Welcome to the jungle
Deep in the Amazonian rainforest, ayahuasca (pronounced eye-ah-wah-ska) is at the centre of a burgeoning, new-age tourism trend.
It is a thick and potent hallucinogenic tea that has been brewed and sipped by indigenous peoples from across South America for centuries.
Purported to allow drinkers access to the spirit world, the muddy liquid is traditionally consumed by shamans in ceremonial contexts.
But now, “ayahuasca retreats” are popping up across the continent, particularly in Brazil and Peru, offering the experience to tourists.
Ayahuasca is brewed over 10 days.
Ayahuasca’s psychoactive properties come from the combination of its two ingredients: the native ayahuasca vine and chacruna leaves, which contain the natural psychedelic compound dimethyltryptamine or DMT.
DMT is a Schedule 9 substance in Australia, alongside drugs such as cannabis, LSD and MDMA or ecstasy. It is against the law to use, sell, distribute or manufacture it in the country.
But in South America, advocates consider ayahuasca a medicine for the mind, body and spirit.
It is also touted as a potential treatment for depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and drug addictions, although researchers are unsure.
‘I went to another realm’
Jana Klintoukh (L) helps prepare ingredients at a retreat in Peru.
Gold Coast resident Jana Klintoukh runs a business organising retreats for Australians.
On the retreats, visitors learn how to brew ayahuasca and participate in several drinking ceremonies.
Ms Klintoukh said clients came to her wanting to try ayahuasca for a range of reasons.
“A lot of people go to do this for reasons of depression, for things like ADHD, cancer … and diabetes, arthritis — serious conditions of the body,” she said.
“More than 50 per cent of the people that come to me want to do it for spiritual reasons, they want to find their purpose, they want to find what they’re here to do, they want to explore more than just this.”
Ayahuasca ceremonies are conducted in a circular cabin, under the supervision of a shaman and facilitators.
“You find your spot, you sit down. The shaman is already sitting there, the facilitators come in to help out as well, then there’s the staging process which is the cleansing of the ceremony, then the shaman starts singing,” Ms Klintoukh said.
“The medicine is served. It gets given to every person around the circle, and then the person drinks it … it takes around 30 minutes to 40 minutes until the medicine starts doing its work.
“So you take the medicine and then you lie down, or continue sitting and then it comes on.”
In online reviews, drinkers report everything from reliving their birth to learning their life’s purpose.
The effects of ayahuasca last between eight and nine hours.
One of Ms Klintoukh’s clients, fellow Gold Coast resident Col Beck, described the experience as “out of this world”.
“I went above myself and I went to another realm. It was psychedelica plus a galaxy of dolphins and whales coming through the stars in-between them,” he said.
“It was one of the most profound experiences I have ever, ever, ever had.”
The effects of ayahuasca last for between eight and nine hours and usually cause drinkers to vomit.
“The purging is essentially vomiting, but it can also be back-end purging, it could be shaking, it could be crying, screaming, sweating — there’s all different ways to purge,” Ms Klintoukh said.
Mr Beck said: “For me I went through a little bit of bad stuff and then some really big stuff happened for me. I was crying, I was doing everything under the sun, but it was the release of all the energy I had held back for so long.
“I did cry and I did yell and scream and shout and I was breathing in really short breaths and one of the facilitators said: ‘OK Col, now breathe deep, breathe deep, breathe deep now, nice and slow just breathe deep’. Within a minute I was back to breathing deep and calming myself down.”
Experiences gone wrong
For some, drinking ayahuasca has proven fatal.
In December last year, 26-year-old British tourist Unais Gomes was stabbed to death during a session at an Australian-owned retreat in Peru.
Three years prior, US teen Kyle Nolan was found dead after drinking the brew.
The shaman working at the retreat he was visiting confessed to burying Nolan’s body in bushland to avoid bringing the retreat into disrepute.
The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) website warns of the potential security risks.
“While this is not illegal, there is no way to thoroughly vet ayahuasca tour operators,” it says.
“Some participants have been seriously assaulted and robbed. Victims report a range of experiences, from being alert but unable to maintain control of their surroundings, to total amnesia.”
The tea has also been known to have dangerous interactions with some pharmaceuticals, especially antidepressants, and to raise blood pressure.
Ms Klintoukh said ayahuasca was “extremely foul-tasting”.
Ms Klintoukh said the tea could leave drinkers in a vulnerable state.
“During some stages of ayahuasca, sometimes you’re just so open … that if you’re somewhere that has the wrong intentions or you’re not looked after, all sorts of things can happen,” she said.
“Having the support, the care and someone watching out for you is absolutely crucial when working with these medicines.”
She also said it was important to take the experience seriously.
“It’s pretty hard to drink because the taste isn’t nice, so for someone to do it recreationally, I can’t see it,” Ms Klintoukh said.
Mr Beck agreed.
“Definitely there will be people who have a different attitude towards it, but if they are doing it in [a disrespectful] way, ayahuasca will let them know: ‘No you can’t do that with me’,” he said.
“If your intentions are not in sync with ayahuasca, you are going to fall out of sorts with her.”
Scientists asking questions
While several studies have looked at the purported health benefits of ayahuasca, researchers are far from any definitive answers.
Studies have examined, among other things, the tea’s effects on cancer, Parkinson’s disease, anxiety and depression.
But Dr Robin Rodd, a lecturer at Queensland’s James Cook University who has studied ayahuasca in depth, said it was a difficult substance to assess clinically.
“Ayahuasca, as much as any other drug or chemical I know, can have such varied consequences,” he said.
“I think there’s pharmacological evidence that indicates that long-term ayahuasca consumption builds density of serotonin receptors, which you could say might have a bearing on preventing depression, or facilitating movement out of depression.
“So you can identify a physiological mechanism, but when it gets down to going, ‘well, does that work in practice?’ it becomes difficult to say.”
Dr Rodd spent 18 months embedded with a Piaroa tribe in the south of Venezuela, working with and observing local shamans.
He has interviewed a number of ayahuasca drinkers and is helping to oversee a project at JCU looking at whether ayahuasca can be used to treat drug addictions.
He said there was a wealth of anecdotal evidence to suggest people were making changes to their lives after drinking ayahuasca.
“A single experience can be life-changing … that sense of transformation is very real,” he said.
“There is that sense with ayahuasca that it is so important, that it is so pregnant with meaning, that what you are witnessing is just so wonderful and special, that that sense carries over into life.
“There’s lots of good evidence that shows that people drink less, stop smoking and stop taking cocaine after long term use.”
But Dr Rodd said with so many researchers across the world approaching their studies in different ways, it was hard to draw any definitive conclusions.
“They’re all sort of asking the same questions, which are ‘how does ayahuasca treat addiction?’ and ‘is ayahuasca useful in treating addiction?’ but I don’t think we’re close to finding a consensus answer on that,” he said.