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Amazonian Ecstasy: Terence and Dennis McKenna’s Psychedelic South American Journey

terence mckenna psy j o n e 1
in this article
  • McKenna’s Early Influences
  • La Chorrera, Ayahuasca, and Mushrooms Along the Way
  • Several days into the trip...
  • They come down from the ayahuasca...
  • True Hallucinations: the potential for psychedelic plant medicines to profoundly inspire

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Chemical Collective or any associated parties.

McKenna’s Early Influences

Terence McKenna was never interested in things like baseball cards or stamps as a child. He insists he was always drawn to iridescence found in nature. Perhaps this is why he was a lifelong butterfly collector. He spent his childhood in Boulder, Colorado pursuing interests of natural beauty: butterflies, tropical fish, and ultimately, at the end of his adolescence, synthetic and plant-based hallucinogens. 

In 1971, Terence McKenna was 23 years old, while his brother Dennis was 19. Terence had already left Berkeley University in California at the height of the psychedelic revolution and had spent several years in Asia. He claimed that he had been “run out” of Berkeley over the revolution, and was witnessed taking LSD and DMT on numerous occasions. 

After leaving college, McKenna gathered his brother and three party members for a journey into the heart of the Amazon rainforest in pursuit of orally-active DMT. They didn’t know it at the time, but this contribution would forever change the lives of all those involved.  

Terence McKenna's Remarkable Psychedelic Life and Ideas

La Chorrera, Ayahuasca, and Mushrooms Along the Way

By February of 1971, they were on the cusp of discovering the mythical orally-active DMT. At this time they boarded a small boat on the Rio Putumayo in southern Colombia, heading towards inner Amazonia. On the riverside they spotted a lone Stropharia cubensis (now known as Psilocybe cubensis) mushroom, which Terence ate, inducing his first experience with psilocybin. He noted with some curiosity that the experience was “something to look into later.” 

For six to twelve days, they were informed, they would be sleeping on top of crates of soda as they drifted down the Rio Putumayo and towards the remote mission of La Chorrera, where they believed their search would end. Terence claimed this boat ride was extremely transcendental in nature, and that the people he encountered all seemed like “windows into the past”. Terence also claimed he had several realizations about his own life while on the river. 

Terence McKenna Amazon-1971 | Kahpi
Terence Mckenna in the Amazon in 1971.

The traveling companions were a group of thoroughly invested travelers on a quest for an exotic experience. When they finally reached the last stop on the river Putumayo, they were warned by their companions not to ask the people of La Chorrera about orally active DMT, for fear that they would be killed. With the assurance that great care would be taken, they set out on foot. 

Now, La Chorrera is basically a giant cattle ranch surrounded by huts, with jungle on all sides as far as the eye can see. The preferred substrate for the Psilocybe cubensis mushroom is the dung of said cattle and, because of this, there were monstrous psilocybin-containing mushrooms everywhere. They had only packed a few tins of food, such as rice and meat, and there wasn’t a whole lot of food available at the mission, so mushrooms became a staple in the party’s diet. This is when things began to get really interesting. 

The ideas got progressively free-flowing, and the conversations got weirder and weirder. Soon they began devising theories. Dennis noticed that at high doses, psilocybin seemed to induce a kind of screaming/singing noise that modulated the intensity of the experience. 

Several days into the trip...

After at least a week of constantly eating mushrooms, Terence and Dennis conducted an experiment in which they attempted to replicate the noise brought on by high doses of psilocybin, and direct it towards a mushroom in the hope that the mushroom would somehow resonate with it and then “psilocybin would go into the DNA of the mushroom” for some kind of superb resonance. 

Brothers of the Abyss: Dennis and Terence McKenna Painting by Timothy White

This didn’t happen, but when they made the noise, strange things began to occur, and Dennis was induced into a breakthrough experience where he became “spread across the universe.” Dennis had eaten so much psilocybin that it took him days to come down, and Terence’s responsibility was to prevent the natives of La Chorrera from “calling in airplanes to take them to a mental hospital.” 

