The Shamans we work with in Colombia

Taita Alfredo, from the Kamsá people of Putumayo, during an Ayahuasca ritual – Photo: J. Samboni

 The Taitas (Yagé shamans) we work with and the Ayahuasca tradition in Colombia

In Colombia, and especially in the Putumayo region of Southern Colombia, Yagé shamans are known as “Taitas”, a Quechua word which literally means “Father”, “Guide”, “Spiritual leader of a community”. They don’t use the word “shaman” to identify themselves, they address themselves either as “Taita”, or as “Medico Yagesero” (Yagé doctor), or “Medico Yagesero Tradicional” (Traditional Yagé doctor).

Yagé is the traditional and preferred term with which the Ayahuasca brew (the concoction made out of Banisteriopsis caapi and various other plant admixtures), is known in Colombia. There are to be found the oldest Ayahuasca vines and the oldest living and practicing Yagé shamans on earth. In Colombia there are as well some Yagé varieties – like Yagé Oro (Gold Ayahuasca), Yagé Guacamayo (Macaw Ayahuasca) and Yagé Tigre (Tiger Ayahuasca), among others – which are hardly encountered in Peru.

The Yagé tradition is a jealously guarded secret, and a strictly regulated business. Contrary to Peru, in Colombia one has to undergo an apprenticeship of several years, under the wings of a recognised elder, before being awarded with the title of “Taita”. The “Taita” works in the community and for the community. The phenomenon of the Ayahuasca tourism is almost non-existent in Colombia, the vast majority of Taitas are not used to work in retreat centres (which are still a rarity by the way, especially in the Putumayo region), they have instead a Maloka (a ceremonial hut, which may cater for a very large, medium, or small number of participants, from 100 down to 15-10), often within the boundaries of their Finca (ranch, farm, rural property, which may also be located in the wilderness of the jungle, or in cloud forest settings, depending on the territory). There the Yagé rituals take place, on a regular basis. Most of the times, and especially during important occurrences, the Taitas meet and gather around their most senior guide, to celebrate with Yagé important events. In gatherings of this sort, is not uncommon to find several dozens of shamans in full traditional gear attending a special event, under the guide of the eldest shaman.

How the Taitas prepare Yagé and what’s the difference with Peru?

Most Taitas in Colombia prepare the Ayahuasca brew as a mixture of Yagé vine cuts and Chagropanga – also known as Chaliponga or Oco-Yagé – leaves (Diplopterys cabrerana, a vine of the Malphighiaceae family, with opposite oval leaves); or else, Yagé cuts and Chacruna (Psychotria viridis) leaves, or else more, Yagé, Chagropanga and Chacruna. They *usually* don’t add Toé (Brugmansia suavolens, Brugmansia sp.), known locally as Borrachero, or Floripondio.

Taita Alfredo during a shamanic cleansing ritual - Photo: J. Samboni

Taita Alfredo during a shamanic cleansing ritual – Photo: J. Samboni

Some native shamans like Taita Alfredo, from the Kamsá (or Kamenstá) indigenous people of Putumayo, also mix different varieties of Yagé – in his case 50% Yagé Tigre and 50% Yagé Cielo – with either Chacruna or Chaliponga. The brew may be cooked from several hours (typically 5-8-11 hours), up until few days in a row (when preparing that exceptionally sweet brew that goes under the name of Miel de Yagé, (i.e. “Ayahuasca honey”), depending on the desired strength and concentration and on the purpose of the ceremony.

Very much like the traditional Shipibo shamans of the Peruvian Amazon, the Taitas of Colombia main choice is to prepare an Ayahuasca brew made only with Ayahuasca vine cuts and Chacruna leaves, without usually adding extra plant additives in normal Yagé sessions. Traditional Shipibo shamans maintain – and rightfully so – that before taking Ayahuasca mixed with many different plant teachers, one should properly diet with every and each plant first. A precept often ignored by the Mestizo curanderos of Peru (including those indigenous ethnic shamans who have been acculturated), who often indulge in the use of lots of different plant teachers, in the making of the brew.

With the Taitas, the Yagé ceremony is an all-night business. In Peru it is not. Most traditional Taitas will close the ceremony at around dawn *of the day after*. In Peru, that is an extremely rare, almost never heard of occurrence. The vast majority of ceremonies there close at around 11 PM-1 AM or, in extreme cases, 2 AM – 3 AM. Whilst in Peru curanderos will allow women in assisting in the preparation of Ayahuasca, in Colombia that won’t be allowed. The space consecrated to the preparation of the medicine is off limits to women. Many curanderos, with some due exceptions, will allow menstruating women in their ceremonies, singing icaros over them for protection, but not a single Taita will knowledgeably permit that. Both Colombian and Peruvian Ayahuasca brews may be extremely strong, depending on who prepares them, on what is the intent of the ceremony and on who is the intended receiver. On average, it may be safe to assume that it is usually more rare that a Colombian Yagé brew would not deliver any vision, even to beginners.

Almost all Taitas use musical instruments during the Yagé sessions and they *usually* don’t sing icaros (they prefer the expression of “medicine songs”, or “secret medicine songs” to that of “icaros”). Playing music (usually with the harmonica and/or a guitar, and/or in same cases also with drums) is instead the preferred choice during the Ayahuasca ceremonies.  Taitas may also invite professional musicians to play music during important celebrations with Yagé.

Last but not least, another special and distinctive feature of the Yagé rituals conducted by the Taitas is that these do almost always occur in the presence of light. Usually a bonfire and/or candles lit for the whole night. Music and light accompany the Yagé sessions in Colombia, whilst in the Peruvian Amazon it’s customary performing them in total darkness.