Ayahuasca: What it Feels Like, Where it Comes From, and How it Works

Ayahuasca: What it Feels Like, Where it Comes From, and How it Works

Gulp down the tea. Settle in. Close your eyes.

Feel your body more intensely, including your roiling stomach. The music may feel richer and deeper than normal. You may feel the presence of something you don’t normally feel: whether that’s a deeper connection to your body , your feelings or Something Bigger Than Yourself.

Notice the colors: bright greens, reds and yellows. Notice the shapes and patterns: triangles, diamonds, and intertwining arcs.

Westerners have called the Amazonian tea “jungle television.” And it’s true: your first ayahuasca trip can be like seeing your first movie or concert or going on your first roller coaster: powerful, strange and invigorating.

People imagine themselves flying through the universe and touching the sun, climbing their own spinal column into their own light-filled brain, or swimming through an ocean of neon seaweed.

Just like cinemas and amusement parks, ayahuasca can leave you feeling a lot of different things: happy or sad, scared or joyful, with a head rush or an upset stomach–it all depends on how well the experience is built, how you were feeling when you started, and whether you’re the type of person who likes that sort of thing.

A Deep, Lasting Change

For many people, ayahuasca is much more meaningful than a TV show or a merry-go-round. Instead of experiencing something that’s happening outside of you, ayahuasca can change the way you feel from the inside out. For sure, the drug changes the way you feel for a few hours; for some people, it changes the way they feel forever.

The ayahuasca experience is, for these people, one of the most important experiences of their lives. This psychedelic brew can induce powerful visions, emotionally heavy realizations, and long-lasting changes to one’s attitudes, lifestyle, and mental health.

Several indigenous tribes of the Amazon basin have traditionally used ayahuasca for healing and divination. But now people from all over the world, from all walks of life, are interested in it for overcoming many sorts of personal or emotional struggles. Ayahuasca retreats have surged in popularity over the years. There is also a growing body of research suggesting that ayahuasca can, in fact, be an effective way to treat certain mental health conditions and addictions.

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In this guide, we are going to be delving into the diverse aspects of this brew, looking at its cultural context, effects, legality, and benefits. With a fuller understanding of ayahuasca, you can be more prepared for the experience (if you’ve decided to join an ayahuasca retreat) or get a better sense of whether this is the right experience for you.

How to Choose an Ayahuasca Retreat

What Is Ayahuasca?

What kind of brew is ayahuasca exactly? Well, it is traditionally a combination of two specific plants native to the Amazon rainforest: Banisteriopsis caapi (also known as the ayahuasca vine, caapi, or yagé) and Psychotria viridis (or chacruna).

According to Mags Tanev, writer and Ayahuasca expert based in Medellin, Columbia, “In some cases, other plants may be added to the brew, such as Justicia pectoralis or Brugmansia. These can produce powerful effects, so it’s advised to make sure that the brew you’re drinking is made up of just the ayahuasca vine and the DMT-containing leaf – whether it’s chacruna or chaliponga.”

Ayahuasca is known to have a strong, bitter taste, and can sometimes be very thick.

The Pharmacology Of Ayahuasca

Chacruna contains DMT, which is a powerful psychedelic compound. But if you eat chacruna leaves on their own, nothing will happen. You won’t have a DMT experience. This is because a certain enzyme in the body — monoamine oxidase (MAO) — breaks down DMT when it is taken orally, preventing it from entering the bloodstream and, in turn, the brain. So no psychedelic effects occur.

On the other hand, if you smoke or vaporize freebase DMT, you can experience the intense subjective effects of the compound.

Ayahuasca is an orally active form of DMT due to the presence of caapi. This vine contains a few harmala alkaloids (harmine, harmaline, and tetrahydroharmine), which act as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). This means they prevent MAO in the body from breaking down DMT, allowing it to be orally active.

DMT is a tryptamine psychedelic, the same class of compounds that psilocybin, psilocin, ibogaine, and 5-MeO-DMT belong to. However, as we will see, the ayahuasca experience is distinct from the DMT experience in some ways.

The Traditional Use Of Ayahuasca

While the origins of ayahuasca use are still uncertain, the researcher Bernd Brabec de Mori suggests ayahuasca use emerged in the Tukano region in the southern Colombian Amazon.

We don’t know exactly for how long indigenous communities in the Amazon have been using ayahuasca. Its use may be thousands of years old. Some of the oldest evidence of ceremonial usage comes from a 1,000-year-old shamanic pouch, discovered in Bolivia, containing both harmine and DMT. The harmine may be from the caapi plant.

Western Encounters

Euro-Americans have been trying to understand ayahuasca for hundreds of years, with varying levels of success.

The first written accounts of ayahuasca use come from Jesuit missionaries who explored the Amazon basin, beginning in the 17th century. These missionaries described this traditional usage in negative terms, believing it was diabolical. Jose Chatre y Herrea, who provided the first written account of ayahuasca in 1675, described the indigenous people using the brew as liars and sorcerers.

