Each Friday, we’re republishing an article from the High Times archives. This week, the topic is yagé, otherwise known as ayahuasca. Originally featured in the “Vagabond” section of the August 1979 issue, the article was written by none other than celebrity physician and erstwhile High Times contributor Dr. Andrew Weil, M.D.
Every Saturday in a remote region of south-western Colombia, sick people make their way to a hut in a jungle clearing. The hut is a two-to-three-hour walk over a rough trail from a little port town called Mayoyoque on the River Caquetá, a tributary of the Amazon. Some of the people are very sick with high fevers, infections and chronic diseases that have not responded to medical treatment. The goal of their pilgrimage is an Ingano Indian witch doctor named Luis Nutumbahoy. He is a yagero, a man skilled in the use of yagé (yah-HAY), the powerful psychedelic drink of the Amazon, and every Saturday he cooks up a batch of it to use in curing ceremonies.
I have been interested in yagé for years and have visited a number of yageros in the western Amazon. Last January, on the recommendation of a Colombian friend, I made the long and difficult trip to see don Luis and his ceremony.
To get there I flew from Bogotá to Florencia, capital of the Caquetá Territory, a large province of Colombia mostly consisting of steamy jungles and large rivers. In recent years, intense colonization has resulted in ugly clear-cutting of the jungle and the growth of rowdy frontier towns noted for their violence. At the moment, the Caquetá is officially considered a war zone because of guerrilla activity, principally of a group called the FARC, the Colombian Armed Revolutionary Forces. In my travels from Florencia to Mayoyoque by bus and boat I was stopped frequently by soldiers, asked for identification and sometimes searched for weapons. Considerable drug traffic comes through the territory as well, mostly cocaine shipped by river from Peru.
Last January it was hard to get around the Caquetá because it was the middle of an unusually hot “summer,” a period of drought and high temperatures that had dried up the territory, making river travel uncertain and causing spontaneous forest fires that filled the skies with smoke and turned the sun an ominous copper color.
I took an uncomfortable bus from Florencia to a port called Curillo on the River Caquetá, then caught a motorized canoe downstream to Mayoyoque. Mayoyoque is in a lawless zone with no police or authorities. The town has seen a number of murders in the past months, and I was not eager to stay there long. The morning after my arrival I set out on the trail to don Luis’s house.
The first part of the trail led through blackened, devastated fields, recently burned for new growing and grazing land. Then the forest began, dark and lush despite the lack of rain. I saw many kinds of mushrooms on the ground and on dead logs. There were some spectacular flowers, one a giant red bloom from a tree called palo de cruz. Parrots sang in the trees. I crossed deep ravines on crude log bridges. Normally, these ravines are roaring torrents on their way to the Caquetá. Now they were still, with a few disappearing muddy pools.
My companions on this trip were Diego León Giraldo, a well-known Colombian film maker who had visited don Luis before to make a documentary movie about yagé; his wife, Silvia Patiño, a professional photographer; and Carlos Rangel, an Indian guide who knows the territory well.
In late morning, we emerged into a sunny clearing with a large palm-thatched house. Luis came out to greet us. He is a 56-year-old, small, active man with an unusual face that sometimes appears very old, then changes into the face of a young child. His wife and children were there, and they showed us inside to the cool part of the house. Hammocks were strung up, the air smelled of woodsmoke from a kitchen fire, and a noisy parrot strolled about the rafters. Chickens paraded inside the house. Outside was an arrogant rooster that I grew to hate during the week I stayed there, also a family of ducks, some scrawny dogs and a few pigs.
The Inganos are descendants of ancient Incas who migrated north. Some of them live in villages in the mountains near the Ecuadorian border, but most are spread out through the hot lowlands along or near rivers. Like don Luis, most of them live in houses in isolated clearings in the jungle. They hunt, fish and grow a few staples like yuca (tapioca root). They sometimes wear colorful costumes, and they use a number of drug plants, especially yagé, which they call huasca in their own dialect.
Yagé is a gigantic liana, a woody vine that climbs up the huge trees of the jungle. In many parts of the Amazon it is a rare plant, and some Indians have to make long journeys to collect it. But Luis had many wild yagé vines within walking distance of his house. Some of them were the biggest I have seen, with heavy trunks six inches in diameter, so tall that I could not make out the leaves at the top.
