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Beware the Ayahuasca Cowboys

Updated: May 29, 2023

Author: Rebeka Shaman-Friend of the Rainforest Healing Center/Omar

7 years ago, an Ayahuasca death in Iquitos, Peru has hit the headlines, caused by one man going crazy and stabbing another participant during a ceremony.

But before we get hysterical, fearful or judgmental let’s put it in perspective. Thousands of tourists arrive in Iquitos every year solely to experience the Ayahuasca brew, and only a handful of deaths have occurred in all the years that the Ayahuasca industry has been in the Amazon, and only in the last few years.

The majority of Ayahuasca retreats and lodges are built to enable people to find healing and well-being in a safe and nurturing environment. They are run to a high professional standard of commitment, and have a deep respect for the Plant medicine, the traditions, and the rites and rituals of taking this sacred plant. However, there are rogue elements within any industry and the Ayahuasca industry is no different.

Since 2010, when the healing and spiritual properties of Ayahuasca began appearing in the mainstream media, there has been a huge increase in Ayahuasca lodges and retreats mushrooming all over Iquitos, with no regulation or monitoring. Westerners are always in danger of ‘romanticising’ spiritual leaders. The gurus of India have now made way for the shamans of South America, without acknowledging the dark side of the mirror. Anyone can build a lodge, call themselves a shaman, and offer the medicine, but this does not make it legitimate or safe. I have been coming to the Amazon for many years and recently, I have seen a huge increase in the amount of Westerners who are offering the medicine without having done proper training with an experienced maestro/a, and Peruvian shamans in it just for the money and prestige.

These cowboy ‘shamans’ are in danger of damaging the reputation of Ayahuasca. It takes years of experience working with the Plant medicines to be in a position to be able to hold the energy and space for a ceremony. Coming to the Amazon and drinking for a few months in a few Ayahuasca retreats does NOT make you a shaman. It isn’t about HOW many ceremonies you have drunk in, it is your personal relationship with the medicine, working with other plant medicines, doing dietas and completing the training with a legitimate teacher.

Anyone who has drunk Ayahuasca properly, as in taken the traditional Ayahuasca brew made up of Chacruna and/or Huambisa, and Vine, in a Maloka (ceremonial hut), in darkness with a non-drinking facilitator and a professional shaman, will know how almost impossible it is to imagine someone stabbing someone else. You can hardly move or walk without assistance and you are so aware of your own journey and process in the pitch dark that you have no real awareness of those around you.

However, for some psychonauts, this isn’t enough. They want to get ‘off their tits’ to feel they are getting an experience, so some lodges are offering super strong, trippy brews and taking people to the edge – it’s like smoking hard core skunk and calling it medicine!! For some it may well give them what they are looking for, but for others, it can send them into psychosis. So my feeling is this is what happened in this lodge.

When I read this story I knew that there must have been Toé added to the brew. Toé, otherwise known as the ‘Witches’ Plant is an extremely dangerous Plant medicine. Every part of this powerful plant is highly toxic and MUST ONLY BE ADMINISTERED by a trained Toé shaman. If too much is taken, or it is not administered correctly, people can go psychotic, and lose control. So I can only presume that Toé was given to these unsuspecting Ayahuasca tourists who were probably just there for healing, and weren’t aware of the consequences of taking Toé.

And therein highlights the problem. With untrained, inexperienced gringo/Peruvian cowboy shaman running some lodges and taking people to the edge of madness, it must now fall on the consumer to take personal responsibility for themselves. In other words, the Ayahuasca brew can be either a powerful healing medicine or a dark, destructive one. It is up to you to be discerning who you choose to drink with for your own safety and well-being.

I am deeply grateful to Ayahuasca medicine for how she has woken me up. She is a powerful healing medicine and no-one should die or have a bad experience if they follow these helpful tips that can help guide you to find the right lodge and shaman for you.

1. It’s always best to drink Ayahuasca with a native shaman and all reputable lodges have them. Most of the Peruvian shaman have been drinking since they were children, and have had the knowledge past down to them so they bring an energy and wisdom that us Westerners will never have. Some have ALSO become ego-maniacs so ALWAYS TRUST YOUR INTUITION.

2. Vet the owners/managers of the lodge. Who are they? What is their story? Do you resonate with them? What is their history with Ayahuasca? Personally, I’d stay away from any lodges that have been set up by former drug addicts, as it’s all too easy to substitute one drug for another, and call it medicine.

3. Make sure you know what plants are in the brew. And if Toé has been added – DON’T DRINK IT! It’s just way to dangerous. Unless you are drinking with a MASTER TOÈ Shaman

4. If you are not in a position to brew the medicine yourself (always advisable), then find out where the medicine was made and who made it.

5. What kind of Ayahuasca diet do they suggest? There is a strict diet that includes NO alcohol, drugs, sex, salt, and sugar. You can tell the legitimacy and healing intentions of a lodge from their dietary requirements.

6. Make sure there is ALWAYS a non-drinking facilitator participating in the ceremony

7. Make sure that there are guidelines in place that anyone leaving the ceremony has to be accompanied by a non-drinking facilitator (this is usually the case in legitimate lodges).

8. Make sure there is a bilingual facilitator available so you can communicate your needs/issues clearly.

9. Check they have an emergency procedure in case there are problems during a ceremony.

10. Who emotionally processes the people after the ceremony?

11. What is the processing procedure or are participants left to find their own way through?

12. What aftercare does the retreat provide?

13. Beware of any lodge/retreat that says: “We have the strongest medicine around!”

For thousands of years this Plant medicine has helped many people find a deep inner peace and well-being. Despite the media portraying Ayahuasca, as a dangerous and mind-altering drug, compared to any other hallucinogenic drug or even alcohol, it is an extremely safe and powerful plant medicine that if done properly, safely and in the right environment, can help dissolve deeply ingrained traumas, addictions and self-belief issues that no other medicine can reach.

Thank you to Omar Gomez of Chakra Alegria de Amor Rainforest Healing Centre for helping to compile the list.

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