La Luna del Amazonas

Ayahuasca retreat outside Iquitos, Peru

Written by Thomas Carroll.

A Hallucinogenic Brew

The Ayahuasca experience is used widely used throughout the Amazon for healing and spiritual exploration. Meaning "vine of the soul," Ayahuasca is the name given to the central ingredient of the psychoactive potion mixture, the jungle vine Banisteriopsis caapi, and the leaves of a plant called Chacruna (Psychotria viridis), or a similar plant. The ingredients are boiled together and consumed in a ritual ceremony with an Ayahuasquero (an ayahuasca shaman) to see the spirit world, for guidance, and to cure mental and physical ailments.

Ayahuasca has been used for over 5,000 years in a number of countries including Panama, Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, and by at least seventy different indigenous peoples of the Americas. Ayahuasca contains tryptamine alkaloids, MAOIs harmine, harmaline and tetrahydroharmine, harmol, harmic acid, harmine N-oxide, harmalinic acid and DMT.

The Potion

Ayahuasca is a psychoanalytic and psychotherapeutic tool that helps people become conscious of their problems. It has also been known to cure drug addictions, alcoholism, and a number of diseases thought incurable like certain types of cancer and AIDS. However, several sessions of ayahuasca may be needed and sometimes it is used in conjunction with other remedies.

Ayahuasca is considered to be a master "teacher plant,“ and is regarded as the gateway to the spirit world in which visions and conversations occur. Ayahuasca ceremonies are frequently held by Curanderos (healers) to cleanse the body, mind and spirit of affected individuals.

The late Richard Schultes and Terence McKenna, among other thinkers, helped make the world aware of ayahuasca. Advocating the use of the potion to increase consciousness they produced several works on the subject. Terence's brother Dennis McKenna is a member of the WasiWaska organization along with such prominent figures as Dr. Luis Eduardo Luna, Wade Davis, Graham Hancock, Jeremy Narby and Rick Strassman. The WasiWaska organization is located on the Santa Catarina Island in Brazil and is dedicated to researching the ayahuasca experience.

Dr. Rick Strassman investigated the effects of N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) by giving doses to 60 volunteers over five years. He concluded that the pineal gland releases DMT when a person nears death, and that DMT connects us to the spirit world. The psychoactive effects of ayahuasca are attributed to Dimethyltryptamine (DMT).


DMT is a psychoactive chemical which produces intense visuals and strong psychedelic effects. It is usually rendered ineffective when taken orally because it is easily broken down by the body's MAO enzyme. Ayahuasca is usually taken orally, so the vine is mixed with other elements that suppress the MAO enzyme long enough for DMT to enter the blood stream.

Once through the blood-brain barrier, DMT can elicit an entheogenic experience lasting around four to six hours, consisting of intricate audio-visual hallucinations, and visions with deep symbolic or emotional significance. DMT is an organic molecule that the brain naturally produces in dreaming, meditation and higher states of consciousness. DMT can be found in every human brain, blood, lungs and other parts of the body. It is also found in mammal and in a variety of plants.

Ayahuasca acts as a nutritional supplement by replacing the lost storehouse of DMT in the brain. When taken, one may experience intense hallucinations. It is very common to see snakes during ayahuasca visions. According to the ayahuasqueros this is because the spirit of ayahusca is a snake, and this is also why ayahuasca is a vine shaped like a snake. Other common visions include jaguars, spirits, highly unusual creatures, geometric patterns and a wide variety of extraterrestrials.

The Ayahuasca Experience

Ayahuasca ceremonies are almost always held in the jungles at night. The ayahuasquero gives doses of the potion to each of the participants, then sings his "Icaros," songs for the spirits, in hopes that they will be present during the ceremony and aid in healing.

After 45 to 60 minutes an euphoric ecstasy is experienced and the first visions begin. Throughout the ceremony the shaman moves around shaking a rattle, blowing cigarette smoke on some patients (which is also considered to have healing properties) and exorcising evil spirits which are seen as the cause of various diseases and disorders.

Ayahuasca usually induces nausea, dizziness and vomiting. The Ayahuasca experience consists of audio and visual hallucinations which frequently contain symbolic or emotional significance for the individual. Many visions during the ayahuasca experience are of the same nature as the visions during our dreams, pertaining to a higher reality than that experienced in ordinary states of consciousness. The peak experience lasts for 2 to 6 hours, which brings about the possibility of personal growth. Ayahuasca gives power, knowledge and vision.

The consumption of ayahuasca within a controlled context shows no side-effects, it is not addictive and it does not produce any withdrawal syndromes. People do not show any symptoms of abstinence when they stop consuming it.

The most famous place to take ayahuasca is in Iquitos, Peru. There are several organized tours that take groups into the jungles to partake in the ayahuasca experience, as well as many independent shaman who also offer their services. Participants may attend a single ceremony, or if they wish, they may take ayahuasca over a period of several weeks while following a special diet as instructed by the shaman. Experiencing an ayahuasca ceremony is powerful and transforming in itself, however the challenge comes when integrating this experience in daily life.