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Drinking Ayahuasca Safely in Peru

Updated: Aug 8, 2023

Ayahuasca has gained much interest in recent years and has been widely acknowledged for its medicinal properties and for the profound healing and life-changing experiences reported by many who have used it. While it is, undoubtedly, a powerful substance with tremendous healing potential, unfortunately, there can also be dangerous and problematic outcomes and effects following its use. I am shocked at the frequency with which I hear stories of badly run ceremonies, people feeling worse afterwards, and things that just should never have happened.

Unfortunately, as the interest in psychoactive plant medicines continues to grow, and people travel from Western countries to areas of the Amazon where many people live in poverty, trusting Western tourists can be easy targets for those with a purely money-making agenda. Often Ayahuasca is advertised to tourists by people with very little knowledge or experience with the medicine, or in unsafe environments and circumstances. Black magic is also commonly practised in the Amazon, and although in our Western culture many are unfamiliar with, or disbelieving in, this, much of Amazonian Curandismo (healing) involves the removal of curses and unhelpful spirits and entities which have been sent to people by ill-wishing neighbours or by someone who is holding a grudge. This is also one of the reasons some people find Ayahuasca to be such a useful and effective method of healing when nothing else has seemed to work – it is addressing and working on a completely different energetic level that much of our Western culture is unaware of or has forgotten. But, sadly, it is not uncommon that well-intentioned people drink with ill-intentioned 'Shamans' who, instead of assisting with healing, only make their situation worse, perhaps to gain more money or for power or control.

The purpose of this article isn't to scare you away from a potentially profound healing experience, but to guide you towards the safest practitioners and ceremony spaces. Although Ayahuasca is a powerful psychedelic substance, the real gift is in the healing, not the tripping. It is important that your environment and the energy around you are conductive to your wellbeing and safety for you to comfortably enter into a vulnerable and open state and receive the maximum healing potential from the plant. Here I list some things to avoid, and some things to look out for, to help ensure that you will have a truly healing experience.

Where to Drink?

  • Choose somewhere that already has a good reputation -or even better if you know someone who has had a good experience there. If you see/hear about people coming away from a centre/Curandero (healer) in better health and with tangible improvements which continue on for the long-term, and having had good experiences in their ceremonies, or if their health, life or outlook changes for the better in some way afterwards, that's always a great sign!

  • Avoid people offering you Ayahuasca on the street in Iquitos: they often just buy it at the market and don't have any experience or knowledge of how to use it. There is also a common scam where people are taken out into the jungle and are then asked for much more money for the return trip back to the town. Going into the jungle to 'find a Shaman' is also a terrible idea - you are more likely to be robbed, or worse, than to find someone who genuinely wants to help you. You are also likely to be regarded as purely a source of money and taken advantage of financially, and you would have no way of knowing the validity of anyone who claims to be a healer. The well-known medicine centres often have good, experienced Curanderos who are being paid well for their work. These centres also have their own good reputations to uphold so it is in their best interests to take care of you and to provide you with a safe and honest service.

  • Centres that communicate well, answer any questions you have beforehand, and have a genuine interest in your wellbeing and your reason for wanting to participate are likely to provide you with better care when you are there.

  • When applying, you should be asked about your health history and medications, and the centre should advise you on which medications to stop taking before the retreat. If they have a policy to refuse people due to health issues or due to taking certain medications, that's a sign that they care and are looking out for your health and safety. Ayahuasca can be potentially fatal when taken alongside certain medications and can be verey dangerous when taken in the presence of some mental health conditions. Be wary of anyone who does not ask about your health, especially your mental health, and/or medications.

  • A quiet setting in an undisturbed environment is essential for your concentration and sense of safety – avoid drinking in apartment blocks in a busy city! You will also be much more open and sensitive to the energy around you, so somewhere peaceful in nature will be much more condusive towards healing and potentially less mentally or spirtually disturbing.

  • You will receive more personal attention from the Curandero in a smaller group. The larger the group size, the more people they have to look after spiritually during the ceremony.

