Magnificent Visions

In Amazonian Peru, the author traces the source of the powerful Stone Age botanical hallucinogen ayahuasca. He meets crying shamans, drunken shamans, and even a gringo shaman, and learns about the epic quest it inspired in one devotee. Then he takes the ultimate step: drinking it himself. Whoa …

  1. Night was falling when I parked, as instructed, at an intersection on a canyon road north of Los Angeles. Carrying a foam pad, water bottle, and blanket, I cautiously approached the house. “Are you here for the ceremony?” asked a woman seated in shadow on the porch. “The shaman’s running late,” she added. After a few minutes of small talk on topics ranging from root chakras to Reiki, she asked me bluntly, “Have you drunk before?”

    I had recently traveled to Iquitos, a Peruvian city on the Amazon River, to investigate the use of ayahuasca, a much-storied hallucinogenic tea prepared from botanical ingredients native to the tropical rain forest and used by indigenous tribal peoples for purposes medical, magical, and ritual. Iquitos is quickly becoming one of those mythic places like Jerusalem, Dharamsala, and Rome, where hardy seekers repair in hope of spiritual renewal or ultimate and eternal truths. Many drink ayahuasca at ceremonies conducted by local shamans, often at one of the rapidly proliferating “healing retreats.” In the archive of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew I’d gone through the journals of the Victorian explorer Richard Spruce, who’d first identified and given the ayahuasca vine its scientific name. I read and listened to all I could on the subject—William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Sting, Paul Simon, Oliver Stone, and Tori Amos, among others, have all written or sung about their experiences with ayahuasca. While in Iquitos I’d observed a ceremony—but no, I had...