Ancient medicine: Recollections of my Yage (Ayahuasca) retreat

What a surreal weekend lies behind me. Hard to put into words, but I give it a shot anyway in this blog. I had been thinking about joining a traditional retreat for some time. Curiosity and the healing power of ancient medicine attracted me. Already in Russia I spent quite some time reading up about Yage (or Ayahuasca), what it does, where it is available etc. During my search I came across ‘Camino al Sol‘, which offers bi-weekly, traditional retreats close to Medellin in a circle of the ‘karari’ people (a group of indigenous & white people honoring old & new traditions and gods of various origins). After a cross check (thank you Siddharta) I booked my session to find out for myself.

“Wherever the art of Medicine is loved, there is also a love of Humanity. ” (Hippocrates)

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group pic at 6am Sunday … can you spot me?

Preparation

In order to prepare body & soul as well as to respect tradition, participants should adhere to some rules for (at least) the week preceding the ceremony. This includes no alcohol, no meat, no drugs and no sex. I met all conditions by the time I arrived … some proving harder to adhere to than others. In the end, I already felt pretty good going there after one of my healthiest weeks in recent memory.

Day 1 – Friday

A bus picked us up from Poblado Park at 3pm (well, a bit later after waiting for all clients) to take us to the retreat near Santa Elena (45min transfer). Located at 2,640m it boasts a much chillier climate than Medellin (1,600m). Once arrived we all settled into the dorm rooms and then had a brief info session with the organiser. Our first night would involve a plant bath, fire ceremony and the Yage ceremony itself. First up though was a little introduction as to what we have to expect in the days (nights) ahead.

Plant bath

Its basically hot water where they have three plants simmering for a while. These are lemon grass (limoncillo in Spanish), basil (albahaca) and rue (ruda). You shower yourself slowly with the mix while thinking of the questions you want to ask the Yage remedy later. The mixture is meant to cleanse your body, protect and harmonise you.

Fire blessing

You take off your shirt and get some incense on your body, arms and neck as well as pants on the outside. Then fire in a bowl is used to bless your body.

Yage ceremony

The ceremony is held in a maloka (round hut with straw top) around a fire. The elder is in charge of the process. This time, we had an elder with his wife from the Cofan tribe visiting from Putumajo – 23h travel away. Before any Yage comes into play, men are given tobaco essence on the hand (‘ambil’, looks like sticky Marmite) and dried, crushed coca leaves to chew (‘mambe’). Women get tobacco and some corn base paste to lick (which wasn’t available that night, they don’t get coca leaves). We then moved to another tradition – the circle of words. Here often a topic is picked for discussion (love, tradition etc), but this time we discussed the native culture these people preserve. While listening & speaking, a cup with pineapple juice passes round for everyone to take a sip (or a few). Everytime when someone finishes speaking/singing it is greeted with a ‘hey’ by the audience.

Who participates

It was the whole community of c30 people. Less than 10 were foreigners giving the whole ceremony a very authentic feeling. Literally all age groups were present (and participated in drinking medicine) from 5y to say 65y. Amazing really. Some kids, like Christoph who at the age of 12y can solve the magic cube, have been given the medicine since birth (he will become shaman). Everyone is taking it regularly in this community.

My first experience

You receive your cup from the shaman. I estimate some 5cl of Yage. The first 10min nothing happened, then very quickly colours come and you begin to drift into another world. You see colours and shapes, hear sounds, gaze at the ever-changing fire in the middle of the room and I saw memories of old episodes of my life as far back as my childhood and more recent ones. Others even saw their ancestors many generations ago. I never let myself drift properly though, but by opening my eyes kind of came back to this world only to see the net clip played when i closed my eyes again.

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tobacco essence

The whole trip was quite intense by now. At some stage I left for the toilet opposite the maloka under heavy rain. I felt a bit stuck there, as it seemed quite far to get back and i had little desire to maneuver around the little creeks that had formed by now. At this stage, the natural side effect of yage saw many people vomiting (purification process) and/or having diarrhea. I was fine as would be the case for the whole weekend.

After a while I was off to the hammock room to rest and see my visions in a more comfi position. There were voices everywhere in the room, loads of colourful visions yet also many clear thoughts about a range of issues in my past and future life. The mix of hot and cold I went through left me a bit uncomfortable and I was still fighting to drop too deep into my visions out of fear to see something negative (which you often face with ayahuasca and is part of the healing experience). Generally though, I felt in control.

I skipped/missed the 2nd round of drinking and only wandered over to the maloka for life music & singing in early hours of Saturday before sleeping a bit more. We finaly all laid down in our proper beds at 7.30am.

