The question of whether it is necessary to travel to South America to drink ayahuasca is a common one. It is a question regularly chewed over in ayahuasca forums without any lasting consensus drawn. In many instances the question is a circular debate that leads to arguments, potentially confusing those who genuinely seek to make a decision.
It is understandable that so many support the idea that this powerful Amazonian brew originated in South America and should only be imbibed under the care of indigenous shamans that work with it. After all, these shamans have a deep understanding of the plants, the forest and the realms encountered when imbibing it. This is something it would be very challenging for a Western shaman to match.
It could reasonably be argued that it makes the most sense to go to South America to work with ayahuasca and the indigenous shamans. However, there are many factors that can affect such a decision, and uncovering an objective truth is unlikely - the answer probably isn’t black or white. For some (and for an array of reasons) traveling to South America to drink ayahuasca simply isn’t a viable option. For others, it may actually be a dangerous decision.
There are several factors to consider when deciding where to drink ayahuasca:
The jungle isn’t for everyone
Some would argue that ayahuasca is not a comfortable experience in itself and therefore tolerating jungle conditions should be par for the course. Whether this applies to you or not probably depends what you want to get from an ayahuasca experience. If you want to be pushed out of your comfort zone, perhaps choosing the jungle is a wise move.
If you typically have severe allergic reactions to insects, for example, perhaps it isn’t. The jungle is alive with all kinds of creatures, from snakes to poisonous spiders. It is possible to attract infections you’ve never given a thought to, from flesh-eating bacteria to Lyme disease or malaria.
Although the chance of being affected by these kinds of things is not particularly high, dangerous situations can and do arise.
If you’re already dealing with a debilitating health condition, you might think it is a great idea to heal it in the jungle. Whether this is feasible or not may depend on your shamans knowledge of Western health conditions, and you might find that jungle conditions can even exacerbate it. Someone with a serious diabetic condition, for instance, would need to be very well prepared if they plan to be isolated a long way from medical care.
When choosing a location and a shaman, be sure that full disclosure is given and that you’re happy with the answers regarding solutions to potential issues.
You can drink ayahuasca in South America outside of the jungle
It is more than possible to drink in South America without venturing into the jungle, of course. There are plenty of places in Peru, for example; the Sacred Valley of the Incas is a popular place for those who want to experience ayahuasca in its native settings. Mountainous ranges like the Andes are said to hold a lot of healing energy; they are thought to support the medicines in bringing out the most tenacious issues plaguing humans. The Incas say that the mountains have a spirit of their own; these are known as the Apus and they are considered to be protectors of the territory and its inhabitants.
Ayahuasca is commonly imbibed in the mountains by both travellers and indigenous peoples. It is an entirely different experience to that the jungle can offer; some would say that it is more comfortable because there are less insects and the atmosphere is less humid. There is a peaceful vibe to this kind of environment that is in many ways at odds with the noise and intensity of the jungle.
However, some say that because of the number of international visitors who come to imbibe ayahuasca in this setting, it has lost some level of authenticity. Such judgments are of course subjective, but whether you wish to experience it this way might depend on whether you are most concerned with experiencing the medicine itself, or the level of authenticity that goes with it.
Your comfort and security should be a priority
Set and setting are vital for the physical and mental wellbeing of many ayahuasca imbibers, especially those who are drinking to such powerful plant medicines for the first time. Whether you are keen to be comfortable or not, security should be a prime consideration for everyone.
Ayahuasca is a powerful and sometimes incapacitating medicine that can temporarily impair judgment, both mentally and physically. It is wise to be sure that you are going to be contained in a safe environment. Wandering off into the jungle is likely not a good idea, although it has been allowed (and sometimes with disastrous results). Regardless of the terrain, you should at all times be under the watchful eye of trained staff.
Being physically uncomfortable can also distract you to a large degree from focusing on the teachings of the medicine. For some, lying on the rough ground of the jungle is helpful. For others, a padded bed in a contained room (such as a maloca) with a small group of others makes the experience much easier to relax into.
Western retreat centres may focus more on comfort
Although this is not exclusively true and comfort is a big consideration in many South American retreat centres, comfort is often one reason that people opt to drink ayahuasca in Western retreat centres, or in small groups at home with Western shamans.
Westerners tend to have become accustomed to physical comfort in healing situations due to the culture, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Western retreat centres generally own or hire spaces with a typical Western set up, so this might mean venues or yurts with wooden floors. The ceremonial spaces are usually contained, and nobody wants or needs to lie on a hard floor.
Padded beds or mattresses are often provided; at the very least it will be a yoga mat. Some retreat centres offer complementary activities to bring out the best in the healing work, and almost all offer an integration session after the ceremony to help imbibers to make sense of their experiences.
There may be some post-ceremony food available, and there are likely to be toilet facilities and purge buckets. Although none of this is guaranteed, it is likely. All of these things come together to make for a comfortable physical experience and a sense of security, so it makes sense that people choose in a location close to their home rather than making a journey across the world and into unfamiliar territories.
The decision may be cost-dependent
Cost is a major factor in making the decision to drink ayahuasca in South America or not. Dependent on your location, you might be situated thousands of miles away, and flights can be extortionate. On top of this, not so many ceremonies in South America are extremely cheap. The range varies greatly according to venue and services, so whether you go for a budget option or a full-service retreat, it can all add up.
It is possible to secure flights more cheaply in advance, or to go at certain times of year in order to bring the cost down. It is also possible to find South American shamans who ask for little or no monetary compensation, but this is less common now that ayahuasca drinking has become so prevalent.
If you are on a budget, it might be more convenient to choose a more local retreat centre that can cover your needs.
Legality is an important concern
In South America you are unlikely to run into any legal problems through drinking ayahuasca. Laws change, however, and you should check the current laws in your chosen country before embarking on a trip. The brew is indigenous to several countries on the continent and is widely considered to be a medicine, so this is one argument for experiencing it in South America.
The same cannot be said for Western countries. In many, DMT (one of the main components of the brew) is a classified substance and possession can result in jail time. Although you may not be found to be in possession of the brew yourself, the idea of a retreat centre being raided mid-ceremony probably doesn’t bare thinking about.
If you decide to book with a retreat centre in a country where the substance is not legal, it would be prudent to speak with them about what precautions and safety measures they have in place. How they handle their privacy will tell you a lot about their general attitude too. As it stands, most centres are not currently being investigated or taken down. However, this may not always be the case and it pays to be knowledgeable about the laws and enforcement policies your chosen country has in place before you make any decisions.
One question leads to another
There is a closely related question pertaining to ethics doing the rounds, and this is whether or not your shaman should be of South American origins. The answers to both questions are often diametrically opposed and largely dependent on personal background. It is likely that both positions have a certain level of validity, however those who are on the fence might want to dig a little deeper into the details in order to make up their minds.