Ayahuasca; Hallucinogenic Drug, or Natural Medicine?

by Captain Bill

Ayahuasca Hallucinogenic Drug or Natural Medicine?

A guest post by Michael Collis

It is said that 15% of the tourists that come to Iquitos come solely to take ayahuasca. I have met and spoken with many of them. Some say they wanted just to try it and see what effect it had on them. Others actually came here to take ayahuasca because they had some kind of problem which they hoped would be cured by a shaman during an ayahuasca ceremony. I have heard many times about how some shamans actually add other ingredients to their ayahuasca to increase the amount and intensity of ayahuasca generated “visions”, is this true? The question is “What benefit, if any, does ayahuasca have?”. Another question often asked is “Are real shamans born into this art, or can it be taught?” We are looking for the answers so your imput in the blog comments will be gratefully received.

Ayahuasca, Hallucinogenic Drug or natural medicine

A guest post by Michael Collis

Michael Collis is the editor of the Iquitos Times, founder of the Great River Amazon Raft Race, and the Amazon Golf Course, among many other endeavors.

If you are interested in the questions asked in Mike’s article, check out these other articles about shamanism and ayahuasca;

Opinions About Ayahuasca From The Shamans Apprentice;

Shamanism, Ayahuasca And Vanity Fair In Iquitos Peru;

Sacred Shamanic Healing;

New Ayahuasca Menu At The Dawn on the Amazon Cafe;

The Shamans Ball At The Amazon Golf Course, Iquitos Peru;

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Susan Appleby May 26, 2010 at 3:55 pm

Hello Mike,

I think both presumptions are true it is used as a recreational drug by tourists here in Iquitos but it is equally true to say that it is a truly remarkable natural medicine. For many years I searched for a real shaman to help me with a problem I had had since childhood. I wote an article for a magazine about my search for a real curandero.

This is my article.

Seek and You Shall Find (eventually).

I was introduced to ayahuasca 5 years ago in London .Having undergone several years of therapy ying to exorcise a painful childhood. I found that one night on the medicine was more therapeutic and clearing than all the years of self analysis and psychotherapy. This led me to South America to find the source of this wonderful plant.
I have been to Iquitos 4 times in search of an authentic “curandero”. Not so easy to find. The shamans I encountered were not interested jn healing you but rather more to provide pleasant accommodation with a minimum amount of ayahuasca . Enough perhaps to have a few visions but not to delve into the subconscious and pull out the pain. This is understandable having discussed this with several “in the biz”, no one wants 20 gringos sobbing or freaking out in the ceremony space. One is therefore given only enough to get a few visions, the fracurals, an odd irredescent snake, some wonderful patterns(mostly from the DMT addative plant) to give you a psuchotropic experience. It’s fantastic that so many who come to Peru to seek healing through this amazing plant go away without reaping the benefits.
The people who are the real,I mean real “curanderos” and have knowledge of the medicinal properties of the various plants of the jungle, who sing the spiritual icaros which are given to them through a shamanic plant connection are the indigenous people of the amazon, the Shapibos.
These icaros (healing chants) are passed down through the generations when in deep medicine trance, the impact of these “spirit songs” connects with the instinctual inner self in a truly magical way.
The forest people are not reaping the benefits of ayahuasca tourism. They are not businessmen and are paid only a few soles to sing all night. They are displaced people who have been driven from the jungle by loggers or soya bean oil companies. You see them all over Iquitos eaking out a living selling their visionary embroideries to tourists and you will never find to the same.
At last I have discovered La Casa de Shapibo. Simple, peaceful,basic, a days journey up river. A place of real healing where one feels cared for and looked after. Special plant medicines are picked daily from the forest and prepared according to ones needs. Meals are organic local ingredients,tasty and cooked with care. This ia no “dieta”. However, in my experience , the no salt,sugar,meat etc., makes no difference to the ayahuasca experience. Of course for those acolytes who rigidly stick to the diet this is a bone of contention. I have had ayahuasca 150 to 200 times and stick to my guns on this point,particularly as I have had deep journeys in Ecuador with the Shunar Indians and frequently in Brazil. No ! My fellow seekers it’s not the diet but how much aya you have had and of course with whom you drink .Like any spiritual experience this is all important which brings me back to La Casa Shapibo. Over the years I have travelled a great deal and have sought out healers in various countries. It has self healing and at the same time relating to my own profession as a therapist. During my life I have met some real healers, also some sincere people. Sad to say I have encountered many who are interested only in their own gains.
I can without doubt, honestly say that these people are “real curanderos”.
If you are interested to know more go and see Carlos (who speaks perfect english) and has been helping these people sell their artifacts. You will find him in his small shop on the first block of Napo Street opposite the Fitzcaraldo Restaurant next to the ice cream parlour.

