[Elusive Ayahuasca – Part 1]  .  [Elusive Ayahuasca – Part 2]

Part 3

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Bolivian Amazon -home for the week

Camp life

The day after the 1st ceremony I had a classic post-trip day feeling: a lethargic slumber but mentally light and with a bright outlook. I reflected on my visions from the night before, if they had any meaning it was about the impermanence of thoughts and how they create our reality. Something was lacking though; I only reflected on this theoretically and without the feeling where you truly realise something and know it in your bones.

At the kitchen the French couple Mabelle and Jean were saying their goodbyes. Jean was leaving that day, he had to drive a van back to Chile to sell. Mabelle was different again, she was floating and smiley, she seemed to have processed some of what had passed in the last ceremony. She’d decided to stay at the camp to do one more ceremony, she felt she had something unfinished and incomplete with ayahuasaca and felt that staying for her 3rd ceremony would be for the best. She hadn’t been apart from Jean in 10 months but they didn’t seem to have any doubts about their decision. Jean wished us ‘buenas ceremonias’ and left for Chile. I smoked a fat joint with Augustino after breakfast and headed out to the river.


River chilling

It was decided that our last two ceremonies would be on consecutive nights, my last two nights staying in the jungle. This meant the next 3 days and 2 nights would be free to settle in to life in the jungle and relax. I passed time reading and meditating and went with Sophie out to the river everyday to cool down from the baking sun and escape the bugs. We went out for walks in the surrounding rainforest and really started to bond as we got to know each other more deeply.



During these days I shared many conversations with Augustino and learnt more about the people and the project there, and got a sense of their life in the rainforest. Augustino, now in his thirties, was from Ushuaia, a resort town in Patagonia on the southernmost tip of South America; ‘the bottom of the world’. He’d left home in his late teens, travelling South America working as an artisan, as many do, making crafts to sell on the street and juggling at traffic lights for money. He’d met Maria on the Isla Del Sol, a beautiful place on Lake Titicaca popular with hippies and artisans. He’d first took Ayahuasca with Guillermo years before, and later Guillermo took him on to work at the site. Later, he had invited his nephew Carlos who’d also followed the same artisan/juggler route, to come and work at the site too.


Inside the temple, a palapa

I also learnt of their process of making ayahuasca, how they go on an ‘excursion’ of a couple of days up to the nearby mountain to bring the necessary plants back to create the brew of ayahuasca, and how after they spend days grinding the vine, boiling it and making the brew, all the while drinking ayahuasca and singing tributary ayahuasca songs day and night. Just your typical working routine then.


Where the ayahuasca is made


Boiling spot for aya

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Preparation process

The Shaman’s Story

Augustino also told me of the years of training that Guillermo had done to become a shaman, drinking ayahuasca almost daily and learning from the elders. Guillermo had started his psychedelic journey at the extreme end – with Datura, AKA Jimson weed, at the age of 14 (seriously), before going on to take and learn about San Pedro, temazcal ceremonies, and ayahuasca. He had an instant affinity for ayahuasca and drank it many times eventually joining the Santiago de Chile branch of the Santo Daime church. There he received ayahuasca and teachings from the fathers of the church and began to start conducting ceremonies himself. Amongst other traditional medicines he went on to learn about kambo, the frog poison cleanse, before receiving a message from ayahuasca to go to Bolivia. He and his family sold all their things, came to Bolivia, bought land, set up the project, and a few months later, I was there.

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The shaman, Guillermo, playing icaros in the temple

Final ceremonies

Ahead of the final ceremonies Augustino offered us some more advice. Intentions should never be something material – ‘to get a better car’, but always something relating to the spirit – ‘to be a better person’, ‘to be healed’. One should stay with their intention in mind during the ceremony, and not lie down too soon in order to stave off feelings of sleepiness and drowsiness. At the next ceremony there would be an offering of rapé (snuff tobacco shot up the nostrils for cleansing), and apparently this would aid us in staying alert and awake. Going in to the 2nd ceremony I had a strong determination to stay focused on my intention and relaxed. On the day, after a light early brunch, we drank chicha de yucca- yucca smashed into a juice-like pulp, with Augustino advising that it would help with the body’s processing of the ayahuasca.

