The sky is black in the Amazonian jungle as a group of people – mainly foreigners – gather inside a wooden circular hut known as a maloca.
Among the group is 27-year-old New Zealand man Matt McGuiness, who travelled to Peru hoping to find something meaningful after spending years working long hours in the film industry.
One by one, each of them approaches the man leading the group, who gives them a cup of ayahuasca (pronounced “eye-uh-WAH-skuh”) – a strong-smelling brown concoction made from plants – and they go back to their seats.
What happens has been the subject of fascination for decades. In between extreme physical reactions – diarrhoea, vomiting and nausea are common – advocates for ayahuasca promise enlightenment, mental clarity and awakening.
But those on the other side warn against taking such a powerful drug in a country where its use is unregulated, noting reports of dodgy tour operators giving mind-bending doses, as well as deaths and alleged sexual assaults at some of the many “retreats” that have opened to cater for its boom in popularity.
Whatever the outcome, no one seems to dispute that ayahuasca, a drug illegal in most parts of the world, is powerful.
“It definitely changes you afterward,” Matt says.
Peruvian woman Sandra, who did not wish to provide her last name, and her family have been operating an ayahuasca retreat in their home city of Cusco, Peru, for almost 30 years.
She says that ayahuasca was traditionally used for healing, or to access knowledge and wisdom, and was brewed and distributed by shamans (medicine men) in ceremonies now offered to foreigners at retreats like her family’s.
The family are now making it a priority to ensure visitors understand the cultural and religious significance of ayahuasca before they take it.
“If used properly, it can help people access reality, and it’s really reality that’s inspiring people.”
The word “ayahuasca” translates from the Quechua language to mean “dead rope”, in reference to its main ingredient, the caapi vine, which looks like a rope, and the idea that ayahuasca “kills off” negative energy.
To make ayahuasca the vine is mixed with a number of other plants including the leaves of a shrub called chacruna, which contains the hallucinogen DMT.
Its effects last about four hours and sound either terrifying or transformative, depending on who you talk to. Many people come out the other end saying they feel reborn.
Before taking ayahuasca, visitors to Sandra’s family’s retreat are asked to avoid medications, drugs or alcohol. If mixed with these substances, ayahuasca can have serious effects on the body and may even be fatal.
All customers are asked to sign a form recognising these risks and nurses are on hand if people get into trouble. Soon there will be doctors on staff, too, they say.
Matt McGuiness says he took a while to “let go” after taking it, once the drug took hold he was in awe.
“I saw a half-cat lady, blue skinned, with some sort of Egyptian headdress,” he says. “It was just all of a sudden.”
“There are moments during these visions that you just can’t believe it.”
But Sandra says it’s dangerous for people to come to Peru just looking for a “trip”, and stresses that people must have a stable mind going in.
“Some people come with expectation to experiment, which is completely wrong because they have a shock,” she says.
“It’s like going to hell. It’s close to death, but not like you’re physically dying.”
Ayahuasca in Australia
Robin Rodd, a lecturer at James Cook University in Queensland who has been researching ayahuasca for years, says it can now be found all over the world, including Australia.
“There was a global western cultural boom that happened around the beginning of the 21st century when you started to see Hollywood stars doing pilgrimages and royalty in the UK,” he says. “Australia was another chapter in the global expansion out from the Amazon.”
A recent story in the New York Times describes people gathering inside a house in Brooklyn and being given cups of the brew by a Colombian shaman while sitting on yoga mats.
But he rejects the idea that taking ayahuasca out of its traditional setting makes people treat it like a party drug.
“People have different reasons and motivations but there’s always reverence and respect,” he says.
“No one takes it to get high. It’s not nose candy. It’s not something you can do socially.”
Ayahuasca is illegal in Australia but is still brewed and distributed by a few “key practitioners” who have run ceremonies around the country for some time, he says.