What is Yage/Ayahuasca? Ayahuasca is a brew from the Amazon that is traditional mixed of Chacruna (DMT) and Caapi (MAOI). Over time, people started experimenting with the ingredients and found that Mimosa (DMT) and Harmala (MAOI) is the most potent and smooth trip if used correctly. Used for over 5000 years by the shamans or healers or teachers Ayahuasqueros as a way for the expansion of consciousness (Soul). And now it is used in Peru to help drug addicts and a substitute for antidepressant pills. (https://www.soul-herbs.com/what-is-ayahuasca/)

Day 2 – Saturday

After a relaxed afternoon around the camp, we started with a long circle of words around traditions with all foreigners speaking including myself. It was a good moment to share some of my background and motivation to be here and express my gratitude for being able to join this community.

At 11pm the first cup got me going pretty quickly with colours and some visions. Visited again some places of my past and childhood and saw lots of LSD type colours, but was always in control (open the eyes basically, that doesn’t always work though). I again retired in my hammock to meditate, but took my watch this time so not to stay too long and miss round two and not to be lazy. After less than 1h I was back in the main tent. By then I had already landed and still not purged. Others were busier working with the medicine.

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At 2am we got a second cup – much bigger than last (80cl?). This one caused me some diarrhea, but otherwise wasn’t very strong when it came to visions. By now I had already gotten the understanding that I am probably not on such a bad path in life and had less to deal with than others. At 4am we were brought to the maloka again. Three guys already sitting topless in front of the fire (including one on a heck of a trip with constant vomiting). I joined together with Uri – my friend from Israel who I study spanish with. Once undressed we were rubbed with some essence before shamans were gathering around us, spitting some watery stuff at us all the time humming and waving while the other tribal people dance in tune to the drums. Quite an experience where i got repeatedly told off not to cross my arms or legs (probably to let the energy flow).

Day 3 – Sunday

The main difference on our last Yage evening was that the elder had left and we held the ceremony in the way they do it in Santa Elena. First that meant we started at 8pm and not 9-10pm. Second it meant a lot more music and singing. The effect of both the first and second cup were even weaker than before (although there should not be a memory effect) and seemingly all participants had an easier time (well, not so Shannon). The fire ritual I went through the night before was repeated for three others (where I participated in making music and danced) and I got a nice therapy (meaning back & shoulder massage).

My thoughts throughout Sunday were very clear and I had loads of time to think about what lies ahead (I keep that to myself though). My mind wasn’t the only clear thing, it was also the first night without rain. Most of us went outside at some stage to gaze at the bright and plentiful stars (even saw a shooting star). We all felt by now as part of the community. Initial awkwardness had disappeared. And so, with loads of music and singing, we ended a wonderful weekend retreat.

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It shall not remain the last one for me and whoever feels like trying the medicine … look no further than Camino al Sol. You are in safe hands.

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Even scopolamine (‘devils breath’) grows in the garden

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Week two at school & more of Medellin’s

Short, but sweet week after the bank holiday Monday in Guatape. We had a new teacher as we moved up to A1.2 level (spanish speaking only this time), an interesting visit to Comuna 13 (formerly the most dangerous part of town), hanging out in Colombia & Envigado district and the cable car to the top of the hills surrounding Medellin. 

Spanish classes: Week two of my Spanish education is already over and things are looking up. Our new teacher Lorena is a quite cheerful person and, more importantly, speaks 99% in Spanish. Really helps and I feel the progress is really good across the class (even though top marks on my weekly assessment didn’t materialise). Key issue for me grammatically is the lack of past/future tense (just makes it awkward to tell stories) though most challenging remains to understand spoken Spanish. It’s just so fast. Friday we went to Minorista food market and practiced our fruit & veggie pronunciation skills. I guess we ended up more chatting away, but it was fun.

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Comuna 13 – looking back at Medellin’s dark past: Before the rise of cocaine in the US in the 70’s & 80’s, this area of Medellin was not a bad place to live. However, once drug lords around the Medellin cartel took over this changed drastically. Worse still, was the period after the assassination of pablo escobar on 2 Dec 1993. With the head of the hydra removed, fierce power struggles made the place the most dangerous area in the city (with the city being the most dangerous globally). So going to Medellin included a free pass to hell back then.

This changed for the better after the government intervened with force on the 16 Oct 2002 with operation ‘Orion’. 1,500 police men supported by helicopters. It was pretty bloody, but eventually paved the way for a peaceful period lasting now some 15y. Crime hasn’t gone completely though, as the mafia still extorts protection money from local businesses. Yet, it’s perfectly safe to visit if you follow some simple rules. I went with zippi free walking tours. Naturally, loads of Germans including two ladies from Hamburg & Cologne who I had the pleasure of sharing the final bit of the tour. We even visited the guides house in the comuna. So good insights over all.

