Australians flock to Peru for ‘spiritual awakening’


Kristin Shorten

Date of original publication

June 21, 2013


HUNDREDS of Aussies are flocking to remote parts of the Amazon each year to ingest a hallucinogenic jungle vine and be "cured" by shamans.

Australian travellers seeking a spiritual awakening are jetting 15,000km to join ayahuasca retreats in Peru where they apparently undergo transformative experiences.

Ayahuasca (pronounced eye-ah-waska) is a sacred plant brew that translates to the "spirit vine" and is drunk for healing purposes.

The psychoactive infusion, which has been used by indigenous Amazonian cultures for thousands of years, is thought to have divinatory and healing powers.

It has become something of an elixir for westerners who want to rid themselves of problems, the past, addiction or depression.

When drunk, the concoction of boiled plant essences is supposed to spark a spiritual "transformation" and lead to enlightenment.

But while advocates of the potion say it leads to an awakening, many users experience negative side effects. In some cases the drug can be fatal.

As well as inducing a psychedelic trance, advocates say it enables telepathic communication. But it also induces vomiting and diarrhoea, which is said to purge the body of negative energy and demons.

Ingesting ayahuasca, which has been declared a national treasure in Peru, causes hallucinations and disorientation.

The 'magical potion', which affects the human consciousness for hours after consumption, can be fatal if taking in combination with antidepressant drugs. It can be dangerous for those with a history of cardiovascular disease or heart surgery.

Yet despite the dangers, pilgrims are flocking to the Amazon to take part in 'life-changing' ayahuasca ceremonies.

The quasi religion was also the inspiration behind Ben Lee's latest album Ayahuasca: Welcome to the Work. His ninth solo album focuses on his experiences with the South American 'healing medicine'.

While much has been said about the mind-expanding potential of ayahuasca, there is also a dark side to the boom industry.

There are endless blogs dedicated to describing ayahuasca and it has received mixed reviews. Some say its effects are enlightening while other users describe their experiences as terrifying.

Last August 18-year-old Kyle Nolan died while on a 10-day retreat at Shimbre in Peru's Amazon Basin.

The shaman eventually admitted that the American teenager had died after an ayahuasca session and that his body had been buried at the edge of the property.

There have also been reports of molestation, rape, and negligence by dodgy shamans.

But former Melbourne man Malcolm Rossiter told SBS Dateline program that ayahuasca saved his life.

"I left Australia nearly six years ago now after being fed up with society, fed up with business and just not happy with myself. I really hated myself," he said in 2011.

"It helped me get over the depression which I'd been suffering before, the anxiety. The more I drank Ayahuasca, the more I found I could connect and really learn to love myself again."

Australian man Danny Vulic told the The Washington Post that he had been to Peru twice for ayahuasca.

The 36-year-old said the brew had helped guide him with decision-making.

"You know, it is just really nurturing, caring, it is an amazing thing," he said. "I am always quite willing to surrender to the medicine completely. I want the work to be done. I have full trust in it."

A Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson said 17 Australians had died in Peru since 2010 but the department did not keep statistics for deaths related to ayahuasca.

On Monday a 56-year-old man from Victoria died in Peru, 10 days after a failed suicide attempt but it is unknown whether he had taken ayahuasca.

Experiential journalist Rak Razam has been to Peru to experience ayahuasca four times since first writing about it in 2006.

He says thousands of Australians are heading to South America for the experience each year, forming a lesser known backpacking circuit of seekers.

"It's on the rise. Some people are going in search of the healing that it can provide and others are going in search of the connection on a spiritual level," he said.

"It's definitely not for teenagers, it's not recreation and it's not escapism. It's hard work and it's a journey of discovery."

Razam, who has written a book and produced a documentary about the indigenous medicine, says ayahuasca appeals to a broad demographic.

"I find it appeals to the older person or a person who might be going through a spiritual sea change," he said.

"They often say it's like a mini death in that you can experience some of the astral realms.

"I live in Mullumbimby and I would know (many) people who have gone and a good per cent of the town have either been or are connected to the ayahuasca community."

Razam says about half of those who try ayahuasca experience negative side effects.

"People have negative experiences frequently. That's part of the point of the medicine," he said.

"You have to do the work in the psychic atmosphere the medicine helps generate. That may mean that you have a terrifying experience where you face your childhood abuse and that gets exteriorised.

"You may feel that you're losing your mind because you're actually losing your ego."

"There are pros and cons."