of preparing the brew. But no matter what way they choose, in order to work with the plant they must abstain from sex and certain types of meat for a week. The same is true of their assistants and apprentices.

To prepare the raw drink, the plant is macerated while the healer and his assistants play traditional music and talk about local legends and principles of ancestral knowledge. In the cooked version, the concoction may take 12 hours in low flame until a kind of syrup is left. In the meantime, the wise men chant.

In this form, the concentrations of substances are higher, so it can be heavier for the liver to process, according to Quenama. The taita says that when he travels away from his tribe for a retreat, he takes care of wrapping and insulating the drink and forbids anyone else from touching it.

Quenama started to drink yagé at the age of 14, as his father’s apprentice and acolyte. Like him, his father was a traditional Indigenous doctor. In 1984, aged 22, already married and father of a boy, and without a formal degree, Quenama started to lead ceremonies as his father taught him. He is now 57.

The ayahuasca ceremony combines ancestral beliefs with the dogmas of the Catholic church, a result of colonising missions, and Indigenous peoples see ayahuasca as a gift from nature that dates from the times of creation.

As it’s become more popular, the harvest of yagé vines, which takes more or less seven years to grow into maturity, has become more expensive, even for the farmers themselves.

Preparation of ayahuasca, Province of Pastaza, Ecuador. CC Photographs by Terpsichore

Andrea Echeverri, the lead singer in Latin American band Aterciopelados, has written music about her experience with ayahuasca, which she believes changed her life and her engagement as an environmental activist.

Others said to have gone through a similar experience include the writer William S. Burroughs and Hollywood stars such as Terrence Howard, Lindsay Lohan and Jim Carrey. A constant stream of local Colombian politicians and foreign tourists are all attracted by the promise of an incomparable event: something that dilutes the boundaries between this and other worlds.

Jaime Conrado, the community leader of Putumayo in the Amazon region, says that although there are no official figures, it is clear that the influx of tourists to Indigenous reservations to drink ayahuasca has increased significantly over the past few years.

Quenama agrees: “All sorts of people come to visit us and I don’t ask who they are. Whether it is the president or a common man, we will heal them.” However he disputes the notion among many Colombians that the ayahuasca ritual has become a posh pastime.

Nonetheless, ayahuasca has become so popular that many shamans now enjoy celebrity status in Colombia. They travel around the country, gathering hundreds of people who pay to attend the ritual, some of them coming from abroad. There are countless social media groups online, united by their belief in the plant’s ‘magical powers’. The brew is exported in a bottled version to Europe and other parts of America, so buyers can drink it, following an instruction manual.

But this popularity has led some people to criticise the trivialisation of an Indigenous tradition through which tribesmen have connected with their gods for centuries. And Indigenous people do not benefit from ayahuasca tourism, since the payments are usually just for the taita who runs the ceremonies, says Conrado: “There are very few who collectively pay.” The only local benefit is that these payments allow spiritual leaders to sustain themselves and provide a free service to the members of their community.

Discussing the issue on the botanical podcast In Pursuit of Plants, Hernando Echeverri, a Colombian academic specialising in environmental anthropology, says: “A lot of people that do not have the shamanic training or ability are becoming shamans just to profit and have made it more difficult to access [ayahuasca] because they are sending it to Europe or the cities.

"As it’s become more popular, the harvest of yagé vines, which takes more or less seven years to grow into maturity, has become more expensive, even for the farmers themselves.

“Then, because you can’t find good ayahuasca they grow [it] in bad conditions, [or they] don’t let it grow for the seven years required. And they cut down the wild ones that are considered to be the most powerful ones.”

There is also controversy around the consumption of the drink, given its proximity to certain illegal drugs, such as LSD. Some would like to see restrictions on ayahuasca, warning of the dangers posed by the active substances and the possibility of the brew triggering psychosis or simply poisoning.

Barasana men ingesting yagé as they don ritual regalia and transform themselves into the ancestors, Rio Piraparana, Vaupes Department, Colombia. Photograph © Wade Davis/Getty Images.

Despite the concerns, numbers from the Colombian Ministry of Health show that only a very small number of cases of poisoning in the country were related to ayahuasca.

Its consumption isn’t something innocuous or insignificant. Juan Bautista Agreda, of the Kamëntsá community, is another taita with 32 years of experience. He says that people should not try ayahuasca for the first time if they are over 80. Nor it is recommended for sufferers of low blood pressure, epilepsy or high cholesterol, as well as wearers of pacemakers. There should also be an assessment to detect cases of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

According to data collected by the Colombian Institute of Forensic Medicine, two foreign nationals died in the country after consuming ayahuasca in recent years.

The taita Quenama links these incidents to those practitioners who aren’t experienced or knowledgeable enough to guide ceremonies. “The plant itself takes care of punishing these people. Mother nature punishes them. But it is not yagé that takes the blame,” he says.