2 Peter Gorman May 27, 2010 at 9:45 am

Hello, Mike. To me it’s a no brainer. What with the puking and pooping involved, recreation ain’t going on with ayahuasca. Not that that implies that everyone utilizes it for the same reasons, but I think most quickly come to understand that this is serious medicine.
And medicine it is. It’s what the people on the rivers still depend on to cure a host of ailment, from the physical, to the spiritual and the emotional. The curandero I worked with for so many years, Julio Jerena, was simply the country doctor on the river on which he lived. And for several nearby rivers as well. Every day people would come to him to seek his remedies. And many of those remedies he acquired via his relationship with ayahuasca.
Now what’s changed with the influx of outsiders is the way in which ayahuasca is done. Traditionally, or at least in non-indiginous ayahuasca traditions, the guests don’t drink ayahuasca. Generally that is left to the curandero. You bring him the problem, he drinks, searches other levels of reality for the problem’s source and the remedy, then returns and gives you the information you need to solve, or start solving your problem. My mother-in-law and my father-in-law, both grew up on the rivers outside of Iquitos and they attended ayahuasca sessions in Iquitos every week. But they rarely drank. In fact, I only saw my mother-in-law drink once over a several year period. But she still attended ceremonies weekly, along with going to Catholic church on the plaza on Sundays. And I think that’s standard among a huge segment of the populace of elder folks in Iquitos. A lot of them are only 3 generations removed from genuine tribal life and still have a very intimate relationship with the plant world and the forest even if they now life in Iquitos. I’d dare to say there are hundreds of curanderos in Iquitos who tend to people like my in-laws regularly but who have never had a gringo at their ceremonies.
Now we westerners arrive and suddenly we’re wanting to drink the medicine. And it’s been good for an awful lot of people. But it is definitely a new modality and one that surprises a lot of traditional curanderos who are asked to come to Iquitos to serve the medicine. At least until they get used to the concept.
And now for a completely selfish plug: My new book, Ayahuasca in My Blood–25 Years of Medicine Dreaming is just out and it is available at lulu.com and at pgorman.com and will be available in a couple of weeks at amazon.com and pretty much every other on-line book store. And yup, it’s about my relationship with the medicine over the last quarter century.

3 Chullachaqui May 27, 2010 at 10:17 am

Hi Mike,

Having been coming to Iquitos for many years, I’ve seen the evolution of Ayahuasca in both the urban and jungle setting. What was once a trickle of believers has become a “Dr. Phil” type treatment program, with people seeking answers to personal problems that deal with finance,health, relationships, etc. As usual, the Gringoes have turned Ayahuasca into a cure-all for all our modern-day problems.

People are under the impression that a trip to Iquitos puts one on the road to becoming a shaman. I have seen programs in which levels of attainnment are controlled by the “shaman”. (I do know of some albergues that actually assign ranks to participants and give certificates on completion of the “shamanic study course”.)

And don’t forget about money, which is a very important aspect of shamanism. Now one can choose from any number of programs suited for one’s “goal”. Of course, the best are the ones in which the Gringoes have their greedy little paws involved. These retreats charge upwards of thousands of dollars and promise all sorts of revelations and spiritual advancement. Some of these albergues are generating a lot of wealth, but the wealth is the Gringo’s even though he may say his goal is to “save the rainforest, save the tribe, etc.” All of this is just another phony pretext for the Gringo to imbed his greedy self in the scene and create a money-producing investment. (Just check out the prices of some of these “centers for enlightenment”.) The kicker is that Gringoes flock to these charlatans and sing their praises to the power they have beheld and experienced.