The priest Pablo Maroni provided the second recorded report of ayahuasca use in 1737, which he witnessed along the Napo River and its tributary the Aguarico River. He said ayahuasca was:

“An intoxicating potion ingested for divinatory and other purposes and called ayahuasca, which deprives one of his senses and, at times, of his life.”

In 1755, Franz Xavier Veigl, the head of a Jesuit mission to Quito in Ecuador, traveled down the Napo River to Maynas, Peru, where the Napo meets the Amazon. Here he also encountered ayahuasca, which he remarked was used for “superstitious practices” and “witchcraft”.

More Neutral Views of Ayahuasca

Other explorers and scientists have since traveled to the Amazon and witnessed the traditional use of ayahuasca, without demonizing it in the way that Jesuit missionaries did.

For example, in 1858, the geographer Manuel Villavicencio published Geografia de la Republica del Ecuador, mentioning an experience he had with ayahuasca, which he described as “flying to marvelous places”.

Modern Views of Ayahuasca

We have also gained an understanding of ayahuasca through more recent written accounts provided by Richard Evans Schultes, Terence and Dennis McKenna, Claudio Naranjo, and Wade Davis.

Traditionally, certain indigenous tribes of the Amazon — such as the Asháninka (Peru), Shipibo-Conibo (Peru), Napo Runa (Ecuador), and Takana (Bolivia) — use ayahuasca for the purposes of accessing greater knowledge and healing.

In terms of gaining knowledge, shamans (also known as ayahuasqueros, vegetalistas, or curanderos) will use ayahuasca as a tool for divination: determining the hidden significance or cause of events and foreseeing the future. It is believed this information comes from unseen realms.

When it comes to healing, Luis Eduardo Luna points out that its traditional uses include:

“Identification of illness origin, shamanic journeys to restore soul loss, extraction of pathogenic objects, and shamanic fights with the animated agents of illness.”

Traditionally, ayahuasca has also been used in warfare.

While Western tourists travel to the Amazon to partake in ayahuasca ceremonies, that doesn’t mean these take place in a traditional context. For instance, ayahuasca tourists at a retreat often want to use the brew for dealing with psychological issues such as depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and addiction.

Indigenous communities may regularly use ayahuasca to treat mental problems, but it is also frequently used to treat physical ailments, social issues, and spiritual crises.

In Brazil, a number of modern religious movements have been established, which include ayahuasca as a sacrament.

The most well-known are Santo Daime and União do Vegetal (UDV). These are syncretic religions that combine Christianity with other beliefs.

For instance, Santo Daime also draws on African animism, Folk Catholicism, Kardecist Spiritism, and indigenous South American shamanism. They are also known as ayahuasca churches because the brew is central to the religion.

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The Ayahuasca Ceremony

Ayahuasca ceremonies can differ depending on if they take place in a traditional or retreat context. Often, however, traditional aspects will be present during ceremonies that Western tourists participate in.

Ayahuasca expert Mags Tanev adds, “Depending on where and with whom you’re taking part in an ayahuasca ceremony, your experience can differ greatly. For example, a ceremony held by traditional Shipibo healers in Peru will include the use of icaros, mapacho (tobacco) for cleansing, and agua de florida. Participants will likely also be following a specific plant dieta throughout the retreat as well as taking part in ayahuasca ceremonies.”

In many Colombian traditions, instruments such as the harmonica, guitar, flute, and drums may be used during the ceremony, with songs often sung both in Spanish and the native language of the taita (another word for healer). The taita also sings icaros, plays the harmonica, and uses a waira (a collection of dried waira sacha leaves, used to clear negative energies and harmonize the space) during the ceremony.”

Tanev continues, “In Brazil and Colombia, you may be given rapé (pronounced rap-eh or hap-eh), a sacred Amazonian tobacco snuff, before taking the ayahuasca to help you feel more grounded and centered going into the ceremony.

In neo-shamanic circles, where the ceremony leader is not indigenous, the experience may vary further. It will likely include some traditional aspects such as the music and icaros, especially if the facilitators have trained with an indigenous Amazonian lineage, but may also incorporate some non-traditional aspects of new-age culture.”

A Traditional Ayahuasca Ceremony

Early accounts from Jesuit missionaries and later observations from ethnobotanists both confirmed that, in some indigenous societies, only the shamans consumed ayahuasca. The main purposes of its consumption were communion with spirits, magic, divination, diagnosis, and healing.

Traditional ayahuasca ceremonies are highly ritualized, and they tend to include various elements.

The Invocation Of Spirits

Chantre y Herrera observed that shamans would drink ayahuasca and then invoke the presence of spirits.

According to him, the brew would make the shaman pass out in a catatonic trance, at which point his soul would leave his body and the summoned spirit would deliver its message by speaking through the shaman. When the ceremony ended, the shaman would reveal what he had learned through his journey to the spirit world.


