What is Ayahuasca?

By Jenny Dion

A definitive guide to answer the question... "what is ayahuasca and why participate in an ayahuasca ceremony?".  (the Mother Vine’s purpose, effects, ceremony, dangers, benefits, side effects, cost, and overall experience for Westerners

If you’re just beginning your research into Ayahuasca, you’ve landed well. Welcome. We at Retreat Guru aspire to guide you on your journey to your first experience with the “Vine of the Soul.”

The majority of Retreat Guru’s employees have deep experience working with the Great Medicine.

Our pledge is to help you find the ideal Ayahuasca retreat that will take you further along your journey to health, self-discovery, wisdom, personal peace, and connection to Spirit.

What is Ayahuasca?

Also known as iowaska, Ayahuasca is an ancient entheogen (best translated as “God-connector”) concocted by combining two plants that grow in the Amazon Basin.

Read also: The Ayahuasca Plant: Usage, Effects, and Research

The Shipibo people, indigenous people of the Peruvian jungle, have long claimed that ayahuasca has been used by humans since before Christ.

This folklore gained recent credence when scientists announced in 2019 that a 1000-year-old medicine bundle discovered in Bolivia included Ayahuasca.

One of the great mysteries of Ayahuasca (in Shipibo, Iowaska, in Quechua, Ayawaska, in Colombia, Yagé and known by dozens of other names) is that unlike other natural entheogens such as peyote (mescaline), magic mushrooms (psilocybin), salvia, or cannabis, which are self-contained in a single plant, Ayahuasca is a recipe combining two distinct plants, each one inert on their own.
FIND UPCOMING AYAHUASCA RETREATSThe tribes who work with Ayahuasca claim that the plants themselves revealed their power to humans more than two thousand years ago. The ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis Caapi) contains alkaloids that act as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs commonly used in antidepressants) and which allow human bloodstreams to absorb the dimethyltryptamine (DMT – known as the “death molecule”) from the leaves of the Amazonian jungle shrub chacruna, (Psychotria viridis). The MAOIs in the caapi vine are what stops our bodies’ natural mechanisms from preventing the psychoactive harmines and DMT in the chacruna to lead us to altered states of consciousness.

Absurd, say the Shipibo and other tribes that work with Ayahuasca to any scientific attempts to understand the Spirit Vine. Science cannot explain what the elders know to be simply supernatural. They may refer to Ayahuasca a “medicine,” but actually consider the concoction a spirit, indeed the Mother of all Spirits, and speak of “her” in the anthropomorphic feminine.

Before the advent of the current ceremonial use, the healers in the various tribes would examine the person needing healing, then go into the jungle, drink the medicine so as to consult her spirit, pray and sing icaros, so as to be guided to the plants that would save their patient.

How does Ayahuasca Work? Are There Any Long-Term Effects?

The Ayahuasca tea (a term preferred by the Western press, but not quite accurate) is prepped in a labor-intensive process and cooked for many hours into a brew. The ultimate consistency is more like a watery molasses, is usually served at room temperature, and is often gritty.

Most people find the taste of the Ayahuasca brew ranges from reasonably awful to horrible.

The brew targets the brain’s serotonin production. Ayahuasca is experienced by many as hallucinogenic, but is both non-toxic and non-addictive. You can neither overdose on it, nor can you become tolerant, even if you drink Ayahuasca daily. For most people, the long-term side effects are solely positive. The only way it affects your liver is to potentially protect it from abuse, as those who work with Ayahuasca commit to avoiding alcohol for long periods both before and after a retreat, and typically become more aware of any propensity to self-harm.


Short term physical effects can include increased heart rate and change in blood pressure, but most impacts happen in the mind.

After drinking the brew, the chacruna’s DMT – which occurs naturally in many plants and animals, including humans – stimulates the pineal gland, the part of the brain where introspection occurs and emotions are processed. It’s in this state the self-work is accomplished.

People come to the vine for many reasons, but the literature is growing daily, ream-upon-ream, to support the medicine’s ability to heal difficult addictions such as alcohol, tobacco, and opioids, to alleviate depression, reduce anxiety, and even cure cancer. The science is still unclear as to precisely how these healings occur, but there is little dispute that they have through guided use of Ayahuasca.