I have spoken to numerous employees of the Gringo shamans, and I can say that most are not treated particularly well, and their pay is not at all comensurate with the prices being charged by the charlatans and paid for by the naive Gringoes.

This isn’t an accusation against all Gringoes in Iquitos, many of whom are true seekers, but there are those there who know nothing but money, even though they hide the fact well, or well enough to fool the Gringoes, anyway.

There is a humorous story about a “shaman” (read that as businessman) from a foreign country, who came down here and involved himself with building a center for “enlightenment”. After ejecting the local he took advantage of to build up his “empire”, this shamman announced to his eager followers that he envisioned himself on a golden throne, with his lady by his side, also seated on a golden throne. He works all the angles, employing female shamans and using gimmick of “feminine power”. All of this, of course, is about as phony and insincere as one can get. And this phony shaman charges a hefty price to impart his “wisdom and experience”.

And since what we call shamanism is in a very ambiguous arena, anything goes. The word shamanism is such a misnomer in itself. There is no “ism’ in shamanism. There are no tenets, no doctrines and no scripture. All of the teaching and learning come from the Plant itself. After establishing a relationship with Ayahuasca, the need for an intermediary becomes less necessary. But it seems few people are at this stage. Mostly they come here on a 2-week shamanic tour, leaving Iquitos as “qualified shamans-in-training”.

Ayahuasca is not about us.

4 Charlotte Bradford May 28, 2010 at 4:22 am

My experience as a “gringa” with Ayahuasca is entirely positive and interesting. I barely knew anything about it before coming to Iquitos and it was not the reason I came to visit…

After arriving in Iquitos and finding some like minded friends, we wanted to do some real jungle trekking. My friends and I were talking with our guide and enquiring about it; he told us about all the gringos who come and “get it wrong” and just want to “trip”, all the so-called “shamans” who just want to sell the stuff to make money out of unsuspecting tourists. He also told us about a friend of his and the shaman he knew in the village next to our remote lodge we stayed in for our trek. This shaman had been practicing since he was 12 and was now about 40

Purely out of interest I decided to give it a go, and hoped it might exorcise some stuff I had gone through (and which was still making me angry) in the last year before I decided to come travelling.

The shaman came to see me to discuss the process and my ideas and said he would be back in a 2 days. In that time our own jungle guide also looked after me, discussed what might happen, shared his own experiences and made sure my diet for the next few days was suitable (in the chances that I might be ill during this)
I had gotten irritated when the shaman was late, but found out when he arrived that it was because of his grandmother’s death earlier that night (my own grandmother whom I was very close to, had died 2 days previous to us leaving for the trek) I instantly thought, was this some strange connection and would it mean something? I put that to the back of my mind and continued focus on what I wanted to gain for the impending experience.

In hindsight, I find the most interesting thing about the experience is how clever natural medicine and the human body really are:
I had pre-conceived ideas of what I might need to “cleanse” from my mind and these were blown out the water. What I thought I wanted or needed to do was get rid of some angst, which I now see was about some quite superficial matters, but what actually ended up happening was that I grieved properly for my Nan which up ‘til now I hadn’t really done.
The effects went on to the next day, when I was able to have a real good cry, alone in the jungle during an incredible storm away from everything to do with the real world.
What I tell people now about my experience is that it made me realise how clever the body is – it knew what I needed from the experience, and the natural medicine encouraged a far more important cleansing experience to me than worrying about some rubbish to with an ex boyfriend and a friend who’d pissed me off!

In the days following my Nan’s death I couldn’t have been anywhere better than the wild jungle away from the stress of modern life with people who knew so much about natural, simple living and with good friends.
Ayahuasca has certainly helped me; both in the short term – as described above by serving a purpose, but now when I recall my experiences and analyse them, I can also see how much it has done for me in the long term too.

Mike I hope this was insightful for you.

