Sun, Jun 10, 2018 - Page 15 News List

Psychedelic tourism thrives
in Peru, despite killings

The deaths of at least 11 tourists over the past decade have not thwarted thousands of foreign ‘seekers’ from chasing ayahuasca’s reputedly all-consuming high

By Franklin Briceno  /  AP, NUEVO EGIPTO, Peru

Italian tourist Pamela Moronci participates in an ayahuasca session in Nuevo Egipto, a remote village in the Peruvian Amazon, on May 6.

Photo: AP

Sitting on a mattress strewn across the floor with white sheets, Pamela Moronci closes her eyes while a traditional healer starts to chant in the indigenous Shipibo language.

In a straw hut, engulfed by the nighttime cacophony of the Amazon rain forest, a shaman inhales a potent tobacco from a pipe and blows smoke on Moronci’s head to cleanse her, before she takes her place in a sacred ayahuasca ceremony.

He offers the Italian woman a plastic cup with about 90 milliliters of a bitter, muddy brew made of psychedelic vines. Moronci drinks it, coughs and smiles, despite its unpleasant taste.

“There is a really strong energy here,” she said, before falling asleep, amid the chirping of crickets and thundering rain.

Every year thousands of tourists visit jungle retreats in Peru, Colombia and Ecuador to try ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic elixir made of native plants that is thought to heal some mental illnesses.

However, while Moronci and others have said they have found peace and enlightenment, for a few seekers the experience has been fatal.

As more Westerners seek out the legendary curative, commercialization has taken over as profit-seeking impostors pop up among the dozens of legitimate ayahuasca centers that have emerged over the years.

Over the past decade at least 11 tourists have been killed in incidents linked to traditional medicine in South America, according to news reports, including a California man who was buried secretly by a shaman after he died in an ayahuasca ceremony in Peru.

The latest killing took place in April, not far from the Peruvian village of Nuevo Egipto, where Sebastian Woodroffe, a 41-year-old Canadian man studying medicinal plants, was bludgeoned in broad daylight by an angry mob in retaliation for him allegedly killing a revered traditional healer.

Peruvian investigators later concluded Woodroffe shot healer Olivia Arevalo with a gun he purchased. Now they are investigating what could have led him to pull the trigger.

“The most likely scenario is that it was a dispute over money,” said Ricardo Jimenez, the lead prosecutor on the case.

In 2015, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc analyst got hold of a knife during an ayahuasca ceremony at a retreat center in Peru and attacked a Canadian man who was with him. He was killed by the Canadian, who acted in self-defense.

In 2014, a 19-year-old British man died in Colombia after he passed out during an ayahuasca ritual.

Anthropologists have said the region’s history of violence and lawlessness could be replicating itself in the virtually unregulated ayahuasca industry.

In Peru’s backwater towns like Iquitos or Pucallpa, aggressive English-speaking touts offering ayahuasca ceremonies greet tourists literally as they come off the boat, while in indigenous markets a liter-sized bottle of the powerful tea fetches as much as US$100.

“The Amazon has long had a frontier economy, based on the exploitation of its natural resources,” said Ana Echazu-Boschemeier, an anthropology professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil, who spent more than a year in the jungle researching ayahuasca and its uses.

“To some extent, shamanic tourism is replicating this savage logic of extractive industries where people and nature have little protection,” she said.

Ayahuasca in the Quechua language means the “vine of the soul” — or death, depending on the translation — and it has been used for hundreds of years by indigenous communities throughout the Amazon basin, mostly in religious rituals.

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