The psychedelic powers of a traditional Amazonian plant medicine called ayahuasca are attracting more and more tourists. It’s said to bring spiritual enlightenment and to help with addiction, depression and trauma. But a string of allegations suggests there’s a darker side to the ayahuasca scene.
Warning: this article contains details of alleged sexual assaults
Rebekah first tried ayahuasca on a “complete whim” when she was travelling in Peru in 2015.
“I thought it sounded interesting and I thought I might as well give it a try,” says Rebekah, a New Zealander in her 20s who asked the BBC not to use her surname. “So I found a retreat centre that I felt was good and I just went for it and it was amazing.”
Ayahuasca can induce visions of things like serpents, palaces, and alien beings – and bring up long-forgotten memories. Like many who’ve drunk the brew, Rebekah has a wide-eyed distant look as she reminisces about the experience.
“It was like being guided very gently and very kindly through some really awful experiences that I’d had in the past,” Rebekah says. “And returning back home after that, I felt like my relationships were a lot stronger. I felt it was a lot easier to share and receive love.
“They do say that ayahuasca is like 20 years of psychotherapy. And I completely believe that.”
Ayahuasca is usually taken in ceremonies at night, led by a healer – sometimes called a shaman. He or she will drink the sticky brown liquid – a brew of two Amazonian plants – then dole out helpings to the participants.
It’s been used by tribes in the Amazon region for centuries but now there’s a boom in what’s become known as “ayahuasca tourism”, with ever more specialist retreat centres opening. Travellers often come for help dealing with mental health problems – and a growing body of scientific research suggests ayahuasca could be an effective treatment.
About half an hour or so into a ceremony, the medicine takes its effect and the healer will start singing sacred chants, known as icaros, which guide the participants through their visions. Drinkers usually “purge” during ceremonies too, vomiting and sometimes getting diarrhoea as well.
When Rebekah went on her first ayahuasca retreat, she was the only single woman there and noticed that the male healer was paying her special attention.
“How he treated me was very different, which I didn’t find suspicious at the time. But upon reflection, now I do.”
A year later, by now a more experienced ayahuasca drinker, Rebekah returned to the same retreat in Peru. The same healer was leading the ceremonies.
Once again, she says, she was treated differently from everyone else. There was a lot of flattery. Then the healer began confiding in Rebekah.
“He constantly told me that he had a lot of troubles,” she says, “and he said he was having problems with his wife, that he wasn’t sexually fulfilled, and that I was the one who was able to cure him of that.”
Rebekah was 20 at the time; the healer in his 50s.
“He also promised me a lot of spiritual advancement or a lot of spiritual power, if we had a relationship – while his wife was down the road.”