Meeting the Madre

Noemi Vagus, an Ashaninka shaman, standing in front of an ayahuasca vine in the Peruvian Amazon

Noemi Vagus, an Ashaninka shaman, standing in front of an ayahuasca vine in the Peruvian Amazon.

Ever since I first began playing with psychedelics as a teenager, I have wanted to do them in the jungle. It took only one or two bad trips in the city before I started imagining the experience away from the car alarms and ambulance sirens, and closer to its millennia-deep origins in ceremony and sacrament.

If this sounds like a familiar story, it is. Amazonian psychedelic tourism predates today’s better-known trends in eco and cultural immersion tourism. Through word of mouth, High Times features, Discovery Channel specials, the books of Terrance McKenna and the “Yage Letters” of Burroughs and Ginsberg, northern-hemispheric drug culture has over the last half-century become steadily more hip to and enthralled by the living Amazonian tradition of ingesting ayahuasca, a potent psychedelic used throughout the region as a healing plant and portal through which to communicate with the jungle spirits and the dead.

The magic molecule animating the ayahuasca brew is the fearsome and revered tryptamine known as DMT. Aside from its strength, DMT in both its natural and synthetic forms is unique for the similar sensations and visions shared by its supplicants. Unlike other man-made psychedelics like LSD, synthetic DMT takes many users to the same “place,” where they report meeting elfish, clown-like, and insectoid “beings” who frequently extend the same warm and welcoming message: “We’ve been expecting you.” This phenomenon is documented in Dr. Rick Strassman’s book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, which describes his remarkable findings over the course of the first FDA-approved psychedelic study in more than 20 years, conducted at the University of New Mexico Medical School in the mid- ’90s.

The natural DMT experience of ayahuasca is likewise known for taking users to a common destination, where they are greeted by the dead, as well as assorted vine goddesses and jungle spirits, chief among them the serpentine “ayahuasca madre.”

I finally got my chance to meet the Madre in March, when an English rainforest preservation non-profit called Cool Earth invited me to join a press trip to the Peruvian Amazon. The last-minute invite allowed just a few days to round up jungle gear and malaria pills, but there was never any question of accepting the offer. It was the juiciest of junkets: starting in coastal Lima, we would venture deep into primary rainforest, roughly midway between the Andes and the Brazilian border. Our final destination was the Ashaninka village of Tinkerini, a place so remote that the locals have seen only a small handful of whites in their lives, including the anthropologist who would be our guide. Tinkerini was no forest-edge Potemkin village full of trinket-hawking nativos. It was the real thing. Not far from Tinkerini dwell some of the world’s last uncontacted tribes, the kind who want nothing to do with the modern world, shoot arrows at passing helicopters, and have zero immunity to foreign germs.

The group consisted of myself, a few journalists from the States and the UK, a Cool Earth rep, and a Welsh anthropologist named Dilwyn Jenkins, who has been studying the Ashaninka since his undergraduate years at Cambridge in the late 1970s. It was a good-humored crew, and on the bus out of Lima we even managed to laugh at the fact that not one of us had a snake bite kit, despite the fact that the Peruvian Amazon hosts the world’s densest and most varied collection of poisonous snakes. More than 200 killer breeds live in the area where we were headed. The tarantulas, while not as lethal, are the size of microwave pizzas.

The trip got off to a rocky start, literally. Our first attempt to cross the Andes by bus was stymied by a rockslide on the sole cliff-hugging road that winds east out of Lima. After losing a day of travel, we backtracked and chartered a small prop plane over the mountains to the jungle frontier city of Satipo, where we landed on a military airstrip built during the government’s war with the Shining Path guerillas. From Satipo, we crawled into a battered six-seat Cessna and flew further east over endless broccoli bunches of Amazon canopy. An hour later, we made a bumpy landing on a riverside airstrip of pressed grass, cheered on by Ashaninka children in face paint and traditional robes. From there, we hiked several hours further northeast into the jungle, fording two rivers along the way.

We arrived at the village of Tinkerini at dusk. Surveying the scene of straw huts and shy Indians huddled around small fires, my first thought was of the Ewok village in Return of the Jedi. My second thought was ayahuasca. During that night’s meal of rice and chicken, held under the thickest band of Milky Way I have ever seen, I approached Dilwyn about my interest in the Vine of Souls. To my delight, he agreed to speak to the village shaman the following morning. “She’s like my second mother,” he said. “It shouldn’t be a problem to arrange a ceremony.”


The shaman, Noemi Vagus, was like no octogenarian I had ever met. Her jet black hair, nimble barefoot stride, and straight-backed squat reminded me more of a teenage gymnast than her elderly counterparts in American cities, with their four-legged walkers, slouching postures, and debilitating arthritis. Then there is the fact that she habitually consumes more elite psychedelics than every parking lot ‘shroom dealer at Burning Man put together.

Noemi’s health and vigor are not uncommon among the elders of the Ashaninka tribe, whose population of 45,000 sprawls across the national borders of Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, and Brazil. When asked about this vitality, the Ashaninka will point to ayahuasca, known as “Kamarampi” in the tribal language. As do most Amazon tribes, the Ashaninka consider the vine to be the ultimate healing plant. For millennia it has been imbibed and smoked as a way to cure a range of mental and physical illness. Since it often induces violent vomiting and diarrhea, it is also used to purge vicious jungle parasites. Judging by the fit state of Ashaninka tribal elders, regular use is also something like drinking from a fountain of youth, or chewing on the branch of immortality.

Smashing up the Vine of Souls

Smashing up the Vine of Souls.

