Ayahuasca: Is It Worth The Risk?

By bogotapost May 16, 2014

james young bottles 2The Bogotá Post takes a look at Ayahuasca  and yagé – a growing trend among tourists in South America.

A traditional plant mixture used by indigenous South Americans for centuries, Ayahuasca has recently garnered attention as the backpacker’s trendy stimulant of choice. Made by mixing the Banisteriopsis caapi vine with the DMT-containing chacruna (Psychotria viridis) shrub, the mixture causes intense visions and personal reflection which proponents say can help with problems from depression to addiction and even cancer. Originally a traditional and highly spiritual experience of South America’s indigenous tribes, the ‘medicine’ (many dispute the classification of ayahuasca as a drug) has been hijacked by young travellers in Colombia looking for a good time.

Normally found in the Putumayo region of Colombia, the phenomenon of ‘ayahuasca tourism’ has grown to such an extent that local hostels have even begun advertising the ‘ayahuasca experience.’ A similar phenomenon has taken place in Peru on an even larger scale with the increased interest of foreigners resulting in a corresponding boom in charlatans, according to an article by Men’s Journal entitled “The Dark Side of Ayahuasca.”

Aya-preparationThe brew recently made international news, when 19 year old British student Henry Miller died after consuming the mixture in Colombia. The student travelled to Mocoa, where he allegedly fell ill while taking ayahuasca with a group of tourists. His exact cause of death is yet to be determined, with The Guardian saying it could have been an allergic reaction to the mixture, while other media outlets are reporting that he died from a blow to the head.

Proponents of the medicine say it is not in itself dangerous. Ayahuasca related deaths still appear to be rare, and, as with Miller, in many cases ayahuasca is not the clear cause of death; the father of Kyle Nolan, a teen who died in Peru in 2012 after taking the mixture, said he believed it was homicide as “people don’t die from ingesting ayahuasca.”

Colombian academic Rigoberto Solano Salinas is writing his thesis on yagé. Salinas is emphatic that: “Yagé is not dangerous. Irresponsible people, regardless of what culture they come from, are dangerous.”

Tips on staying safe

The ayahuasca tourism industry is highly unregulated. If you do decide to try yagé here are some things to consider in order to have a good, safe experience:

The boom in yagé tourism has meant a lot of inexperienced shamans cropping up. Research your taita, either by asking friends or using online forums.

Although ayahuasca is not a controlled substance, DMT- which it contains- is. Make sure you know the legal implications before you do it.

According to experts, ayahuasca should ideally be done in a small, intimate group in a peaceful, non-urban setting. Some organised groups are made up of as many as 50 people, which means not only a less intimate feel, but also potentially more safety risks.

You should not take ayahuasca if you are on any other medications or have a condition such as a heart condition or diabetes. Equally, if you have mental health issues such as schizophrenia, taking ayahuasca is not recommended.

You should not mix ayahuasca with any other drugs, including marijuana.

Taitas recommend following a no-meat diet, abstaining from alcohol and drugs and even abstaining from sex in the week before a session.

This statement would seem to be borne out in the statistics. Of the estimated tens of thousands of foreigners who come to South America every year to try the ‘mother plant’, three deaths have been reported since 2001, with none conclusively linked to ayahuasca. These deaths are, as Salinas says, often reported in international media without a close enough examination of the context. Yagé has been used by indigenous people for tens of thousands of years: is it really fair to condemn it as a dangerous, illegal drug because of the deaths of relatively few people at the hands of what seem to be principally irresponsible charlatans?

What does come out in discussion with both Salinas and people who have taken yagé is the importance of researching your indigenous leader or ‘taita’ (many Colombians object to the word ‘shaman’). It is an unfortunate fact that wherever there is money to be made, especially from hapless tourists, people looking to take advantage will appear.

Salinas recommends researching the lineage of your taita, how long they have been working for and ideally getting a personal recommendation.

Colombian friends say that a true taita shouldn’t charge for his services, and while it is perhaps optimistic to hope to get something for free these days, the price certainly shouldn’t be extortionate.