Ayahuasqueros, those who serve the medicine (also known as shamans, maestros, or curanderos), watch ceremony participants for purging, which in Peru is called la limpieza (“the cleaning”). The elders explain that the medicine “wraps itself around” what the participant no longer needs, whether it be an addiction, an aged trauma, or a circular thinking pattern; then removes it through purging. The limpieza happens typically via vomiting, but also through tears, laughter, yawns or moans, as well as shaking, sweating, and excreting.

Each person experiences the medicine uniquely, but it’s critical that those seeking a spiritual experience through Ayahuasca choose to work with well-experienced and reputable curanderos who will protect them from any potential spiritual harm.

What Happens in an Ayahuasca Ceremony?

Ayahuasca is traditionally drunk at night, with ceremonies usually starting about an hour after sunset. This is because the visions the medicine promotes are – paradoxically – easier to see in the dark. (Note bene: Not everyone sees visions. They are not hallucinations per se, according to the Shipibo, but rather a glimpse behind the veil into the spirit world. Some visually experience the music of the icaros. Others are transported to other worlds; while still others experience more internal journeys.)

A typical Ayahuasca ceremony takes place in a round building, a maloka, with a high ceiling. Participants, commonly between 10 and 20, are usually provided mattresses and always a personal bucket for purging.

The ayahuasquero whistles icaros to the medicine, into the mouth of the bottle. When summoned, one-by-one, each participant makes their way to the center of the maloka and kneels. They state their desired pour in a whisper. The shaman delivers what they request into the communal cup. This is the time to focus on their intention, hold the cup with reverence, and drink the medicine.

Once all have partaken, the leader extinguishes the candle and the maloka is silent for 30-45 minutes while awaiting the medicine’s effects. The curandero then begins to sing the icaros, the sacred songs that call on Mother Ayahuasca for healing and well-being.

The medicine ceremony usually lasts about five hours, but the effects of Ayahuasca can be prolonged, depending on many factors, including – some say, and many believe – the Mother’s mood. The ceremonial icaros play a crucial role in the quality of the experience.

Is Ayahuasca Illegal in the United States?

In the South American countries where the sacred plants grow naturally (Peru, Ecuador, Brazil, and Colombia), Ayahuasca in powder form can be purchased in any public market, not just in the Amazon rainforest but also in the booming capitals. Ayahuasca tourism has grown tremendously in those countries, which can result in some potentially dangerous situations when the medicine is served by people who claim shamanism but have insufficient training and are interested solely in profit.

The global legality of the medicine is complex. For example, it is legal in Ukraine, and has a “grey area” status in Europe, where in the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy, the laws prohibiting it are either imprecise or non-existent.

Interestingly, in the US, where DMT is classified as a Schedule 1 substance (in the same league as heroin), recent legal decisions have put chinks in the law, notably Oakland’s 2019 vote to decriminalize Ayahuasca (along with other entheogens) and a US Supreme Court decision in 2006 to permit two churches, Santo Daime and União do Vegetal (UDV) to import Ayahuasca as part of their religious practices. Similarly, in Canada in 2019, churches in Toronto and Montreal have won their own legal battles. In other Anglo countries, including the United Kingdom and Australia, DMT is illegal in all forms.

Emerging fascination with Ayahuasca as a powerful medicine has taken on a life of its own in the West, certainly stoked by Michael Pollan’s bestseller "How to Change Your Mind", even though his focus is on other psychoactive plant medicines. In the Canadian province of Ontario, police recently publicly admitted to using Ayahuasca as medication to relieve their job-related PTSD. Even conservative media have reported positively on Ayahuasca’s efficacy in helping war veterans tackle the same malady through the Heroic Hearts program.


Do I Have to Visit Peru to Experience Ayahuasca?

Peru has indeed become the hub for Ayahuasca retreats and many of our Retreat Guru partners operate in that country and other parts of South America, both in the jungle (especially around Iquitos and Pucallpa) and in the Sacred Valley between Cusco and Machu Picchu.

But the wave of curiosity currently swirling around Ayahuasca globally means there are probably ceremonies being held this weekend within 50 miles of you, or if you’re in New York, possibly dozens or more every night. If you do decide to source a ceremony locally, especially for your first time, do be careful with whom you drink. The leader should have extensive experience and training – preferably from a lineage-holding shaman – and their intentions must be pure.