Among the Inganos of this region, yagé is a sacred plant, used only in ceremonies for specific purposes such as healing and divining. There are certain taboos around it. For example, women are not allowed to see the living vines or their preparation, although they may consume the drink. If a woman sets eyes on a living yagé, that vine is useless and cannot be prepared.
On the day after my arrival Luis cooked up a batch of yagé for me to drink. He began by felling a giant tree with a vine coiled about it, then hacked the yagé into eight-inch lengths with a machete. He carried these back to a small ramada about five minutes from the house. The ramada is only used for cooking yagé, and no women are allowed near it. Luis half filled a large fire-blackened caldron with about two gallons of water from a nearby water hole. He added about a quart of finished yagé from his last batch, cooked the previous Saturday. Then he brought fire from his kitchen and kindled a blaze underneath the pot, arranging long pieces of wood so that he could push them in and keep the fire going.
Next he sat down on a log and began to smash the pieces of yagé with a heavy stick. He beat each one until it split apart, exposing the inner fibers. When Luis finished this operation, he stood up, went to a post supporting one edge of the ramada and unfastened a net bag. From the inside he extracted handfuls of fresh green leaves. He called these chagrapanga and said they were the other ingredient that went into his version of yagé.
Each yagero has his own recipe for the drink, and some use various additives, including toxic plants like datura. In the western Amazon the basic mixture is simply trunks of yagé and leaves of chagrapanga. The botanical name of yagé is Banisteriopsis caapi, and it owes its hallucinogenic power to two chemicals called harmine and harmaline. Chagrapanga is a related plant, Banisteriopsis rusbyana, also a woody vine, whose leaves are rich in DMT, dimethyltryptamine. Luis says that these leaves “brighten the visions” caused by yagé, that with yagé alone “you will get intoxicated but not see anything; chagrapanga shows you pictures.”
He put two large handfuls of these leaves into the pot and adjusted the fire to bring the water to a boil. I wanted to see the chagrapanga vine because I had never met Banisteriopsis rusbyana in the wild, but Luis said the plants were scarce, and he had gone a long way through the jungle to collect these leaves.
When the water came to a boil, Luis added the smashed yagé, two big bundles of it. He stirred the mixture with a stick, adjusted the fire till it was simmering, then sat back to wait. He told me it was important not to make the fire too high or the liquid would cook down too fast without extracting the power of the yagé.
The cooking took three hours. It was a scorching day, and the fire made things even hotter, but it was not unpleasant to lounge in the ramada, watching the caldron bubble, stirring the brew occasionally. When it was done, Luis unhooked the pot from its support and poured the liquid into two containers fashioned from the sheaths of flowers of palm trees, discarding the spent yagé. He covered the containers with fresh banana leaves. Then he repeated the process from the start, with water, chagrapanga and yagé, and cooked this second batch for the same amount of time.
When the second batch was done, it was late afternoon. Luis combined the liquids from the two cookings and put them back in the pot. He then boiled the mixture down for an hour more to concentrate it. The finished product was muddy brown. When it was cool, Luis poured it into two containers: a large glass jug that had once held whiskey, and a plastic motor-oil bottle. These he carried up to the house, ready for use.
You never drink yagé until dark. And you are not supposed to eat anything after noon on the day you are going to drink it. I had not eaten since breakfast. Expectantly, I waited for sunset and for the heat to subside, watching the animals hunt for food around the house. As it got dark, Luis made things ready inside. He arranged some objects on a little altar, lit candles, got out cups and poured himself a few shots of aguardiente, the fiery anise-flavored cane whiskey that Colombians love. Luis says that aguardiente increases the effect of the yagé and also kills its bitter taste.
Luis’s brother-in-law, named Jorge, had come by to help. It was the middle of the week, not a regular yagé Saturday, and no sick people had come. Only Luis, Jorge and I were going to drink. Jorge prepared a large bowl of water with several aromatic leaves and barks. He called this mixture fresca and said it would be used in the ceremony.
