Visitors are flocking to the Peruvian Amazon to sample ayahuasca, a potion with hallucinogenic properties made from jungle vines and considered sacred by indigenous tribes. Lodges catering to "ayahuasca tourism" are attracting travelers who hope the concoction will help soothe a range of woes.
The Peruvian Amazon attracts thousands of foreign tourists who come for the jungle tours. Increasingly, tourists also arrive for a ritual they say provides them with a window into the soul.
The Yacu Puma Healing Center, a wooden lodge surrounded by lush greenery, sits on the outskirts of Iquitos, a town in northeastern Peru.
There, a shaman, a medicine man named Juan Tangoa, sits before a bottle filled with what looks like sludge.
He tells a small group of Americans and Europeans that drinking the concoction will lead to contact with a spiritual world. He says that his icaros, or chants, will invoke the spirits.
Each visitor is given a shot, and it's not long before Tangoa's charges are sick and begin vomiting.
Ayahuasca is not simply for those looking for an easy walk on the wild side. The potion does contain a chemical with hallucinogenic properties. But the shamans consider ayahuasca a medicine.
And the people who come -- businessmen, computer programmers, salesmen, musicians -- are looking to deal with everything from childhood traumas to depression.
'Something Was Missing In My Life'
Brendan Everett, a 31-year-old camera salesman from Los Angeles, is one of them.
"I thought something was missing in my life, in walking through the world. I have this job I hate. I feel miserable all the time. Everything is small and just how I related to people, everything was very superficial," Everett says.
It's no easy fix. The shamans tell visitors that to resolve their problems through ayahuasca is hard, sometimes agonizing. For some, ayahuasca induces purges -- from both ends of the body. Some experience ghoulish dreams, fear or paranoia.
Sometimes it takes days, and several sessions, for a person consuming ayahuasca to get something out of it.
That's how it was for Everett.
"My first ceremony, there were no visions, there was no purging, there was just me laying there saying, 'I don't know what's going on.' Over the course of the five ceremonies, I realized that at that time I had to get dark and really let go of any preconceived expectations that I had," he says.
Powerful Potion, Not Effective For All
His shaman is an American, Hamilton Souther, a 32-year-old Californian who studied anthropology at the University of Colorado.
"There are huge swings in mood, huge swings in psychic states, huge swings in physical states, and the shaman has to be able to literally hold that space so that a person is safe as they go through those different movements," he says.
Souther came to Iquitos nearly a decade ago and trained for two years to become a master shaman.
Now he runs the Blue Morpho ayahuasca center, an hour drive from Iquitos. Ayahuasca use is legal in Peru, and tourism operators say 20 percent of visitors who come to the area come for ayahuasca.
They are enticed by the curative properties, though Souther says not everyone leaves satisfied.
"The problem is that there will be another group of people that will receive absolutely no benefit from drinking ayahuasca," he says.
Effects Profound For Some
On a recent day, several repeat visitors milled around at Blue Morpho's headquarters.
They included two New Zealanders who work for an armored car company, a computer programmer from Salt Lake City, and a young environmentalist who says ayahuasca made him feel like he wants to try to live again.
And Everett, the camera salesman, is back in Peru for a fourth time.
"There's not this gigantic weight on my shoulders anymore, and I can sit up straight and breathe normally and just be alive," he says. "The world is a significantly brighter and more beautiful place now."