The indigenous in the area of Mocoa belong to the Pastos or Inga tribes and they have an ancient relationship with Yage or Ayahusca as its called in Peru.
Yage (pronounced yah-jay) is a vine that grows in these areas and when combined with two other local plants – chancruna and changropanga – produces a drink that causes hallucinations. The locals have used the plant for centuries to cure emotional disorders and for spiritual guidance.
To prepare this magical potion of jungle juice, the vine is hit with the business end of a machete a few hundred times to tenderize it and then boiled together with the other two plants. Only a qualified shaman knows how to correctly make the potion and what’s the proper dosage.
William Burroughs, author and one of the late beat writers, came to Mocoa, in the department of Putamayo, in 1953 in pursuit of Yage. He had heard about it being used by the indigenous at the headwaters of the Amazon.
In a series of letters from Colombia to Allen Ginsberg, Burroughs described the Yage drink as mind altering, life changing and ‘the most powerful drug he had ever experienced.’
The letters between Burroughs and Ginsberg were published as “The Yage Letters” in the mid-1950s. Burroughs said the world he experienced through the drug changed him and eventually influenced the ‘cut-up’ style he used in his works in the early 60s – most notably his book “The Naked Lunch”.
What ‘The Yage Letters’ also did was help create a sort of drug tourism in the jungles of Colombia and Peru. People from around the world have been coming here for decades to find a shaman and experience the mind-altering effects of Yage.
There are number of Yage shaman, locally called ‘Taitas’, in the region of Putamayo and around Fin del Mondo, a park of waterfalls in the jungle a short trip outside of Mocoa. In their native language El Taita means God, wise man and healer.
All the jungle hostels will casually make the introductions and the Taitas love to talk about Yage and its affects. Like wine salesmen they joyfully promote the plant and sell the experience. They make the Yage experience seem natural and uncomplicated. And for a price $15 – $50 per person they will supply the potion and guide people through the experience.
Full disclosure I didn’t do Yage but I did talk to a Taita, Carlos, about the experience.
For a few days before the trip you have to cleanse and quiet your body – go on a fruit and vegetable diet and not have sex.
The Taita will talk to the people who want to do Yage to assess their energy and to determine if the person should partake and if the Taita wants to guide them. Apparently your true personality and all your demons reveal themselves in spades during this experience.
Basically the Taita does an interview to eliminate the psychopaths – which is more than they do in gun shops in the States.
Then at sunset everyone goes to a hut in the jungle where the Taita serves up the potion in a dried gourd bowl. Initially the potion causes motion sickness, nausea and diarrhea which is a ritual cleansing. The Yage experience is much more than a recreational drug.
“First the yage cleans the body, then it cleans the soul,” Carlos told me. “Yage is not toxic,” he said. “It will not hurt you. People are toxic and can hurt themselves.”
The Taita explains to the people everything that is happening. He listens to the people during their Yage experience. He is a translator of symbols, a guide and therapist.
I got a pretty good nose for hustlers and carneys but these guys seemed legit.
They are definitely respected in their tribes and also given tribal political, judicial and counseling responsibilities. They are calm, verbal, philosophical types who take care of the people under their care.
A lot of people in the tribe still do Yage on a regular basis. The Tiata I talked to said he does it every couple of weeks to keep sharp.
He doesn’t smoke or drink and thinks marijuana and alcohol are mind numbing drugs and mushrooms are a simple low end hallucinogenic.
For me travel and the jungle are already a drug in themselves. But if you really want to go over the waterfall to see what’s on the other side of the rainbow – there’s a place and plants for you in Mocoa.