Deadly warning on Peru tea travel

Ella Damiani and friends in Peru.
Ella Damiani and friends in Peru. Photo: Ella Damiani

It is a hallucinogenic brew said to enhance your understanding of the universe, but the Australian government has warned that Peru's booming ayahuasca trade could be putting young travellers in danger.

Thousands of international backpackers are flocking to Peru's Amazon rainforest to drink ayahuasca tea, a plant mixture made by shamans and taken as part of a spiritual ritual.

A trip in the Peruvian rainforest can end in illness and tragedy.
A trip in the Peruvian rainforest can end in illness and tragedy. 

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 the likes of Sting, Paul Simon and Tori Amos, and Australia's Ben Lee has dedicated his latest album, Ayahuasca: Welcome to the Work, to it.

But the trade also has a dark side. Ayahuasca has been linked to the death of a young American tourist and to hellish hallucinogenic and psychological damage.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade recently issued a travel warning about Peru's ayahuasca tourism trade, saying there was 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 Traveller website warns. "Some participants have reported adverse experiences during the rituals, including being seriously assaulted and robbed.

"Victims report a range of scenarios, from being alert but unable to maintain control of their surroundings, to total amnesia."

The department's consular feedback associate, Matthew Hyndes, says the travel warning was made earlier this year on the recommendation of the Australian embassy in Lima.

"As with all travel advisories, our embassy would have had a regard to local media reporting and other local information sources when making this recommendation," he said.

An American, Sean Nolan, says his son Kyle was looking for self-knowledge when he went to Peru in the summer of 2012. Things went wrong when Kyle was found dead in his room after an apparent ayahuasca overdose.

His body was secretly buried by the shaman who conducted the ceremony, allegedly to cover up the death. After Kyle failed to return home, his parents raised the alarm bells. Kyle's death alarmed the online psychedelic community and Mr Nolan is calling for a more regulated system.

Every day dozens of backpackers from Australia, Europe and the United States arrive at the Peruvian towns of Iquitos and Puerto Maldonardo for the ayahuasca experience.

The popular Hummingbird Retreat, in the Amazon rainforest near Iquitos, has seen a huge increase in visitors to its small healing centre.

Husband and wife Jim and Gina Davis said Google analytics showed a 40 per cent increase in first-time visitors to their website from a year ago. Dilmar Borja, a Puerto Maldonardo "ayahuasca healer" and cosmologist, said the phenomenon of spiritual tourism had grown hugely in the past few years. "This new market has appeared in answer to a demand, a demand for a new awakening in humanity," he said.

These pilgrims look for spiritual catharsis, confront past demons such as alcoholism or depression, or just get high.

Many fork out thousands of dollars. While deaths from ayahuasca are uncommon, reports of negligence, assault, theft and even rape have been reported at the hands of fake shamans who do not have to adhere to guidelines or standards.

"There are no standards (or protocol) of how ayahuasca ceremonies are to be safely and effectively conducted, nor any ethical guidelines for how ayahuasca ceremony leaders should work with their participants in any country," says San Francisco psychologist Stephen Trichter, who has written a paper about the dangers of the ayahuasca tourism trade.

While the consumption of ayahuasca is legal in Peru and other Latin American countries, it remains illegal in almost all Western countries, such as Australia. Because it contains the hallucinogenic dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, ayahuasca consumption will continue to remain controversial. Australia's National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre describes the psychedelic drug as a powerful hallucinogenic. "The effects of DMT are similar to LSD, but more powerful," says the centre's Lucy Burns. "There is a major risk of having a 'bad trip', which can induce paranoia."

Abby Jameel, of London, described the experience as unnerving: "I remember the shaman singing 'ayahuasca es a medicina'. Then my insides felt unsettled and in the speed of light I threw up everywhere."

Said Hannah Manley, a traveller who could not resist the chance to participate: "It was so painful. After about 45 minutes I began to feel sick. I vomited for what felt like forever."

The experience can be both confronting and peaceful, says Joshua, a traveller who believes the ayahuasca ritual he participated in early this year changed his life for the better.

"I'm not really a spiritual person," he says. "But I was shown visions of my past and present that essentially gave me a way of finding something that I had been looking for, for a long time."

â– Ella Damiani is a Monash University journalism student.

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