Shamans have also traditionally drunk ayahuasca in order to cross over into spirit realms and attain powers of divination.

Shaman In Ecuadorian Amazonia During A Real Ayahuasca Ceremony Model Released Images As Seen In April 2015
By communicating with spirits, shamans believed they could learn information not accessible in ordinary reality, such as what and when to plant, harvest, and hunt; issues with the community and how to improve it; where a missing object or person is; or what kind of ailment a person is suffering from. (Image via Shutterstock)

By conveying these messages to community members, shamans can help to strengthen the community, which leads them to be revered.


In indigenous societies, ordinary community members may drink ayahuasca in cases of serious illness. In these healing ceremonies, the shaman will also take ayahuasca for its divinatory effect, so he is able to diagnose the illness and ascertain the cure.

mayan people shaman plant ayahuasca medicine doctor ritual jungle amazon magical in ecuadorian amazonia during a real ayahuasca formal picture as seen in april 2015 mayan people shaman plant ayahuasca
It is believed that ayahuasca’s purging effect can help the patient rid their body of toxins (which can be spiritual or physiological in nature). (Image via Shutterstock)

Witchcraft (Brujeria)

Using ayahuasca, shamans have been known to wage spiritual wars with each other through sorcery or defending their patients against it.

There is a belief that the most serious illnesses can be attributed to the dark magic of evil brujos (sorcerers). The defending shaman would drink ayahuasca, figure out which brujo had sent the tsentsak (magical dart), and attempt to send it back and heal the sufferer.

We have already seen how the Jesuit missionaries discovered this particular use of ayahuasca. However, there is little mention of it on ayahuasca retreat websites, which makes sense, as few are interested in that kind of use.

Westerners tend to perceive ayahuasca shamans as healers, not sorcerers engaging in witchcraft.

Community Building

Other accounts of traditional ayahuasca use show it has been used for strengthening communal bonds. According to anthropologist Janet Siskind, among the Sharanahua indigenous peoples, all (male) community members would drink ayahuasca.

The Tukano community in Colombia would also hold ceremonial dances while under the influence of the brew, and ethnobotanist Jonathon Miller Weisberger reports that the Waoranis in Ecuador would take ayahuasca in order to sharpen their senses and reflexes and become better hunters and warriors.

Rite Of Passage

In her major study of mestizo shamanism in the Iquitos area in Peru, anthropologist Marlene Dobkin de Rios noted that some indigenous societies would use hallucinogenic plants, likely including ayahuasca, as a rite of passage. This would be to mark the passage from youth to adulthood.

As she writes:

“The plants were used for their hyper-suggestible properties, in order to create a state in which the moral and social values of the tribe would be easier to accept and assimilate. The visions or dreams were subsequently interpreted by the elders of the community in a way that agreed with the specific beliefs and values of the society – which reinforced in the young ideals of society to make them more fit to survive in their culture.”


Shamans also traditionally use icaros (songs, sung or whistled) before, during, and after ayahuasca ceremonies. These shamans claim they were taught icaros by the plants themselves, and they use the songs to invoke or summon the spirit of a plant or animal. Each shaman will have his own set of icaros.

Susana Bustos, who has researched these songs, writes that “Icaros are the curanderos’ weapons of healing, their sources of personal energy, symbols of their power and wisdom, and inheritances for their apprentices.”

It is believed that icaros positively influence someone’s ayahuasca journey. As Anja Loizaga-Velder and Armando Loizaga Pazzi state in The Therapeutic Use of Ayahuasca (2014):

“Icaros are meant to deepen or steer the ayahuasca trance, inducing and modulating visions and emotions and stimulating subconscious material on different levels.”

These songs have many purposes, nonetheless, including:

  • Evoking good plant spirits
  • Protecting the ceremony from evil spirits
  • Enhancing or mitigating the effects of ayahuasca, particularly visions
  • Diagnosing or divining the cause of an ailment
  • Divining a treatment for an ailment or sickness
  • Calling in healing energies to treat an ailment
  • Strengthening feelings of love between two people

Ayahuasca Retreat Ceremonies

If you join an ayahuasca retreat, the ceremonies include certain aspects of traditional ceremonies, such as an indigenous, trained shaman leading the ceremony, as well as the use of icaros.

How Ayahuasca Retreats Differ From Traditional Ceremonies

Retreat Centers

Many retreat centers ask participants to follow a strict diet and period of abstinence (called the dieta) before, during, and after the ceremony. However, this typically won’t be for as long as is traditional.

Dietas traditionally last eight, 15, or 30 days, but for Western visitors, the period is usually much shorter. Furthermore, not all retreats ask you to follow the dieta.

It is not always the case that an indigenous member of an Amazonian community will lead the ceremony at a retreat; sometimes, a Western shaman — trained in the tradition — will do so. Westerners have also teamed up with shamans in the Amazon rainforest regions to form ayahuasca healing centers.