Like most psychedelic aficionados I have known, Noemi did not need to be pressed very hard before agreeing to lead a ceremony that night. She immediately led us into the jungle and over to a thick-barked vine the width of a baseball bat. “Here,” she said, touching it reverently. This was the ayahuasca vine, which contains the beta-carbolines needed to inhibit the breakdown of DMT in the brew’s other ingredient. Noemi then led us a little deeper into the forest and pointed to the nondescript green leaves of a chakruna plant. When boiled together with the ayahuasca vine, the chakrana’s DMT becomes orally active. (The extent to which the leaves can be potent psychedelics on their own is a matter of debate.) When I asked Noemi how the Ashaninka knew to mix the two plants in such a way to unlock and maximize the leaf’s power, she pointed to the sky. “The thunder and the lightning told us,” she said, matter-of-factly.

The process of making the ayahuasca brew began that afternoon, after Noemi had hacked down a vine and collected the leaves. The cooking is simple but takes all day: First the vine is stripped of its bark and hacked into strips. It is then soaked and bundled together with chakruna and placed in a pot, where it is tended to and stirred for several hours. Slowly, the water becomes dark as it absorbs the divine plant matter. The resultant broth is left to cool and strained into another pot.

The ayahuasca is stewed all day together with Chakruna leaves to activate the DMT

The ayahuasca is stewed all day together with Chakruna leaves to activate the DMT.

At sundown we gathered at Noemi’s hut, where she had placed a thin black blanket on the packed earth. She instructed us to lie down and wait, then disappeared. She returned half an hour later carrying the pot in both hands. By then the stars were out and the jungle’s nightlife was in full swing. Nobody spoke. One by one, she called the four of us participating in the ceremony up to the pot, where she ladled out the psychedelic soup into a grapefruit-sized gourd. The lukewarm liquid was bitter, but I didn’t gag on it, as I sometimes do when chewing psilocybin fungi. North American magic mushrooms taste like sour shit; this tasted like moist soil, like drinking the forest itself. I wiped my chin, mumbled thank you, and returned to the blanket.

We lay quiet for some time, listening to the rushing river to our left and the teeming jungle to our right. Then, gently but swiftly, the Madre spirit announced her arrival and mine. She did this with a sound as natural to the jungle as the taste of the vine. The noise of the river rushing over rocks began to merge with that of the buzzing rainforest to form a warm insectoid hum. It was as if bugs as big as rodents were swarming from every direction; as if the river was full of prehistoric flying bugs. Yet somehow this wasn’t frightening or even creepy. The enveloping sound did not threaten us; the forest and its many creatures were our protectors.

I shut my eyes and breathed deeply. The jungle drug was taking hold.

Noemi spends the afternoon tending to her potion; the ceremony begins at sundown

Noemi spends the afternoon tending to her potion; the ceremony begins at sundown.

Then, as if on cue, the singing began. The strangest and most beautiful singing I have ever heard. Noemi and two other Ashaninka elders who also drank the broth began to intone the first of the night’s many sacred chants, or icaros. The men sang in a lower register, with Noemi singing lead high-pitched melodies that flitted through the air like… snakes. Visions of snakes as harmless dancing squiggles filled my head, whether my eyes were open or not. The snakes were moving along with the melody. They were the melody.

This serpentine vision is the most common one in the Ashaninka ayahuasca ceremony, and the music is meant to facilitate it. The chants’ tones and rhythms were designed to influence and homogenize ayahuasca visions among the group. “The roots of these songs go back at least 4,000 years, possibly even in close to their modern form,” Dilwyn explained the next morning. “Visions of snakes are interpreted as visions of ‘madre ayahuasca,’ the genie or spirit of the sacred plant, a conscious being you can talk to and learn things from.”

I won’t attempt the futile task of relaying what I “learned from” the Madre. I don’t know if it’s even possible to bring such insights into the next day. But very broadly, the Madre took me through the usual psychedelic funhouse tunnel of failed relationships, insecurities, fears, regrets, and finally into a place where all of those things are reconciled and then cease to exist. This place was green and fresh and wrapped in vines and watercress. It felt feminine and moist.

I did not meet with the spirits of the dead, as I had hoped to, but I thought about an old girlfriend in a way that I had not allowed myself to for years. Throughout it all, the visions were dominated by a jungle motif–swaying trees looked like tarantulas, audio hallucinations were all of living creatures, insects mostly, and the snakes kept reappearing, wiggling through the air to the melody of the icaros.

The next morning, over a breakfast of bland mantioc root, fresh grapefruit and instant coffee, we talked about the previous night and the ceremony’s place within Ashaninka culture.

“When I first came here in 1978, the entire village took ayahuasca on average three or four times a week,” says Dilwyn. “Children participated in those days, even babies being given it from their mothers’ mouths.”

Noemi says she is saddened by the fact that the ceremony is not as popular as it once was, especially among the young. “Now the children take [ayahuasca] and get scared, they don’t like the jungle visions sometimes,” she says. “They didn’t used to get scared.”

Jaime, a young male Ashaninka, attributes the change to the state teachers that are beginning to appear deeper in the jungle to teach the young. They preach Christianity and mock the traditional religion. “They make the children think that the jungle spirits are not real and are something to be feared,” he says. “The new generation is pulling away from the old rituals.” He also mentions that the Shining Path killed a lot of the old villagers and especially sought out shamans in an attempt to stamp out local traditions and convert the Indians to Maoism.

“The last of the real shamans in the area lives six hours away, alone in the jungle,” adds Noemi.

When I ask her what separates her from a “real” shaman, she smiles and looks right into my eyes, as if to say, in her kindhearted Ashaninka way, “If you have to ask, you’ll never know.”

Alexander Zaitchik is a freelance journalist in Brooklyn. His book, Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, will be released by Wiley in June 2010.