Ayahuasca: The Hallucinogenic Plant Attracting Hordes of Tourists to South America

Brewing ayahuasca
Brewing ayahuasca | © Apollo/Flickr
Harry Stewart

Most people visit South America to relish in the sights, sounds, and culture of this incredibly diverse continent. Others, however, come for different reasons. Rather than seek out adventure and fun, they come to receive healing from traditional Amazonian shamans who use a powerful hallucinogenic concoction to cure predicaments of the mind and soul.

The shamanic medicine in question is ayahuasca, a sacred vine mixed together with other native plants to create an intoxicating brew. Dubbed the ‘vine of the soul,’ when ingested this ancient Amazonian potion releases a significant quantity of DMT, a powerful psychedelic compound that provokes intense hallucinations. Believers associate these symptoms with entering another dimension—a deeply spiritual experience that has a profound healing effect. There’s speculation that small doses of DMT are produced naturally in human beings and released in our sleep, causing the strange sensation of dreaming.

The Vine of the Soul

Ayahuasca has been used by the indigenous people of the Amazon for hundreds of years, long before Europeans first arrived on the continent. No one is quite sure how it was discovered, although legend dictates mysterious forest spirits guided the natives into discovering the combination in order to grant them passage into a spiritual dimension. Given its extremely powerful properties, ayahuasca has traditionally been used by shamans to achieve spiritual enlightenment and cure a variety of ailments. For this reason, it remains legal in much of South America as a form of traditional medicine.

But in recent years, the sacred brew has found a more commercial application: ayahuasca tourism. Every year, tens of thousands of foreign tourists travel to all corners of the South American Amazon to try the medicine for themselves. Most seek spiritual enlightenment or treatment for conditions like drug addiction and emotional trauma. Others simply want to experience powerful hallucinations that are truly out of this world.

Ayahuasca ceremony

The industry has become increasingly popular in the last 15 years thanks to word of mouth testimonials, slick marketing campaigns, and all-inclusive package deals at English-speaking ayahuasca retreats. Adventurous new-age types find the prospect of traveling to the remote jungles of South America to ingest a psychedelic medicinal potion difficult to resist, while those with chronic mental or emotional issues are prepared to try just about anything to alleviate their pain.

Nowhere is ayahuasca tourism more prevalent than the remote jungle town of Iquitos in Peru. Here, over a hundred centers offer shamanic services that primarily target foreign tourists who are happy to fork out thousands for a week long retreat. Dedicated minivans whisk psychedelic pilgrims between the airport and their lodging, while taxi drivers tout discounted shamanic services to passengers in broken English. In Iquitos, ayahuasca is utterly prolific.

Upmarket Ayahuasca healing center

Of all the ayahuasca activity in Iquitos, only 17 centers are officially licensed with the Peruvian government. This rampant lack of regulation has created serious concerns over the safety of the industry. Although ayahuasca is generally considered to be safe when administered responsibly, several foreigners have died during ceremonies that were intended to heal.

These deaths have been attributed to clashes with pre-existing medical conditions, toxins delivered during the preparation process, and the use of Toé, a different psychotropic plant that is known to be deadly. What each case has in common is a degree of negligence. In the quest to maximize profits, many healing centers employ under-qualified ‘charlatan’ shamans and have a lack of basic medical facilities.

Tourists have also reported being sexually assaulted, beaten, and robbed while in the paralytic stupor the drug causes. Others have completely lost their minds and gone AWOL, only to be found ranting, raving, and naked in public several days later.

Preparing the brew

Despite the well-publicized risks, ayahuasca tourism continues to thrive. Many patients claim the treatment has been a life-changing experience, able to cure anything from depression to eating disorders. Although research on the medicinal effects of psychotropic substances such as ayahuasca and magic mushrooms is still in its infancy, a number of promising indicators have been observed. The Brazilian prison system, for example, has found ayahuasca to be incredibly successful in helping inmates come to terms with their crimes and reintegrate into society.

Regardless of the beneficial effects ayahuasca can offer, the poorly regulated sector has some clear and present dangers. Tempted tourists should only consider signing up with a reputable retreat that employs qualified personnel and has adequate medical facilities. If not, they risk becoming just another statistic of an increasingly dubious industry.

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