IQUITOS, Peru — South American Indians have for centuries sought the assistance of ayahuasca, the plant they call “the sacred vine of the soul.” With the guidance of a shaman, they drink a mix of ayahuasca vine and other plants to reach an ecstatic state, which they believe allows them to communicate with spirits, cleanse their bodies, and relieve a broad range of ailments.
Now, new-age tourists from the United States and Europe are traveling to the rainforest to experience for themselves the hallucinogenic properties of the plant concoction. Some plunk down thousands of dollars to stay at jungle lodges where experienced medicine men guide them through the ritual.
It’s not for the faint of heart. Drinking a few ounces of the plant potion usually leads to bouts of vomiting and diarrhea. Many experience a rush of nightmarish visions. As a result, ayahuasca — known as yage in Colombia — holds little appeal to recreational drug users.
Beat-generation novelist William Burroughs was an early ayahuasca tourist — and he quickly experienced the unromantic side effects. He went to South America in the early 1960s anxious to sample ayahuasca because he believed it would prove to be “the ultimate fix.” He miscalculated. In his book "The Yage Letters," Burroughs describes feeling dizzy before hurling himself against a tree and vomiting six times.
But with the help of ayahuasca, many foreign tourists try to address emotional, physical or psychological problems that Western medicine has failed to alleviate. Some seek more spirituality in their lives or hope to use time travel in order to confront childhood traumas. A few experiment with ayahuasca as a means of kicking addictions to prescription drugs.
Drinking ayahuasca in the United States is illegal because it contains the hallucinogenic alkaloid dimethyltryptamine, or DMT. But traditional use of the plant is permitted in South America.
Colombian Indians often travel to the capital of Bogota to lead weekend ayahuasca sessions for groups of foreign tourists and curious locals.
Blue Morpho, located near the Peruvian city of Iquitos, is one of about a dozen Amazon jungle lodges that cater to tourists seeking ayahuasca visions.
California native Hamilton Souther, 30, serves as Blue Morpho’s shaman and master of ceremonies. He leads his guests into the forest to gather the vines and bark that make up the mixture. They wash the plants and dump them in pots of water over an open fire until the contents boil down into a foul-tasting brown sludge.
“These are plants that positively transform people's lives,” Souther says. “As we move into a higher and higher state of the ecstatic … new thoughts, ideas and divine wisdom become available to us.”
His guests sit cross-legged in a massive ceremonial roundhouse with puke buckets and toilet paper within easy reach. As the lights go out, each drinks a few ounces of ayahuasca as Souther and a Peruvian shaman shake rattles and chant.
Before long, the tourists begin burping and wretching. Some start to wail but Souther helps them find their way. By daybreak, many are exhausted but elated.
In his book about ayahuasca, "The Antipodes of the Mind," Dr. Benny Shanon, a psychologist at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, wrote that the plant can push the human mind to new heights of creativity. He also described how ayahuasca made him more spiritual by blurring the boundaries between the human and the divine.
“For years, I have characterized myself as a devout atheist,” he wrote. “When I left South America, I was no longer one.”
(John Otis reported this story and Scott Dalton took the photographs.)