Rise of ayahuasca ceremonies in USA

Gina Piccalo wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times Magazine about ayahuasca ceremonies in Southern California. People pay $200 to have ayahuasqueros come to their house and guide them through the psychedelic ritual.

200802051057 (Photo by "Ayahuasca in San Francisco" released under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license)

For them, the vision-inducing elixir made from Amazonian jungle vines and leaves opens doors to parallel realities where mystical creatures reign. Because ayahuasca must be exactingly prepared and administered to achieve the desired benefits, a cadre of itinerant shamans such as Truenos has emerged, roaming the U.S. to host marathon candlelight ceremonies in yoga studios, private homes and remote open spaces, and charging as much as $200 a person for each session.

The concoction itself is said to taste so vile that most people fight their gag reflex to swallow it. Devotees liken the flavor to forest rot and bile, dirty socks and raw sewage. Vomiting is so common that indigenous shamans often refer to the ceremony as la purga, or the purge. And ayahuasca can severely test the commitment of its followers: The potion often reveals its celebrated wisdoms only after repeat encounters. The payoff, adherents say, can be life-altering. Debilitating illnesses such as chronic depression or addiction may disappear after just one session, some say. Others say they shed their egos for a night, finally seeing their lives with a startling clarity.

With that kind of reputation, ayahuasca has predictably intrigued celebrities known for charting the supra-conscious: Oliver Stone, Sting and Tori Amos have sampled it and openly discussed their experiences. "It's quite an ordeal," Sting told Rolling Stone in 1998. Amos talked on BBC Radio 4 in 2005 about how she envisioned having a love affair with the devil during one ayahuasca encounter.

In Peru, ayahuasca ceremonies are so common that the nation's tourism bureau tracks the number of visitors seeking the sacred brew. But no one needs to travel to Peru to experience ayahuasca in 2008. A community, shepherded by ayahuasca shamans, has begun to emerge in the United States. It initially established itself in New Mexico. And now–in an act of psychedelic entrepreneurship and under the aegis of his spiritual and religious society, Aurora Bahá–Truenos is bringing the ayahuasca ceremony to Southern California.