The Differences between Colombian, Brazilian and Peruvian Ayahuasca Ceremonies

The Dissemination and Distribution of Ayahuasca Rituals

The Amazon jungle is one of the vastest and wildest terrains on the planet. Spanning nine countries and covering over 40% of the entire South American continent, it is the world’s largest tropical rainforest and is home to a potpourri of different people and cultures, each with their own unique take on ayahuasca shamanism and ceremonial traditions.

Due to its broad geographical distribution, ayahuasca is ritually consumed in a number of different ways which varies from nation to nation. From the complex rites of the church of A Barquinha in Brazil to the freewheeling mysticism of the Sibundoy communities of Colombia, each South American country offers a totally different approach to ayahuasca which is reflected in a diversity of ceremonial styles.(1)

Because borders are manmade and do not represent tribal identity in any “fixed” sense, you often find the same tribe scattered across different countries. This means that the ayahuasca rituals I will be looking at today will focus on the most commonly practised and widely spread medicine ceremonies found in each respective country.

For Peru, I will focus on both mestizo and Shipibo rituals since many ayahuasca tourists purposefully seek out Shipibo shamans as they are believed to be the oldest custodians of ayahuasca shamanism in South America. Colombian ceremonies will focus on those conducted by taitas (medicine men of indigenous descent) who aim at providing ayahuasca healing for the wider community (including mestizo and tourist drinkers), while Brazilian ceremonies will focus on those made popular by the church of Santo Daime and its offshoots.

Cultivating and Cooking Ayahuasca for Ceremonial Consumption

Although each ceremonial style is unique, the differences don’t just start and end with the way in which these ayahuasca rituals are conducted. Everything begins with the medicine in its raw form and this includes how the ayahuasca is cultivated since the quality of the medicine ultimately effects the quality of the ceremony.

Some tribal people in Peru harvest the ayahuasca vine according to the lunar cycle while others insist that the medicine is at its most effective when picked before dawn or when the vine is still very young.(2)P. Gorman, “Ayahuasca in My Blood,” p.61 This is a tradition that has been continued by some mestizo communities who believe that following indigenous preparation methods results in the best medicine.(3)P. Gorman, “Ayahuasca in My Blood,” p.50-53

From the earliest stages of the vine’s cultivation, to how the it is “tempered” before it is cooked down with chacruna leaves, preparation of the raw plant matter varies widely according to tribe and region. There are even some communities in Colombia that do not cook their ayahuasca at all and insist that cold maceration delivers the most potent medicine from the vine while some mestizo communities in Peru prefer serving up the ayahuasca vine and the chacruna leaf separately.(4)

There are also different ways in which the chacruna leaf is cultivated, with both indigenous and mestizo populations of Peru only picking the leaf after the morning dew has evaporated. This is believed to greatly affect how the medicine is absorbed and “processed” by the body during ceremony as dew is believed to negatively impact the efficacy and quality of chacruna.(5)P. Gorman, “Ayahuasca in My Blood,” p.55

There are countless other ways in which an ayahuasquero can prepare ayahuasca with some preferring the cold maceration technique and others – such as the Shipibo people from Peru – who like to spike it with additional hallucinogens such as Brugmansia suaveolens.(6) There are also people – such as the taitas of Colombia – who believe that steeping the raw plant material for 12 to 20 hours before cooking it will result in a smoother, more intense psychedelic experience.(7)P. Gorman, “Ayahuasca in My Blood,” p.22-25

For members of Santo Daime in Brazil, preparing the vine for cooking is considered a community experience and all church members are expected to help pound the vine until it starts to come apart. A protective layer of ayahuasca is placed at the bottom of a cooking pot and the chacruna leaves are placed on top in order to stop them from burning. After stacking seven layers of the two ingredients on top of each other, they are cooked down with water a total of 3 times until the reduction is thick and viscous. The final reduction is then distributed amongst 3 more pots to cook down again. Specially chosen chacruna leaves and the choicest fragments of pulverized vine are added to these concoctions and the final reduction is considered “daime” – sacred and ready for ritual consumption.(8)

Different Approaches to Dosage

The amount of medicine served during a ceremony also differs from place to place. While Colombian ayahuasca taitas emphasize the length of the journey by serving unlimited quantities of ayahuasca throughout ceremonies that start in the afternoon,(9) Shipibo elders from Peru are usually more conservative and tend to serve participants just one cup of medicine per ceremony. This emphasis on thrift and caution underlines a core Shipibo belief that celebrates the hidden, subtle power of nature and gives context to the dictum that “small is mighty.”(10)

