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Toé, the 'Witchcraft Plant' That's Spoiling Ayahuasca Tourism

You know it as the angel's trumpet, Hell's bells, or Brugmansia, a genus of flowering plant with seven species. Toé is notorious. And it's in the hands of pseudo-shamans looking to exploit South American drug tourism.
February 19, 2013, 3:50pm

Maybe you know it as the angel's trumpet, or Hell's bells, or simply Brugmansia, a genus of flowering plant with seven recognized species. Whatever the case, toé is notorious. Every part of the plant is toxic, seeping alkaloids like atropine, hyoscyamine, and VICE's old friend , or Colombian devil's breath. And it's reportedly now in the hands of slimy pseudo shamans looking to cash in on the South American drug-tourism boom.


You hear it more and more these days--seeking profound spiritual awakening, or just some good, old fashioned jungle weirdness, curious ex-Wall Streeters and psychonauts (excuse me: "passengers") alike are trekking to, say, Peru in search of that most fabled of shamanic elixirs: Ayahuasca. Sipping the brew, which is a mish mash of any number of psychotropic infusions of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine that are typically mixed with shrubs rich in DMT, can be life-affirming. It's the subject of Stepping into the Fire (2011), which for all intents and purposes stands as a shining endorsement of the hurl-your-lungs-out trip.

But here's the thing. Like any up-and-up industry, market, or service marked by varying shades of legality and oversight, it's only a matter of time before the scoundrels arrive and fuck it up for everyone.

"For all the root's spiritual and therapeutic benefits," Kelly Hearn  in Men's Journal, "the ayahuasca boom is as wild and unmanageable as the jungle itself."

In other words, when giddy 20- and 30-somethings from Brooklyn descend upon Iquitos, Peru--which is seeing an uptick in ayahuasca tourism--it's becoming more and more likely that they'll be whisked away to lodges run by pervy, crash-coursed ayahuasqueros out to make a quick buck on unassuming tourists. And holy shit are unassuming tourists descending upon the largest city in the Peruvian rain forest: Hearn cites an unconfirmed stat "floating around Iquitos" that puts the influx of pilgrims as having increased fivefold over the last two years. Fivefold. As Roger Rumrill,  a journalist and Amazon expert who's written 25 books on the region, told Hearn, there's "a corresponding boom in charlatans – in fake shamans, who are targeting foreigners."


It's dangerous to draw trends from a few freak accidents, don't get me wrong. But it's worth noting the concurrent rise in lost minds, deaths, and shithead "shamans." Over the last couple of years, Hearn reports, two French pilgrims died at ayahuasca lodges; an 18-year-old from California died (after which the shaman covered up the death, even going on television to feign disbelief over the kid's disappearance before admitting that he'd died and been buried on the outskirts of the lodge grounds); and a young German woman was apparently beaten and raped by a pair of men who'd given her ayahuasca. "Stories persist," Hearn adds, "about unwanted sexual advances and people losing their marbles after being given overly potent doses."

Ayahuasca shouldn't take the whole blame. Over millenia, there have undoubtedy been far more positive experiences using the drink than dark trips. Even still, the claims and creds of today's so-called ayahuasca gurus go unmonitored. Ayahuasca tourists do not receive health screenings before pounding the brew, which ups blood pressure and heartrate.

Which brings us back to toé. While it is true that experienced and legit shamans use the plant in trace amounts in ayahuasca batches, unqualified shamans around hotspots like Iquitos are spiking their drink with copious amounts of the plant to give tourists the insane, balls-to-the-wall trips they've come to expect and have travelled so far in search of. A "reputable Iquitos lodge" tells Hearn that toé is "potentially very dangerous," the stuff of surrendered will power and deaths from horrifically miscalculated dosings.

There's a way to do ayahuasca right. But when you mix money-hungry, poorly trained (read: untrained) shamans and something like the witchcraft plant, "there's nothing good to come of it," the lodge added. Sip slow, passenger. Or maybe just don't?

Top image courtesy Exotic Garden

Reach Brian at @thebanderson