In ayahuasca ceremonies outside of South America, like those found throughout Europe, it is more likely that the guide or shaman will be a Westerner. Often, these guides are not trained in the traditional way that ayahuasqueros are, the latter of whom will spend years training to be a healer and months following a strict diet and lifestyle of abstinence.

Differences in culture and worldview may also affect how the ceremonies are conducted. Ceremonies at retreats can be much more minimalistic and less ritualized than a traditional ayahuasca ceremony.

As already highlighted, the intentions behind ayahuasca ceremonies at retreat centers often differ from those involved in traditional ceremonies. In the former case, people may join an ayahuasca ceremony to deal with personal issues, such as:

  • Depression
  • Treatment-resistant depression
  • Anxiety
  • PTSD
  • Addiction
  • Relationship issues

Many ayahuasca retreats also include the use of other psychedelics, such as San Pedro cactus, as well as other activities and treatments, including meditation, yoga, breathwork, and massage.

The Problem Of Fake Shamans

You should be aware there is the problem of “fake shamans” or pseudo-shamans operating within the ayahuasca industry. These are people who don’t have shamanic training but who pose as shamans, offering ayahuasca ceremonies to tourists. They see ayahuasca as a business opportunity.

When something goes wrong, these pseudo-shamans don’t know how to help the person. Participants in shady ceremonies have been victims of robbery, molestation, rape, and have become violent or sick.

Anyone thinking of traveling abroad to join an ayahuasca ceremony, therefore, needs to do thorough research into the provider. It’s best to read reviews of an ayahuasca retreat center beforehand, rather than turning up in Iquitos in Peru and signing up for a ceremony that a vendor or so-called shaman there is offering. Ask us directly for advice by emailing us here.

What To Expect At An Ayahuasca Retreat

Here is a rough idea of what to expect when you join an ayahuasca retreat:

  • Day 1: Arrive at the retreat center. You have your orientation and you are introduced to the staff members, who explain what to expect over the coming days. You can ask any questions you have and you’ll have time to relax before dinner.
  • Day 2: Breakfast in the morning, then spending the rest of the day relaxing, perhaps having some treatments, and then preparing for the ceremony that will begin in the evening.
  • Day 3: There will be time for self-reflection and discussion. If you have signed up for multiple ceremonies, then there may be another ceremony in the evening, or in the evening on day four.
  • Day 4: If a San Pedro ceremony is included, this would typically begin in the morning, as this is a long-lasting psychedelic. If the retreat includes only ayahuasca ceremonies, then this one would again begin in the evening.
  • Day 5: On the last day, you will also have time to discuss and integrate your experiences.
  • Day 6: You will have breakfast, then return to the nearest town or city to head home or continue your travels.

What is an Ayahuasca Session Like?

In terms of the ceremony itself, it will typically be led by an experienced shaman who is familiar with both taking ayahuasca and giving it to others. You will take the ayahuasca with every other participant at the retreat, in a designated ceremony room. Here you will have your own area to sit and lie down.

At some point in the ceremony, the shaman will invite each participant to come up to him or her and take a cup of ayahuasca. You will then drink it and return to your area.

After each person has drunk the brew, there is a waiting period.

Within 20-60 minutes, you may feel nausea and the urge to vomit, which is perfectly normal. After you vomit, you should feel better. You will have a bucket for vomiting. If you vomit early in the session, you might not feel the ayahuasca quite as intensely, since you’ve lost a lot of the medicine.

The lights may be turned off during the ceremony, with just some candles burning. The darkness can help you to better see the ayahuasca visions. The lights will be turned on at the end of the ceremony.

Rising and Falling Effects

Most ayahuasca journeys have an arc. They intensify for a while, plateau, then taper off. If the dose is high enough, people lose touch with their surroundings and their normal way of thinking and experiencing the world. People forget that they’re a person on a mat in a room. In the Western way of thinking, the drug has changed the way their brains and bodies operate. In the Amazonian view, a spirit has overcome them.

After four to six hours, the effects wear off, and people typically come back to their normal way of thinking and feeling.

Many people find it hard to sleep after ayahuasca sessions. Many feel happier the next day. People call this the “reverse hangover.”

Santo Daime and UDV Ceremonies

A Santo Daime ayahuasca ceremony will involve the following:

  • Singing hymns that praise divine principles
  • Christian prayers
  • Silent, seated meditations
  • Dancing
  • Music
  • The wearing of a ceremonial white uniform
  • Drinking Daime (ayahuasca) at intervals, with vomiting embraced as both emotional and physical purging

During a UDV ayahuasca ceremony, known as sessions, participants (including adolescents) will drink Hoasca tea (ayahuasca) and arrive at a state of mental concentration called burracheira.

Brewing sacred ayahuasca medicine amazon
Brewing the “Hoasca Tea” is often seen as a sacred process. (Image via Shutterstock)

During the sessions, UDV members study the spiritual teachings and doctrine of Mestre Gabriel, who founded the religion with the aim to “bring peace to the world” and “remove evil from people’s hearts”. The aim of the sessions, through the use of Hoasca tea, is to reconnect to values such as family, fraternity, peace, and love.