Unhurriedly, Luis poured out a portion of his brew into a large gourd. He set this down and began chanting over it: a strange, half-whispered chant, interrupted by puffs of breath. He took down from the wall a kind of noisemaker of bunched, dried palm leaves and rattled it over the bowl of yagé while keeping up his quiet song. This blessing ritual lasted ten minutes. Then Luis dipped out a four-ounce coffee cup of the brown liquid, raised it to his lips and drained it down, chasing it with a quick shot of aguardiente. He then dipped out a cup for me.
I followed Luis’s example and drained the cup quickly. The yagé tasted bitter, rusty and unpleasant, though not as bad as peyote. It was not very hard to get the first dose down. Since I do not care for aguardiente, I sucked on a slice of lime instead.
After Jorge drank his cup, Luis settled into a hammock and was quiet. Jorge lay down in another hammock. I was lying on a bench. It was dark except for a few candles, and the night was still hot. We listened to the jungle noises and watched some spectacular fireflies, which the children trapped and put into a jar.
I had taken yagé once before in the mountains of the Putumayo Territory southwest of here. But that drink contained datura and other additives and was violently intoxicating. I lost all power of movement, experienced complete physical and mental chaos and received no help from the yagero, who did nothing at all after a few minutes of chanting before pouring out the dose. My mind ran back to that adventure of a few years before. I was apprehensive, waiting to see what would happen.
In about 15 minutes I began to feel an uncomfortable heaviness in my stomach. It intensified over the next ten minutes, till I had to roll around in search of better positions. Eventually I got up and walked outside the hut to vomit.
Vomiting is the first stage of the effect of yagé. It is not fun, and I say that as someone who likes to vomit in certain circumstances. I held on to a tree and brought up a small quantity of intensely bitter liquid with wrenching spasms. Yagé tastes much worse on the way up than on the way down—so bad that it left me shuddering for a few seconds. But I felt much better immediately after, and as I straightened up I noticed the stars for the first time. It was a beautiful night with a new moon over the dark forest. I felt high, not the chaotic acceleration of datura-adulterated yagé, but a calm, floating, detached feeling. Breathing deeply I headed back into the candle-lit hut. Luis was still sitting in the hammock with a serious expression, and Jorge was still lying down.
After a few more minutes I had to answer another call of nature. The second action of yagé is to purge the intestine. The effect is spectacular and painless. When I went back in, Luis asked me it if had been “a good purge.” I told him yes. Eventually, he and Jorge also made trips to the jungle. I lay down on my bench, feeling very disconnected from my body and the external world. I was in a dreamy, trancelike state, not at all speeded. When I closed my eyes I began to see things: plants mostly, what looked like rows of sugarcane against a black background. I felt as if I were floating in a velvety liquid. The plants became undersea plants, waving in a gentle current.
My visions were interrupted by an unwelcome sensation in my stomach, and I shuffled out into the night to my tree for another episode of vomiting, worse than the last. There followed several walks into the fringes of the jungle with diarrhea. Yagé cleans you out thoroughly from both ends, and that is probably one reason why it helps sick people. It has been shown to be an effective treatment for amebic dysentery, for example. Anyway, in a short time there was nothing left inside to come out.
Back in the house Luis poured me another cup of the bitter brew. This time it was hard to get down. The association of the taste with the terrible vomiting was too strong. But I did swallow it.
Now Luis began chanting in earnest. A yagero’s chant is his most precious possession. It comes to him in dreams and stays with him all his life. Until a man receives his chant from the spirit of the vine, he cannot conduct ceremonies. Luis’s chant was strangely hypnotic, a mixture of sounds, tunes and words. There were Spanish words, Ingano words and words of a sort I had never heard before. I asked him what one particular word meant. “It is yagé speaking,” he answered. “It doesn’t mean; it is yagé speaking.” He resumed the chant. At times the sounds turned into the grunts and snorts of a big cat, and his face assumed an animal expression. He looked up and grinned at me. “I can be a jaguar when I want to,” he said.
I vomited a few more times, then came in and collapsed on the bench. Luis went out to vomit, too, but I could barely hear a break in his chanting. From now on he chanted nonstop and would go on until dawn. At times it was quiet, at times loud, always fascinating and powerful. Under its influence my visions of plants became more elaborate with huge forest trees and vines. But all was calm and peaceful: a world of plants with no animals.
