Vision Quest

To some, Augustin Rivas might seem some sort of exotic drug salesman. But admirers see him as a healer and spiritual teacher. Each year, hundreds journey from the United States, Europe and Japan to Rivas's jungle clearing near the town of Tamshiyacu in northeastern Peru. There, around a communal fire, the travelers spill their woes, undergo grueling all-night purifications and drink the sacred ayahuasca-a brownish hallucinogenic liquid Rivas brews from vines and leaves. The recipe, he says, comes from the Incas. "This is not a motorcycle for the mind-it is a medicine. The ancients send people visions, and they go home with a new sense, a new light in their lives."

Rivas is a shaman, a medicine man who serves the Carlos Castanedas of the '90s: seekers of ritual hallucinogens, ranging from the peyote cactus to jungle snuffs that supposedly make the dead appear in visions. A growing number of people, some seeking adventure as much as God, are visiting shamans in Latin America and the American Southwest--or even as far away as Southeast Asia. Mind travelers on a tighter budget can meet touring shamans who conduct underground "workshops" in U.S. cities.

The ancient traditions of religions based on plants are considered strange, even dangerous, by most Western societies, including ours. Psilocybin mushrooms-teonanacatl ("flesh of the gods")--were worshiped by the Aztecs, but feared by the Spaniards as doorways to the diabolic. The Spanish so thoroughly suppressed the practice that scientists thought the "magic" mushrooms' very existence was a myth until the '50s, when outsiders rediscovered them--and their devotees-in rural Mexico. "Hallucinogens are fundamental to many cultures," says ethnobotanist Wade Davis of the New York Botanical Garden. "The question is, what happens when you transplant them out of context?"

At the very least, some strange cross-cultural encounters. Consider the case of Peter Gorman, a New York writer who hacked his way through the Peruvian jungle for days to find the Matses Indians. The Matses blew snorts of nu-nu, a powder of bark and leaves, through a tube into his nose; he fell to the ground and had a vision that a herd of wild boars would pass a nearby spot the next day. The Matses, who say animals speak through nu-nu, took him to the place at the appointed time, where they speared and strangled seven boars. Pleased with the results, they introduced Gorman to an even more powerful "hunting aid" called sapo-dried frog secretions mixed with saliva. Sapo is rubbed into a small hole burned in the arm.

The fainter of heart can join an organized tour. Groups of 10 or 15 visit Rivas's camp (cost for 11 days, including airfare, four all-night ayahuasca ceremonies and voluntary tip to the shaman: $2,000). Charles Lawrence, a New Yorker who brings visitors to Rivas, prepares them with a very '90s regimen: macrobiotic diets, sweat lodges and the carving of ceremonial staffs. When they arrive in Peru, the first order of business is a vivifying rubdown with cow dung.

Another popular destination is central Mexico, where Huichol Indians share their centuries-old peyote rites with outsiders who show enough respect--and, in some cases, hard cash. During spring and fall, when many Huichol make pilgrimages to the peyote-rich highland deserts of San Luis Potosi, small groups of gringos can be seen lurking in towns along the route, trying to make connections. Often they get more than they bargained for. Recently, Leo Mereado, a 31-year-old potter from Kearny, Ariz., brought family and friends to meet a group of Huichol in the midst of the vast, mountain-ringed desert. For three days they soared with peyote, but when they returned to town loaded with leftover cactuses, they were arrested, and spent two months in jail. Mercado says it was worth it: "You not only see God, you become God." Jacaeber Kastor, a New York art-gallery owner, says that while backpacking through Latin America, he ate, drank, smoked and snorted whatever local mind-expanders people offered. "A lot of us are just middle-class white folks looking for a significant personal experience we're thrilled to meet strange Indians, and the psychedelics give it a whole further level of excitement and danger," he says.

Many American Indians feel threatened by drug dilettantism. "Among white people, in their ignorance, there are many spiritual wanna-bes, plus those looking for cheap thrills. False shamans are exploiting that," says Reuben Snake, a New Mexico "roadman," or spiritual leader, of the Native American Church, whose 250,000 members combine peyote with Christianity. They keep most whites out: the federal government exempts Indians from peyote laws, but only half the states do, and in 1990 the U.S. Supreme Court found the states could remove religious protections altogether. In most states, non-Indians can be busted for possessing peyote.

For the most part, ritual hallucinogens are not the stuff of classic drug abuse. "They're not addictive. You don't see people dropping mushrooms, then breaking into cars," points out Ronald Siegel, a psychopharmacologist at UCLA. Research suggests that some psychedelics could even be useful for our modern shamans: psychotherapists. "Under the proper conditions, they open people up to profound insights," asserts Dr. Lester Grinspoon, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard. "You just have to be prepared." Some therapists say they have used hallucinogens in their practices; one New York medical doctor told NEWSWEEK he administers ayahuasca to ease the fear of terminal cancer patients.

In Peru, though, a few earnest yanquis drinking the shaman's ayahuasca are hardly viewed as a big drug problem, especially in light of the cocaine trade. And people like Augustin Rivas say they're providing visitors with a much-needed service. What they get out of it is up to them.