The Ayahuasca Experience

Now that we have seen what different ayahuasca ceremonies look like, you will likely want to know what to expect from the experience itself.

There are many kinds of ayahuasca effects, including physical, perceptual, emotional, psychological, and spiritual effects.

Physical Effects

Taking ayahuasca can have a range of possible physical effects, including the following:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Dilated pupils
  • Increased heart rate
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Dizziness
  • Nystagmus (rapid rhythmic movements of the eyes)

Perceptual Effects

As with other psychedelics, ayahuasca can affect your sensory perceptions, the way that things look, sound, and feel. But when you take ayahuasca at a retreat, you will likely take a dose that is high enough to induce visions. Common visions feature:

  • Geometry
  • Memories of events in your life, including traumatic or repressed memories
  • Fantastical and otherworldly places
  • Places in historical time
  • Imagined points in the future
  • The Earth and the kinds of events currently taking place on it
  • Wildlife
  • Animals
  • Entities

Emotional Effects

Ayahuasca can induce various emotional states, which can be pleasant or unpleasant in nature. The emotional effects of ayahuasca may include the following:

  • A feeling of emotional release
  • A stronger connection to one’s emotions
  • Empathy
  • Compassion
  • Joy
  • Euphoria
  • Bliss
  • Ecstasy
  • Contentment
  • Peace
  • Gratitude
  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Dread
  • Panic
  • Despair

It should be noted that it is common to experience different emotional states during a single ayahuasca experience. These moments can include mental discomfort, as well as periods of elation or calmness.

Psychological Effects

One of the most powerful and healing aspects of an ayahuasca experience is the ability to think differently and take on new perspectives. The psychological effects of ayahuasca include:

  • Increased self-awareness
  • Increased self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Facing personal demons, such as negative thought patterns and behaviors, as well as past mistakes
  • Reinterpreting conflicts within oneself and with others
  • Deciding to make changes in one’s life

Spiritual Effects

Ayahuasca is a powerful psychedelic, and it is common for many people to experience mystical effects when taking it. These include:

  • Making contact with “Mother Ayahuasca”, a motherly type presence that users feel imparts wisdom, lessons, messages, care, and healing. The messages are often ecological in nature, relating to the destruction of the planet and the need to protect the environment
  • Out-of-body experiences
  • Ego loss
  • Feeling oneself transform into an animal
  • A feeling of unity, such as feeling unified with all of humankind, the environment, or the entire universe
  • A sense of being outside time and space
  • Ineffability
  • A sense of sacredness or the “divine”

It should first be noted that ayahuasca is illegal in many countries — in most countries, in fact. Let’s explore why this is the case, and then outline where the brew is legal and where legal retreats operate.

Why Is Ayahuasca Illegal In Many Countries?

Caapi is legal in most countries, as harmalines are not controlled substances. Most countries prohibit the sale, possession, transportation, and cultivation of ayahuasca because the brew contains the psychedelic compound DMT. It is specifically the DMT found in ayahuasca that renders ayahuasca illegal.

Why is DMT illegal? Because in the 1960s lawmakers lumped DMT in with other mind-altering substances young people used and older people were afraid of, like LSD and cannabis. In 1970, the U.S. federal government classified DMT as a Schedule I drug under the Controlled Substances Act. It remains in this category, as well as in similar categories elsewhere in the world.

For instance, in the UK, DMT is a Class A drug. This means DMT sits in the legal category of drugs that includes cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine.

Ruth Chun, a lawyer at Chun Law Professional Corporation and director of psychedelics company Entheon Biomedical Corp, explains:

“In 1971, following the passing of the Controlled Drugs Substances Act, the United Nations passed the Convention on Psychotropic Substances, requiring member states to control enumerated substances, including DMT. By classifying substances as Schedule 1 drugs, the Convention categorized certain drugs as having a serious risk to public health and no recognized therapeutic value.”

The sale, possession, transportation, and cultivation of DMT or ayahuasca carry the highest legal penalties. However, the plant Psychotria viridis, which contains DMT, is legal in most countries (except France).

Ayahuasca is legal for UDV members throughout the U.S. and legal for members of the Santo Daime religion to use in ceremonies in California, Oregon, Massachusetts, and Washington State. Santo Daime members can also legally use ayahuasca for religious purposes in Canada (specifically in Montreal and Toronto).

In 1999, U.S. customs officials seized a shipment of ayahuasca and raided a UDV member’s office. Following this incident, the UDV fought court battles in order to stop the U.S. government from interfering with its religious use of ayahuasca.

After long legal battles, the Supreme Court ruled in 2006 that UDV members in the US could legally use ayahuasca as a religious sacrament. Native American Church (NAC) members have fought similar legal battles in the country, arguing that their religious use of peyote should be exempt from federal law. These battles have also been successful.