Óscar Molina, a filmmaker from Medellín, says that his experiences with the plant made him clearly aware of his relationship with all the other beings of the universe and confirmed to him the existence of a deity - something that makes sense to him, as he was looking for spirituality when he became interested in the ritual.

His first experience was in 2000 and took place in a small shack on the outskirts of Bogotá. In general, ayahuasca ceremonies happen at night and this one was no exception. In the living room of that humble house, around 25 people sat on the floorboards as there was no furniture. At the front, on a shelf representing an altar, lay the brew, some plants, a crystal ball and a feathered ornament that the taita put on his head.

After saying a few Catholic prayers, the leader offered the liquid, respecting some sort of hierarchy, with priority given to those guests who already had a relationship with him or with the drink, and the first-timers being the last ones served.

The man then asked everyone to be quiet while they slowly sipped the brew, which Molina describes as being the same colour of dark coffee, and bitter, “with a strong and unpleasant flavour.”

Wilson Restrepo, a conventional doctor who has tried drinking yagé, talks of the flavour as a mix of “sour, sweet and a little spicy” flavours, so piercing that for the following months he felt his stomach clenching at the mere thought of it.

“About half an hour later, you start to feel things, like not having complete control over the body movements. But it isn’t like being drunk. The sensation is that your body expands and becomes part of something else,” says Molina.

He says that soon he noticed a psychedelic glimmering “like a stained-glass window made of colourful geometrical shapes, some big, some small, flashing quickly” that he began to feel submerged in.

The ayahuasca ceremony combines ancestral beliefs with the dogmas of the Catholic church, a result of colonising missions, and Indigenous peoples see ayahuasca as a gift from nature that dates from the times of creation.

The Andean sounds in the background, played by two musicians, helped to make the moment sacred and to generate in Molina a feeling of connection with an ancestral culture.

As the minutes went by he felt a mix of physical pain, guilt, heaviness, loss of balance and lack of movement control.

“This is when you throw up uncontrollably, and when some people have diarrhoea. It is really hard because you feel very strong stomach contractions. You let so many fluids out that you ask yourself where it is all coming from,” he says.

In anticipation of this inevitable situation, it is common to see buckets or large receptacles strategically distributed around the room, which the leader points out before the start of the ceremony.

If the ritual happens in rural areas there is also the possibility of getting away from the group and relieving yourself away from everybody else’s eyes - but not without going too far.

The taita and his assistants are concerned that, in the search for a connection with another dimension, some individuals get very vulnerable to the surrounding evil spirits.

Molina repeated the experience five or six times again until 2014, in several different parts of the country, under the guidance of Indigenous priests. In 2017, he went to Medellín, Colombia, with a taita from the Witoto tribe. This ceremony happened in a hut built in the same fashion as the ones found in the jungle. Guests gathered in a circle around a fire.

The day after is normally placid. Molina remembers a feeling of peace, lightness and harmony. He also believes that taking ayahuasca allowed him to establish a more respectful attitude towards his body, nature and other human beings. “You question actions you took in the past. The experience is hard but loving,” he says.

The experience, however, is not the same for everybody. Some people talk about seeing walking trees, speaking with animals or being visited by dead relatives; others have been seen gesticulating rapidly as if fighting enemies with imaginary swords.

Wilson Restrepo was attending a professional summit when he was persuaded by shamans to come to a ceremony. He was young, recently graduated from the University of Antioquia in Colombia and had developed an interest in alternative therapies.The spiritual leaders guaranteed that the ‘trip’ triggered by ayahuasca would allow him to see a person’s aura and, through that, assess their health. But, having failed to find what he was looking for, Restrepo gave up. “I attended four or five ceremonies and couldn’t see anyone’s aura.However, I felt very calm and peaceful,” he recalls.

Víctor Quenama stresses that the effects of ayahuasca happen only when the person feels intoxicated. “Otherwise,” he says, “How do you expect to heal? You don’t see what you have to see. You get the effect and you see things, or you won’t see things clearly.” But, the taita warns, it is also a matter of sincerity: “Non-Indigenous people must come because they are ill and because they have real faith, otherwise it is the same as drinking liquor to get a high.”

And this goes to the heart of the criticisms of ayahuasca tourism and the international export of the drink: as people without ‘real faith’ discover the ceremony it becomes diluted and, when exported, removed from its cultural context, distorting its original meaning. Ayahuasca’s popularity in Colombia and internationally seems to be on the rise, but the more popular it becomes, the more it becomes divorced from its social and cultural context.

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Words by

Néstor Alonso López

Néstor Alonso López is a Colombian journalist with 25 years of experience covering issues related to armed conflict and human rights. In 2007 he wo… Learn more

Translation by

Maria Luisa Cavalcanti

Maria Luisa Cavalcanti (Malu) is an experienced journalist, researcher and producer working on factual documentaries, branded content and advertisi… Learn more

This article is part of Issue #2

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