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The altar w/ bottled ayahuasca

The 2nd ceremony – 4 Cups and a Side of Rapé

Aswell as the resident trio, this time all three of them in white shirts for the ceremony, Mabelle, Maria, and Guillermo’s wife were present. As we arrived to the temple that evening there was also a new face by the fire, a young Frenchman who would be beside me for the ceremony. He drank before me each round and quite clearly had trouble doing so, taking a good minute to finish the cup, raising his arm to cover his mouth as he gagged between every gulp. Typical French hamming it up.

The ceremony followed the same rhythm – opening prayers, icaros, bell, drinking in silence, vomiting, icaros, bell, drinking and so on. Guillermo’s wife joined in with many of the icaros, her voice soothing and beautiful. This time I sat up straight in meditation posture with my eyes closed for nearly all of the ceremony and continually returned to my intention, using it like a mantra. There was no meditation this time round but the rapé after the 2nd cup.

The Rapé

After the round of ayahuasca Guillermo walked over to a knee height cross, faintly illuminated by a small candle at its base, just outside the temple. He explained that anyone was free to come and take the rapé, a mix of pulverised tobacco and other plants shot into one’s nostrils for mental and physical cleansing. A sacred shamanic medicine that’s been used by healers of the Amazon basin for thousands of years, I’d wanted to try rapé for a while and after a couple of the others I made my way over to the cross.

Using a thin wooden pipe with a bend in the middle, Guillermo loaded the tobacco mix into one end, pointed the other end to my right nostril, placed the pipe to his lips and gave a short sharp blast of air. The mix shot up to somewhere behind my eyes and landed with an explosion of ridiculously intense stinging. I reeled back instantaneously, shaking my head in an instinctive attempt to somehow lessen the burning sensation permeating the area below my frontal lobe. After spitting and managing to open my eyes again through the subsiding pain I stepped back to receive the rapé in my left nostril. The burning was reignited and spread further than the first. As I paced around I spat and blew my nose. My sinuses felt clearer and Augustino was right; I was wide awake.

After myself the Frenchman went up for his rapé. Augustino administered his and, true to form, the Frenchman gave a show. After receiving his first shot he jerked about feverishly as if he were being tortured, continually shifting his head to face a new direction as if he would find the magic spot which would relieve him from his agony. His hands and arms followed the jerky dance as Augustino called him back for the second nostril, but he was oblivious to the calls. After repeated calls and as the agitations died down, Augustino was able to get him back for the second nostril; the bizarre dance received a new lease of life and he was off again, I couldn’t help but be amused.

After the rapé the icaros started up again and the ceremony continued as per usual. Again, my experience throughout was one of normal waking consciousness accompanied by feelings of wooziness. Nothing notable passed, with the exception of one occurrence.

Déjà vu

Somewhere between the 3rd and 4th cup, whilst laying back I experienced a strong and clear déjà vu. I had experienced that moment before; by the fire, the icaros sounding out, in the jungle, on that night. Normally with deja vu there is the sense that we’ve absolutely experienced it before but we’re not sure when. This was different in that I remembered exactly when I’d experienced it before. I had experienced that moment before in a dream, two years prior, on a 10-day silent meditation course. During the course I’d had the most vivid and intense dreams of my life, extremely clear and emotionally heavy, many of which I still remember to this day.

Whether this was a some trick of the mind or there was something more mystical at work -some kind of premonition piercing linear time- I know that the feeling was real. I knew that was where I had experienced it before. The déjà vu moment lasted a few seconds, was followed by my realisation of where I had experienced it before, and then passed. My experience continued as before until the closing of the ceremony; hazy, woozy and unclear.



As the ceremony ended and the silence was broken the Frenchman turned his head to me, ‘good travel’ he smiled. I stood up and as everyone exchanged hugs and well wishes, Augustino came over to me.

‘La chicha uh?!’ he said pointing to me with a massive grin on his face, expecting me to report on a wondrous journey and credit the chicha de yuca I’d drank in preparation. I reluctantly smiled, I so wanted to be able to share in that, to give the response he was expecting: to crack a huge smile and reply ‘the motherfucking chicha!’ – but I couldn’t, nothing had happened.