Ayahuasca has also been decriminalized or legalized in the following cities, counties and states:

This means that a person will not face prosecution for possessing or using the psychedelic brew in these cities.

There are several countries in Latin America where ayahuasca is legal:

In most European countries, ayahuasca is illegal since it contains DMT. However, it is possible to use ayahuasca in some countries in Europe without interference from the law.

Portugal decriminalized all drugs in 2001, making it the safest place in Europe to drink ayahuasca from a legal standpoint. In Spain (where the UDV and Santo Daime are active), it is rare to face prosecution for using ayahuasca. Many ayahuasca retreats take place in the country.

Spain never experienced a process of decriminalization based on a political decision. Nevertheless, drug use and possession of small amounts have always been free of criminal penalties. Therefore, Spain has long had a policy of decriminalization in place.

According to National Police Spokesman Rafael Jimenez:

“If you are consuming any drugs in private, you are not breaking any law. And then if you are caught taking drugs in public places, this is an administrative, not a criminal offence.”

When it comes to legal ways to experience ayahuasca, there are essentially two options. The first is to participate in a legal retreat that includes one or more ayahuasca ceremonies. The second option, which is likely not practical or desirable, is to join a religion in which ayahuasca is a religious sacrament.

Otherwise, there are underground ayahuasca retreats that take place throughout North America, Europe, and Asia. But you should be aware of the legal risks involved.

Additionally, some people, living in countries where ayahuasca is illegal, will drink the brew in their homes. But keep in mind that ayahuasca is a powerful psychedelic, so it is often recommended to have a guide or support at hand.

Ayahuasca Contraindications

People can’t agree on which drugs mix badly with ayahuasca, if any.

Some experts allege that certain drugs and medications have been found to not be compatible with ayahuasca. A common piece of advice is that you should avoid drugs that affect your serotonin levels, like SSRI antidepressants such as Prozac. (That includes Fluoxetine, Sertraline, Citalopram, and Paroxetine.) Excessive serotonin during ayahuasca can cause changes in blood pressure, loss of muscle control, accelerated heart rate, confusion, restlessness, nausea, tremors, high fever, seizures and passing out.

Other medical professionals say it’s just as dangerous to stop taking your anti-depressants. Take a lower dose of ayahuasca, some professionals suggest, to avoid any potential problems.

Some retreat centers and religions don’t see any issues with taking SSRI’s and ayahuasca at the same time. Here is a scientific paper analyzing the relationship between psychedelics, pharmaceutical drugs, and serotonin syndrome. The answers are not straightforward.

Some practitioners says ayahuasca interferes with herbal medicine and supplements like:

  • Boswellia
  • Ginseng
  • Cannabis
  • Kava
  • Nutmeg
  • St John’s Wort

Other medical conditions such as high or low blood pressure, advanced diabetes, mental illness or having recently undergone surgery should be considered, in addition to:

  • Bipolar disorders
  • Psychoses
  • Schizophrenia

How To Prep For Ayahuasca

If you’ve never tried ayahuasca, it is hard, in a sense, to prepare for the experience. On the other hand, having some psychedelic experiences under your belt — as well as some idea of what to expect — will provide a good level of preparation.

Firstly, don’t travel to Latin America and expect the ayahuasca experience to be a fun, adventurous, bucket-list activity to do.

Ayahuasca is not a recreational drug.

While it may induce intensely positive states of mind, this does not mean you’ll have an easy-going experience where you just see pretty patterns and laugh with others.

Ayahuasca can offer people a profound psychedelic experience, involving visions, confronting past trauma and difficult memories and emotions, and losing one’s sense of self, time, and space.

If you are expecting just a wild ride, like some sort of psychedelic rollercoaster, then you may find yourself unprepared for what will actually occur. But if you understand that the experience can be highly personal, emotionally challenging, and even disturbing at times, then you will know that everything you’re experiencing is normal.

Side Effects

Ayahuasca is known to result in nausea and vomiting, and — in some instances — diarrhea. Yet many ayahuasqueros do not consider vomiting to be a “side effect”, but rather an important part of the ceremony. Purging is seen to be a form of physical, psychological, and spiritual cleansing.

You can prepare for ayahuasca’s side effects by expecting them to occur. This way you won’t be shocked if you start to feel very nauseous and want to vomit, and then end up vomiting multiple times. This doesn’t mean you’ve been poisoned or that you’re in any physical danger. Also, knowing that you will feel better after purging can help you get through it.

Practical Aspects

You can also prep for ayahuasca by thinking practically about the retreat you’ll be joining. This means:

  • Understanding the legality of the retreat. If ayahuasca is not legal in the country where you’re planning to visit, are you comfortable with that?
  • Making sure you have time to settle in the country the retreat is in. For example, if you’re traveling to Latin America for an ayahuasca retreat, you might want to spend some time resting and exploring before the ayahuasca sessions begin. This way, you won’t start ceremonies with pre-existing jet lag or travel-related stress.
  • Ensuring you have a clear itinerary of how to get to the ayahuasca retreat.
  • Taking everything with you that you might need.
  • Having enough money available for any additional travel costs.

