On Finding Ayahuasca and Taking the Psychedelic Drug for the First Time

An account of tripping on the indigenous mind-bender of Amazonian Peru.

I grew up with Matt. We went to grade school and high school together — we’ve been friends for some 27 years. He was always ahead of the curve on drugs. When we were in seventh grade we went to the Eagles’ Hell Freezes Over tour: Matt was happily hitting up people our parents’ age for tokes as I innocently buried my nose beneath my sweatshirt. He graduated to harder stuff like mushrooms and, eventually, to the University of California at Santa Cruz — a haven for experimentation of all kinds. So, it wasn’t totally a surprise when — five years ago — Matt told me he had just gone to Peru and tripped on ayahuasca, a substance I had never heard of before.

Ayahuasca is, at its roots, a brew. Traditionally, it’s a brew used by the indigenous people of Amazonian Peru. Shamans preside over what is considered a spiritual ceremony that begins at night. The trip lasts till morning — also known as a long fucking time.

The brew can be made up of a host of different vines, plants, barks, and mixtures. It’s not exactly Coca-Cola’s recipe: There’s a lot of room for variation. Often, ayahuasca contains Banisteriopsis caapi (an MAOI) that allows Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) to do its dirty work. The DMT, which is found in a variety of native leaves, is what’ll get the wheels in motion upstairs — like it did for Matt.

“My uncle was getting married to a Peruvian,” Matt says of the motivation for his, well, trip. “And we were like, if we can find some drugs, we’ll do some drugs.” He was in Cusco with his brother, Mike, a few days before the nuptials. “Part of traveling, you go to the bazaars, to the bars. We had asked around. We had gotten weed, of course. So we were talking to those drug dealers about getting ayahuasca. They were like, ‘Look for grungy hippies.’ So we were walking and we found, like, a crystal store with knickknacks. It was the most hippie gift shop we had seen the whole trip.”

“So, we went in there,” Matt continues. “They had sage, I think they were playing a flute — literally — when we walked in. It was on a community board, where you pulled off a phone number. Something like, ‘Shaman willing to work in spiritual healing,’” Matt says. “We just went up to the cashier and asked about the note and she was like, ‘Are you guys ready?’ And that’s when she called down the shaman. He met us at the store.”

Matt and Mike hung out with the stranger for an hour, paid him “maybe 50 or 60 bucks” and then came back to the store later that night. The shaman picked them up in his car and he drove them into the mountains. “We were worried about being robbed, so we left everything at the hotel. We showed up with not even an ID,” Matt says. The shaman had a house and, behind it, a roundhouse, where he took Matt and Mike.

“When you walked in, it was set up for 12 sleeping areas,” Matt says. “Woven rugs, pillows, blankets, and buckets.” But, that night, it was just the two brothers from Colorado and the shaman. The shaman lit incense and did some chants but, as Matt says, “It’s all about ingesting. You can say so many Kumbayas, but, at the end of the day, you gotta take the drug.” And take it they did. The shaman took a ceremonial first sip, but Matt was convinced his portion wasn’t very strong. “He probably spit it out,” Matt says. “He fed both of us. I got mine but then there was a hiccup. He didn’t have enough, so Mike got this crazy dose which was the bottom of the bottle. It was even gooier than mine. The bottom of the bag in drugs is either the best or the worst. In this situation, we think it was the best.”

Mike also got a dose from the “next batch,” which Matt concedes could’ve been from a different plant or vine. Whatever the case, the brothers tripped balls. “I proceeded to purge right away,” Matt says. “Ten minutes in. It tasted like the worst licorice you’ve ever had. It makes Jäger sound good. He gave us toilet paper because he said, ‘You might shit yourself.’” The shaman was chanting and playing the drums for the 10 minutes that Matt was cognizant. Then, he got the spins, hurled, and cruised out into the ether.

“I don’t think I’ve ever told anyone before. It was a crazy trip,” Matt says. “I was into my head. I always pictured it being like frolicking through a fucking forest. What else do you think you’re gonna do when you’re tripping?” But, it wasn’t quite that, Matt says. “It was the most beautiful place I’ve ever been. It reminded me of a mausoleum or a laboratory. All the walls were perfect, ceramic, white: The world’s best sanitarium. Everyone was wearing white jackets and they all had hard hats. It was the most vivid dream I’ve ever had in my life. It was like being on drugs in a dream.”

The trip lasted from before midnight until 4 a.m., Matt says. His exit from it is one for the books. “It was almost like The Truman Show. I was out on the boat alone and I was rowing toward the sunset. My idea was that if I got there I’d run into the wall and it would be like: This is all just drugs. It’s all not real,” he says. “Instead as it went on, it built like mushrooms. The sun kept getting brighter and brighter. I got to the point where I was so into it and boom, that was it. I woke up in the dark, looked around and felt like it was the most sober moment of my life. It was like that Bright Eyes song, ‘First Day of My Life.’ I felt like I was on a new path. The Ph.D. program went down in one night. Would I put someone through that kind of torture to get to the other side? That’s up to human choice. I’ve never done it since, “ he says. “I’ll never be afraid of another drug.”

Mike, for his part, had a much different experience. He didn’t puke and wasn’t as catatonic, but it was intense and longer. Matt’s eyes were closed but Mike’s weren’t. Mike was so into it, in fact, that he did it three more times in Colorado then moved to Itacaré, Brazil to pursue shamanism and ayahuasca ceremonies with Santo Daime. He’s since moved back to the States, where ayahuasca has an underground following.

“Anyone who is doing it outside of the actual culture that it’s originally from, they’re part of a sham,” Matt says. “If you’re not in the deep backwoods of Peru doing it with an old-school shaman, you’re doing it just to get fucked up.” And more and more people in the States are doing just that. L.A. and New York City have documented scenes; a subreddit has sprung up. A 2010 documentary, Ayahuasca: Vine of the Soul, has been streaming on Netflix for a few years, further popularizing the brew.

The numbers of users in the United States are largely anecdotal, as DMT was made a Schedule I drug in 1970. But, the U.S. government’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that users who have done DMT at some point in their life ballooned from 688,000 in 2006 to 1,936,000 in 2014. So, if you haven’t done it, you might know someone who has. Like Matt. Don’t know where to get any? Try a crystal shop’s bulletin board.

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