‘Mañana, mañana’ he reassured me. There was still the last ceremony to come and apparently the medicine worked more strongly on a second consecutive night.
I looked over and saw the faces of Sophie and the French boy flickering orange from the fire. They were sat together talking and I could tell by their expressions and the tone of their voices that they were speaking of something magical, something hitherto unseen – they were sharing their experiences. Mabelle was still and smiling as she stood gazing into the fire, she looked as though she had seen something so beautiful she wanted to cry.

I knew that something special was happening there. Again I could sense the magic, it was present in the people all around me and it filled the fibres of the jungle air, yet it remained out of my reach. I understood and accepted; you can choose to take ayahuasca, but it also has to choose you. You can make the decision to drink it, travel to far flung lands and take cup after cup in the jungle, but you’re not necessarily going to experience anything. I’d heard that ayahuasca will give you what you need rather than what you want, and perhaps this was true in my case but I doubted it; I didn’t feel like I’d got either.

5 Final Cups – Last Ceremony, Last Chance?

The next night, for the 3rd and final ceremony, I had no expectations. I went to the temple totally relaxed and calm that night. It was the same story – varying levels of wooziness within a pervading normal waking state of consciousness. Instead of meditating or keeping an intention in mind I passed the ceremony admiring the rite: the quirkiness of the rituals, the tones of the icaros and the ambience of the night around the fire. And that was it, the last ceremony.

Where Next?

As the ceremony closed I reflected on my week in the jungle. The setting, the ceremonies, our shaman, the people there; all were as good as I could’ve hoped for. The ceremonies were beautiful and I could see how everyone involved in the project there deeply cared about their work and their mission. I felt grateful for the opportunity to take ayahuasca in a safe and beautiful setting with support from everyone there. But, I was still short of what I really came for; something otherworldly, induced deep psychological introspection, perhaps illumination. Drinking ayahuasca in the amazon was the decisive reason why I came to South America and I’d hoped would be a massive revelation of my trip. After all, it felt incomplete. It’d now been 5 times that I’d drunk ayahuasca, and despite my unwavering sobriety I could see that it was having serious effects on the others who drank with me. I’d drank 14 cups in the last week and still had barely broken out of normal consciousness nor had an ayahuasca experience. I felt at a cross roads.

Do I accept that ayahuasca may never give me what I’m looking for, move on with my life and leave it behind? Or defy the messages that nothing’s coming, and keep searching?

The answer was simple: I accept it and the search continues. I accepted that the week in the rainforest wasn’t what I was looking for. I accepted that I’d had no grand experience and undergone no serious change. I was in total acceptance of all my unsatisfied expectations and felt at peace. I accepted it all but I knew in my heart that the search wasn’t over. The mystery of ayahuasca and my curiosity about the brew had only been heightened and I would be back to traverse these terrains another day. I was at peace and ready to leave this chapter open for the time being. I came to the jungle, partook in the ceremonies, witnessed the beauty of the age old ritual around the fire and felt the magic in the place and people – and that was enough, for now. The final chapter on ayahuasca awaits – maybe I’ll find out that ayahuasca just doesn’t work with me physiologically, or perhaps this is just my story, that my aya path is to be a long and winding one with an epic finish. Time will tell, the journey goes on.

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The road out

Time To Move On

I woke up the next day excited to continue my travels, a week ahead I needed to be in Peru to meet a friend before heading on up to Mexico. I’d already decided that I’d head south from Mexico and venture through Central America before returning to South America and once again the amazon where the mystery of aya will still be waiting.


The village passed through leaving the jungle

I left in the afternoon with Sophie, we were going to end our time together on the Isla Del Sol on Lake Titicaca, ‘the most beautiful place in Bolivia’ according to Augustino. Now that sounded like a good place for a trip

If you would like to learn more about Guillermo and his project and go on retreat there, visit the website Casa Buen Retiro

Isabell Winter

When I first started meditating, I kept it up as a daily habit pretty darn well. There was however, one major exception: when I was travelling. Though travel and meditation are two key parts of my life, they haven’t always been so compatible.

