What is an Ayahuasca Ceremony Like?

Turner Blog, Mental Health, Peru

My expectations of what an ayahuasca ceremony would be like ran pretty wild. If you read the interwebs, you would gather that everyone has this ‘life changing’ experience; when you talk to people who aren’t on the internet, you know – real life 3 dimensional people, you get a very different impression. Being the curious, chatty little otter that I am, I spent my first hours at Mayantuyacu before my first ayahuasca ceremony, peppering questions at whoever would speak to me about what their experiences with ayahuasca. Luckily for me, my first friends I made at Mayantuyacu were some friendly Canadians who embraced my annoying endless barrage of questions. How sweet.

Americans wouldn’t be so patient. I know my people.

What is an Ayahuasca Ceremony really like?

Some people see colors and geometric shapes, some have vivid journeys to ancient societies, some feel themselves in their mother’s womb, some just sit there and vibe with the icaros (songs being sung during the ceremonies directed at the ‘plants’) and some vomit violently the whole time – known as ‘purging’. The purging is about ridding your body and soul of toxins and can be vomiting, shitting, laughing…anything. Arguably, there generally seems to be three different tribes when it comes to partaking in ayahuasca: people who pushed all in and view and use Ayahuasca as a lifestyle to feel better (borderline culty religious), spiritual tourists who like to talk about being ‘spiritual’ like vegans like to talk about being vegan, and people on a personal quest of healing from illness or mental distress or addiction.

In short, I didn’t know what to believe, who to believe or if I believed any of it. I am coming from a place of zero spirituality, zero faith in an external deity, and a certain level of nausea for any woo woo topic in general. Which makes me the perfect candidate to discuss all matter of ayahuasca: an empty slate with no prior notions of anything. The perfect life partner ladies.

Preparing for my First Ayahuasca Experience

The ayahuasca ceremonies are held at placed called the maloca, which is a basically a giant, open sided hut used by people in the Amazon. During the day, it has hammocks and cushions you can lay around in to relax, journal, ponder why you are in the middle of the Peruvian jungle doing strange forest drugs, if you want to get back with your ex, etc.

To be clear, Ayahuasca ceremonies look fucking weird. They are what I imagine an opium den would look like if it were in the Amazon and full of white people. Mattresses lay around the perimeter of the room. Each mattress comes with a blanket, a bucket (to puke or put your cigarette ash in), and a pillow. Everyone wears white. Those who are into showcasing their spirituality usually wear or bring other strange artifacts for their journey, including but not limited to: pillows, fur rugs, blankets, head bands, chests filled with other weird medicines, colored lights.

My first ayahuasca ceremony began around 8 at night. Right before the ceremony began, I was greeted by a guest…

As I entered the maloca I was directed to the first mattress when you entered.

The noobie ayahuasca position.

ayahuasca experience

I was told people sat according to there ayahuasca experience, how long they had been in Mayantuyacu, etc., which is why I was put near the door. I didn’t mind. It was closest to the exit and to the bathroom – both of which were on my mind.

Still jet legged after my 36 hours journey from the USA into the Amazon, I was excited to finally be embarking on my Ayahuasca voyage of ‘spiritual healing’, but I was also nervous. In college, I had turned down mushrooms on a number of occasions because I am more of a paranoid person, and I had heard too many stories of people jumping off of balconies thinking they could fly.

Sensing my nervousness, my mattress mate Talia next door turned to me.

“Don’t worry you will be fine. Just relax.

Or you may die…”

She smiled and then lay back on her mattress. I liked her.

As I sat on my mattress, more people began entering and taking their places. A girl came around carrying an urn that was billowing smoke. Incense burned inside the urn and she motioned me to wave the smoke onto myself.

Tobacco and the Ayahuasca Experience

In the ayahuasca tradition, tobacco is a purifying agent. It is used as a conduit to connect with the spirit world. In scientific terms, smoking tobacco is encouraged as it helps to activate the DMT (the active ingredient in the whole process that makes you hallucinate) by blocking MAO inhibitors. As such, smoking mapachos (pure tobacco in cigarette form) and blowing smoke on things or people is a way to purify. In the West, it will just get you dirty looks.

In short, the ayahuasca tradition is cigarette smokers’ bliss.

Oh, you mean it is healthy to smoke? Don’t mind if I do…

After waving smoke all over myself and pretending like I knew what I was doing, the shaman arrived. I was hoping he was going to be in full shaman garb – giant feathered shaman hat and a long elaborate rob – but alas, he was wearing normal shaman gear.

At Mayantuyacu, the entire show is run by Maestro Juan Flores. Maestro, for those not hip on Spanish, means Teacher, and Juan Flores is the real deal. You can feel his lightness when he smiles at you. There is a calm feeling that radiates from him, not unlike my friend I spoke of in my previous blog post.

The Ayahuasca Ceremony

Once Maestro took his seat, he prepared his ayahuasca for the ceremony by blowing smoke into it. His assistant then took turns bringing a tiny challis of the ayahuasca to each person. Since I was the located in the first position, I got to take the ayahuasca first. His assistant, Sonia, gave me the glass and I raised it up to my heart for some reason and drank the concoction with slow, noticeable intention.

I am not sure why I did it this way. Others who went after me also more or less did it this way. Weird. I am not a religious person, but it just kind of felt like “Hey, let’s treat this weird jungle brew like a drink delivered to us by the Gods” kind of moment and drink it the way you would do that.

Anyway, the ayahuasca had a strong taste of tamarind with a gritty texture. Not awful, but not worthy of a tropical drink umbrella either. After the first drink, everyone lies back on their mattress and plays the waiting game. About 30 minutes later the icaros start…

“Yayayayaya hai yayayayaya hai yayayayaya hai yaayayayayaya hai medicina medicina…”

Icaros are the songs the shaman, his helpers and some of the more serious ayahuasca takers sing to the ‘plants’. The songs help people fall into the moment more and let the ‘medicina’ work. With my eyes closed, lying backward on the mattress I began to feel the ayahuasca. It started slowly but then the visuals started to become more vivid. Different geometric shapes and bright colors danced in my head. It was like having one of those kaleidoscopes as a kid, with each turn of the knob, the colorful pattern would change. It went on like this for another 45 minutes or so, until I saw people lining up for a second cup of ayahuasca from the Maestro.

So like a spiritual lemming, I got in line for more ayahuasca. And like any half decent ex-addict, my thought process went like – well if a little bit is good…more must be better!

I took the second cup from a smiling Maestro and went back to my mattress. This time however, the ayahuasca hit much harder and I found myself on a roller coaster. Each turn had me rolling uncomfortably on my mattress. The beautiful shapes had turned into serpents and I was unsure what to do with the barrage of emotions being thrown at me. After the medicine settled, I tried to focus. I had heard stories of visions and I wanted one. Badly. I had come all the way to the jungle to tap into my unconscious mind and wanted to find clarity of purpose more than anything.

Unfortunately, the more I wanted it, the more I rapt on the door, and the more I rapt on the door, the clearer it was that nobody in charge was at home. Mother Ayahuasca it seemed was not about to be dictated to, especially by some know-nothing American who just waltzed into the jungle. It was like watching a television screen with someone who was channel surfing at incredible speed. There was something on, but no way to actually tell what it was. The channels were turning before I was able to tune into anything meaningful.

And that that is how things went during my first Ayahuasca ceremony. I wasn’t exactly sure what the hell had happened, but it was clear that with so many people wearing spiritual outfits and singing jungle music, something amazing was bound to happen…

Ayahuasca Lesson 1

‘Wanting Leads to Not Getting’