British gap year student Henry Miller, 19, had embarked on an adventure to explore the Colombian outback, arriving at the remote jungle town of Mocoa, in the Putumayo department, mid April. An off-the-beaten track destination for even the most hardy of eco-travellers, the Putumayo just a decade ago bore the brunt of fierce fighting between the FARC guerrillas and jungle-trained paramilitaries.
As the conflict subsided in this oil-rich region of Colombia, backpackers discovered one of the Putumayo’s more mysterious attractions: the possibility of joining shamans from local indigenous tribes – and trying in controlled settings – a hallucinogenic brew known as yajé or ayahuasca.
The untimely death of Henry Miller last week has left Colombians, and a wider international community, questioning the availability and safety of the consumption of a “sacred potion,” used for centuries, in ceremonial gatherings.
Having been backpacking through South America for several months, news sources revealed that the British student took the hallucinogen twice before collapsing. Shamans attempted to revive him but to no avail. The UK Foreign Office and Colombian authorities have launched an investigation into the unusual circumstances of his death, especially why the young man’s body was placed by the side of a jungle road.
The effects of yajé are linked with a “spiritual awakening” as those who consume it claim to experience vivid hallucinations and spiritual incarnations. While in a trance which can last for days, the subject often assumes the characteristics of a jungle creature, such as jaguar, an anaconda, or Andean condor.
Indigenous communities believe their concoction cleanses the body and mind, enabling communication with the spirits. Yajé is an infusion of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine mixed with the leaves from medicinal shrubs. The potency of the brew varies depending on the plants used. Most brews induce violent vomiting and diarrhea. In the 1950s, Harvard ethno botanist Richard Evans Shultes documented the healing powers of ayahuasca in tribes along the Peruvian Amazon.
Indigenous communities of Colombia and seasoned consumers of yagé emphasize the intensity of yagé-induced trances. The author of ‘Ayahuasca Weaving Destinies’ and renowned yajé expert, Jimmy Wesikopf, referres to these trances as “the new purgatory.”
“It is not a ‘recreational drug’,” states Weiskopf. “It’s a sacred plant and the healing is integral, insofar as physical health is bound up with mental and spiritual well-being. When you drink it, you are made aware of a force beyond the ego or ideas or anything in this tangible world of ours, and what it does is to purge you, both physically and emotionally, in a very harsh way, taking you to the edge of death or madness at times.”
Despite articulating the dangers of yajé, Weiskopf is quick to add that indigenous communities have been performing their rituals for hundreds of years without danger, emphasizing ayahuasca’s benefits for physical health, self-awareness, tranquility and acceptance.
However, the Bogotá-based author warns tourists to make sure they are with a real shaman and to investigate thoroughly before they decide to partake in the ritual.
It is not a substance to be taken lightly. Even among yajé advocates there is consensus that people with heart ailments, high blood pressure or mental disorders should steer clear of ayahuasca.
This, however hasn’t curbed the curiosity of international tourists flocking to South America in search of a spiritual connection. The advent of ‘yajé tourism’ can be seen in airports such as Iquitos, Peru, and in the Colombian Amazon town of Leticia, where locals drum up clients for freelance medicine men standing outside the terminals shouting “Ayahuasca! Ayahuasca!”
This once deeply spiritual ritual has become a fad and a reason to travel to Colombia, often cited in ‘top 10 things to do’ in various hostels across the country. Many travellers are enticed by the allure of a natural drug, and another societal taboo which they know little about, given its clandestine nature. But foreigners seem to crave it nonetheless.
The trend is worrying, and now a real cause of concern for those promoting community-led tourism in the Amazon basin. Like many other plants on our planet, ayahuasca can contain dangerous venoms. The tragic events surrounding Henry Miller’s death could lead to tighter regulation in Colombia on shamans and how they make their strange brew. Travellers to this nation would be wise to read up on the subject matter, before embarking on a potentially dangerous “trip.”