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Mystic Tourism in Peru

Mystic tourism has a very New Age sound to it. One would imagine a group of hippies gathered round a shaman, caught up in a ritual straight out of a campy 90s thriller. But make no mistake about it: the term has been gaining credibility throughout South America, drawing not just the adventurous but the learned and the curious. And for many, there’s no better place to kick off this journey than Peru, where history and nature are connected almost spiritually in the thickness of the Amazon.

At the center of this practice is ayahuasca, an indigenous herb with an effect not unlike that of magic mushrooms. It’s a hallucinogen, but rather than distort your view of reality, it makes it clearer. One is said to have a heightened sense of awareness, all five senses taking in his surroundings. This gives the feeling that the traveler is one with nature, offering a form of relaxation that’s not quite like a day at the spa. It opens doors for meditation, reflection, mental healing, and all manner of possibilities.

The practice isn’t new; its main proponent outside South America is probably William Burroughs, who wrote about it in his book The Yagé Letters. Here he details his trip to the Amazon jungle to find the elusive herb, locally known as yagé, which he said would be his “final fix.” Curiosities were piqued, not to anyone’s great surprise, and locals were quick to rise to the occasion. They began singling out areas where ayahusca grew in abundance, and arranging trips to the most peaceful, scenic parts of the forest.

Ayahuasca has been used by American Indian healers as early as the 1770s, purportedly to find “lost souls and bodies.” The name translates to “the vine of souls.”  A typical tour takes you deep in the jungle, where nature lends itself well to quiet musings and meditation. People are encouraged, before taking the herb, to ask themselves a question about their career, future, or something equally important—and assured that at the end of the experience they would have an answer.

There’s no telling whether mystic tourism will catch on, or whether it will even push past scientific skeptics and become mainstream. For the moment it’s an exotic alternative to the usual route, drawing mostly people who want to take the road less traveled. One thing’s for sure: with locals eagerly offering it, more than a few curious souls will be waiting to give it a try.