Choosing a Curandero

  • You are putting your spiritual safety and wellbeing into the hands of the Curandero during the ceremony, so make sure you are drinking with someone you feel safe with. Under the influence of Ayahuasca, you are opened up to the spiritual world, and it is the Curandero's job to keep the space safe, to keep ill-intentioned spirits away, and to keep you protected during your journey. If for any reason you don't get a good feeling about the Curandero or the energy of the space, don't participate in the ceremony!

  • Keep in mind that the energy of the practitioner will reflect the types of spirits that have chosen to work with them and the quality of their dietas and the healing work they have done on themselves, so you can learn a lot about them and their work from their general behaviour and demeanour. If they appear to have a lot of stress and drama surrouding them, that is all going to be coming into the ceremony with them too. Someone who is calm and grounded will be able to hold a much safer space than someone who involves themselves in every potential issue and problem. A good rule of thumb is not to drink with someone you feel like you wouldn't want to be.

  • Don't hesitate to ask the centre or the Curandero about their history and experience. How long have they been working with the medicine? How many dietas, and which plants have they dieted with? What do they have to say about the medicine, their work, and how they can help you? The Curandero is essential for the safety and effectiveness of the ceremony, but if they talk more about themselves and what a great Shaman they are, and less about the healing power of the plants, that's another potential sign that they might not be the best person to work with.

  • And another great sign is if they show a genuine interest in your wellbeing and your reasons for drinking, and continue to show an interest in your experience after the ceremony, and clearly want you to be healthy and well.

Ceremony Facilitators and Medicine Philosophies

  • It is not essential to have a facillitator present to assist with the ceremony, but it can certainly make your experience more comfortable. If you are drinking at a centre or retreat, there will likely be one or more people available to help at any time during the ceremony. They will be able to talk you through a difficult experience, and can help you with practicalities, such as getting to the bathroom, and they are also there to ensure the physical safety of the group during the ceremony.

  • Be aware of people, or centres, that have a lot of dogma, 'rules' or definitions of how things 'should' be, or who give very definite meanings to your experiences instead of encouraging you to find your own understanding. There are many different ways to do things in and around the ceremony, all of which can be very effective. Too much dogma, especially without an explanation of why something 'has' to be done that way, can be a red flag and can lead to potentially unhelpful experiences for the sake of following the 'rule.'

  • Similarly, avoid 'gurus' who want to give you all the answers. One of the most beautiful things about this medicine is the way that it teaches you to look inside yourself for your own understanding. If someone is dictating the 'right answer' to you, or seems to be elevating themselves spiritually, rather than encouraging you to look inwards, they are best avoided or at least ignored.

The Brew

  • The Ayahyasca brew contains the Ayahuasca vine, banisteriopsis caapi, and chakruna leaves. Many people offer the brew with just these two plants. It may also contain another DMT-containing plant, such as huambisa, or small amounts of other medicinal plants like bobinsana or tobacco, all of which add another energy to the brew.

  • Don't be afraid to ask which plants are in the Ayahuasca brew you will be drinking. Most of them are very safe and the practitioner should be able to tell you which plants have been included and why (often because they have a special connection to a particular plant or for the additional healing energy it brings into the medicine.)

  • The more dangerous plant which is often added, to be aware of, is brugmansia, also known as toé. This is sometimes included in brews for Westerners as it can intensify the psychedelic visions, which many people are looking and hoping for. This has the potential to be extremely dangerous as toé is a plant which requires a lot of skill and experience to work with: when not used properly it can lead to insanity or even death. Where there are some skilled Curanderos who are able to do good healing work with this plant, it is often addeded purely for the visual enhancements without the practitioner understanding how to properly use it. Avoid brews containing toé: you really don't need it! To be at the point where you are working with a good Curandero who is genuinely able to help you with it, if that is the most approapriate plant for you, you would be far past the point of needing to read this article.

