Ayahuasca: The Magical Brew of Amazonian Shamans

Ayahuasca ceremony with Shipibo shamans Don Mariano and Don Alfredo. Photo © El Mundo Magico


“Happy is he among men upon earth who has seen these mysteries…”

Homeric Hymn to Demeter

There are many local designations for the visionary and healing brew that goes under the common name of Ayahuasca. Yajé, Yagé, Remedio, or Purihuasca (in Colombia), Caapi, Hoasca or Daime (among Brazilian religious adepts), among the Shipibos it’s Oni, among the “Amawaka” (Yora) Indians it’s Oni xuma, the Ashaninka natives call it Kamarampi, whilst the Jibaros call it Natema.

Cielo Ayahuasca vine cuts ready to be prepared

In Peru it is generally known as Ayahuasca – simplified Spanish rendering of the Quechua neologism Ayawaska or Ayawaskha. The word can be translated as “Rope-of-the-Soul”, “Vine-of-the-Spirit”, “Vine-of-the-Ancestor”, or “Vine-of-the-Dead”. It is – at once – the name given to the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and to the magic, mysterious and visionary concoction which has been used ritually – from immemorial time – by the indigenous people of the Amazon basin, specifically for prophecy, divination, telepathy, shape-shifting, cleansing, diagnosis of an illness, and also for healing. A shaman specialized in the use of Ayahuasca is known in Peru as an Ayahuasquero (or Ayahuascero).

Trueno Ayahuasca vine (Upper Peruvian Amazon). Photo © El Mundo Magico

We shall use throughout these pages the word ”ayahuasca” (in lower cases) to refer to the actual vine specimen-s, and the word ”Ayahuasca” (in upper cases) when referring to the homonymous brew or concoction prepared by the shamans.

There exist many different varieties of ayahuasca vine, over one hundred have in fact been identified, but the most commonly used in the Northern Peruvian Amazon is the Cielo ayahuasca one, which is reputed to be the most suitable for initiations, can deliver profound visions (and purging!!) and is safe to use.

Among other varieties – which are for more specialized uses and normally only for very experienced users altogether – we have:

Trueno ayahuasca (Spanish for “Thunder ayahuasca”);
Yana ayahuasca (Quechua for “Black ayahuasca”), or ayahuasca negra, in Spanish;
Puka ayahuasca (Quechua for “Red ayahuasca”);

Allpa Ayahuasca vine growing on a Chonta Quiro tree. Photo: P. Garavaglia

Yura ayahuasca (Quechua for “White ayahuasca”);
Allpa ayahuasca (Quechua for “earth ayahuasca”), or “ayahuasca de la tierra” (in Spanish);
Rayo ayahuasca (Spanish for “ray ayahuasca”, often another name for the “Cielo ayahuasca” variety);
Cascabel ayahuasca (Spanish for “rattle ayahuasca”, possibly the most potent variety known).

In Colombia, where there are the oldest vines of South America and where Yagé – a stronger, male counterpart of Ayahuasca – is instead used, we came across different varieties of this liana, like:

Yagé gente (“People Yagé”, used to connect with the spirit of the ancestors);
– Yagé tigre (“Jaguar Yagé”,  used by the shamans to shape-shift into a jaguar, or a tiger);
– Yagé oro (“Gold Yagé”, which reveals the shaman the treasures of knowledge and healing of the rainforest);
– Yagé guacamayo (“Macaw Yagé) and Yagé cacería (“Hunting Yagé”). Employed, this last, for the specific purpose of “calling” game animals to be hunted.

The Ayahuasca brew – which has powerful consciousness-expanding properties, has strong antihelmintic effects (kills parasites) and is prepared by boiling for several hours (from six-eight to fourteen, depending on where and by whom it is made) the pounded, scraped stems of the Cielo Ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi) vine, together with the leaves of the Chacruna (Psychotria viridis) green shrub.

