Cashing in on Ayahuasca Tourism
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THEY say you should follow your dreams — but should you follow your hallucinations?
One Perth couple has done quite literally that, walking away from their comfortable careers in engineering and mining to run a drug retreat deep in the Peruvian Amazon.
It’s called Refugio Altiplano, and is only accessible by a two-hour, 40-kilometre boat ride up the Amazon River from the north-eastern city of Iquitos.
There’s no hot water, limited facilities and mobile phone reception comes once a day if you’re lucky.
But here, nestled in 490 hectares of rainforest and far from the trappings of civilisation, people from all walks of life are guided through a psychedelic experience with the traditional plant ayahuasca.
Be warned: it’s not for the faint-hearted.
The hallucinogenic tea, which contains the potent psychoactive compound DMT, is definitely not a recreational drug, says Julian Moran, a former office worker who now runs the small Refugio with his wife Angela. The center is just one of thousands cashing in on the ayahuasca tourism industry, which has become big business in recent years. While very much illegal in most countries — including Australia — the drug is considered integral to many tribal societies in South America.
Every year, tens of thousands of pilgrims flock to Iquitos — described as the both the epicenter and the “wild west” of ayahuasca retreats — where traditional shamans guide them through the ordeal. Visitors to Refugio Altiplano typically pay $US1500 ($A1850) for a 12-day retreat, which includes seven ceremonies with “strict processes governing the pouring of medicine, the blessings and protection of the room”.
The number fluctuates, but at any given time there are usually around 12 people staying, Mr Moran says. The center’s remoteness and the professional supervision is what distinguishes it from some of the more unscrupulous operators in and around Iquitos, where tourists can buy a cup of ayahuasca on the street.
Refugio Altiplano in Peru discuss the Ayahuasca plant
Mr Moran describes it as a “tool for working on your mind, body and soul”. It’s a traumatic experience — there is a “physical purge” of vomiting and diarrhoea, and an “emotional purge” punctuated by crying, yawning and shaking.
“It can be terrifying, tormenting, heaven and hell. There’s a real sense of duality,” he says. “It’s been described as the best psychologist, the best doctor and the best priest at your beck and call.”
He prefers not to describe it as “hallucinating”, though — it’s more a matter of “gaining access to a different plane”. It’s the job of the local shamans, who often don’t speak a word of English, to “navigate the spirit world”. “They use their songs to cross over,” Mr Moran says.
“With ayahuasca there’s a very real sense you are accessing a different consciousness. It’s very common for people to experience entities, other people, planes, dimensions, as well as the spirit world.”
The popularity of the drug is no accident. Mr Moran says the centre has helped people with everything from depression, addiction and anxiety, to veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. The experience, which lasts between six to 10 hours, is “so foreign and novel words fail to describe it”. “For many it is the most powerful spiritual experience of their lives,” he says.
Mr Moran, who used to work in human resources, first visited the centre in late 2013 after being made redundant from his job at a Perth construction firm.
At the time he was battling depression and alcoholism, and dealing with unresolved grief from the death of two friends. During his stay he took part in eight ceremonies, and — like many who take the drug — says it completely changed his belief systems and attitudes. It is not uncommon for participants to return home and change job or career, partner or lifestyle. “I was categorically healed, and returned happy, healthy and brimming with personal power,” he says.
Then, shortly after returning to Australia, he received news that the owner of the Refugio had died in an accident. With no one to oversee the running of the centre, business dropped off, and the 12 or so staff were at risk of losing their jobs.
“The place had no direction. I realised if I didn’t intervene, the staff would lose their jobs and the three surrounding villages would lose valuable income,” he says.
So Mr Moran arranged with the owner’s daughter to take over the running of the business, and together with his partner Angela, 31, returned in August last year to inject “money, energy and love” into the operation. Using their own money, the couple revamped the Refugio’s online presence, oversaw construction and maintenance work and provided on-the-ground leadership to the small team.
“It’s a pretty rough environment with limited access. A lot of our time is spent dealing with procurement and logistics, as everything has to be brought in by boat — it costs us a lot in fuel.”
Asked what family and friends back home think of the couple’s decision, Mr Moran says “they’re happy that we’re happy”.
“They’re very supportive, but it is confronting,” he says. “They understand to a certain extent but they would understand more if they could come and see. It’s not particularly glamorous work, but [the visitors] are getting better. It’s integral that we’re here.”
Refugio Altiplano Retreat
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Needless to say, none of this should be taken lightly. There have been several deaths in recent years connected with the drug, including 19-year-old British student Henry Miller and 18-year-old Kyle Nolan. The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade couldn’t offer details on the number of incidents involving Australians, but does provide specific information about ayahuasca in its travel advisories for the region. “While this is not illegal in Peru and Ecuador, there is no way to thoroughly vet ayahuasca tour operators, and if you choose to participate, please be aware of the potential security and health risks involved,” DFAT 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.”