Gringos on the Ayahuasca Trail ... Young Americans Are Flocking to S. America for Pychedelic Promise
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“What do you think the shaman will say if I tell him I just want to trip balls?” Stan is a 30-something English lad who has been strolling around the hostel drunk all day, wearing nothing but a gold thong.
In defense of Stan’s outfit, it is very hot in Rurrenabaque, a pocket-sized Bolivian town at the entrance to Madidi National Park, in the upper Amazon Basin. Mosquitos as big as gumdrops whine through the humid air, joining the symphony of carimbo music and inebriated shouts pouring from the gringo bars. Rurrenabaque is at the epicenter of Bolivia’s burgeoning eco-tourism industry, with dozens of expeditions into the jungle leaving daily. But travelers often become intrigued by a different local offering: guided shamanic tours which use the hallucinogenic brew ayahuasca to prompt spiritual revelations.
Ayahuasca has featured prominently in indigenous rituals in this part of the world for centuries. It is brewed using infusions of several local plants, including the actual ayahuasca vine ( Banisteriopsis caapi), which activates the psychedelic compound DMT in the other main component, Chacruna ( Psychotria viridis). Additional ingredients are supposed to counteract the nausea that commonly accompanies use, but the exact mixture varies from shaman to shaman.
The process typically begins with a pre-interview, at which clients discuss their goals with the shaman. Some say they are looking for guidance, others for healing. Some, like Stan, just want to “trip balls.”
Dieter, 31, from Germany, tells me that he was seeking direction. “I wanted to know what the next step was. I waited for 10 years to try ayahuasca. Before, I wasn’t in the right 'psychosis'.”
His trip was preceded by a cleansing period of several days. The length of this period and its restrictions varies widely from company to company. Some shamans require a week’s abstinence from alcohol, drugs, sugar, caffeine and processed flour. More fly-by-night outfits—particularly prevalent in party towns like Rurrenabaque—require much less.
On the day before the ritual, Dieter and his fellow participants went hiking in the jungle. They meditated. They met as a group and discussed their intentions. They were “purified” with tobacco smoke. Then, as the shaman chanted and played various musical instruments, they each drank from a gourd containing the brew.
The name ayahuasca comes from a native Quechua word meaning “vine of the dead.” It’s a fitting moniker, as DMT—its key psychoactive ingredient— is said to replicate near-death experiences.
Diarrhea and vomiting are common. Some participants report seeing "unnatural matter" flood from all the orifices of their bodies. They are told that it is toxins being flushed from their system. “It was the most beautiful diarrhea I’ve ever had in my life,” says Dieter. “I shit for what felt like hours. It was very cleansing.”
But did he get an answer to his question, the question of direction? While almost all users report their trips as life-changing, they also struggle to find the words to describe the experience. “I got a...foretaste of how the answer will feel,” says Dieter. “It was good. I’m not interested in the short term. I want a long-term change for my life.” He plans on doing another ritual soon.
Whether ayahuasca actually produces a long-term spiritual shift is a matter for debate. Companies touting its use say that it has helped their clients with severe issues such as drug addiction and grief. Its primary benefit, claim many, is a renewed sense of connection with the universe. “My clients come back full of love, ready to make a lasting change,” says Johanna Aftales, a representative at Etnika’s Ancient Shamanic Inca Technique in Cusco, Peru.