As night descends over the Peruvian rainforest, an Indian shaman crouched in a thatch-roofed hut passes a gourd filled with a mahogany-colored liquid—a potent hallucinogen believed to cure illnesses and conjure visions of the future. The drug has been a staple of Amazonian tribal religions for nearly a thousand years, but tonight's ceremony is far from traditional. The participants, clad in fleece and sneakers, weary from a day of bird-watching, are American and European ecotourists, each of whom has paid around $50 to participate in a ritual that, for most, will include bouts of the most violent vomiting they've ever experienced in their lives.
For decades, bands of intrepid travelers, including the Beat bards William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, have trickled into the Amazon basin in search of ayahuasca, a rainforest vine that yields a complex cocktail whose chemical properties have been likened to LSD's and whose side effects can include nausea, aneurysms, and hemorrhagic stroke. Ever since Peru's Shining Path rebels took over the Peruvian backcountry in the late 1980s, such experiences have largely been off-limits to foreigners. After the insurgent group's collapse in the mid-1990s, however, ayahuasca has emerged as an important part of the tourist business, thanks to local outfitters promoting these rituals, mostly on the Internet, as a can't-miss component of the jungle experience. At more than a dozen rainforest lodges in the Amazon port town of Iquitos, shamans now conduct nightly ayahuasca ceremonies."It's like nature takes over your mind," says Deborah Garcia, a Spanish tourist. "I saw rivers, and the roots of trees in the earth, and tons of green."
Sound appealing? Before rushing to book a reservation, consider the possibility that you may be hallucinating. This month, when the International Congress on Alternative Medicine convenes in Lima, critics will argue that ayahuasca tourism trivializes a sacred Amazonian rite while leaving travelers at the mercy of shamans-for-hire, most of whom know nothing about their clients' health. "Under these conditions," warns Roger Rumrill, an expert on Amazonian tribal cultures, "ayahuasca can be a one-way ticket on a trip with no return."