Tea with cocaine was long a specialty in Peru and now ayahuasca tea is new legal drug for backpacker tourists from around the world experiencing a different Peru. Forget Machu Picchu, enjoy an hallucinogenic brew said to enhance your understanding of the universe, but the Australian government has warned that Peru’s booming ayahuasca trade is putting young travelers in danger.
Thousands of international backpackers are flocking to the Peruvian Amazon rainforest to drink ayahuasca tea, a plant mixture made by shamans and taken as part of a spiritual ritual. Those who drink the thick rich liquid often throw up, but then experience hours of mind-altering visions and a sense of internal exploration.
The drug cocktail has been lauded by Sting, Paul Simon and Tori Amos and Australia’s own Ben Lee has dedicated his latest album, Ayahuasca: Welcome to the Work, to it. But the trade also has a dark underbelly: ayahuasca has been linked to the death of a young American tourist and hellish hallucinogenic and psychological damage by some users.
While the consumption of ayahuasca is legal in Peru and other Latin American countries, it remains illegal in almost all Western countries, including Australia. Because it contains the hallucinogenic dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, ayahuasca consumption will continue to be controversial.
The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre in Australia describes the psychedelic drug as a powerful hallucinogen.
“The effects of DMT are similar to LSD … but more powerful. There is a major risk of having a ‘bad trip’, which can induce paranoia,” says the Centre’s Lucy Burns.
Dilmar Borja, a Puerto Maldonardo “ayahuasca healer” and cosmologist, said the phenomenon of spiritual tourism had grown tremendously over the last few years. ”This new market has appeared in answer to a demand, a demand for a new awakening in humanity,” he said.
The pilgrims seek to obtain spiritual catharsis, confront past demons such as alcoholism or depression, or just get high, and fork out thousands of dollars in the process. While deaths from ayahuasca remain uncommon, there have been reports of negligence, assault, theft and even rape at the hands of fake shamans who do not have any set guidelines or standards.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade recently issued a travel warning about Peru’s ayahuasca tourism trade, saying there is no way to vet the burgeoning industry’s operators. “If you choose to participate, please be aware of the potential risks involved,” the department’s Smart Traveler website warns.
American Sean Nolan said his son Kyle travelled to Peru in the summer of 2012. During the 10-day program at the Shimbre Shamanic Center Kyle was found dead in his room after an apparent ayahuasca overdose and his body was secretly buried at the center by the shaman.