It usually starts with vomiting. Later, maybe diarrhoea. Ayahuasca isn’t the kind of drug you take for fun, but under the close supervision of a South American shaman. It’s in that context many readers would have seen TV explorer Bruce Parry ruin teatime as he heaved his way through a traditional ayahuasca ceremony on BBC 2’s Amazon (2008).
However, the hallucinogenic concoction, also known as yage, has developed quite a following; some believe it can offer spiritual awakenings and help find existential direction, as well as treat post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, alcohol and drug dependency, and even autism.
Such is the mystique of this trippy tea that William S Burroughs, the author of Naked Lunch (1959) and archetypal heroin addict, believed ayahuasca — which means ‘vine of the soul’ — might grant a person powers of telepathy (as well as help them kick opiates).
Ayahuasca was originally only ever taken by indigenous healers (known as curanderos) as a ‘plant teacher’ — a means of assisting their diagnoses and treatments. Since then, Western tourism has taken hold, and visitors aren’t content merely to experience the entheogen’s effects vicariously; increasingly they’re travelling to spiritual centres in the Amazon to try it for themselves.
Destinations like Iquitos in Peru draw tourists seeking enlightenment and bucket-list ticks — everyone from taxi drivers to tour operators is casually touting ayahuasca retreats.
Much as our recent enthusiasm for the ancient Andean staple quinoa has made it prohibitively expensive for locals, it’s been reported that the B caapi vine (ayahuasca’s key ingredient) has tripled in value in the last six years. It’s now being commercially grown due to Western demand.
Ever since the 1963 publication of Burroughs’s The Yage Letters (a novelised collection of letters between the writer and beat poet, Allen Ginsburg, on their individual experiences with the psychedelic potion), many have been trying to tune into his wavelength.
Singer-songwriters Devendra Banhart and Tori Amos have spoken about it, as has the band Klaxons. Former Police frontman Sting reported, “It’s the only genuine religious experience I’ve ever had.”
But some who come seeking spiritual rebirth find the very opposite. In August 2016, a 33-year-old Filipino tourist, Ernest Villaroman, died from unknown complications in Cusco, Peru, after consuming ayahuasca. A Canadian man stabbed and killed a British man in self-defence, after the latter attacked him with a knife during a bad trip at a retreat in the Amazon in December 2015.
There have been many other reported tourist deaths linked to ayahuasca. Shaman Jose Pineda Vargas was arrested in 2012 after trying to cover up the death of an 18-year-old Californian who’d overdosed after paying $1,200 to stay at his retreat.
In a 1953 letter to Ginsburg, Burroughs said he ‘came near dying’ after first trying ayahuasca. In a more literal sense than Burroughs intended when he wrote the last line of his semi-autobiographical 1953 novel, Junky, — as his alter-ego disappears over the southern horizon in search of broader perspectives — ‘Yage may be the final fix’.
What is ayahuasca, exactly?
Ayahuasca chiefly consists of two active ingredients: the leaves of the psychotria viridis plant, known locally as chacruna, and the banisteriopsis caapi vine, often just called ayahuasca. The chacruna leaves contain the hallucinogenic compound DMT, which causes short trips when smoked, but has no effect when taken orally. Mixing it with the B caapi vine allows the DMT into our bloodstream when drunk, causing trips of three hours plus.
Is it legal?
While the consumption of ayahuasca is legal in Peru and other parts of Latin America, it is illegal in almost all Western countries. The active ingredient DMT is classified as a class A drug in the UK.
Is it dangerous?
Ayahuasca can interact badly with certain foods, and fatally with some medications. As tourist demand has risen, the number of fake shamans selling inexpertly brewed ayahuasca has increased. So too have stories of sexual assaults on drugged females. Since the chacruna leaves are now in short supply, some unscrupulous charlatans are brewing the potion with toxic, hallucinogenic alternatives.
Published in the April 2017 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)