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At the six-month mark, the team also interviewed 11 of the study participants and asked them to rate the experience on a scale from one to ten. The mean response came back at 7.95. One 30-year-old man told the researchers, "With my last experience with the ayahuasca, I really faced myself. Like, my fear, my anger. Which really, I think is a big part of my addictions... I wish I was introduced to it like 20 years ago. It could have saved me a lot of time and trouble."
Tracy James' experience with ayahuasca didn't end with that first night in the jungle. The L.A. life coach's retreat lasted another 12 days. She went through multiple ceremonies, punishing repeats of that first gut-churning episode.
However, she also had vivid visions. In one, she went on a quest for a gold ring hidden underwater. In another, a beautiful woman told her she was calling James back home. Once, James imagined she was greeted by a group of elfin-like creatures. There, she felt the comfort of home, of belonging. Still, once the retreat was over, she never wanted to take ayahuasca again.
"I had a lot of ceremonies that were really hard," she says.
But back home, similar dreams filled her head at night. That feeling of belonging, of being home — she began to see it as a signal. When the opportunity came up to study with the same Shipibo shamans, she signed on.
Today, James is based out of Fort Myers. With a business partner, she runs AyaIntegral (ayaintegral.com). Two or three times a year, the pair leads a group down to Peru for 12-day retreats with Shipibo shamans. Customers pay around $2,600 for the total ayahuasca experience. "People say it's like a year of therapy in a night, and it's no joke," she says today.
The increase in such ayahuasca tourism has morphed Iquitos, Peru, into a boomtown on the Amazon Basin. In 2012, 250,000 visitors traveled through the once-sleepy inland port — many searching for the magic drug.
Today at the Iquitos airport, travelers are as likely to be offered ayahuasca — or at least canisters of a dubious brown liquid — as a taxi. The stuff so thoroughly permeates the city that a New York Times travel dispatch from September opens, "Before we begin, a disclaimer: In Iquitos, Peru, your correspondent did not consume the shamanic hallucinogen ayahuasca."
The influx of tourists seeking transcendence has brought with it new problems. When Joshua Wickerham, a sustainability consultant, was invited to a conference on psychedelics in Oakland, California, this April, he got an earful.
"The people in the ayahuasca community were talking about all of these issues, as ayahuasca is becoming this global phenomenon," Wickerham recalls. "There were so many people from so many walks of life saying, 'There is so much good happening here, but there are also real problems.' "
An idea was born: a kind of TripAdvisor for ayahuasca centers. In early November, Wickerham launched the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council as a nonprofit devoted to assuring the sustainability and safety of traditional plants like ayahuasca. Wickerham envisions the ESC developing, with the community's input, into a consensus certification model.
"I think the ESC can help educate the seekers," Wickerham says, "so there's some way to differentiate when there's a neophyte who lands at the Iquitos airport and asks the cabdriver, 'Where should I go for ayahuasca?' "
As far as psychedelics go, studies show that ayahuasca is on the relatively safe side. For it to be lethal, a user would have to take about 20 times more than the standard ceremonial dose. (For alcohol, that number is ten times more than a normal serving.) Brain scans of ayahuasca users indicate that the brew doesn't have a neurotoxic effect.
"The knee-jerk reaction is to say, 'Oh, it's a dangerous hallucinogen,' but look at the actual mortality rate," says McKenna. "If you look at the number of people who die from adverse reactions to aspirin, ayahuasca is considerably safer."
The main risks are psychological, proponents say. "That's where a good shaman comes in," says McKenna.
But in the Wild West that is Iquitos, it can be hard to tell which shamans are the real deal. Some serve a counterfeit brew laced with the witchcraft-associated plant known as toé. Others have impure intentions.
In the ayahuasca community, there's a collection of well-known horror stories: the German woman who returned from Peru with a report of being sexually assaulted by her "shaman." The two French citizens who died during their trip — one from a heart attack, the other from a likely interaction with his prescription medications. The worst, though — the story held up as a warning to those who seek blindly — is the story of an 18-year-old Californian named Kyle Nolan.
Nolan set out for the Shimbre Shamanic Center, a Peruvian ayahuasca lodge run by a shaman calling himself Mancoluto, in August 2011. When Nolan never showed up for his flight home, his worried parents went to Peru to find him. First, Mancoluto claimed that Nolan had taken off in the middle of the night, but his body was later found in a grave on the center's property. No one has yet been charged.