It demonstrates an unwavering faith in the healing powers of ayahuasca, highlighting the view that the spiritual force of all teacher plants is contained in every drop of medicine. This means that ayahuasca will work on someone no matter how much – or how little – they consume. Shipibo shamans explain that the spirit of ayahuasca knows exactly what a person needs in order to transform and heal and so whether they drink a drop – or a vat – of medicine, they will get exactly what their body and soul require in order to regain equilibrium.(11)

The various “ayahuasca churches” of Brazil also vary greatly in their approach to medicine dosage. The church of Santo Daime, for example, usually offers longer ceremonies with multiple cups of ayahuasca served over a protracted period of time to provide a more intense and immersive experience.(12) A Barquinha, on the other hand, places more of an emphasis on mediumship and spirit possession and thus, they tend to limit themselves to one large dose at the start of a ceremony.(13) This is so that nothing interferes with the process of summoning the spirits.

While purists will say that there is no dose of ayahuasca that is too small – or too large – people belonging to specific ayahuasca traditions prefer to follow their own dosing protocols since it makes them feel a sense of camaraderie and connection to their entire lineage. This means that while Shipibos prefer to drink just one cup during a ceremony, the various indigenous and mestizo populations of Colombia believe that getting up to drink as often as they like contributes to an atmosphere of joyous celebration that comes with imbibing ayahuasca.(14)

Setting the Mood: The Impact of Ceremonial Spaces

The desire to provide an upbeat ceremonial space is prevalent in ayahuasca ceremonies throughout much of Colombia.(15) There is often musical accompaniment that sets a merry tone for drinkers and if the ceremony happens to be taking place in the mountains – a popular destination for ayahuasca tourists in Colombia – there may even be a small fireplace to add a sense of elemental warmth and illumination during peoples’ spiritual quests.(16) … Continue reading There are even taitas who encourage people to get up and walk around if they feel called to do so while some like to furnish their ceremonial spaces with hammocks and cushions to add to a more informal, laissez-faire approach to ayahuasca ceremonies.(17)

Although ayahuasca tourism is most developed in Peru, there is now an increasing number of people visiting Colombia as an alternative destination.(18) This is because the joyous, upbeat approach to ayahuasca consumption is better suited to certain temperaments and the fact that many shamans begin ceremonial procedures in the afternoon also makes the entire process less intimidating to those who fear the dark on both a literal and metaphorical level.

With that being said, the “darkness” and intensity of most Peruvian ceremonies appeals to more brooding, introverted types while being part of a more “organized” ayahuasca sub-culture such as Brazilian Santo Daime and União do Vegetal churches may appeal to people who prefer structure and routine.

Brazilian ayahuasca ceremonies also tend to take place in consecrated “ayahuasca churches” which means that the entire space is infused with spiritual intent.(19) Because these ceremonies also tend to start during daylight hours, there is not as much of a focus on introspection as there is in Peruvian ayahuasca ceremonies since these tend to take place in malocas (ceremonial jungle huts) under a shroud of darkness.(20)

While there tends to be an emphasis on the longer duration of both Colombian and Brazilian ayahuasca ceremonies, Peruvian rituals, by contrast, tend to lean more towards intense healing and self-discovery through purging, disorientation and physical and psychological discomfort.(21) This means that shorter ceremonies are favored since rapid healing and transformation is usually what shamans aim for when serving their medicine.

Intensity and Gentleness: Different Approaches to Ayahuasca Healing

One of the many ways in which various Peruvian shamans intensify their medicine is through the addition of tobacco to the final ayahuasca mixture. Mestizo and indigenous healers alike add this potent healing plant to their brews because of its profound purgative and cleansing properties. It is considered a master teacher plant and is believed to accelerate the rate of healing for ayahuasca drinkers since even a small amount induces quick – and sometimes intensive – purging. This is considered auspicious by shamans because they believe that the more a person purges, the more they are able to gain from working with the spirit of ayahuasca.(22)P. Gorman, “Ayahuasca in My Blood,” p.15-17

Colombian taitas prefer a gentler approach that supports a person’s sense of ease and well-being. They also believe in the importance of starting their ceremonies in the afternoon because they insist that the sense of safety elicited by the familiarity of daylight leads to increased feelings of comfort. The emphasis is placed instead, on how long a particular ceremony lasts – with many exceeding 24 hours.(23)P.  Gorman, “Ayahuasca in My Blood,” p.20-24

The long length of their ceremonies is considered ideal because it is believed to support a slower – and more even – rate of healing. This is all made possible by serving up multiple doses of ayahuasca in a single ceremony – usually the medicine is weaker than the Peruvian equivalent – which ensures instant integration of lessons and transformation at a gentler, more even pace. They believe that the defensive walls we build up within ourselves to protect against hurt are more easily taken down in a space of gentleness than in a space of disorientation and fear. By using ayahuasca to foster the qualities of love and gentleness rather than the qualities of darkness and unfamiliarity, healing can occur smoothly and gracefully.(24)P. Amaringo, “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo,” p.81

