Vision-inducing drug makes new inroads in Peru


Oct 01, 2007

PACHACAMAC, Peru (Reuters) - A powerful hallucinogenic vine, long revered by Amazon Indians as a tool for peering deep into the psyche, is drawing interest from urban Peruvians and enticing foreign visitors to Peru.

Known as the "vine of souls" in the Quechua language of the ancient Inca empire, ayahuasca contains dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a chemical resembling the structure of psilocybin in psychedelic mushrooms.

Banned in the United States but legal in Peru, ayahuasca increasingly draws foreigners and has grown into a million dollar business. It is also seeping into Peru's medical mainstream as a handful of psychologists and doctors tout its therapeutic benefits.

"Ayahuasca means exploration. It works to better see where we are, where we are coming from and where we are going," said psychologist Javier Zavala, a self-styled curandero or healer, as he opened an ayahuasca session one recent Saturday night.

"I will give you only a small cup," he told some 20 European, North American and Peruvian vision seekers, including an advertising executive, a film editor, and an engineer who had gathered near the ruins of a pre-Inca civilization on the southern outskirts of Lima.

They took turns kneeling before him to receive the dark liquid poured from a bottle. Then, following native tradition, Zavala stood and blew a spray of sweet scented water north, south, east and west to clear noxious spirits.

"In the Amazon, ayahuasqueros would give you a big cup," he said. "You would see hell and feel like you are dying. That is not the objective here."

Lights off, he waited about half an hour before beginning to chant softly, mixing Indian and Spanish words, scraping leafy branches on the floor

His chants, known as icaros, set off a surge of visions and welling emotions, several of those present said after their overnight experience.

A 42-year-old Spanish man said he regressed to the first years of his life and planned to ask his parents to forgive him.

A Peruvian librarian, 49, said ayahuasca-induced visions of geometric shapes and baby items helped her to heal from the death of her baby at delivery almost 20 years ago.

"I appreciate my life in a new way and my life with my grown daughter," she said.

The plant often triggers geometric patterns resembling that of Indian weavings and pottery as well as serpents and other jungle wildlife in an uncanny reflection of its historic use in the Amazon, a number of scholars say.

It also produces other effects, causing some of those present to resort to blue vomit pails placed handily beside them.

Ayahuasca is prohibited in the United States, with one exception. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that U.S. followers of a Brazilian-based religion can import and use ayahuasca tea in ceremonies.

A small number of Peruvian psychotherapists and doctors say the plant can bring unconscious material into the conscious awareness.

"The insights about one's own life, the direction one is moving to, the family appear many times as visual images emotionally charged; these can be taken to therapy," said Eduardo Gastelumendi, a psychiatrist in Lima.

Others say it can be used to kick addictions to drugs and alcohol by helping to trigger buried memories.

For Veronica Lopez, 29, a graduate student from Spain, the session at Pachacamac took her into a deep reflection that she said brought inner peace.

"I saw jungle plants coming closer to me in spinning yellow and green geometric patterns," she said. "Then I felt a serpent enter inside me, merging into my skin and tugging at my cheeks, then it left through one of my raised arms."