PERU IS rightly famous for Machu Picchu and its many other Incan ruins. But these days a growing number of travellers are choosing to sample one of the country’s more infamous historical treasures: Ayahuasca.
A pungent, sickly, vision-inducing brew made from two Amazonian plants boiled and mixed together, Ayahuasca has been used as a medicine and ritual hallucinogen by indigenous rainforest communities for centuries and its popularity has been growing steadily among Westerners since it was “discovered” by hippies back in the 1960s.
Generally written off as a hallucinogenic drug outside of its traditional heartland, supporters of Ayahuasca’s use in a medicinal capacity point to cases where it has apparently cured ailments including crippling depression and some forms of cancer.
On a recent trip to Peru myself and a companion decided to give it a try for ourselves. We chose a company that runs retreats outside Cusco whose clientele, I discovered, included many Irish people.
We were advised to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, red meat, caffeine and sex for a few days beforehand and to fast from midnight the night before the retreat began. And so when the day arrived we set off for our destination, the day’s only participants, bellies rumbling from a mixture of hunger and trepidation.
Proceedings got under way with a cleansing ceremony led by the master shaman, one of three shamen who would be looking after us, along with a translator. Our cleansing involved chanting in Quechua, having perfume spat upon us and being patted down with condor feathers, before the shaman wrapped up various small gifts in a package to be thrown into a nearby river as an offering to Pachamama, or Mother Earth.
A few hours later as darkness fell we were summoned by our translator, and joined her and the Ayahuasca shaman – a woman in her early 30s from the Peruvian jungle – in a room filled with the smoke of ritual tobacco to have the ins and outs of the ceremony explained. Finally, the time came to drink.
The shaman poured us each a good-sized cup, which we were advised to down in one go. The taste, notoriously awful, was in fact surprisingly bearable, a sickly sweet cross between Guinness, coffee and cough syrup, made unpleasant by its thick, sedimented consistency.
The lights were switched off to leave us in total darkness awaiting the Ayahuasca’s effects, the silence broken by our shaman singing the Icaros, haunting songs said to act as a guide between our world and the spirit world. She stopped occasionally to smoke more of the tobacco, which it was explained cleansed the room where we sat wrapped in sleeping bags.
Roughly half an hour later, after some time of alternating hot and cold sweats, tingling fingers and a slight headache I vomited violently into a bucket. I knew in advance that being sick was a near certainty, but the ferocity was still startling. Our minders welcomed this as a sign of Ayahuasca cleansing my body.
Until this point I was unsure if the brew was having any other effect other than to make me vomit. But I was left in no doubt when a torch was switched on to allow our shaman see if we were ready for a second dose. The floor space separating us, no more than 5ft, now resembled a desert. Added to this, basic movement now demanded absolute concentration and sounds and voices had taken on an eerie, distant quality.
I decided to take a few minutes before trying another cup, while my companion took up the shaman’s offer and downed a second dose. Immediately she vomited into her bucket with a force that stunned me even as I sat there in a near-incapacitated state. When I myself tried another cup soon after I only managed to hold it down briefly before it, too, went in the bucket.
Finally, the visions started, helped along by the shaman’s singing: partially-remembered, simple revelations about how to live my life better that I had somehow overlooked; a powerful sense of being linked to the surrounding mountains; a feeling that I had transformed into a snake (the shaman later assured me that this was excellent news as the snake represents Ayahuasca), among other things.
My companion remembered being cradled by a large black jaguar as she lay on the ground, and that it stood guard licking her face when she went to bed later that night. Staggering upstairs some hours later I lay wriggling like a snake on top of the sheets, my mind going at hyperspeed but unable to grasp a single thought. I’m still unsure whether I actually managed to fall asleep.
The next morning, after a complicated thanksgiving ritual, we sat down to decipher what we had seen the previous night with the Ayahuasca shaman, and as she explained things to us it quickly became clear what a remarkable experience it was, even if it may sound dreadful here. Hazy, fleeting visions were clarified to become profound pieces of advice for future reference, while the nausea and fatigue were all but forgotten.
Legal issues aside, Ayahuasca certainly isn’t for everyone, but as someone with no real interest in religion and who wasn’t looking to cure an illness, I found it to be an unforgettable experience and an insight into a culture with a radically different way of looking at the world.
The Irish Times - Saturday, January 15, 2011