Gringos on the Ayahuasca Trail

By Linda Stansberry 06/05/13

Young travelers flock to Bolivia and Peru to do hallucinogenic ayahuasca, which allegedly has spiritual, therapeutic qualities. Do shamans or charlatans await? The Fix goes along for the trip.

The trip of a lifetime? Art: Danny Jock

“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.

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.

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.

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.

A sign in Rurrenabaque

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.”

Shaman Kush

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.

She gets in touch with me via webcam from her apartment in Ecuador a week later, excited to share her experience. After adjusting her microphone and holding her cat up to the camera to say hello, she begins rolling a cigarette. “Yeah, I’m still smoking," she says with a wry smile. “But I’m only using natural tobacco from now on. I decided that I don’t want any chemicals in my body, ever again.”

Hermione describes her trip as extremely intense: It featured strong hallucinations, psychic communication with people present and departed, and physical manifestations of the plant ayahuasca as the mother goddess. She repeatedly repressed nausea, only to watch the shaman vomit on her behalf—a process she described as him “purging the negative feelings.”

She revisited traumatic scenes of childhood abuse, drug addiction and rape. And she says that the plant spoke to her, telling her that those experiences were not who she was, and that she did not need to be afraid anymore. “Towards the end of the ritual I had a very clear vision of my pills, the pills I still had left, back in my backpack in the hostel,” she tells me. “And I knew that I had to get rid of them. So I asked him [Juan] if he would take them from me. And he said yes.”

Hermione’s ritual started in the early evening. She went to sleep around 4 am and woke up at 6, feeling “transparent, clean, like everyone could see through me.” She has woken up at 6 am every day since. A week later, she says that she still feels changed, energized, cleansed. She says that other people can see the difference in her. Her boyfriend dumped her yesterday and she declares complete peace with his decision.

“I’m never using any kind of medication again,” she says. And what if the depression comes back? Her brow furrows slightly. “I’m not going to let myself get low again. It wasn’t just the ayahuasca, it was deciding to fight for my life. Last year my life was—from the outside—really good. But if I had owned a gun I would be dead right now. So I ran away to South America. I had to make a change. I stopped taking medication when every doctor told me I shouldn’t. I feel amazing, and it’s getting stronger every day. Every day I remember what she [ayahuasca] and Juan told me—that I am a student of life.”

Linda Stansberry is a freelance writer and regular contributor to The Fix. She lives in Northern California.

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Linda Stansberry is a writer and regular contributor to The Fix. You can check out her blog or follow her on Twitter.