Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Max Trax. Medellin Living does not endorse the use of ayahuasca (known as “yage” in Colombia). If you are thinking about taking it, please familiarize yourself with the risks and dangers. In April 2014, a young British backpacker died after taking it for the second time in Colombia.
The Monkey Guide to the Gates of Hell: My First Experience with Ayahuasca
My journey with ayahuasca didn’t start in Medellín.
It began 10 years ago in Iquitos, Peru on the Amazon River. Within two days, in two separate remote villages, I heard two foreigners recount the exact same ayahuasca experience and, frankly, the story scared the hell out of me – I knew I had to try it.
Both stories go like this… After ingesting one of the most foul-tasting, ground up root extract liquids imaginable, proceeding to throw-up, sweat, and diarrhea everywhere, you fall into a trance like state with a shaman hovering over you chanting nonsensical prayers while beating you with jungle reeds.
As you hallucinate you are joined by your spirit guide, which in both of their cases, was a monkey. The monkey guides you down a path until you reach the gates of hell.
There are two doors. Choose the wrong one and you will certainly die. Choose the correct one and your quest will be a success rewarded by a clear answer to your intention of the journey.
Both of the storytellers chose the correct door and lived to tell about it.
So what is ayahuasca and why would someone spend money (in our case 80,000 pesos/$40) to drink root juice?
Technically, ayahuasca (also referred to as Yage by Paisas) is a tea composed of the vine Banisteriopsis caapi and chacruna or chagropanga (DMT).
By ingesting spoonfuls of powdered coca plants (imbombe) and licking a paste of pure tobacco, the DMT can bypass the blood barrier of the stomach and be ingested into the blood stream.
[Ok enough of the nerd talk. Poindexter glasses off, Ray-Bans on. Really it’s about tripping balls in the jungle while going on a spiritual quest with a shaman.]
The Journey Begins
I saw the poster for bi-weekly ayahuasca ceremonies while I was staying at The Wandering Paisa.
The poster had a few contact phone numbers and a Facebook page as well as the date for the next ceremony.
I sent a Facebook message and arranged for Samuel and his wife Paula, owners of Fundación Camino al Sol, to pick me up in a small van Sunday afternoon.
After seven years of managing a hostel in Medellín, Samuel and Paula had enough of the chaos of the city and headed for the peaceful hill-side village of Santa Elena to provide authentic ayahuasca ceremonies for their guests.
We pick up six backpackers in Poblado and head out of Medellín. After an hour drive through a fairly dangerous barrio, and winding along switchbacks that crept up the side of the mountains overlooking Medellín, we reach Santa Elena.
On the property, there is a small house on a hill looming above a thatch palapa surrounded by a small garden.
There is also a small food stand near the palapa, a men’s and women’s toilet and a shower closet which separates the two bathrooms.
Samuel explains in intricate detail (in both Spanish and English) what we should expect over the next 12 hours.
The ceremony is broken into three stages; first the cleansing and purification, then the fire blessing and finally the actual ingesting of ayahuasca.
Cleansing and Purification
A caldron of goatweed (to promote openness), lemon cello (for sweetness), and mocura (for harmony), and river water rests above a blazing fire.
We spend an hour watching the water boil while talking with “the professor” (a shaman-in-training) about the spiritual properties of the roots.
He removes several medicine bottles from his pack. The first one contains a salve-like paste of pure tobacco.
The tobacco is used in the ceremony and not only smoked and blown across the ayahuasca to bless it, but constantly ingested by placing a small dollop, the size of a pea, on the back of the hand between the thumb and index finger.
The second element is dry pulverized cocoa leaves called imbombe. The powder is placed in the mouth and used to open up the stomach to receive the DMT.
Once the broth reaches a full boil we disrobe, one by one, and enter a showering area one at a time. With boiling water in a bucket in one hand, and a cold water bucket in the other, the purification process begins.
We began by washing the head to prepare the mind, the body to purify the heart, and the rest of the body to awake the senses.
This was the most uncomfortable part of the ceremony; getting undressed in a small shower closet, mixing scolding water with cold water to reach a bearable temperature, washing and getting dressed while cold and wet, but this cleansing ritual is essential to prepare the body for the next stage, the fire blessing.
The Fire Ceremony
The professor mixes the elixirs with flammable incense according to the ailments we have decided to work on and lights it. The fire crackles and creates a fast burning flame which jumps from the pan.
He blesses my head, arms, and chest then moves the pan behind me on the ground and blesses my head, back, arms and legs. Once the fire ceremony is over we enter the main prayer hall.
In the palapa, we position ourselves around the fire. We are given a thick blanket and a plastic chair. Around 9pm, Paisas, mostly young 20-30 year old men, enter the palapa.
They have chiseled features and an air about them that breathes of confidence as if they have been preparing for this event. Some lay out bed rolls with blankets, while others string hammocks around the perimeter of the palapa.
It’s easy to identify the hierarchy among the men. The head shaman (or taita) holds the central hammock spot and so many necklaces he can barely hold his head up under the weight.
The Paisas place crystals, amulets, challises, clay pots, and large detergent bottles on the giant stone altar and don pure white robes embroidered with intricate ornate tribal patters. The ceremony begins around 10:30pm and the sense of community is emphasized.
Each person has the right, nay informal responsibility, to introduce themselves and explain what they intend to achieve during the “treatment”.
The taitas and the Paisas set their intentions first and then it’s time for the guests to do the same, in Spanish or English, in front of relatively complete strangers.
