In July 2022, I went to cook ayahuasca, or yagé as it is known here in Colombia, for the first time. I had previously been invited on several occasions to join Taita Giovanni, the elder we do our ayahuasca/yagé ceremonies with, to cook the medicine but for one reason or another, the time did not align. The medicine always comes at the right moment, they say, and I had been waiting patiently for the moment I got to participate in the sacred work of preparing yagé.
I spent three weeks in the jungle and I felt very honoured to have had the opportunity to witness and take part in the process of cooking yagé. This time taught me important lessons about the medicine and life in general. In this two-part article, I will share about my experience, observations, and findings. I hope you find the below lines useful.
Getting to Taita Giovanni’s Maloka, Orito, Putumayo
Taita Giovanni comes from a small town called Orito, in the department of Putumayo. In total, the journey from Medellin to the Taita’s house in the jungle took me around 28 hours to complete. First, I took a bus from Medellin to Mocoa, the capital of Putumayo. It was an overnight bus and I was fortunate that it was mostly empty so I could spread out over two seats.
Once in Mocoa, I took a van for three hours to Orito, thereon a 4×4 jeep to take me up the mountain for about 40 minutes to the entrance to the property of Taita and his family.
At the entrance on the road, I was met by one of my companions for the next three weeks – a man by the name of Juan, a Colombian lawyer who dedicates his life to protecting the indigenous sacred lands against exploitation by mining companies. Time to put your rubber boots on, Juan told me and from that point onward, we walked through the dense jungle for another 40-50 minutes.
Arriving at Taita’s house (see the photo below), I felt happy and excited. I saw my friends, Govinda Maharaj, Juan Pablo (Taita’s right-hand man), and Taita Giovanni himself. And after that very long journey, there I was, in the heart of the Awá community, lodging in the house of Taita Giovanni, the community’s Medico Tradicional (Traditional Doctor).
Life in the Jungle
During the three weeks we spent in Orito we drank medicine four times (I will get to that a little later). But that wasn’t the only healing element – staying in the jungle was medicine in itself. There is no electricity in the house of Taita Giovanni, and this made for a very quick synchronisation with the natural rhythm of the day and night. We would wake up naturally at 6am and after a long day’s work would go to bed around 9pm, to fall asleep as quickly as we would lay our heads on the pillows. I had some of the best sleep in my life during that time, as well as some of the most vivid dreams!
With no electricity, there was also no internet, meaning no social media! We had a battery-powered radio which could connect to a local radio station playing a very particular type of music popular in the South of Colombia. Our entertainment was playing the guitar, playing chess, and reading books. Before going to Putumayo, I used to think that I did not have enough time to read all the books that I want to, and being there I realised that this is very far from the truth. In the span of three weeks, I read three books, devouring them during every spare moment when the Sun was up and then some more using my torch after 6pm. This made me reflect on just how much time and attention is consumed by being on my phone, scrolling mindlessly, and looking at my screen a lot more than is necessary.
Being present was a matter of great importance. The first day I arrived, I was told that it is very important to look where I step and whenever I go out at night to take my torch to be able to see any snakes. While being in the jungle is very beautiful and energising, it can also be very dangerous. Among other animals and insects, there are snakes, and most if not all of them are poisonous. You have to be very careful not to step on one as they will very likely bite you, and then you are in trouble. Being on the lookout for snakes 24/7 brought a very particular type of alertness and concentration throughout my waking hours.
Jungle cuisine was somewhat of a challenge as well. Rice was present in every dish, as well as plantain, every day – I hadn’t realised how many different types of plantain there are. We always had eggs for breakfast. Fish was a delicacy, one of Taita’s nephews went fishing several times for us and brought back bocachico fish that we then smoked and had with our rice and stews. We also had duck once. There were several ducks living on the property and one day we killed and ate one of them. I made myself watch the Taita cut the throat of the duck as one of the other guys was holding its body while it bled out. It gave me a whole new appreciation of the drumstick I later ate for dinner. The thing I missed the most was fruit, as surprisingly in the Putumayo Region of Colombia fruit is a luxury and we didn’t get as much as I am normally used to eating. We drank aguapanela with lemon on a daily basis – a very typical drink made from unrefined sugar cane extract – panela – and water and limes that we picked from one of the trees on the property.
We would have our dinner in the dark using our flashlights, and then lie in the hammocks to chat for a while or play some chess. I used my flashlight to read the books I had with me while it was dark, even if at times a few moths would come to me, attracted by the light. The sleeping arrangements were also very basic, and we had two options. One option was to sleep in a hammock, which might sound romantic and adventurous but in reality, it is very uncomfortable. The other option was to sleep on a mat on the floor, which was definitely superior to the hammock. The physical conditions overall were uncomfortable, and this was part of the whole experience. Being comfortable with feeling uncomfortable is an important lesson in life, I thought. And it was a great opportunity to focus on why I was there, to participate in the sacred ritual of cooking yagé, in the house of Taita Giovanni, and what an honour and privilege this was.
Cooking Medicine in the Jungle
We would wake up every day around 6am and slowly start the day with some coffee and breakfast before we would go to the cocina (the place where we cooked the medicine) around 8am. The process is very laborious and it is considered that part of the strength of the medicine comes from the effort invested by those preparing it. Everything has to be done by hand.
The process begins with removing the bark from the vine using small knives. This is done so that the medicine doesn’t contain the impurities from the bark. Once this was done, we would smash the peeled vines with big wooden hammers until they split into smaller pieces, kind of like a rope. Then, we would fill a huge pot (50-60 litres) a third with the vine, then the next third with the leaves of the chacruna plant (compañero), which is what gives the visions to the medicine, and the last third with more vine strands. This big pot would cook over a powerful fire that we had to constantly feed. Once the water had boiled for about two hours, we would take it out and add new, fresh water to boil with the plants. Each pot was boiled twice and the brew was taken out to store in another container. Once we had the brew of two to three pots we could start the last part of the process, which was to reduce the water brew to the thick, honey-like substance that we know as yagé.
All of this takes place in a very humid and hot climate, while listening to the songs of birds and the howls of monkeys around us. Surprisingly there were some bugs but not too many. This very physically intensive process was very tiring. From the first day I arrived, we worked for ten days straight without taking a break. The initial excitement and novelty of the experience were replaced by a sense of responsibility, especially during moments of exhaustion. We would sit on tree trunks as we would peel or mash the medicine. At some points it was painful, my back would hurt, my butt would hurt, my hands would hurt, feeling hot and uncomfortable and yet there I was cooking ayahuasca. How special was that?! How very grateful I was to be feeling that exhaustion, to be able to offer my work to the medicine as a small payment for all the blessings I have been given by her. And how grateful I felt that this medicine I was helping to cook was going to reach many people and help them live a better life. With these thoughts and prayers present with me, I could power through the exhaustion and pain I felt in my body. I also felt inspired looking at the other guys going for it, full power, and taking only a short break to mambear, drink some aguapanela with lemon or light a tobacco.
Cooking yagé also meant that we got to drink medicine in the jungle as well. We did four ceremonies over the three weeks we were there and the very last of these ceremonies was one of the most powerful I have ever had.
I will share more about the ceremonies and my main findings and observations from the experience of cooking yagé and living among indigenous people of the Awá nation in the second part of this article, which will be published alongside next month’s newsletter.