A spokesman for Australian Customs and Border Protection told SBS importing the plants needed to make ayahuasca carried penalties under the Customs (Prohibited Imports) Regulations 1956 but was unable to provide statistics on seizures of ayahuasca coming into Australia.
A wonder cure?
A large number of the people who travel to South America each year for ayahuasca are looking to cure ailments, disease and trauma.
A clinic in Peru that uses ayahuasca to treat addiction has been open for 20 years.
“They operate under the idea that drug addictions are spirit possessions that take over humans and take control of their consciousness,” Robin says. “Ayahuasca can help remove that.”
“I just don’t know if it actually does what everyone claims it does, which is heal you.”
In the United States, former marine Ryan LeCompte operates tours for veterans looking to treat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other mental issues stemming from combat.
In a 2014 CNN report headlined “Is this the next medical marijuana?” a former veteran named “Libby” who suffered PTDS was asked why she wanted to try ayahuasca.
“I would like to wish not to die all the time,” she said. “I want that to go away.”
Sandra says ayahuasca can certainly be used to treat trauma but not immediately after a traumatic event.
“It’s important that your mind is stable,” she says. “If you are in shock, it is shocking. Many people wait 40 to 50 years after childhood trauma to heal it.”
Actor Lindsey Lohan, who has publicly struggled with addiction, is one of many celebrities to praise the healing capabilities of ayahuasca, describing her “life-changing” experience in a video posted to YouTube.
Other celebrity disciples include Sting, Tori Amos and Australian musician Ben Lee, who said in an interview: “If used properly, it can help people access reality, and it’s really reality that’s inspiring people.”
‘There’s always been a dark side’
Simmering on the sidelines of the ayahuasca-tourism boom are lingering stories of sinister behaviour at retreats, opportunistic shamans and bad trips.
In a statement on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) website, the Australian government warns Australians looking to take ayahuasca of its dangers.
“While this is not illegal in Peru and Ecuador, there is no way to thoroughly vet ayahuasca tour operators,” 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.”
In 2012, US teenager Kyle Nolan died after taking ayahuasca at the Shimbre Shamanic Centre in Peru’s Amazonian basin.
Shaman Jose Pineda Vargas, 58, later admitted to police that he had buried the Californian teenager’s body to cover up his death. He was sentenced to five years in prison.
While rare, this story is not isolated. Two French citizens reportedly died at ayahuasca lodges and 19-year-old British teenager Henry Miller died last year after taking part in an ayahuasca ceremony in Colombia.
But Robin Rodd says these stories make up a small minority.
“There has always been a dark side,” he says. “Even before tourism. Because there was always a side that can be used in sorcery and to cause harm to people.”
“And now you’ve got people with foreign currency in poor areas of a developing country who are trading off an Indigenous idea.”
“But there are all sorts of factors here and relative to the number of people that have consumed it in a whole range of circumstances, the death rate is low.”
Freeing your mind or losing it?
Australian woman Harriet Jones* says that when her former boyfriend came back from Peru after a trip taking ayahuasca, she noticed a change.
“When he got back from Peru he was really spacey, like he was floating,” she says.
She recalls that weeks later, John* came over to her house claiming his head was in a “f–ked-up place.”
“It was like he was on a complete downer and he was nearly in tears,” she says. “It just broke my heart.”
“I just don’t know if it actually does what everyone claims it does, which is heal you.”
But Matt McGuiness, who is still traveling in South America, says auyascha can be a positive, mind-opening experience if taken right.
“Like with any conscious-changing substance, it’s about setting – who you’re with and where you are,” he says.
And he has nothing but positive words to say about his own experiences with the drug.
“You get put through the shit but I remember the next day [after taking it] I could really feel I’d been cleaned out,” he says.
“Not just physically, but mentally and emotionally.
“I’ve never felt that good, sober.”
*Names have been changed
* Readers seeking support and information about suicide prevention can contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 or follow @LifelineAust @OntheLineAus @kidshelp @beyondblue @headspace_aus @ReachOut_AUS on Twitter.