When they were finally able to brew some ayahuasca that contained the orally-active DMT that had brought them to La Chorrera, Dennis decided to take more mushrooms as well. They drank the brew and got comfy in their hammocks in anticipation of what would surely await them. They began replicating the aforementioned psilocybin tone, singing and screaming into the jungle night, which really shook Dennis up. They all entered into a simultaneous tryptamine breakthrough. From this, they learned that resonant sound frequencies have the potential to modulate the intensity of tryptamine experiences, such as a mushroom or DMT trip.

They remained like jewels in the dimensions glimpsed in tryptamine ecstasy for a long time in the darkness, and there were no clocks. Terence described seeing mechanical superstructures that made him question the nature of the universe and the nature of drugs themselves. 

They come down from the ayahuasca...

As the effects of the ayahuasca gradually began to wear off, they all began eating mushrooms again. Dennis and one of the other travelers retired to an old hut, undressed, and began meditating. Dennis then made everyone take off their clothes, with the insistence that they no longer needed them. They all began smoking a joint and meditating in the nude. Eventually, they came to the collective realization that all objects were unnecessary, and set out into the jungle bearing only their hammocks, still naked, for the remainder of their trip. 

A scene from Terence McKenna’s True Hallucinations – A documentary looking at Mckenna’s experiences in the Amazon.

Once they had settled in, Terence “asked god what should be done,” to which he was told they should meditate back through their entire lives from the present moment, encountering and setting things right with each sentient creature that they had wronged. Only then would they receive true enlightenment. At some point during this trip, Dennis was incarcerated at the police house they had set up at La Chorrera, simply because he refused to keep his clothes on. Also, any object placed into the room with him has promptly hurled out the window, including the window frame. The psilocybin-induced idea that material objects were no longer necessary was utter truth to Dennis by this point. 

While Terence was waiting by the police house for Dennis to sober, he had what some would call a revelatory experience. He saw visions of a symbiotic relationship between humans and mushrooms being recognized and accepted globally, and he began to form his own understanding of what psilocybin-containing mushrooms really are. Terence theorized that, if an alien species wanted to study another, less developed society of life forms, they would first monitor their habits. Humans, Terence claims, are unsubtle in that they seek out intoxicants, and anything goes. Perhaps induced by the quantity of psychedelic drugs he had taken in the Amazon, Terence suggests that mushrooms are an alien life form or some kind of monitoring device created by aliens. On psilocybin, Terence states that it “is something that is disguising itself as a drug in order to not spread alarm. There is a voice that speaks to you in your own language” and “isn’t it obvious that an alien would hide its presence in an intoxication?”

At some point after all of this, someone in the party noticed an entity wheeling a glowing, crystalline ball through the jungle, which was instinctively known to be the “lapis filosophorum.” They realized it contained the entirety of the human soul.

True Hallucinations: the potential for psychedelic plant medicines to profoundly inspire

From his time spent in South America, Terence McKenna came to the realization that “if you do things properly, you become superconductive of awareness.” This is an idea that seems to resonate in my own life quite a bit. Both Terence and Dennis went on to receive multiple degrees and lead profound careers in ethnobotany, among other subjects. Terence and Dennis have published several books, both together and individually. Terence has spread the word of psychedelics to untold numbers of initiates with his lectures.

As time goes on, more people will discover his words via the internet, and those untold numbers will only continue to grow. I believe that these men would never have become recognized figures within the psychedelic and ethnobotanical fields if they had never taken psychedelic medicines for themselves. As much as we have attempted to describe the psychedelic experience, the only way for one to fully understand it is if they take psychedelic(s) themselves.

A. Mayhugh | Community Blogger at Chemical Collective

A. Mayhugh is one of our community bloggers here at Chemical Collective. If you’re interested in joining our blogging team and getting paid to write about subjects you’re passionate about, please reach out to David via email at blog@chemical-collective.com

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1 year ago

Great article. I learned a lot.

2 years ago

an icon forever 🖤

2 years ago

I am amused about the fact that humans are so prone to exploration. I really enjoy travelling and the feeling that comes with being in a new, different area to which I am not accustomed to (both nature and culture wise). I will also never forget the realization I had when I figured there is the whole world I can enter from within which is just as full of that experience as the material one. Thanks for the article piece!

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