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Gringos on the Ayahuasca Trail ... Young Americans Are Flocking to S. America for Pychedelic Promise

Young travelers flock to Bolivia and Peru to do hallucinogenic ayahuasca, which allegedly has spiritual, therapeutic qualities

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Peru, the next stop on the “Gringo Trail” after Bolivia, is another popular destination for ayahuasca enthusiasts. Options range from the decidedly dodgy—reports of rip-offs, bad trips, pervy shamans—to the ultra-professional. The Way Inn, one lodge in Huarez, offers week-long packages that include massage and licensed counselors.

Down the street from Etnika’s, Shaman Kush shakes his head when he hears of two Swedish girls whose unpleasant experience included hallucinations of snakes writhing beneath their feet. He says their shaman is at fault for not explaining the vision properly: “Seeing the serpent is a very good thing. It represents the earth goddess Pachamama and resembles the ayahuasca vine.”

Kush is a charismatic middle-aged man with sparkling brown eyes. He has decades of experience as a spiritual guide, but even he doesn’t claim that the plant is a cure-all. “Ayahuasca opens the door,” he says. “Lasting change is up to the individual. There are other paths, such as Buddhism, which yield the same results.”

Those who do choose ayahuasca as a healing agent are well advised not to approach the process lightly. “The main potential danger is the occurrence of a psychotic breakdown. Although this is a rare possibility, it can occur,” says Dr. José Carlos Bouso, a researcher at Barcelona’s Hospital del Mar Institut d'Investigacions Mèdiques (IMIM) and a contributor to the International Center for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service. He recently  published a study on the psychological impact of repeated ayahuasca use, and is quick to add that while the neuroimaging assessment conducted by his team revealed brain modification due to use, it did not reveal any brain damage or evidence of eventual toxic effects. His data is preliminary, but he believes that the brain modifications may be positive ones.

Dr. Bouso is clear that there is no scientific evidence to support claims that ayahuasca can help users heal from trauma and make positive life changes. However, there is plenty of “anecdotal evidence,” he says. “There are a lot of people that failed using standard medicines that obtained benefits from ayahuasca. They feel cured but the doctors don't trust them.”

Hermione, 26, is a bubbly, chain-smoking yoga enthusiast who fled Arizona for South America following a battle with depression last year. She recently went cold-turkey off a cocktail of SSRIs, opioid painkillers and ADHD medication that she had been taking since the age of 13.

“It’s been 10 weeks. I’ve never felt better,” she says. “I didn’t have any withdrawal symptoms and I really think that it’s because he’s [her shaman, Juan] been praying for me.” Hermione chose her shaman after interviewing with several different companies. Some refused to work with her because of her history of depression. Several alkaloids in ayahuasca act as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MOAIs), putting users who have also used antidepressants  at risk of serotonin syndrome—when too much of the feel-good chemical accumulates in the body, causing symptoms that range from shivering to seizures.

One shaman told Hermione that she would have to wait at least five months before doing the ceremony. He also told her to “Put on a bra. I don’t want to see your tits again.”

The shaman she eventually chose, Juan, emailed her information on the risks and suggested that she make up her own mind. Hermione decided that she wanted to fight. Juan agreed. “He told me: ‘You are strong. You are fighting for your life. If you don’t want to use these medications, you don’t need to. You are a warrior.’”

On Sunday May 5, after a week of cleansing, Hermione went with Juan to his apartment in Cusco and did the ritual. She was initially nervous but said that the months of communication with Juan about her history and goals made all the difference.

 
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