Psychological Aspects

There are different ways you can psychologically prepare for an ayahuasca experience.

Set Your Intentions

You can prepare for ayahuasca by setting your intentions. Think about why you want to take ayahuasca and what you hope to gain from the experience(s). Your intentions might include the following:

  • Improving mental health issues
  • Facing trauma
  • Confronting difficult emotions
  • Enhancing your spiritual life
  • Dealing with a personal or existential crisis

Set Aside Time For Integration

At an ayahuasca retreat, you will have time to process your experience and talk about what happened. This refers to psychedelic integration, which is when you try to make sense of what happened and apply the lessons and insights to your everyday life. The latter could involve making changes to your attitudes, beliefs, habits, relationships, career path, hobbies, plans, and goals.

However, integration can be a long process, not something that gets “completed” in just a day after an ayahuasca trip.

While it is an ambiguous term, generally the point of integration is to achieve a positive transformation in what you’re like as a person, how you view the world, or the important aspects of your life.

Be sure to prepare for more than just the experience itself, but also for the period after it. This may entail many questions, heightened emotional states, confusion, and uncertainty.

For the purposes of integration, many ayahuasca users find it helpful to seek out a psychotherapist who is knowledgeable about psychedelics or altered states. Joining a psychedelic integration circle can also be helpful, as this will allow you to hear about others’ experiences, as well as receive feedback from them about your own experiences.

Of course, being able to discuss the experience with anyone who is open-minded, non-judgmental, and supportive can help you during your process of integration.

Know How To Handle A Challenging Experience

Ideally, you will have trained, experienced facilitators present with you during your ayahuasca experience. As well as looking after your physical safety, they can help you navigate any challenging aspects of the experience, such as states of anxiety, fear, panic, or confusion.

You can also prepare for ayahuasca by learning techniques for handling difficult experiences — or a “bad trip“.

These strategies can include:

  • Mindfulness: noticing what is occurring during the experience, without being either attached or aversive toward it.
  • Focusing on your breath: consciously taking deep breaths is a form of mindfulness that can anchor you to the present moment, alleviating some distress you might be experiencing.
  • Acceptance: embracing what you are experiencing, rather than wanting challenging emotions or visions to disappear. This is also known as “letting go” or not resisting. It is especially helpful when experiencing intense states like ego death or ego dissolution.
  • Self-compassion: showing kindness toward yourself.
  • Reminding yourself that you are safe and not in any danger.
  • Telling yourself that what you’re experiencing is due to the effects of ayahuasca and that you’ll be sober again in a few hours.

You don’t need to be a highly experienced meditator to prepare for ayahuasca’s more challenging moments. Simply being aware of the above techniques, practicing them a bit beforehand, and recalling them during an ayahuasca trip can prove to be incredibly helpful.

How Long Does Ayahuasca Last?

The ayahuasca experience will typically last 4-6 hours. This is a medium length of time when it comes to the duration of psychedelics. For comparison, here is how long other psychedelics last:

As we can see, ayahuasca lasts much longer than the smoked or vaporized DMT experience. It will last for around the same amount of time as an experience with psilocybin mushrooms. The experience certainly won’t last as long as the effects of LSD, mescaline, or ibogaine.

You can expect to feel the first effects of ayahuasca after 20-60 minutes, with peak effects lasting 1-2 hours, and continued but less intense effects lasting for 1-3 hours after that.

Ayahuasca Benefits

People don’t often take ayahuasca just to try it and say they’ve done it. Usually, people are hoping to gain some specific benefits from the brew: An alleviation of emotional distress or a drastic change in their lives.

Mental Health

Many people use ayahuasca because they struggle with a mental health condition, perhaps one that has not responded well to conventional treatments. Anecdotally, ayahuasca users report significant improvements in their mental well-being after their experiences. Scientific research supports these claims, too.

In a 2020 study, published in Scientific Reports, researchers gave ayahuasca to participants who had never used it before. The aim was to see how their mental health changed as a result.

In the first mental health assessment of participants, researchers found that 45 percent of users met the criteria for a psychiatric disorder. These conditions included depression, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), and substance abuse/dependence.

After ayahuasca use, over 80 percent of the naïve users with a diagnosable mental disorder showed clinical improvements. These benefits lasted up to six months.

There are many other studies that focus on how ayahuasca can be effective in ameliorating a specific mental health issue. Let’s explore some of this research.


A 2015 study showed that ayahuasca can result in significant reductions in depressive symptoms in patients with recurrent depression for 2-3 weeks. This is a type of depression characterized by intermittent depressive episodes — patients with this condition will recover from an episode of depression, only to experience another one later on.

While symptoms may have returned for these participants, a 2018 follow-up study revealed that most patients found the ayahuasca experience to be beneficial.