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Germany is never far away in Colombia …

Another step in the recovery was the installation of a 384m escalator route up the steep hills in 2011. This enables better access to the city and was welcome by all our walking tour participants. It’s certainly has become a landmark of the suburb and Medellin by now. I liked most the many graffiti’s you find in comuna 13 – be it those that were created over time or the ones added during a graffiti contest in recent years. Most of them reflect to a high degree the troubled past and the revival now.

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Metrocable: Right from San Javier station (where you stop for comuna 13 tours anyway) departs another means of transport that connects the city with poorer areas. There are two such cables in Medellin – I went up to La Aurora station to take in some great views of Medellin at sunset. Recommended. Safe. Cheap.

Mercado del Rio: Located in the district of colombia, it’s a great venue to go for an evening meal or drink. You have many stalls offering all varieties of food though come naturally a bit pricier than your standard colombian restaurant. Thanks Claudia.

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Envigado: This neighborhood is located some 6km from central poblado. I had heard about it from Uri, my Israeli fellow student, and wanted to see what its like. First up a visit to the park (where some Saint was honored that day) and, following Claudia’s advice, then off to calle 30 (calle buena mesa) for dinner. It’s a really great area and significantly more local than gringo-Poblado. Probably the area I like best so far.

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¡Hola Medellin! School, gym & Paisa life

Time flies really. The first week at school is over and Medellin feels already somewhat familiar – at least the district I live in (Poblado). First city tour done. First Spanish test was ok-ish. Signed up for the local Muay Thai classes. First night out.

The name “Medellín” comes from Medellín, Spain, a small village in the Badajoz province of Extremadura. See here for a my travels in Extremadura.

Paisa people: Their ancestors are chiefly immigrants from Extremadura though also Andalusia, Basque region and some of jewish origin (not much of the Jewish reliegion remains, however). Their spanish is spoken fast & soft and distinct from rest of colombia (to the expert, niot me). Most importantly, they think very highly of the themselves in particular vs. other colombians (not to point only at Bogotans).

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12h overnight bus to Medellin from Neiva

Arguably I arrived pretty exhausted on Tuesday morning in the 12h overnight bus from Neiva. My sunburnt back also made sure that I didn’t get much sleep. Still i made it to my 6am appointment at my new gym ‘MMA Colombia’ for a Muay thai wake up session. My first decent work out in quite a while. Felt really welcome and signed up for a month. Should also least get me a little prepared for the Muay thai camp in Thailand next year.

Thankfully the check in to my airbnb in Poblado (the location of the cities origin) was flexible so to drop off my bags before school. Great place by the way. Large flat with many separate rooms/travellers. Very different to russia it dont need to tiptoe around the place. Was a little concerned about that if i am honest.

Noteworthy in Medellin: most dangerous city globally just 20y ago

  • Most gang related activity only happens on some outskirts of town (there remain no go zones). There is a huge police presence across town and additionally private security in many places.
  • Men are prohibited from riding as passengers on motorcycles between 8 a.m. and 12 midnight, a measure that the government says has cut targeted killings by motorcycle riders (the so called ‘sicarios’)
  • Uber drivers will ask you to sit in front seat so they are not spotted as taxi’s by regular taxi guys who have in the past turned aggressive & territorial

Back to school … little español on the agenda

School was fine. We are just six people in the group (vs 10 in Russia). Uri from Israel, Jack (UK), a dutch couple (Rukhia & Lukas) & Bilal (Germany). Our teacher is a young Colombian who also studies his masters in oxford.

The first day was tough. I lacked any sort of vocabulary really. But over the week it picked up. Amazing what 20h of language lessons (+ homework) can do. But then i guess this is the equivalent of say 10 week of your typical once a week language course. By Friday we were already out in poblado park speaking to people. Gladly we had the dutch couple as icebreakers ;o) the friday test was tough though. Partly because i hadn’t revised for it (making some irregular conjugations harder) and partly due to topics covered in the previous week (eg time). But i counted well above 50% right. Motivating.

Settling into the city

Outside school activities included a few things in my first week.

  • a salsa lesson (i think i made more progress in Spanish),
  • a 4h walking tour (free tour with real city tours, i thought it was ok but not brilliant, see here tripadvisor link for the “no1 tour”

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  • Colombian sweet tasting (love the SUPER TURRON SUPERCOCO!),
  • a Friday night MMA event with plenty of fighters from my gym (on balance on the winning side),
  • a solid day & night out in Poblado (Lleras Park etc)