Brazilian Santo Daime ceremonies tend to follow a non-linear and non-specific road to healing through the use of ayahuasca however, there is a common thread uniting most ritual gatherings and that is that they emphasize love and unity through the communal sharing of their sacred medicine. As in Colombia, ceremonies tend to begin during the day and can last for many hours, sometimes going on for an entire 24-hour period.(25)

The Importance of Vine-Leaf Ratios

According to ethnobotanists, there are more than three dozen ways in which ayahuasca is brewed and consumed.(26) This means that while the medicine will still have the same raw effects on everyone, different styles of ayahuasca ceremonies will likely generate different overall experiences.(27) The final result will be affected by a unique combination of atmosphere and background music, as well as by the strength of the medicine and the magical abilities of the shaman officiating the ceremony.

Many experts argue that the “quality” of a person’s ceremony is most affected by the vine-leaf ratio used when preparing a vat of ayahuasca tea. This is because the amount of chacruna leaf used when preparing ayahuasca greatly affects the quality and intensity of a person’s visions since a higher leaf-vine ratio prevents the DMT present in ayahuasca from being broken down in a person’s stomach.(28) Not only does this enhance the psychotropic qualities of the medicine which intensifies a person’s visions, it also means that the medicine is likely to last longer, thus increasing the length of a ceremony.(29)

By contrast, there are “purists” who believe that the vine-leaf ratio of 1:1 is ideal when cooking ayahuasca as this is known to have a strong impact on the visionary potential of the medicine.(30) This “golden ratio” is prevalent across many tribes and knows no borders which means that it tends to be the ratio used by newbie ayhauasqueros who prefer to rely on tried-and-trusted cooking methods rather than playing around with proportions and admixtures that may or may not work.(31)P. Gorman, “Ayahuasca in My Blood,” p.18

The Many Tones and Rhythms of an Ayahuasca Ceremony

There are few things in the world that are capable to affecting our environments as much as music. It can literally set the “tone” for our entire mood and anyone who has ever sat with “the sacred vine” knows just how much the music played during an ayahuasca ritual can affect the entire trajectory of the ceremony.

Colombian ceremonies tend to make use of musical instruments that are played by both the taita and the ceremony participants should they so desire. There are no set rules and people are encouraged to follow what they are called to do. The “tone” of these ceremonies leans towards the celebratory and the joyful and peaceable qualities of the medicine are acknowledged through songs of devotion and praise.(32)

Brazilian Santo Daime ceremonies, on the other hand, are known for their rich tradition of magico-devotional hymns, many of which are “received” during ayahuasca rituals and transcribed for use at later dates. Since these hymns are believed to contain magical frequencies that have been transmitted from the astral realm, they are recorded by the church’s scribe and are used in future ceremonies to call upon the spirits to facilitate healing and transformation for the congregation.(33)

The use of icaros in Peruvian ayahuasca ceremonies – particularly those sung in indigenous languages – are some of the most beautiful and profound components of ceremonies held in the country. Ranging from Shipibo arkanas (protective icaros), to mestizo oraciones (prayerful songs, usually sung in Spanish), the extensive musical canon of Peruvian shamans is a testament to the vast inter-tribal legacy influencing this branch of Amazonian shamanism. Since icaros are believed to be directly transcribed from the spirits, they are integral to Peruvian ayahuasca ceremonies since they are intimately linked to a person’s capacity for healing and insight.(34)

Final Thoughts

The differences that set each nation’s ayahuasca traditions apart are the vestiges of older tribal customs that have filtered down into the mainstream ayahuasca culture of each nation and have adapted over time to suit the needs of the current population.

The only way of truly knowing which ceremonial style best suits your personality is by carefully researching the different kinds of ayahuasca ceremonies – and preparation methods – available to outsiders and then making an informed choice on where you feel is the best place for you to go and experience ayahuasca.


1, 6, 26, 27, 30
2 P. Gorman, “Ayahuasca in My Blood,” p.61
3 P. Gorman, “Ayahuasca in My Blood,” p.50-53
5 P. Gorman, “Ayahuasca in My Blood,” p.55
7 P. Gorman, “Ayahuasca in My Blood,” p.22-25
8, 19, 25, 28
9, 15
14, 17, 20, 21, 32
22 P. Gorman, “Ayahuasca in My Blood,” p.15-17
23 P.  Gorman, “Ayahuasca in My Blood,” p.20-24
24 P. Amaringo, “The Ayahuasca Visions of Pablo Amaringo,” p.81
31 P. Gorman, “Ayahuasca in My Blood,” p.18