Colombia’s ayahuasca ceremonies in spotlight after tourist's drug death

Western backpackers travelling in increasing numbers in to the jungle to take traditional drug administered by shamans

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A yagé ceremony, La Calera, Colombia.
Photograph: Eitan Abramovich/AFP/Getty Images

A band of backpackers have gathered round the bar in a hostel in Bogotá to go over their next adventure. Some are going to the Caribbean coast to absorb sunlight. Others are attracted to the idyllic villages in Colombia’s coffee region. But an intrepid few desire to venture from the beaten track further.

In modern times an increasing number of tourists took trips in to the jungle to take ayahuasca, a solid hallucinogenic plant-cocktail revered by remote indigenous faith healers long. The drug, known as yag&eacute also;, has drawn folks from round the global world, who contract tribal shamans to manage the ceremonial potion, in the hope of experiencing a spiritual awakening.

“I heard a whole large amount of people in Peru were taking it,” said Cheri, a backpacker from Germany. “Nonetheless it sounds scary &hellip pretty; It is possible to lose control of one’s mind.”

The drug made headlines on Wednesday when a British coroner confirmed that Henry Miller, 19-year-old from Bristol, had died after going for a dose in a ceremony four years back in the Colombian jungle.

The active component in ayahuasca is DMT, a powerful hallucinogen that triggers extreme changes in perceptual awareness. That coroner, who ruled that Miller’s death was accidental, urged the Foreign Office to supply a “standard message warning” to tourists who would like to take part in ayahuasca ceremonies.

Miller’s experience might serve as a cautionary tale. He previously attended one ceremony where he drank three glasses of yagé but told his family he felt nothing. Two days he attended another ceremony later, but quickly fell was and ill taken by two teenage tribesman towards a nearby hospital on a motorbike. He died on the way.

The tribe that administered the ayahuasca apologised and levied a punishment of nettles contrary to the shaman plus some of his family.


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Ayahuasca ceremonies attract tourists seeking traditional indigenous rituals. Photograph: Eitan Abramovich/AFP/Getty Images

But questions remain concerning the unregulated trade in the drug, which answers to no formal authorities. Telephone numbers of reputable shamans are passed between travellers, left on hostel notice boards sometimes. In a small number of hostels, the staff help travellers to set up their trips in to the jungle, that may last several days. Online, people share their recommendations and experiences on forums such as for example Lonely Planet.

Victor Jacanamijoy is really a shaman – or taita – who travels between Bogotá and Putumayo, a jungle province on Colombia’s southern border. He administers ayahuasca, used as a normal medicine often, to take care of patients with conditions which range from leukaemia to asthma. For him, the drug is section of his ancestral heritage, and has a right to be distributed to the global world.

“It really is curative and precious,” he said, dressed up in a colourful overall with a necklace fashioned from caiman teeth, traditional to his Inga tribe. “It taught us to guard and protect our land, not to mention we are available to other people studying and appreciating it.”

Relations between South America’s indigenous tribes and western visitors have already been tested lately. In April a Canadian tourist allegedly killed a faith healer in Peru and was lynched by villagers in response.

Nevertheless, the drug is gathering popularity worldwide. Clandestine ayahuasca meetings are held in NY with traditional shamans onsite. Celebrities including Sting, Paul Simon and Lindsay Lohan have experimented with the drug and discussed their experiences. DMT, stripped of the shamanic aura and sold in tiny crystals, can be purchased in cities from London to Sydney.

Colombia is more connected with cocaine commonly, of which it’s the world’s largest producer. The amount of money pouring in to the hands of violent groups has caused instability in the Andean nation long, fuelling an interior conflict between leftist rebel groups such as for example the Farc, the continuing state, and drug cartels including the Medellín cartel, led by Pablo Escobar.

Escobar was killed by police in 1993, and in 2016 the national government reached a peace cope with the Farc, ushering in a far more tourist-friendly phase in the country’s history. Year 3 last.2 million foreigners visited Colombia, the biggest number in its history and 700 up,000 on 2016.

A spokesperson from the British Embassy in Bogotá was struggling to touch upon ayahuasca specifically, but recommended that people planing a trip to rural regions in Colombia consult the most recent advice published on the Foreign Office website.

Ana María Peñuela, Colombia’s deputy public health minister, said that among the largest risks for tourists who test out ayahuasca is they often usually do not consider pre-existing conditions. “The risks for foreigners that are unfamiliar with the substance are obviously far greater than for all those of indigenous people,” Peñuela said.

Julian Quintero, the director of ATS, a drug policy reform advocacy group in the Colombian capital, said that regulating ayahuasca will be a backwards step, and that shamans are best-placed to guarantee the safety of these taking the drug usually.

“It is a substance, albeit psychoactive, with traditional, ancestral, and spiritual significance for indigenous communities,” he said. “Regulating it, if possible even, would deny those grouped communities usage of their very own culture.”