Hallucinogenic tourism

At our jungle lodge in the Amazon we met two Ecuadorian tourists who had no interest in the jungle. They weren’t much interested in seeing animals either. They’d traveled from Quito and bought a package from a tour agency in the hope of taking yage.

Yage – also known as ayahuasca – is a psychedelic brew of infusions of various plants from the Amazonian rainforest. It’s been prepared by shamans for centuries. Originally it was used for medicinal purposes to try and get someone through the terrible fevers of jungle diseases like malaria. It also had a spiritual purpose for some indigenous groups and to the Santo Daime a kind of catholic-indigenous-something else religion that brought shaman beliefs and yage with it to Europe in the twentieth century.

Nowadays, yage, it seems, is mostly a tourist attraction. People who take it talk of spiritual revelations and insight into the universe. They describe how they feel purged of evil afterwards and have a stronger sense of who they are. I’ve written before about the twerp who left his wife and baby to travel to Colombia for a drug binge and then wrangled a book deal. His yage revelation was that he should go home. Mind blowing.

Yage also has some pretty nasty side effects. Or, depending on your perspective, maybe they’re inherent in the experience. Nearly everyone vomits violently. Many defecate. Others experience hot and cold flashes. And while the hallucinations are supposed to be spiritual, some of them can also be pretty freaky. The whole thing sounds like an episode of John Safran versus God. It would make a pretty excellent episode.

Our Ecuadorian friends had searched high and low to find a shaman who would offer them yage. The drug is technically illegal in Ecuador (and internationally acknowledged as a class one narcotic) but it seems that, as an indigenous practice, a blind eye is turned. These things are not easy to police when they happen in the middle of the jungle after all.

So you can imagine their disappointment when they arrived at the shaman’s to find the yage ceremony had started hours beforehand without them. The ten or so tourists that were gathered were already well down the track and they were unable to join in. That kind of slip up wasn’t atypical of the agency who looked after us in the jungle though none that affected us were as singly disappointing as what the Ecuadorians faced. They missed their chance, and we missed our chance to quiz them. We’ve had to settle for the remarkably scant internet descriptions instead.

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