Aside from the practical considerations of who to take yagé with, those interested in trying the brew should also examine their own motivations for taking it. As Salinas says “a lot of people are drawn to Yagé or other sacred plants for the psychedelic effect of their visions and I think that this intent as well as being a mistake is dangerous…people think that the use of certain substances doesn’t have consequences, that all the indigenous and non-indigenous people that administer yagé are wise and responsible, that taking yagé is like smoking a little bit of marijuana”. Those who have tried the plant on the other hand say it can be an intense and incredibly difficult experience- with vomiting, diarrhoea and intense visions all part of the ride.

Yagé has attracted a cult following in terms of its ability to ‘cure’ disorders such as depression or post-traumatic stress disorder, but again those expecting an easy ride should avoid it, as should those with mental disorders such as schizophrenia or people taking other ‘Western’ medicines. National Geographic’s Kira Salak wrote about her experiences getting over depression by taking yagé but as she said “the curious should take heed: The unconscious mind holds many things you don’t want to look at.”

Salinas is keen to emphasise that the plant is not in itself a ‘magical cure’ but that the process of healing comes about through working on issues that surface while under the influence of ayahuasca. He says “Yagé doesn’t change people, but it does give us the elements to change ourselves, to learn to live well. You can take yagé every week and leave ‘purified’ but if you don’t work daily on what you have learned in the ceremony its better not to come back as you are cheating yourself.”

The friends I spoke to about their experiences with yagé came back with a diverse range of views. One friend regularly takes the plant with a taita he knows and trusts and, although he didn’t wish to discuss his experiences in detail, has been able to see his life more clearly and make lifestyle changes since his sessions began. Another friend was disappointed, saying: “it certainly wasn’t a profound experience” and he felt no effect whatsoever, while another said it was ‘the happiest night of his life’ but has yet to try it again.


Personal Yagé experiences


Yage was educational

“I’m cynical and sceptical, so yagé’s reputation as a medicinal link to the spirit world never sat well with me.

Perhaps it was the pseudo-intellectual notion that life is merely a series of experiences, and that experiences are so intrinsically linked to our perception, that to toy with my state of consciousness in such a way was appealing.

There was something romantic about it, an aspect of self-discovery, an experiment, an opportunity to partake in a ceremony of great cultural importance to the indigenous people. I didn’t share the visions or hallucinations that many report of yagé, but after an intensely upsetting fever, I witnessed the most complete euphoria. My mind was racing, but coherent. My faculties weren’t hindered in any way. And in this state I could contemplate and self-analyse and reach beautiful and comforting conclusions, aided by this overwhelming happiness.

Yagé was educational. I left with a new understanding of how truly subjective our interpretation and perception of the world is. That bending your mind and mood to the right place can help you to find beauty and value in anything. And that those moments when you’re down and you hurt are ephemeral, and whilst not entirely worthless, don’t merit the weight we sometimes give them.”

– James Young


james young yage lodgeAt the end of the day it’s a hallucinogenic like any other

“I’d seen a BBC documentary by Bruce Parry about it [yagé] years ago, before I ever came to South America, and since then it had been in my mind. From that documentary, I was impressed by what it could do to you. For Parry it was a profound, life changing experience, or at least it seemed to be.

The effect it had on me was minimal to say the least. I had a very uncomfortable stomach for a few hours before I finally vomited and passed out — in my vomit too! I had a brief trip then, the ‘standard’ vine/snake shaped visions with luminous green colours.

I am sceptical of the whole ‘it’s indigenous thus it’s not really a drug’ type of attitude. The ‘believers’ say you have to ‘let it take over your body’, ‘let it work’. At the end of the day it’s a hallucinogenic like any other hallucinogenic, wrapped up in a lot of indigenous mimicry. There’s this idea of making it out to be something bigger than it is and there’s even some arrogance among those who have profound trips when they take it towards those who don’t. It’s like ‘we’re not worthy/spiritual’ enough for it.”

– Brendan Corrigan

By Charlotte Ryan