5 Ana Maria May 28, 2010 at 7:30 pm

Yo creo que el ayahuasca es una medicina natural, tuve la oportunidad de tomarlo y vivir y sentir la experiencia de sus efectos y los beneficios curativos tambien

6 Keri Algar May 30, 2010 at 5:19 pm

Dear All

I came to Iquitos on a boat, for a two day visit, on the way to Brazil. As I stepped off the boat I took a deep breath – the air smelt of fetid water and rotting food fallen from the boats – I fell in love with the jungle town.
Two months later, the way in which I interperet the world had changed radically. The affinity jungle peole have with the world they live in shouldn’t be so remarkable, considering it is the most natural way to live. But compared with the Western world that is so far removed from nature, it is little wonder that the synchronicity in jungle life is so inspiring.
It is worthwhile remembering that Ayahuasca in all it’s beauty, is only one element in what is at once a simple and complex way of living.
I have only admiration and awe for curanderos and their medicines.

Go well
Keri Algar

7 Mishki Taki June 3, 2010 at 3:24 am

There is a lot of discussion lately about ayahuasca tourism, much of it in a pessimistic light.

In a recent interview Dennis McKenna said “Ayahuasca seems to be reaching out. The Amazon is marshaling its most intelligent plants to try to send a message to humanity that we need to wake up.”

Regardless of why someone might come to Iquitos, or why they want to take part in an ayahuasca ceremony, once a person has been exposed to the culture and the people of the Amazon and to ayahuasca the world is a different place, and in my experience, a much better place. The message from the Amazon is delivered directly. As a poster eloquently stated in the comments of an article at Reality Sandwich:

“So no matter what brings you to the jungle, youthful folly, tourismo, or a loftier purpose…just come, the aya will speak for itself regardless of who pours the bottle.”

P.S. I found your site through a link on Peter Gorman’s blog and with just a quick look around I can see a lot of interesting stuff here I’ll enjoy reading. Thanks!

8 Roy van der Meijs June 5, 2010 at 8:19 pm

Hi Mike,

I have been dedicating myself for about 5 years now to the work with ayahuasca and other medicinal plants and trees found in the Amazon rainforest. Last year, I set up an assosiation of traditional medicine named in Cocama dialect ´Tzahua ammuy wijo tzumi muraya´ which means Soul of the grandfather medicineman´, through which we want to promote and protect this ancestral work with the medicinal plants. Most of my time I spend in the forest, as this is the only place where you can truly learn the science of the plants, if this is your intent.
After all my experiences and processes I have been going through in the last 5 years, I can tell that Ayahuasca does is a powerfull medicine if it is used the right way. It does not only purify the body mind and soul, but it also allows the curandero to analize and detect the cause of dissease. It allows him to see how his family and friends are doing, and what they need; it allows him to see in the past, present and future and bring good luck to his people.

Why some person do have visions and other not and why some have benefit from it and others not, depend on several factors;

1. Is the curandero they drink with a true curandero?
2. The preparation of the brew
3. What need and intent does the person have who participate in the ceremony

The last factor is actually the most important. For example: Through my work with the medicinal plants I have seen many people suffering from mental and spiritual disseases and if these persons recognize their problem and truly want to solve it, during a traditional ceremony ayahuasca connects them with the spiritual world where they can always receive their cure, while the curandero sings the icaros (plant spirit songs)and the whole forest is making a concert of sounds.

On a fysical level Ayahuasca makes us vomnit all the toxins and negative vibrations that we have inside of our body and at the same time we witness this process ayahuasca evokes and we start to understand what is good for us, and what is not. This is a way to receive knowledge and wisdom the indiginous used to have and had been integrated into their lives where people from Europe and the United States can learn a lot from.

But like I said above, it depends on one´s intent. Not everybody in this world wishes or is prepared to receive certain truths and or certain blessings the ayahuasca offers us.

What it requires to become a curandero is simply that you need to have a strong spirit, and that you have a beautiful dream for humanity. The path of the curandero is full advanture and magic, but also it means lot of sacrifices and there will be many obstacles to overcome. To become a curandero is not only taking ayahuasca. It means you have to acomplish certain diets in the forest with other medicinal plants and trees, like the chiric sanango, ajos sacha, chuchuhuasi, and Ayahuma and days of fasting. A person who wants to become a curandero and fails in the diets, is simply not born for the work with the medicinal plants.