Describing Your Intention
I feel that it’s ok to express my intention here, but I would never divulge the intentions of my fellow community members. I express to the group how I feel lost in my own life and I am looking for answers on the right path to choose in life.
I ask for a spiritual guide to show me the way. Ask for it, place it in your intentions, and then let it go.
Drinking the Ayahuasca
A small line forms with the newcomers at the front. Standing in front of the taita, he looks me in the eyes determining my portion (usually between half a cup and a cup), dips his ladle into the sacred pot and pours it into a stone chalice.
The ayahuasca is the consistency of thin mud. It has a distinct taste of ground up roots and natural herbs. I imagined it would taste horrible, but it doesn’t.
I want to make sure I receive the full amount and consume every drop. After everyone drinks, we are each given a small plastic bag to use as an emergency barf bag in case we could not stand up or make it to the door.
Silence. All the guests are staring at the fire, waiting to throw up. One throws up within 30 seconds. My goal is to hold it in for an hour. After 30 minutes, a guy next to me asks if I’m feeling anything. I tell him I’m not sure. He immediately stands up and races out of the palapa. “Blaaa” Yep, he felt it.
I make it to 50 minutes. My stomach rumbles and I know this is it. I bolt for the door. I find the bucket. The stench of people’s throw up fills my nostrils. There is absolutely no going back.
I empty my stomach into the bucket which I hold close to my face (why I insist on holding the bucket, I’ll never know). The helpers encourage me to put the bucket down and I continue puking as they chant with their hands on my back. After a few good heaves, I’m done.
Others continue to violently empty their stomachs. Someone in the dark recesses of the palapa begins to play an ancient tribal song on a harmonica with fluttery tones on both the exhale and inhale. The sound is so perfect. Obviously the trip has begun.
I lay my blanket out next to the fire and watch the flame. The fire turns blue and the flame lifts from the wood. The logs are no longer burning, but flickering.
Like bright red Christmas lights in unison, ascending to the end of the log, pointing to the tip, with fire separating from the logs and rejoining in a blue flame. I watch in amazement as the tribal harmonic sounds lift the flame higher until it remains a solitary blue flame above the pile of split logs.
The head taita takes over the harmonica tune. His melody is also in tribal fashion, but different pattern, which leads my mind down another path. I start searching for the monkey spirit guide. I am prepared for my door test.
I imagine the angry monkey from Family Guy to come screaming down a dark hallway, but nothing as violent or terrifying as Chris’ closet monkey ever appears.
Rather the trip is pleasant, calming, and quite frankly, enjoyable with vivid hallucinations and transcendental insights relating to my intention.
We sit on small plastic stools in a line facing the altar with our palms facing up, eyes closed. The training taitas begin chanting, and then spray us with an herbal elixir by pursing their lips and blowing out. The spray passes over the fan and covers our bodies. It stings my eyes but I dare not move.
Then, one at a time they chant their ancestral chant as they brush our bodies with reed fans. After 15 minutes of receiving these blessings, we’re instructed to move to small stools surrounding the fire.
The Biting Ants
We remove our shirts, shoes and socks and reposition ourselves around the room (women might want to wear a sports bra). The taitas brush a special plant called hormiga across our bodies. The itching turns to burning like a thousand fire ants biting my skin.
Everyone breathes heavily with several guests screaming out in pain. The taitas continue chanting. After several excruciating minutes soothing balm is rubbed on our skin to abate the feeling.
We are given the opportunity to take another drink of the ayahuasca. The taita asks me a few questions about how I feel and looks in my eyes. He portions out the amount he thinks I need. This is mixed with pineapple and not as strong as the first. The music breaks out again.
The second dose does not hit me as hard. I still begin to hallucinate but this time my stomach does not hurt as much. The taitas retreat to their hammocks and some of the Paisas go to their tents. It’s 3:30am. I find a tent as well.
Many of our group is coiled up next to the fire (not very smart, but hey we’re on drugs, man!) I listen to the harmonious guitar as I drift to sleep.
Samuel wakes me at 6:30am by tugging on my foot. I reconvene with the group in the palapa and we recount tales of the night before. Some saw nothing. Others were still puking at 7am and stumbling around out of their mind.
Without a doubt do it if you have the opportunity.
Admittedly, I’ve tried a few drugs in my life, but none were similar to the experience of ayahuasca. I’m always up for trying something once as long as the risk can be calculated or mitigated and it was with Fundación Camino al Sol.
Ayahuasca isn’t necessarily for everybody, but those that give themselves to the healing powers of the taitas, will be glad they did.
My second suggestion is to take the second cup of ayahuasca, even if the first was unpleasant. The ceremony isn’t complete without it.
Remember, Fundación Camino al Sol only hosts ayahuasca ceremonies every other Sunday. Bring warm clothes, shoes, and prepare your body by getting adequate sleep the night before and eating healthy foods (fruits and vegetables) making sure to avoid alcohol.
Enter the ceremony with a clear intention in mind and don’t expect to solve the problem during the ceremony.
Will I do it again? I’m not sure.
Worth it? Yes.
I found the answer to the question I was asking the spirit gods, but I feel my subconscious already knew what I was going to do. It just needed to have its ass kicked by some ayahuasca.
About the Author: Max Trax (a pseudonym of Zach Roesinger) has traveled to over 90 countries in search of epic waves to surf, jagged peaks to climb, and pristine reefs to SCUBA dive. He currently lives in Medellín, Colombia where he manages Roesinger Real Estate a real estate SEO and digital marketing firm. Connect via Facebook or Google+.