A 2019 placebo-controlled study, published in Psychological Medicine, found that ayahuasca can cause rapid and significant antidepressant effects in patients with treatment-resistant depression.

A 2021 study published in the Journal of Affective Disorders showed that 94 percent of survey respondents experienced some, great, or complete resolution of depression symptoms following ayahuasca use. The same was true in 90 percent of cases for anxiety symptoms.

However, a small minority reported worsened depression (2.7 percent) and worsened anxiety (4.4 percent). Moreover, there were limitations to the study:

  • It was cross-sectional (meaning we can’t confirm a causal relationship — we don’t know if it was the ayahuasca itself that caused the changes)
  • It relied on self-reporting, which can be unreliable
  • It used questionnaires sent out on ayahuasca groups and forums, where individuals with positive reactions are more likely to be active, leading to a possible selection bias


There is less evidence that ayahuasca can improve PTSD symptoms compared to major depression. Nonetheless, the potential of using ayahuasca to treat PTSD is an existing area of study.

In a 2018 paper in Frontiers in Pharmacology, researcher Antonio Inserra outlines his hypothesis for how ayahuasca may heal traumatic memories.

Inserra states the following: “As Ayahuasca alkaloids enhance synaptic plasticity, increase neurogenesis and boost dopaminergic neurotransmission, and those processes are involved in memory reconsolidation and fear extinction, the fear response triggered by the memory can be reprogramed and/or extinguished.”

Other researchers in the field believe that ayahuasca can act in a similar way to exposure therapy. This is one of the common treatments for PTSD. After trying ayahuasca tea, it is common to face deep-seated traumas that can cause PTSD symptoms.

Through this exposure, people can learn to accept the trauma and reframe what the traumatic event means to them. As with exposure therapy, this helps people to live with traumatic memories without feeling distressing fear in response to them.

Nonetheless, it’s important to note the challenges that people with PTSD may face when joining an ayahuasca retreat.

A 2021 study on the risks and benefits of ayahuasca for trauma survivors found that, “while most people found the experience to be helpful and healing, people are reporting unfavorable responses to ayahuasca, particularly those with a history of PTSD.”


One common reason people join an ayahuasca retreat is to beat an addiction to alcohol, benzodiazepines, opioids, or stimulants. Several centers using ayahuasca to treat addiction claim higher success rates than those achieved through conventional types of addiction treatment.

In a 2013 study, researchers found that ayahuasca-assisted therapy (ayahuasca combined with psychotherapy) led to reductions in alcohol, tobacco, and cocaine use. There were also statistically significant improvements in mindfulness, hopefulness, empowerment, and a sense of meaning.

The above are positive psychological changes that can help people overcome addiction and stay sober.

A 2019 follow-up analysis of this study revealed that participants began to notice negative patterns that fed into their addictions. Researchers highlight that these insights were linked to reduced substance use and cravings.

A Note Of Caution On Using Ayahuasca To Treat Mental Health Issues

Ayahuasca, like other psychedelics, does not mix well with certain mental health issues. You should avoid using ayahuasca if you have a diagnosed psychotic disorder, such as schizophrenia, schizoaffective disorder, or psychotic depression, and perhaps if you have a family history of one of these conditions.

It is also recommended to not use ayahuasca during the manic phase of bipolar disorder.

Major Changes To One’s Life

During an ayahuasca trip, you have the opportunity to think about your life from a number of different perspectives. This can help to destabilize and restructure some of your core beliefs. The correct decisions you should take in life may suddenly become clear.

The Global Ayahuasca Project, carried out by University of Melbourne researcher Dr. Daniel Perkins, highlights that some of the major decisions people make following an ayahuasca retreat include:

  • Ending unhealthy relationships
  • Entering healthier relationships
  • Starting new careers
  • Lifestyle changes, such as giving up drinking or drug use
  • Dietary changes
  • Healing interpersonal conflicts

You will often find anecdotal reports of people making changes like these following an ayahuasca retreat.

Ayahuasca retreats can offer an intensely emotional and introspective journey. When people integrate the insights they have gained, they find that this translates into concrete, positive changes in their lives.

Sam Woolfe

Sam Woolfe

View all posts by Sam Woolfe

Sam Woolfe is a freelance writer based in London. His main areas of interest include mental health, mystical experiences, the history of psychedelics, and the philosophy of psychedelics. He first became fascinated by psychedelics after reading Aldous Huxley's description of the mescaline experience in The Doors of Perception. Since then, he has researched and written about psychedelics for various publications, covering the legality of psychedelics, drug policy reform, and psychedelic science.

Dr. Jonathann Kuo

This post was medically approved by Dr. Jonathann Kuo

Jonathann Kuo, MD is a Board Certified Pain Medicine Specialist and Anesthesiologist. He is the founder of Hudson Medical Group (HMG), an innovative and cutting edge healthcare system that combines Medical, Wellness, and Mental Health in the treatment of Pain.

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