Psychedelic tourism isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but there is nowhere on Earth where so many shaman serve such magical brews as they do in Peru. Since the start of this millennium, an increasing number of travellers have sought the magical ayahuasca experience, whether from simple curiosity or in search of ancient wisdom. These night-long shamanic healing rituals, with roots over 3500 years old, often involve the ingestion of psychotropic hallucinogens, and can produce a life-changing experience.
The San Pedro cactus, a mescaline-based plant common on the coast and in the mountains of Peru, brewed for hours, can produce very profound and extremely vivid out-of-body experiences. Seen as “sacred medicine” and a “teacher”, San Pedro has been used for millennia by priests and shaman to provide solutions to everything from physical sickness to broken-down relationships.
The ayahuasca vine, found in the rainforest, tends to provide an even stronger trip, notably when mixed with leaves in “jungle juice”. The typical setting for a session with an ayahuasquero, or jungle shaman, is to meet him at a rainforest lodge, usually a tambo (hut) on the edge of an Amazon tributary. The session starts at dusk in a small room or roofed platform. Shortly after sunset, the shaman offers his brew after blowing and smudging large billows of thick, tangy Amazon tobacco smoke over himself, his participants and, most importantly, the ayahuasca container. After giving each guest a bitter, small gourd-full, the scene settles down and soon the shaman begins to rattle, chant or drum.
The effects can be challenging – the drug’s purging qualities mean many people vomit, while the colourful visions may be spiritual, sexual or just plain terrifying – but most people, helped by the shaman’s guiding songs and vision, make it beyond this to a healing and ecstatic session. Many experience strange conversations or see loved ones from the past or present. The good vibes and endorphin-related elation continues into the next day. Watching dawn over the forest canopy with a river alive with fish and brimming with exotic birdlife is a cool way to start the rest of your life.
One-off sessions with a shaman are easy to arrange through lodges in Iquitos. Ayahuasca and San Pedro are legal in Peru, but both are strong hallucinogens and should be taken with a genuine shaman and treated with respect.