Colombia's ayahuasca ceremonies in spotlight after tourist's drug death
Colombia Colombiaâs ayahuasca ceremonies in spotlight after tourist's drug death
Western backpackers travelling in increasing numbers into the jungle to take traditional drug administered by shamans
A group of backpackers have gathered around the bar in a hostel in BogotÃ¡ to discuss their next adventure. Some are heading to the Caribbean coast to soak up the sun. Others are drawn to the idyllic villages in Colombiaâs coffee region. But an intr epid few want to venture further from the beaten track.
In recent years a growing number of tourists have taken trips into the jungle to take ayahuasca, a strong hallucinogenic plant-cocktail long revered by remote indigenous faith healers. The drug, also known as yagÃ©, has drawn people from around the world, who contract tribal shamans to administer the ceremonial potion, in the hope of experiencing a spiritual awakening.Briton, 19, died after taking hallucinogen in Colombia, inquest told Read more
âI heard a lot of people in Peru were taking it,â said Cheri, a backpacker from Germany. âBut it sounds pretty scary â¦ You can lose control of your mind.â
The drug made headlines on Wednesday when a British coroner confirmed that Henry Miller, 19-year-old from Bristol, had died after taking a dose in a ceremony four years ago in the Colombian jungle.
The active ingredient in ayahuasca is DMT, a powerful hallucinogen that ca uses extreme changes in perceptual awareness. That coroner, who ruled that Millerâs death was accidental, urged the Foreign Office to provide a âstandard message warningâ to tourists who want to participate in ayahuasca ceremonies.Ayahuasca tourists beware â" it is no risk-free shortcut to enlightenment | Oscar Rickett Read more
Millerâs experience may serve as a cautionary tale. He had attended one ceremony where he drank three cups of yagÃ© but told his family he felt nothing. Two days later he attended another ceremony, but quickly fell ill and was taken by two teenage tribesman towards a nearby hospital on a motorbike. He died en route.
The tribe that administered the ayahuasca apologised and levied a punishment of nettles against the shaman and some of his family.
But questions remain about the unregulated trade in the drug, which answers to no formal authorities. Phone numbers of reputable shamans are passed between travellers, sometimes left on hostel notice boards. In a handful of hostels, the staff help travellers to arrange their trips into the jungle, which can last several days. Online, people share their experiences and recommendations on forums such as Lonely Planet.
Victor Jacanamijoy is a shaman â" or taita â" who travels between BogotÃ¡ and Putumayo, a jungle province on Colombiaâs southern border. He administers ayahuasca, often used as a traditional medicine, to treat patients with conditions ranging from leukaemia to asthma. For him, the drug is part of his ancestral heritage, and deserves to be shared with the world.
âIt is precious and curative,â he said, dressed in a colourful overall with a necklace fashioned from caiman teeth, traditional to his Inga tribe. âIt taught us to defend and protect our land, and of course we are open to other people learning about and appreciating it.â
Relations between South Americaâs indigenous tribes and western visitors have been tested in recent months. In April a Canadian tourist allegedly killed a faith healer in Peru and was lynched by villagers in response.
Nevertheless, the drug is gaining popularity worldwide. Clandestine ayahuasca meetings are held in New York with traditional shamans onsite. Celebrities including Sting, Paul Simon and Lindsay Lohan have experimented with the drug and talked about their experiences. DMT, stripped of the shamanic aura and sold in tiny crystals, can be bought in cities from London to Sydney.The ayahuasca king: the man who gives jungle 'medicine' to lost souls Read more
Colombia is more commonly associated with cocaine, of which it is the worldâs largest producer. The money pouring into the hands of violent groups has long caused instability in the Andean nation, fuelling an internal conflict between leftist rebel groups such as the Farc, the state, and drug cartels such as the MedellÃn cartel, led by Pablo Escobar.
Escobar was killed by police in 1993, and in 2016 the government reached a peace deal with the Farc, ushering in a more tourist-friendly phase in the countryâs history. Last year 3.2 million foreigners visited Colombia, the largest number in its history and up 700,000 on 2016.
A spokesperson from the British Embassy in BogotÃ¡ was unable t o comment specifically on ayahuasca, but recommended that all people traveling to rural regions in Colombia consult the latest advice published on the Foreign Office website.
Ana MarÃa PeÃ±uela, Colombiaâs deputy public health minister, said that one of the largest risks for tourists who experiment with ayahuasca is that they often do not take into account pre-existing conditions. âThe risks for foreigners who are not familiar with the substance are obviously far higher than for those of indigenous people,â PeÃ±uela said.
Julian Quintero, the director of ATS, a drug policy reform advocacy group in the Colombian capital, said that regulating ayahuasca would be a backwards step, and that shamans are usually best-placed to ensure the safety of those taking the drug.
âThis is a substance, albeit psychoactive, with traditional, ancestral, and spiritual significance for indi genous communities,â he said. âRegulating it, if even possible, would deny those communities access to their own culture.â
- Drugs trade
- Young people
- Indigenous peoples
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