Cooking of the Ayahuasca brew in the Amazon. Photo © El Mundo Magico

At times, many other plant ingredients too are added, the most common of which are usually the black jungle tobacco called Mapacho (Nicotiana tabacum/Nicotiana rustica), the leaves of the shrub Chagropanga (Diplopterys cabrerana), along with few leaves of the powerful Toe’ (Brugmansia suavolens) plant.

Chagropanga – also known by the name of Ojo Yajé – and Huambisa (Diplopterys sp.) may be combined with, as as well as being a substitute of, the Chacruna plant in the making of the Ayahuasca drink.


Ayahuasca cooking over traditional wood-fire. Photo © El Mundo Magico


Toè (Brugmansia suavolens), a powerful plant additive to the Ayahuasca brew. Photo © El Mundo Magico

Toe’: a plant of the Solanaceae family, somehow affiliated to the Datura – has beautiful bell-shaped flowers and is always used very sparingly by indigenous and mestizo shamans (vegetalistas) alike. It’s a toxic plant which demands extreme care in preparations. Actual quantities employed may vary from shaman to shaman.

Each maestro has his or her own (often jealously and secretly kept) recipe, and hardly exist two which can be considered the same, for ingredients used, and time and way of cooking and preparing the brew. Don Mariano, for instance, interviewed by us on the topic, maintains that Ayahuasca can be prepared also with sugar (!!) or with honey, but that this will make the brew much stronger and more concentrated than normal, will deliver a strong intoxication, and therefore the quantity one would need to drink has to be very very little, almost tiny.


The Chemistry

Shipibo shaman Don Mariano pounding Ayahuasca vine cuts. Photo © El Mundo Magico

The Banisteriopsis caapi vine is a source of various harmala alkaloids (like harmine, harmaline, and others) once called Telepathine and Banisterine – and all of which are monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI). The low percentage (0.3% to 1.2%) of harmala alkaloids present in the Banisteriopsis vine is not enough – taken on its own – to trigger psychotropic effects, which may otherwise be slightly experienced with the intake of an higher concentration.

The Psychotria viridis – on the other hand – is a botanical source of Dimethyltryptamine (known as well as DMT and N,N-dimethyltryptamine), and is found and produced in small quantities also by our own brain. DMT alone would not work – taken orally – without the intervention of the MAO inhibitors.

The power of the medicine – “el poder de la medicina” – according to some Shipibo shamans, resides in the bubble formations that are produced and may be seen during the boiling of the brew.

The Brew: Plant Alchemy of the Amazon Basin

Of all identified species of Banisteriopsis in the entire Amazon basin, the most common one used by the shamans and vegetalistas in Peru, is the Cielo ayahuasca variety, believed to induce heavenly visions (cielo means “heaven” in Spanish). It also goes under the name of Ayahuasca amarilla (“yellow ayahuasca”, in Spanish). There is also an immense variety of recipes for the preparation of the brew, which have the purpose of enhancing the experience of taking the Ayahuasca, boosting the mareacion (status of inebriation and intoxication following the drinking of the brew), in either length or quality/intensity, or both. Specifically, the Chagropanga (Diplopterys cabrerana), used more widely in the Colombian Amazon – is a powerful source of 5-MeO-DMT.

Chacruna leaves layer. Photo: F. Sammarco

The essential ingredients of the Ayahuasca concoction in the Peruvian Amazon remain the Cielo ayahuasca vine cuts and the leaves of the Chacruna shrub. That is also the traditional Shipibo way of making the brew.

Shipibo shaman Don Mariano – being the very cautious and traditional maestro he is – maintains that using too many plant additives in the making of the concoction may not be the correct thing to do, as one would first need to properly diet with each and every one of these other plants, instead than taking them directly through the Ayahuasca brew without previous preparation. Doing otherwise – i.e. taking the short-cut of adding too many plants without “knowing” them first through a proper dieta – could only make the potential side effects of the brew stronger, and may only increase the mareacion (intoxication). Don Mariano contends that there is no intrinsic advantage in using other plants for the making of the brew, without having gone through a proper apprenticeship first, via the shamanic plant diet. However, in special cases, the brew can be made adding Sacha piña (Aechmea sp.) and Azucar huayo (Hymenaea sp.), among other plants.