The Ceremony

  • During the ceremony, you are opening yourself up to the spiritual world and trusting the Curandero with your spiritual wellbeing. If for any reason you do not feel safe and comfortable at the beginning of the ceremony, don't drink the Ayahuasca!

  • You should never be forced to drink Ayahuasca. It's your body that the medicine will be going into, and you are the one who is potentially going to be spending the night in discomfort, vomiting, tripping intensely, and going through the whole of the experience. Avoid drinking with anyone who says it is essential for you to drink. You can still receive the healing benefits just from being present in the ceremony. What goes into your body is always your choice.

  • The Curandero should be fully present during the ceremony – not falling asleep or watching TV in another room (horrible reports I have heard...). Their job is to keep the space safe and protencted, to call your spirit back if you journey far off into the spiritual dimensions, and to call in and work with the plant and ancestral spirits for healing. A ceremony where the practitioner is absent or disinterested is not a safe or healing space.

  • Icaros are usually sung during the ceremony: these are channelled songs from the plants for healing and protection. Traditions differ, but a safe and healing ceremony will usually include icaros which are being sung live by the Curandero, not filled with pre-recorded music from an mp3 player. Sometimes recordings may be played after the ceremony, or sometimes participants may be invited to express themselves through singing or playing music, but the Curandero should have an active role in safety and the healing power of the ceremony through singing icaros.

  • If you are concerned about your spiritual safety, ask the practitioner/centre how the space is kept safe during ceremony. They may mention icaros, protective plant spirits and dietas they have done with protective plants, the protection of ancestral spirits or how the Curandero sees and works in their medicine space. If they don't really have much to say or don't seem to know that could be a sign that they don't really know....

  • Is there first aid available, and how accessible is a hospital if it were needed? In the case that something did happen, it is beneficial to know that help is accessible and available.

'Quiet' Ceremonies

  • Sometimes it can feel as if nothing is really happening during the ceremony. There may be no visions, or no tangible feeling of experiencing the medicine. Where this can often lead to disappointment, it is not always a bad sign and doesn't mean it isn't working.

  • Before you 'take off', the plant is going to want to clean you. Ofen the Curandero may keep you 'down' for one or two ceremonies so that you can receive a deep energetic cleansing before you open up to fly further. This is for your mental and spritual safety and wellbeing – you will have a much more pleasant expereince when there are fewer energetic toxins present.

  • Marijuana use can also interfere with sensitivity to Ayahuasca, as these plants tend to not be very compatible. If you are a heavy marijuana user, it is advisable to stop using it for two to four weeks, or more, before drinking Ayahuasca. It is not uncommon for very little to happen for two or three ceremonies when there has been heavy marijuana use, as it can take some time for the energy from the marijuana plant to be cleared away, allowing the Ayahuasca to 'work.

  • Some people never get visions but connect with the medicine in other ways – you may receive insights and inspiration, physical sensations, a feeling of intuitive communication with the plant or with the spirit world, or experience some very deep purging. The visions are not essential, nor at they the most important part of the ceremony, and not everybody experiences them. Many people receive deep healing and have extremely profound expereinces without any visual elements.

  • After the ceremony, the Curandero may have a very different perspective to you about what was happening. Often a lot of healing occurs when you are more present in the ceremony space, and feeling 'nothing,' or perhaps just a lot of tiredness and nausea. Flying away into the spiritual dimensions, whilst interesting and often insightful, can sometimes be at the expense of the deeper healing.

  • Notice what else is happening for you in the time around the ceremony. The medicine doesn't just work during the ceremony, it is common to feel it working beforehand and to continue to expereince changes and insights afterwards. Notice what you are thinking about and what you are feeling. Often the healing is in the experience of 'no experience' and the emotions that arise for you as you deal with this disappointment, perhaps anger or feelings of low self-worth; or sometimes you might find yourself thinking about a part of your life, or understanding something differently, outside of the ceremony. Pay attention to your dreams too: the plants often teach and heal through dreams.

  • And notice what changes over the following weeks and months. You may receive a lot of healing and expereince many changes afterwards without realising that it was happening at the time.