Luis told me later that yagé visions come in stages with practice and increasing dosages. First come patterns, then plants, then animals, then fantastic architecture and cities. If you are fortunate, you see jaguars. Though he has been no farther from his home than Mayoyoque, Luis says that under yagé he has left his body and visited distant towns and cities, including Florencia and Bogotá. In the visions he sees the causes of illnesses and the cures. He sees what plants a sick person should take or what pills if plants are not strong enough for a particular illness. People consult him about missing persons, too, bringing photographs if they have them, and in the visions Luis discovers their whereabouts. Recently he saw one missing relative in the army in Bogotá.
I saw only plants after two cups of yagé except for a brief period of suspension bridges. These looked like the beginnings of fantastic architecture but did not progress to cities. And I saw no animals. Luis wanted me to drink more of his brew, but I could not. My body rebelled at the thought of consuming more. In the course of the evening Luis drank nine cups of the stuff. Each one sent him to the jungle for further purging, but his animated chanting continued without pause. With each cup he became more energetic. Finally, Jorge helped him into a heavy necklace of jaguar teeth and a fantastic headdress of parrot feathers. Then, palm-leaf rattles in his hands, Luis began a stomping, turning dance around the house, all the while uttering the sounds of yagé.
After a time he sat down and had me sit in front of him. He chanted over me, shaking the palm-leaf rattles loudly over my head, and finally he took a big mouthful of fresca and sprayed it all over me. It felt wonderfully cool and revived me from the dreamy trance with overtones of nausea. Jorge explained that fresca brings you down if you are too high and calms you if you are having anxiety. All you have to do is sip some. I took a little because I was thirsty, but I felt no anxiety. I just wanted to stay curled up on my bench, float among the visionary plants and listen to Luis’s sounds.
As the night wore on, Luis kept up his dancing. From time to time he would pick up a harmonica and turn into a one-man band. He would dance out the door and we would hear him chanting and singing off into the jungle, circling the house, disappearing into the night. Then he would burst through the doorway in an explosion of feathers and palm leaves, growling like a jaguar.
This performance continued till sunup, long after I had crashed on my bench. I got little sleep because the rooster started crowing well before dawn. (It did so every night, and I thought of many different ways I would enjoy cooking it.) As soon as I woke up, Luis took me outside for a purification ritual. He instructed me to wash my face and hands with the clove-scented fresca and had me rinse my mouth out with it, too. Then he waved some branches of stinging nettles around me as if to drive off any lingering bad energy. I felt refreshed and hungry. Luis slept some in the morning, then went about his daily chores, including chopping up more yagé for the weekend.
Luis has been using yagé for 22 years. He learned how by serving as apprentice to masters who came from the Putumayo Territory. “The old people knew much about the secret power of yagé,” he says. “Now they are gone.” But he is passing his knowledge on. As the weekend approached, a man named Victor showed up—an Ingano chief who lives half a day from Mayoyoque and has been Luis’s apprentice for three years. Victor is a fine-looking man with parrot feathers in his ears. He explained to me that few people know how to use the vision vine these days, and he wanted to be able to serve his people as a yagero.
On Saturday, Luis cooked up more yagé, and he, Victor, Jorge and a patient drank it at nightfall. I participated, too, but only took a little. Victor and Luis sang and danced all night, periodically going out into the jungle to sing under the trees, then returning to the candle-lit house. Victor congratulated Luis on having made a really strong batch.
Luis gives yagé to anyone who wants it: to young and old, men and women, sick and well. He says it cannot hurt anyone, and, though he gives it to pregnant women, young children and people with high fevers, no one suffers bad effects. Victor and he are both in good shape after taking enormous doses for years. Luis has seen hundreds and hundreds of people trip on yagé and knows all the ins and outs of the experience. He knows exactly how to minimize negative effects and encourage people to interpret their experiences in good ways. And many of the patients say they are helped. I talked with people in Mayoyoque who say that visits to Luis cured them of various ills.
Yagé is a strong drug, rough on the body physically when you take it but not harmful in any serious way. Used casually it might cause all sorts of bad trips. But treated with respect, made carefully and consumed in these elaborate rituals, it becomes a power for good in the hands of men like don Luis and his colleagues.