Ainlay Dixon, her husband, and three of their four children were in a town in central Ecuador, midway through a South American tour, when a guide approached and offered to take them on a four-day jungle excursion to see the “authentic” Amazon: an indigenous village led by a real shaman.
To get there, the family took a 4×4 as far as they could down a rutted road, which soon dwindled to a trail; they made the rest of the way on foot. Eventually, they arrived at a small village where they were introduced to the village chief, a well-known shaman who’d had tourists flocking to his remote village ever since he’d been featured on a news show in Ecuador.
That night, the shaman held a welcome ceremony for the new guests. They sat in a thatched roof hut while he blew pungent tobacco smoke on them, invoking a charm of protection. The novelty of the experience was tempered by the presence of another American — a strawberry-blonde Harvard Divinity School student named Lily Ross, who had been living in the village for the past few weeks, working for a grassroots nonprofit and researching shamanic practices.
Over the next few days, the Dixons’ children played soccer with the village kids. The family went on walks in the jungle with the shaman’s son, who rattled off the names and medicinal uses of the plants they came across. The day before the Dixons were set to depart, Ross asked Ainlay if they could speak privately. The two women found a space to sit in a guest hut, and Ross said that she and the shaman were in love. Something immediately struck Ainlay as off.
“She would say that it was meant to be, and she would say that it was forever — but she was in a daze, talking almost in a monotone,” Ainlay said. Her concern piqued, Ainlay gently suggested that Ross was so isolated in this village, and so immersed in a culture that wasn’t her own, that perhaps she had lost her bearings a little bit. “That’s when she told me that they were bonded through this — I forget the name of the drink that they do. You know, the medicine. Through the medicine, they were bonded. And that he was really powerful.”
The “medicine” Ross took with the shaman was ayahuasca, a bitter, sludgy liquid, made from the labor-intensive combination of two plants native to South America, that has been used in the Amazon as a holistic medicinal treatment for centuries. More recently, it has become the center of a rapidly growing shaman-tourism industry. There’s no official count, but some experts estimate that there are now hundreds of spiritual centers offering ayahuasca ceremonies throughout South and Central America, many of which are booked months in advance.
“Tourism went from something that was very sporadic, very low-key backpacker tourism, to a flourishing industry with a lot of competing lodges,” anthropologist Daniela Peluso told me. Ayahuasca rituals have become an expected part of the South American itinerary for a certain type of traveler: today, river rafting; tomorrow, a transcendent drug experience.
The tourism is fueled by the personal testimonials of people who say the drug changed their lives — helping them to recover from trauma, quit drinking, or finally get over their childhood sexual abuse. “It’s been incredibly healing for me,” an American woman who went on an ayahuasca retreat last year told me. “It enables you to understand what can only be described in hymns or poems by Rumi. It was one of the crowning experiences of my life.”
This reputation for healing is one reason ayahuasca is a drug that you’re not supposed to call a drug. In a YouTube parody video, a vague-eyed, long-haired man sporting a lacy, turquoise headband underlines this point: “You can refer to ayahuasca as plant medicine, medicine, a sacred plant, a sacrament — but it is not a drug,” he says primly. “What makes a plant sacred?” an off-camera questioner asks. The man replies, “Its ability to get you high.”
An ayahuasca trip can also be an extremely erotic experience. “You can have a lot of really sexual visions and feelings while you’re tripping on ayahuasca,” the American woman had said. “A lot of us were really surprised by that — we’re rolling around, seeing all this weird sexy stuff and feeling all this weird sexy stuff. It was really unexpected.”
It’s common to abstain from sex — as well as alcohol, other drugs, and red meat — for several days before and during an ayahuasca ceremony. “I realized afterward that one of the reasons they prohibit sex is because you could make some really bad decisions while on the drug,” the woman added. “Just some really hasty emotional decisions. You could get in way over your head.”
Some people, especially inexperienced users, can also feel immobilized, both physically and mentally; participants describe periods of intense physical weakness where they are unable to control their bodies. They also report becoming highly suggestible.
This openness — the surrender to the will of the plant mind, as initiates put it — is precisely the point, and for many people it’s a transcendent experience. It also means that when things go wrong, they can go very wrong. Panicked participants may find themselves isolated in a rural setting, unfamiliar with the local language or culture, away from resources and support systems — and, of course, quite high.
When Lily Kay Ross arrived in Ecuador in June 2012, she was planning to stay in the village for about ten weeks, working on a project for a nonprofit that equipped indigenous villages with media equipment and training. By that point, Ross had had a research interest in ayahuasca for four years, and she knew that the trip wasn’t entirely without risk. “It’s a lot of power in these people’s hands,” said Ross, whose research partly concerned itself with that power dynamic.
“How does one handle this power with integrity when there’s no governing body, no network of accountability?” Ross’s concerns are echoed by the U.S. Department of State. “There is no way to vet ayahuasca tourism operators,” the department’s page for students studying abroad in Peru warns. But an American friend who had worked with this shaman for two years had reassured her — this guy, he said, was one of the good ones. “And maybe I thought that because I was aware, I was immune,” said Ross.
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