Tripping on the Psychedelic Ayahuasca, Without the Trip to Peru

Ayahuasca ceremonies in Peru often take place in huts like this one.EXPAND
Ayahuasca ceremonies in Peru often take place in huts like this one.

Taking Ecstasy at Lights All Night or tripping on 'shrooms during a camping trip are pretty common stories of recreational psychedelic use, but it wasn't until recently that we began hearing stories about Dallasites experimenting with ayahuasca, a brew that extracts the psychedelic DMT from the root of plants such as pyschotria viridis.

Ayahuasca has been used in spiritual rituals in South America since the 16th century. Far from a party drug, it's sought after for its reported ability to bring on powerful hallucinations that offer insight into one's past and purpose. For this reason, DMT is sometimes called the "spirit molecule."

On Chelsea Handler's recently released Netflix series, Chelsea Does, the comedian travels to Peru to take part in a traditional ayahuasca ceremony with a shaman. The first night she takes the drug, she experiences nothing. On the second — many ayahuasca ceremonies involve doses over multiple days — she is shown revisiting her childhood to positive effect.

But according to one recent ayahuasca taker, Amy Ero — who, full disclosure, is the advertising director at Dallas Observer — you don't necessarily have to travel to South America to get the full experience. After traveling to Peru, a group of Dallasites have to decided to host regular ayahuasca ceremonies with shamans they've brought in from Peru. 

Last month, Ero took part in their first ceremony at a log cabin a couple hours north of Dallas. "One of the hostesses is a fairly well-known business owner," Ero says. "There was an older couple likely in their 60s, a couple of yoga instructors, a young couple in their 20s, another couple probably in their 30s, and then a few other women like me and [my friend] Beth who were in their 40s. Nobody was sporting armpit hair or dreadlocks. The shamanic couple was probably in their late 30s or early 40s, and he was Peruvian and she was American."

Ero had decided the time was right for her to go on a spiritual quest. "So many things in my life were not what I had envisioned for myself at 42 years old," she says. "Perhaps this was a way for me to quiet my mind long enough to get a better picture of what I was supposed to be doing about my own happiness."

Before drinking ayahuasca, users are supposed to abstain from heavy, meaty meals, alcohol and marijuana for three days. Beginning several hours before the ceremony, food is off limits, since vomiting is a common side effect of the drug and a full stomach will lessen its effects. (Ingesting ayahuasca while taking a class of antidepressants called SSRIs — Prozac, for example — can be life-threatening.)

There were 15 people in Ero's group, plus the two shamans. Around 7 p.m. they were invited to gather in the living room around a small altar. Ero says the experience was never referred to as a trip; the ayahuasca was only called "medicine." They were also told by the shamans that the ceremony should be carried out in silence, although they would be singing some songs and "conducting sound therapy."

The ceremony began with a short meditation. "Each person came to the altar, knelt and accepted the cup to drink in one shot," Ero says. She estimates it took about 30 to 45 minutes for her to begin experiencing the drink's effects.

"One minute nothing, then all of the sudden — bang," she says. "I had my eyes closed and all at once I saw a huge field of stars and planets. Then, they began to swirl in a clockwise motion: first very slowly and then much faster ... I had this idea that everything is made up of light and the universal motion is the only thing that keeps us all alive."

Her description of the experience is positive overall, although she says some of the hallucinations were challenging. "It was like there was this very old giant wooden door that would revolve from right and left," she says. "When it would open to the right I would see my past and some of the traumatic things that happened in my childhood. Then, it would swing open to the left and I would see how I was letting the past affect my present behavior. It was emotionally exhausting."

A sculptor from Dallas, who does not wish to be named, but whom we will refer to as Jane, had a similar experience when she took ayahuasca in Peru this summer. She had no idea what it was before her partner suggested they venture into the jungle to try it.

"I was like, 'What the fuck is ayahuasca?'" Jane says. "I had never done psychedelics before this year, so I was unsure. But when are you going to be in the jungle with a shaman again? I thought, 'When in Rome.'"

The ceremony took place in a hut in Iquitos, a remote village that can only be accessed by boat or plane because there are no roads going in or out. The day of the ceremony, Jane says she was very sick because she had consumed dirty water. "We went to all this trouble to do this and I was like, 'I don't think I can physically do this,'" she says. "I couldn't drink a drop of water without vomiting. But I asked the guide and he was like, 'This is actually going to help you feel better.'"

Jane described the shot as "having a smoothie consistency that tastes like charcoal and bitter espresso beans." She and her partner didn't feel the first dose so they asked for a second. Their group was much smaller than Ero's. Only one other person, a guy from Chicago, participated in the ceremony with them. Like Ero, Jane describes the onset as taking about 45 minutes.

After getting sick, Jane began to experience the hallucinations, which she believes were more intense because of how empty her stomach was from being sick. "It's like highest of highs and then low and scary and anxious," she says. "I kept going back and forth from the jungle and a busy subway station ... for 45 minutes I couldn't even move. I wouldn't say it was fun. It was a journey of up and down emotions for about two hours and then it's done." 

Jane says working through the difficult experience brought her closer to her partner and she did feel better afterward. "It was really kind of scary to work through that and then put yourself back into a beautiful place," she says. "What I got out of the experience was like, 'OK, I am mentally strong.' It made our relationship a little bit stronger ... and mentally and physically, I had never felt so cleansed." 

Jane says she's glad they experienced the drug in Peru, rather than seeking out a ceremony in Dallas. "We were in an enclosed patio in the middle of the jungle. The environment would make the whole experience completely different."

Neither person described taking ayahuasca as fun, or expressed enthusiasm about the possibility of trying it again, which dovetails with research showing that when used for spiritual purposes it is not addictive. "Hell no I didn’t have fun," Ero says. "But I did find some healing from my past, insight into the emotional roadblocks I place on myself and found some much needed peace that I was desperately needing in my life. Would I do it again? Not anytime soon."

Jane agrees it's a one-time thing but has no regrets about trying it. "It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience," she says. "It's definitely one of the craziest things my brain will ever go through, physically and mentally. I'm glad I did it." 

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