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Photo by Isabell Winter

When settled in one place it’s not too hard to allocate a spot in your home and routine and keep a daily practice. Life on the road is a different story. Days can vary massively and finding time to meditate isn’t always a priority. You want to go out, explore, see the city, hike a mountain, socialise with others. Sitting down with your eyes closed isn’t always top of the list. On top of that, if you’re sharing a room and have no private space, it can seem unrealistic.

Knowing that the fruits of meditation come with consistent rather than sporadic practice I realised I needed to find ways to make sure I got my practice while on the road. With a few fixes, I’m happy to report I managed it. Whether you’re planning a trip and want to keep up your practice, or already on the road and struggling to find time to meditate, these tips can help.

Go to Churches and Temples

Churches and temples are often some of the most beautiful and culturally significant buildings to be found in a city. Not only are they in every city but they are perfect for meditation; they are peaceful and have places to sit or kneel without distraction. By their nature they are places where people will leave you be to sit quietly with your eyes closed – they are built for spiritual practice. Wherever you are you will find an edifice of the local spiritual tradition and these are ideal places to meditate. I’ve meditated in impeccable Zen temples across Japan, the grand sanctuary at Lourdes, and rustic Taoist street shrines in Taiwan.

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Rock garden at one of Daitoku-ji’s sub temples, Kyoto. Great spot for meditation.

Remember, it doesn’t always need to be a grand place; the smaller, lesser known places are always quieter and it makes a nice change. When I arrive in a new place, I find out where the closest church or temple is to where I am staying and often I find a local spot a short walk away to meditate everyday. I like to visit in the morning on the way out to start my day, but of course it’s possible to pop in on the way home from a day out or at any place you may happen to pass during the day. It’s a nice way to see the local neighbourhood and a more typical place of worship too. Go, take in the architecture and the history, and then pop yourself down for some zazen.

Parks & Nature

However much of a metropolis you may find yourself in you’ll be able to find a park in the city. The atmosphere in a park often lends itself to slowing down and relaxing. Take a stroll and do a walking meditation. If you have nice weather, sit on the grass or Buddha it and sit beneath a tree. If you are out for a picnic, take a minute before you eat to be present. If you are out on a hike or exploring a national park, choose a stretch of the walk to slow down for walking meditation. Choose a distance or an amount of time and allocate it to meditation.

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The Japanese Garden in Buenos Aires


Bus stops, train stations, airports, queues… wherever it is, there is always time spent waiting when you are travelling. Perfect time to meditate. Depending on where you are in the world, there may be a dedicated room for prayer or worship. If not, just try to find a relatively quiet place where you can relax and find your anchor. I set a timer, put my headphones in, close my eyes, then meditate. A pair of headphones allows me to hear the bells (I use a meditation timer app on my phone) and people passing by just assume I’m listening to music.

If I’m not familiar with the transport in the city or the exact whereabouts of where I need to be I will usually aim to arrive an hour early for an important bus or train ride. Often it turns out to be very simple and I end up with an hour spare. I always use this opportunity to meditate. It’s a large enough chunk of time to get seated and settled, and it’s time that’d just be spend waiting in a bus station – hardly the most thrilling part of travel adventures.

Watch Sunrise, Sunset, or the Night Sky

Sunrise from Huangshan (Yellow mountain), China.

This is one that will hopefully naturally sync with your routine. It often seems to be the case that travellers catch sunrises and sunsets far more frequently than those not travelling. It’s a real treat to view the colours at sunset, especially from a scenic viewpoint over mountains, or overlooking a new city, and it naturally coerces meditation.

Use the Hard Times as Opportunities

When you travel, as in life, things go wrong and you feel stressed or anxious. It’s unavoidable. In unfamiliar surroundings with little knowledge of local customs and language, far from family and friends, these feelings can be greatly heightened. Whether it’s a missed train, a lost wallet or your first time walking through a neighbourhood of which you aren’t entirely sure of the safety level… you will feel some kind of tension. And these are actually fantastic times to practice mindfulness. These are the times when we can really benefit from a clear and calm mind and a few deep breaths to calm down. In these situations I return to my breath. You needn’t try to repress whatever you are feeling but you needn’t allow it to overwhelm and consume you either. When you become aware of the unpleasant feelings or emotions bubbling up, just calmly observe them. Go to your breath or your anchor of choice and stay with it for a couple of minutes. You will slow down and your thoughts will become more clear. If a decision then needs to be made regarding your misfortune you will be in a much better state of mind to do so.

