Photo: h.koppdelaney

Can a psychedelic brew from the Amazon really give you a window into your soul?

Many say that Ayahuasca (pronounced ajaˈwaska), a medicinal tea prepared from a jungle vine found in the tropical regions of South America, can lead users to transformative spiritual experiences.

Naturally, I have been fascinated with learning more about this supposedly magical beverage, but it is highly illegal here in the U.S. so you can’t exactly pick it up at the local Whole Foods.

Ayahuasca has been around for hundreds of years and is typically prepared by shamans in indigenous tribes in Brazil and Peru. In the movie Altered States, it is hinted that Ayahuasca is the drink that William Hurt sips before his transformative sessions in the flotation tank (a fun activity I recently discovered — the flotation tank part, that is).

If you want to try Ayahuasca out for yourself, you’ll be happy to learn that there’s a small cottage industry in Peru and Brazil catering to Westerners who want the experience. But obviously, you’ll want to do your due diligence and make sure the operators aren’t fly-by-night. The last place you want to find yourself is in a ramshackle hospital in the middle of the jungle.

National Geographic’s Kira Salak traveled to Peru and took part in an Ayahuasca ceremony in a jungle hut. When she started to see colors and visions, the shaman’s apprentice told her that she was seeing with her third eye. What does that look like? Here’s Kira’s take:

Dark creatures sail by. Tangles of long, hissing serpents. Dragons spitting fire. Screaming humanlike forms. For a bunch of hallucinations, they seem terrifyingly real. An average ayahuasca ceremony lasts about four to five hours. But in ayahuasca space—where time, linear thought, and the rules of three-dimensional reality no longer apply—four to five hours of sheer darkness and terror can feel like a lifetime. My heartbeat soars; it’s hard to breathe. But I have done this before. I remind myself that what I’m experiencing now is my fear taking symbolic form through the ayahuasca. Fear that I have lived with my entire life and that needs to be released. Read more of Kira Salak’s excellent article.

And here’s a cool (yet over-the-top) video with Ayahuasca visions:

Obviously, Ayahuasca is an intense and possibly life-changing experience. But are there side effects? Bad trips? Should I start packing my bags for Peru now or is Ayahuasca overhyped? I would love to read about your experiences with this wonder potion.