  • If you are really struggling to connect with the medicine, the Curandero may also use other treatments and plants may outside of the ceremonies to assist you to connect and to open up energetically.

  • And know that if you do not feel like you are connecting with the medicine, it is not your fault and you have not been rejected by the Ayahuasca!! Ignore those who say the plant has not 'chosen' you or that you are not a right for it. There are many different ways the medicine works with different people. You might also find that there is another plant, or another system of healing, that you will connect with more strongly, or you may better understand your experience at a later time. But be assured, you have not been rejected by the plant sprit!

Red Flags

Some other things to be aware of that can indicate that somewhere is not going to be the most supportive centre or that someone may not be a beneficial Curandero for you to drink with:

  • Inapropriate sexual advances: sex is not considered to be a part of the healing during ceremony (usually one abstains from sexual activity during the dieta), and the Curandero is not going to 'heal you' through having sex with you. It is unprofessional and insensitive for the practioner to make advances when you are in a vulnerable situation and where you may be intensely working on and healing issues and traumas around your sexuality. Innapropriate advances indicate that the practitioner is not giving you the space to work on yourself, and is not acknowledging where your own patterns around sexuality may be coming up for your exploration and understanding. If romantic feelings do arise, it is better to wait until after the retreat/ceremony to explore them in a less intense and more neutral environement.

  • If the centre/practitioner is vague or overly simplistic about the medicine, or if they focus more on interdimensional jouneys, 'tripping' and visions than on healing, that could be a sign they are not doing as deep or effective work as they could be.

  • Suddenly asking for more money mid way through the ceremony/retreat is at best annoying and insensitive.

  • Blaming you for anything that happens: eg. if you are not connecting to the medicine, if you are having a difficult experience, or if you are not dealing with your experience in a certain way, and telling you you're 'doing it wrong' are all indicators that the practitioner is not holding a safe and non-judgemental space for you to have your experience as it happens: their job is to take care of you and to facilitate your safe healing, however that manifests.

  • If they show very little interest in your wellbeing and reason for being there, they may not have your safety and healing as their highest priority.

If it Doesn't Go Well...

  • Ceremonies can be tough and Ayahuasca isn't usually fun. If you have a challenging ceremony, or find that you are not having a good time with the medicine, it is very likely to be your own 'stuff' coming up for you to witness and work on. Check in with yourself if you are reliving old patterns or confronting your own fears or discomfort, or if you genuinely feel that you have not been properly taken care of in the ceremony.

  • Express your concens to the Curandero or to the centre. If you are feeling 'off' in any way after a ceremony, the Curandero will likely be able to help you with a limpieza (energetic cleansing) or another supportive treatment.

  • If you feel like you have generally not been well looked after, but are basically fine, you may like to explore what it was that drew you to drink at that place and with that person. Sometimes we just don't have great experiences and there is not necessarily a big message in it other than to go somewhere different next time, but sometimes we are drawn to a certain type of charisma, or are promised things that seem too good to be true. It can be useful to use the experience to look at what appeals to us and why, and to perhaps gain some self insight... or if it was just unexpectedly not very good, let it go and move on.

  • If you are feeling physically, spiritually or energetically worse in some way following your cermonies, if you feel that the space was not sufficiently protected during the ceremony, and if you are not feeling supported by the centre/Curandero afterwards, you may benefit from speaking with someone else who works with the same plant and who may be able to help you to clean up any unwanted, unhelpful energy that you picked up as a direct or indirect result of a poorly run ceremony. Again, it may be useful to take a look at your own role in this: often unhelpful energies are attracted to our weaknesses, so we can use the experience to better understand where we may need to develop stronger boundaries or a greater level of discerrnment. At the same time, despite our best efforts, sometimes these things do happen. Unfortunately not everyone is honest and genuine or as proficient as they claim to be, and it is definitely not your fault! Once you have found someone to help you clean up energetically, there is not really any reason to dwell on it too much... just move on, take the lessons if they are there, and find somewhere better for next time.

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