Communicate with Travel Buddies

If you are travelling with someone else, let them know that you are a meditator and want to keep up your meditation practice. Ideally they will be interested and want to meditate with you. This will make everything easier and you will even probably be more likely to make time to meditate now that you have a meditation partner. I travelled with a good friend before and he often even suggested times for us to meditate – perfect. If they aren’t a meditator then hopefully they will at least be understanding and happy to amuse themselves while you sit quietly. Or you can always wake up 20 minutes before them, or sleep a little later.

Still not meditating? See the final tips…

Allocate Unavoidable Spots in Your Routine For Mindfulness

It might not always be possible to have a regular dedicated formal sitting practice, and this is where mindfulness comes in. Mindfulness is basically meditation in a non-formal setting and regardless of your vagabonding lifestyle there are certain things that you will always do that can be used as exercises in mindfulness. While mindfulness can be practiced anywhere and anytime, it will be much easier in the beginning to practice during activities that are done alone and that can be done slowly- taking a shower, brushing your teeth, eating. Choose one or two of these, and every time you do that particular activity, make it an exercise in mindfulness, a mini-meditation if you will.

One I like to use is the ‘shower meditation’. Showering is an opportune time because it is a time you will be alone anyway, and something you do everyday (or atleast regularly, I hope). When showering, feel the splash of the water against your skin, the temperature, the pressure of the water. Be there in the shower and not somewhere else thinking, planning or worrying about the past or future. Be in that moment. When you realise you are thinking of something and your mind is elsewhere simply do as you would do in a meditation and bring yourself back to the present, back to the shower, the water, the sensation. When you turn the shower off take a few moments for conscious breathing while you drip dry, then feel the texture of your towel against your skin as you dry yourself.

Mindfulness really can be extended to anything. Just like meditation, it is the practice of choosing one thing, your anchor, and being totally conscious of it. Every time you notice your mind has wandered off, calmly bring it back. Simply do as you would do with a sitting meditation, but rather than using your breath or mantra as an anchor you will use the activity you are doing. Focus on the thing that you are doing, keeping your attention in the present moment and not getting swept up in unrelated thoughts.

Just Practice! However, Whenever.

As true as it is that a formal seated meditation in silence is the best foundation for day to day mindfulness, it might not always be possible to find a place where you can sit with perfect posture and without distraction, let alone time alone. In which case just practice wherever and however you can. If you haven’t meditated for a couple days and find yourself on a long distance bus journey then meditate there – sure it might not be the ideal environment- you mightn’t be able to sit upright with perfect posture and there may be a few bumps on the drive, but it’s still practice and is far far better than nothing.

If I come to the end of the day and I haven’t meditated I’ll ‘meditate myself to sleep’. I’ll lie flat on my back in bed, relax every muscle in my body and do one of two meditations; centre on my breath, or, focus on the feeling of the weight of my body on the bed. If you’ve ever done a yoga class then it’s similar to the savasana (corpse pose) usually done at the end. It’s great to use if you have problems sleeping.

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Integrating meditation into your daily life is crucial to cementing the habit, and cementing the habit is crucial to becoming more mindful day by day.  It can be a challenge when on the road but there are always opportunities.

So that’s it, go – hit the open road, explore, adventure…. and meditate along the way.

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Recommended Read:

One of my favourite reads with great examples of how to integrate mindfulness into your life is Thich Nhat Hanh’s Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life. I first read it lying in a beach hammock in Thailand and have been more mindful for it ever since, both on and off the road. Full of wisdom and with a beautifully calming style, Nhat Hanh outlines techniques on how to live mindfully and gives examples of mini-meditations and exercises in mindfulness in daily life. I recommend it to anyone who is short of time to meditate and wants to live more mindfully.