The prepareation of the ayahuasca, traditionally consisted of ayahuasca and chacruna in this area. Nowadays some add other plants, like the leaves or flowers of chiric sanango, leaves of ajos sacha, or even up to 3 leaves of the Datura (here in this region called Toe) to give more strenght to the brew. The Datura or Toe, is strong and give powerfull vision, but it is not recommend to add it to the brew. It can give headache, and your eye sight become worse and worse if you would continue using it. If there would be more than 3 leaves in the brew, it could make persons with mental or spiritual problems even crazy.

So, I have asked myself: Why would people add Datura (Toe)?

What happened is that ayahuasca got commercialised and many agencies do not work with a true curandero. They add the Datura, without knowing their power to cause damage. Usually the recreational tourist want to have good vision, and would not be satisfied if he does not have any vision during the participation of the ceremony and to prevent their complainings Datura(Toe) is added. This all falls under the ´commercialisation of ayahuasca´ or Áyahuasca tourism´ It has nothing to do anymore with the traditional way it has been used and the reasons why the indiginous people used it and still use it in some parts of the rainforest.

Mike, the assosiation I set up with some indiginous healers, do worry for the commercialisation of ayahuasca. Therefore we spread complete and honest information about the traditional use of the medicinal plants and we try to reach as much people as possible. I hope Mike that you, or maybe someone you know could help us with an interview-article on this subject soon in which both me and the indigenous could do their word.

Thanks Mike for this opportunaty to write something on this subject you created in this forum and please write me if you could help.

best wishes,

Roy van der Meijs

9 Tessa June 7, 2010 at 3:35 am

It is a powerful medicine. Medicine….. You need to have an Intent and a necessity for healing. It is not instant enlightenment. You need to eat a special diet, prior and if you have mental health problems be honest with the shaman, i have seen devastating effects when someone freaked out after too big a ceremony and not enought thought or care. This is sadly the way, it has become a commercial touristic tool to get money.
You can learn to work with this medicine, but it takes dedication and commitment and a lot of time on ones own with the trees and doing the diet. Spirit is the one who decides whether you are right to work with this not the money making workshop. There are prctises involving sex and drugs and people totally disrespecting the medicine. Sadly also the shamans have been corrupted and lots of them have become unsafe with women and there are some quite awful stories of women being touched inappropriately during ceremony. There still some good people but i think someone has to do a lot of research and find someone compatable with thier beliefs and path.
A lot of ceremonies are here in Uk, i know one person who uses integrity and is genuine, maybe one other. As for the others, i wouldnt drink with them.
If people understood that whatever the sweet talking slick sales patter of ” stay in a lodge and study the vine and become a shaman” is bullshit. Its spirit, heart, integrity, dedication, commitment and a pwoerful connection to Spirit and this has nothing to do with dollars in pocket, the reality is if youre paying to study as shaman you probably wont cut the mustard, you missed the point………..
If you are prepared to do hours and hours of research and search hard to find the few geniune shamans there and then give up everything to spend a short time working with them, putting the medicine way above family, work, money and you have complete trust and faith….then you are probably doing the right thing and you should be there.
If you have trust and faith and a strong connection to spirit, it precedes anything else. It is a lonely path ( until you find the love of nature and spirit is so wonderful and for some better than time with people)and path of miracles and magic,but never one you can pay to get further along more quickly.
Blessings and may love and light follow your paths.

10 Johan July 17, 2010 at 12:22 pm

I dont think that adding toe and other admixtures is something new, if anything it has become less common, since a lot of tourists have read a lot of horror stories and think that a bit of toe will make them freak out. Ten years ago I don’t think people asked so many questions about what the curandero put in, nowadays a lot of people have read a ton of books before they come down and see themselves as a bit of experts on curanderismo even before they have had their first ceremony.

11 Scotty October 26, 2012 at 2:06 am

Hello my name is Scotty Enyart and I am a Ph.D. student in Psychology.  I am currently conducting
research on Ayahuasca to try and further the academic worlds
understanding of the healing practice and was hoping that I could get
your help.  I am looking into the differences in healing between
Western Psychology and the non-Western healing practice of
Ayahuasca.  I would truly appriciate it if you could answer a couple
of question about your experience with Ayahuasca.  Also, if you know
anyone else who has taken Ayahuasca can you please ask them if they
can answer these question as well. 

Please follow the link

Scotty Enyart

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