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Have You Ever Taken Ayahuasca in the Peruvian Amazon?

My account of a night high on the "Ayahuasca madre" with the Ashaninka tribe deep in the Amazon rainforest.
 
 
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Noemi Vagus, an Ashaninka shaman, standing in front of an Ayahuasca vine in the Peruvian Amazon

Noemi Vagus, an Ashaninka shaman, standing in front of an Ayahuasca vine in the Peruvian Amazon. (Photos by the author)

Ever since I first began playing with psychedelics as a teenager, I have wanted to do them in the jungle. It took only one or two bad trips in the city before I started imagining the experience away from the car alarms and ambulance sirens, and closer to its millennia-deep origins in ceremony and sacrament.

If this sounds like a familiar story, it is. Amazonian psychedelic tourism predates today's better-known trends in eco and cultural immersion tourism.

Through word of mouth, High Times features, Discovery Channel specials, the books of Terrance McKenna and the "Yage Letters" of Burroughs and Ginsberg, northern-hemispheric drug culture has over the last half-century become steadily more hip to and enthralled by the living Amazonian tradition of ingesting Ayahuasca, a potent psychedelic brew used throughout the region as a healing tool and portal through which to communicate with the jungle spirits and the dead.

The magic molecule animating Ayahuasca is the fearsome and revered tryptamine known as DMT. Aside from its strength, DMT in both its natural and synthetic forms is unique for the similar sensations and visions shared by its supplicants. Unlike other man-made psychedelics such as LSD, synthetic DMT takes many users to the same "place," where they report meeting elfish, clown-like, and insectoid beings who frequently extend the same warm and welcoming message: "We've been expecting you." This phenomenon is documented in Dr. Rick Strassman's book, DMT: The Spirit Molecule, which describes his remarkable findings over the course of the first FDA-approved psychedelic study in more than 20 years, conducted at the University of New Mexico Medical School in the mid-'90s.

The natural DMT experience of Ayahuasca is likewise known for taking users to a common destination, where they are greeted by the dead, as well as assorted vine goddesses and jungle spirits, chief among them the serpentine "Ayahuasca madre."

I finally got my chance to meet the Madre in March, when an English rainforest preservation non-profit called Cool Earth invited me to join a press trip to the Peruvian Amazon. The last-minute invite allowed just a few days to round up jungle gear and malaria pills, but there was never any question of accepting the offer. It was the juiciest of junkets: starting in coastal Lima, we would venture deep into primary rainforest, roughly midway between the Andes and the Brazilian border. Our final destination was the Ashaninka village of Tinkerini, a place so remote that the locals have seen only a small handful of whites in their lives, including the anthropologist who would be our guide. Tinkerini was no forest-edge Potemkin village full of trinket-hawking nativos. It was the real thing. Not far from Tinkerini dwell some of the world's last uncontacted tribes, the kind who want nothing to do with the modern world, shoot arrows at passing helicopters, and have zero immunity to foreign germs.

The group consisted of myself, a few journalists from the States and the UK, a Cool Earth rep, and a Welsh anthropologist named Dilwyn Jenkins, who has been studying the Ashaninka since his undergraduate years at Cambridge in the late 1970s. It was a good-humored crew, and on the bus out of Lima we even managed to laugh at the fact that not one of us had a snake bite kit, despite the fact that the Peruvian Amazon hosts the world's densest and most varied collection of poisonous snakes. More than 200 killer breeds live in the area where we were headed. The tarantulas, while not as lethal, are the diameter of microwave pizzas.

 
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