The dark side of Ayahuasca – death in ceremony

This is a separate but vital conversation. There have been a handful of tragic deaths reported since 2015 that are related to Ayahuasca (although none from drinking the medicine), which have found their way into mainstream media and naturally stoked fears. These incidents fall into four broad categories:

1. Mental health issues among participants resulting in violence;
2. Irresponsible or untrained ceremony leaders who laced their medicine with poisonous psychedelics such as Datura, avoided by even the most intrepid psychonauts;
3. Non-Ayahuasca rituals, particularly vomitivos, a pre-Ayahuasca purging ceremony that involves drinking copious amounts of water laced with raw tobacco;
4. Underlying health conditions in the participant.

All the recorded deaths are heartbreaking, both to their families and to those of us in the Ayahuasca community.

But considering the thousands – possibly tens of thousands – of people who “use Ayahuasca” (we prefer the term: “work with Ayahuasca”) every day all over the world, these tragedies have no statistical significance. To put into perspective the half-a-dozen reported deaths related to Ayahuasca since 2015, more than 70,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses in 2017 alone.

Still, every time a death occurs in or around a maloka, a rigorous examination follows in the online forums to determine exactly what happened and how to prevent it from transpiring again. For example, responsible Ayahuasca retreat businesses halted the tobacco purges immediately after a Canadian woman died following a vomitivos exercise.

While it may be tempting to pinch pennies if you decide to experience Ayahuasca in Peru or elsewhere in Latin America, there’s a solid safety reason to seek a reputable retreat center, even though they are more expensive. For example, the retreat organizers we work with routinely screen participants for certain medications that would indicate mental health issues, which could be exacerbated by drinking Ayahuasca.

Bottom line, we all face risks every day we walk on this planet. You’ll probably sign a waiver before you take your first sip of Ayahuasca, but your ego’s unfolding is the only demise you should expect.

How Long is an Ayahuasca Retreat and How Much Does it Cost?

A proper Ayahuasca retreat usually lasts seven to ten days, with four or five nights of ceremony. We do not recommend you squeeze a single Ayahuasca ceremony between Machu Picchu and your exit flight from Cusco, especially if you’ve been enjoying the pisco sours en route.

The decision to journey with Ayahuasca takes mental and physical preparation and should be approached with a profound respect for the medicine. In the container of the retreat, where you will be vulnerable around strangers who will likely later become life-long friends, a full week and four or five ceremonies is enough to peel away the layers of whatever is blocking you from achieving your full potential.

A seven-day retreat in Peru averages around US$1,400 and includes a comfortable shared room and healthy meals. Most retreats offer daytime and non-ceremony evening activities such as yoga, meditation, massage, dance, and art therapy. Higher or lower pricing tends to reflect the level of luxury in the accommodation and food as well as the popularity of the center.


We’ve come a long way since the entheobiolist McKenna brothers traipsed through the jungle in search of Enlightenment.

What Happens After the Ayahuasca Ceremony?

Returning to real life after a week-long Ayahuasca experience of transformation and rebirth can be jarring. It’s critical that you follow proper integration guidelines. The best centers and teachers will offer to assist you with reintegration into the world. Solid strategies include: time in nature, meditation, yoga, and continued connection to the people with whom you shared the maloka. These are useful tools to help alleviate anxiety, keep you mindful, and fully unpack and integrate the medicine’s teachings.

Where Can I Read First-hand Reviews of Ayahuasca Experiences?

We have reviews from hundreds of real people who booked their Ayahuasca retreats through Retreat Guru and took the time to share their experiences. There’s no character limit, so people can share deeply, honestly and completely.

Can Retreat Guru connect me to the right retreat leaders for me?

We would be honored to help in your search. Our vision is to inspire more people to experience a life-transforming retreat, where hearts open and inner wisdom is revealed.

We love plant medicine and are always willing to discuss it with anyone with a sincere interest. If you still have questions after exploring our plant medicine articles, please contact us.

Tags: Psychedelics, ayahuasca

Posted by Jenny Dion

Jenalle is a lover of yoga, Registered Holistic Nutritionist, world traveller and content marketer. Jenalle founded Wakeful Travel, which is a brand that encourages people to travel consciously, whether that’s externally through world adventures or internally with psychedelic medicines.



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