Mystic Tourism in Peru

Venturing into the heart of the Amazon inspired by William Burroughs’ The Yage letters, Chris Allsop tries out mystical tourism in his own adventure to meet with healers and try Ayahuasca in, Mystic Tourism: Searching for the Yagé in Peru.

A flock of parrots circles near a claylick

Patricia, our usually sober and reserved lodge manager, was getting excited. Attempting to allay any concerns about my forthcoming encounter with the ayahuasca (or yagé, pronounced ya-hey) hallucinogen, she had agreed to share her experiences with the drug.

Watching Patricia struggle to convey the ecstasy and profundity of the experience, demonstrating the wide-eyed in-articulation that is usually cue to get up and move to another part of Coachella, my anxiety began to increase: this stuff sounded strong.

Beating a trail

Yagé was strong enough by reputation to tempt Beat Generation writer and junkie William Burroughs to travel to South America in search of ayahuasca, a journey immortalized in the epistolary novel, ‘The Yagé Letters,’ comprising letters written first from Burroughs to Beat poet, Allen Ginsberg, and then vice versa, when Ginsberg retraced Burroughs’ footsteps.

It was this literary trailblazing that had tempted me into my present journey of teen emulation; except I was now 30, had never worn flowers in my hair, and really should’ve known better. But the closing words of Burroughs’ novel, Junky, had hooked my hormonally demented teenage self and left a lasting mark.
The narrator (a thinly disguised Burroughs) is planning a trip to South America, and the novel concludes with the following mythologizing statement, “Maybe I will find in yagé what I was looking for in junk and weed and coke. Yagé may be the final fix.”

In reality, Burroughs made that trip to Colombia in 1953 buoyed up by research completed by Harvard ethnobotanist, Richard Evans Schultes, and reports that the drug awakened telepathy and the ability of psychic healing in those who partook. A lifelong heroin addict, he also hoped it could provide a cure for opiate addiction.

Ayahuasca history

The precise origins of the practice of imbibing ayahuasca (which translates as “the vine of the soul”) are unknown. There is little doubt, however, that the “mother of all medicines” has played a role in Amerindian shamanistic medicine long before the first Europeans came across it in the early 1700s.
From the perspective of the present-day tourism industry, Burroughs could be classified as a pioneer of woolly-sounding ‘mystic tourism.’ Generally, experiences that fall under this umbrella term include visits to locations seen as ‘spiritual,’ the ingesting of natural highs, or, indeed, both of these things at the same time.

It’s a small, but burgeoning part of the tourism trade quietly promoted by some South American countries where ayahuasca grows wild and is readily available. However, seeking it out no longer has to involve an exhausting five-day jungle trek to an isolated village without decent water pressure.

Some jungle safari lodges located in isolated (but easily accessible) spots among the vegetal turmoil of the Amazon basin are beginning to cash in. Such places now frequently offer program designed specifically for guests looking to tuck into marmalade sandwiches of the mind with Paddington in darkest Peru.


Continue the journey in Mystic Tourism: Searching for the Yagé in Peru.