Although his parents urged him to study medicine, Jimmy Weiskopf dropped out of college and in the 1970s moved to Colombia, where he eventually began to focus on a different kind of elixir. The New York City native became an early advocate for the hallucinogenic plant mixture ayahuasca. For centuries, Amazonian Indians have been drinking ayahuasca, also known as yaje a combination of the ayahuasca vine, tree bark and other plants to achieve a trancelike state that they believe cleanses body and mind and enables communication with spirits. Weiskopf, who has published a 688-page tome about ayahuasca, was once among a tiny coterie of foreigners using the potion, but these days he has lots of company. (Read "Colombia's Drug Extraditions: Are They Worth It?")
Word of ayahuasca's healing properties has brought a growing number of New Age tourists from the U.S. and Europe, some of whom pay thousands of dollars to stay at jungle lodges where Indian medicine men guide them through all-night ayahuasca rituals. Sting and Tori Amos have admitted sampling it in Latin America, where it is legal, as has Paul Simon, who chronicled the experience in his song "Spirit Voices." "It heals the body and the spirit," says Eustacio Payaguaje, 51, a Cofán Indian shaman who regularly treks to Bogotá to lead weekend ayahuasca ceremonies in the city. "It is medicine for the soul." (Read "The Year in Medicine 2008: From A to Z.")
But as the subtitle of Weiskopf's 2004 book, Yaje: The New Purgatory, suggests, ayahuasca is not for the faint of heart or stomach. Drinking a few ounces of the sludgy brown liquid usually leads to a violent purge from both ends of the body. Beat Generation novelist William Burroughs, seeking to get high on Colombian ayahuasca in the early 1960s, described hurling himself against a tree and barfing six times. At a recent ceremony on the outskirts of Bogotá, most of the 40 participants packed sleeping bags, water bottles and rolls of toilet paper. Sting, in a Rolling Stone interview, made clear that ayahuasca is no party drug. "There's a certain amount of dread attached to taking it," the singer said. "You have a hallucinogenic trip that deals with death and your mortality. So it's quite an ordeal. It's not something you're going to score and have a great time on."
Although the hallucinations induced by the substance can be pleasant, some people experience nightmarish visions that last for hours. The agony, Weiskopf says, is part of the allure. "You get these near death experiences," he says. "And once you see life from the perspective of death, you become a bit more philosophical and have a better sense of what's important and what's not."
Because it contains the hallucinogenic alkaloid dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, drinking ayahuasca in the U.S. is illegal. But traditional use of the plant potion is permitted in much of South America. Its mecca is the Peruvian city of Iquitos, which hosts the annual International Amazonian Shamanism Conference and is home to about a dozen lodges that cater to curious foreigners. At first, local residents feared that a flood of stoned beatniks would turn Iquitos into an unruly rain-forest Woodstock. "I thought they'd be from the hippie graveyard, with tattoos and sunken faces," says Gerald Mayeaux, a Houston native who runs The Yellow Rose of Texas restaurant in Iquitos. "But these are doctors and lawyers. These are professional people."
One of the most popular lodges, Blue Morpho, is run by Hamilton Souther, a California native who moved to Peru in 2001 to learn about medicinal plants from local Indians. After receiving the title of master shaman, Souther set up Blue Morpho, a collection of charming thatch-roofed huts and nature trails with a ceremonial roundhouse where Souther offers ayahuasca sessions for a mostly U.S. crowd. As the only full-fledged gringo shaman in the Peruvian Amazon, Souther is a natural interpreter for tourists navigating the mysteries of traditional Indian culture and its sacred plants. "These are people who are interested in their own spiritual growth and development," Souther says. "For me, it's an expression of their courage to come all the way down to the Amazon on the hope that [ayahuasca] may be able to help them."
Many of Souther's guests shun alcohol and recreational drugs. Some experiment with ayahuasca to address emotional, physical or psychological problems that Western medicine has failed to alleviate. Others hope to time-travel in order to confront childhood traumas. Some even view ayahuasca as a way to kick their addiction to prescription drugs.
Although traditional-medicine practices had been waning in some Indian communities in Latin America, ayahuasca tourism has helped spark a revival, as guiding foreigners through the ceremonies can provide a decent income for shamans. The business has become so popular that at the airports in Iquitos and the Colombian Amazon city of Leticia, locals trying to drum up clients for freelance medicine men stand outside the terminals shouting "Ayahuasca! Ayahuasca!"
Outsiders, however, are advised to proceed with caution. Even among devotees, there's a consensus that people with heart ailments, high blood pressure or mental disorders should steer clear of ayahuasca. And, Souther says, mixed with certain foods or recreational drugs like cocaine, ayahuasca can be toxic, even fatal.
Despite these provisos, Weiskopf, who says he has taken the tonic hundreds of times "with everyone from guerrillas to government ministers," remains a passionate advocate for ayahuasca. A growing flock of travelers are heading to Latin America to explore the experience for themselves.