Jens Kossmagk gazed into the darkness and saw a black jaguar staring back at him. As he watched the wild cat, he slowly became the animal—he felt his cheekbones widen into feline features, his nails lengthen into savage claws.
Inside a peak-roofed wooden room in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon, a dozen white-clad figures sat nearly motionless, with their eyes closed. A drum sounded and a voice rose and fell in a chanted melody. Each time Kossmagk yawned with a low moan, his jaguar appeared as though conjured. The ceremony lasted several hours until at last, sometime before midnight on this July night in 2016, the images faded, the jaguar slipped back into the forest, and the figures in white stumbled to their beds. They would be up early the next morning to jot notes in their journals over a glass of strong ginger tea, take a dip in a chilly stream, and salute the sun in a brief ritual with a New Age feel.
These were a handful of the thousands of people who travel to the Amazon each year to sample ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic brew made from Amazonian plants. Some seek physical or psychological healing, and others wish for a spiritual awakening. Some say the experience gives them personal insight, helps to heal past traumas, or provides a way to deal with addiction. Others are driven by curiosity and a thirst for adventure. Once a pastime for young backpackers trekking around the region on the cheap, ayahuasca tourism has recently become popular with upscale travelers. Most of them pay more than $100 a day for regimes advertised as traditional healing methods through plant-based diets, tobacco purges, and, of course, ayahuasca ceremonies.
The boom has not only met the demands of tourists seeking alternative therapies; it has also reawakened interest in traditional plant-based medicine among indigenous peoples and created jobs in a semirural Amazonian region where employment is scarce. But the trend is also controversial. Critics decry the for-profit use of traditional medicine and practices, the tailoring of what they see as an ancient Amazonian ritual to accommodate modern tourists’ expectations, the preponderance of lodges in the hands of foreign-born owners, and the lax regulations surrounding ayahuasca’s potentially dangerous use.