Pounded ayahuasca vine cuts layer.

A beverage prepared with the Ayahuasca vine cuts alone wouldn’t normally produce visions (just purging), and the same would happen if one was to take a concoction prepared with the chacruna plant on its own. By means of an apparent very simple process – which reveals, however, at close range examination, an utterly sophisticated research and knowledge on side of the indigenous people who made first this discovery – the two plants prepared together work wonderfully in synergy and each one maximise the benefit of the other.

Ayahuasca and Chacruna work synergistically not only on the biochemical plane – making possible the assimilation of the alkaloids otherwise attacked by the enzymes present in our digestive system – they are also believed to be, respectively, a “grandfather” and a “grandmother” plant spirit.

The power of the Ayahuasca medicine. Photo © El Mundo Magico

One may be blessed by wonderful visions and/or amazing revelations, without ever having hoped to see or know anything, whilst others yet may see nothing at all. Nothing is granted with Ayahuasca. Many factors – visible and invisible, ranging from one’s own attitude, psycho-physical conditions and sensitivity, to the respect of the dietary prescriptions, to climatic conditions, to the icaros sang by the shamans, to changes in the electromagnetic field and even the moon, to quote a few – may contribute in different degrees to the depth of the visionary experience given by the Ayahuasca medicine.

Ayahuasca & Health Precautions:

 Learn more about Ayahuasca and potential health hazards. Please read it carefully!!

The Ayahuasca Diet

Preparing the Ayahuasca medicine. Photo: F. Sammarco

The avoiding of sexual intercourse and any form of sexual activity – from three days before, until three to five days after each Ayahuasca ceremony is of paramount importance, especially in light to preserve one’s “distilled” sexual energy during the challenging, magical encounter with the Ayahuasca spirit. Don Mariano – interviewed by us on this matter – maintained a rather “provocative” position: “la Ayahuasca no se dieta antes, si no despues”, that is: the Ayahuasca medicine is not to be dieted before [taking it], but after! Equally important is refraining from pork meat and derivatives (ham, bacon, pepperoni, salami, etc), for 15 days before your first ceremony, until at least 15 days after your last ceremony. You need to arrive at the ceremony in the most possible energetically pure conditions, in order to benefit the most from this experience.

Food to Avoid

Ayahuasca brew being filtered. Photo © El Mundo Magico

Avoid altogether – for at least 12 hours before the Ayahuasca ceremony – any food containing stimulants, caffeine, spices, chilli, fats, oil, salt and sugar. And please refrain from having any fermented stuff like Soya sauce/Tamari, Soya beans paste/curd (like Miso or Tofu), beer, vermouth wine, aged/mouldy cheese (cheddar, Parmesan, Swiss cheese, blue cheese), yeast and all other food which is a potential source of tyramine, like mature avocados, eggplants, figs, grapes, pineapples, plums, raisins, prunes, broad beans, fava beans (broad beans), lentils, peanuts, dried milk, sour cream, yoghurt, buttermilk, chocolate, Vegemite and sauerkraut. Taking foods containing tyramine in conjunction with monoamine oxidase inhibitors, can trigger hypertensive crisis and migraines.

We recommend to fast on the day of taking Ayahuasca, or else, to only have a light breakfast and a very light lunch, and – by all means – no dinner. It will be also much beneficial to drink plenty of water, on the day of drinking the purge, up until one hour before the ceremony begins. However, no water must be drunk during the Ayahuasca ceremony: doing so will only make the side effects of the medicine last longer, with no visionary effects. Remember that whatever food you may take on the day of the ceremony, will most certainly come out of your body via the “lower” or “upper” ways, after drinking the medicine.