TULUM, Mexico — The smoking of a powerful hallucinogenic toad venom in short retreats, a practice known as “speed-toading,” is exploding in the Caribbean tourist hub of Tulum, where it’s now a sought-after New Age healing tool.
Bufo alvarius, which contains the fast-acting psychedelic 5-MeO-DMT—regarded by many as the world’s most powerful psychoactive substance—and often referred to simply as bufo, is touted by some of its purveyors as a miracle cure for the ills of the modern world and mental health issues.
Emerging research suggests it reliably brings about mystical experiences, reduces depression, and relieves anxiety. But a significant minority of users report serious mental health difficulties after smoking the so-called “God molecule.”
“I was falling into nothing. I was doing flips. My arms and legs were going in different directions, dancing crazily. I was laughing hysterically because I was so happy, all while floating above my physical body. It was literally the best feeling ever,” recalled 23-year-old former pharmaceutical factory worker “Charlotte”, who asked VICE World News not to use her real name, of her experience with bufo.
VICE World News observed a ceremony in a teepee behind the Bufo Alvarius Sanctuary hotel in Tulum attended by her and her boyfriend, whose only prior experience with psychedelics was doing mushrooms.
Copal resin smoke laced with many intoxicating shards of the dried toad venom rose from an incense burner. Charlotte’s grin disappeared as she started choking on her own bile after smoking the substance. Eventually, the supervisor turned her onto her side and she vomited a bright orange substance onto someone nearby.
Just before the ceremony, which she underwent to see if it would alleviate her tendency for “overthinking,” she said: “We didn’t even know we were going to do it; we just stumbled across this place and saw other people doing it. We didn’t know what bufo was.”
The hard sell begins on Tulum’s main street leading to the beach, where posters of celebrities promoting the toad medicine invite people to experience the natural hallucinogen in the Bufo Alvarius Sanctuary, a 2-year old self-proclaimed natural healing centre and hotel.
The hotel is among those facing criticism over a high-volume approach and exaggerated advertisements, including on videos circulated on WhatsApp, where bufo “testimonies affirm it equals a leap in mental evolution.” One Instagram post even suggests John Lennon may have used it (there is no record of him doing so) as it superimposes the hotel logo onto his T-shirt and uses hashtags like #todomundoporelbufo and #tuluminati; while others claim “Bufo Alvarius therapy is the ultimate tool for ... waking up your higher self” and even communicating with extraterrestrials.
“It's a very commercial way to do it,” says one longtime provider of bufo ceremonies and retreats in Tulum who preferred to remain anonymous as he did not wish to be considered a critic within a small community. “They are not really taking in consideration what is going to happen with the person: It can blow their minds. They are not entirely open to going through the full integration process with them.”
Bufo Alvarius Sanctuary co-founder Valterri Hietaluoma, also known as Dr. Alvarius, seated near the teepee where the private toad venom ceremonies are held multiple times seven days a week for US$125 per person, told VICE World News there have been almost “3,000 happy clients,” from those in their late teens to late 60s, since the hotel opened. Elsewhere in the town, all-inclusive retreats can cost upwards of $3,000, while private and group ceremonies can also be found.
But there are heightened concerns from parts of the community of bufo experts and ceremony facilitators over “speed-toading”—where participants can be in and out of an establishment well within an hour. The experiences can appear more motivated by profit than efforts to provide holistic transformational journeys with “wraparound aftercare.”
Hietaluoma claimed he doesn’t know of any cases where people have been hurt from smoking bufo at the hotel, but he drew a distinction between the toad venom itself and conditions that make its use riskier.
“There have been some complaints, but they're always because of an underlying condition. So it’s not the medicine,” he said. Hietaluoma added that God-mode is the goal of each session: “If the client doesn't lose the notion of time and space completely, I consider it too low a dose.” Clients are advised on the importance of careful integration upon booking, and he and his staff are available around the clock to answer any future questions and address any concerns, he said.
However, Hietaluoma acknowledged that “if they don't have these few days for integration, and they have to go back to their toxic lives and work, it can be very stressful and cause anxiety.”
Peer-reviewed information about the consequences of bufo use remains relatively scarce in the absence of a clinical study. Trials are ongoing and were recently boosted by a $110m funding injection. But psychedelic therapy experts have warned that bufo should only be used carefully and that if people get dosed too high, they can “white out” and dissociate from their mind and body.
They stress the importance of participants having a couple of days afterward to relax and gently integrate their experiences with all-encompassing support in the same environment as which they smoked the bufo and for them to be thoroughly assessed beforehand. Many people will simply not be ready for the earth-shattering trip, which is completely legal in Mexico.
Neo-shamans in Tulum and elsewhere are increasingly marketing bufo after its discovery in the glands of toads during the latter half of the 20th century. Rapidly increasing global as well as local demand is raising concerns over toad conservation in northwestern Mexico, 3,500 km away in their desert habitat.
“It's becoming a bigger trend every day,” Hietaluoma said, before referring to the potential of bufo as “the solution” to the world’s issues.
Many attest to life-changing illuminating and breakthrough trips, including U.S. President Joe Biden’s son Hunter, former boxer Mike Tyson, and TV personality Christina Haack. At the hotel, testimonials of satisfied customers adorn the walls of the center’s reception. Movie star Jim Carrey (it is not believed he was referring to bufo) is quoted as saying, “Suddenly I was thrown into this expanding amazing feeling of freedom.” Podcast host Joe Rogan compares the use of bufo to “the equivalent of 15 years of psychotherapy.” Hotel owner Fernando Carillo, a renowned Venezuelan actor, claims, “You are not perfect, yet DMT can fix you.”
After the Irish couple smoked 100 mg each, a potentially dangerous so-called God-mode dose, Charlotte echoed other testimonies and said she would have regretted not trying bufo. They exit the teepee within an hour, and are free to do as they wish. They are advised to head to a beach cafe 30 minutes away on foot.
A week after their ceremony, the couple said they were feeling well but that Charlotte had endured days of severe distress. “I couldn’t deal with everything that was going on around me and didn’t know how to react to how I was feeling,” she said. Vivid nightmares where cockroaches swarmed over her neck, causing her to scratch herself so much it hurt, haunted her and she feared she would never return to a balanced emotional and mental state.
But as the comedown trailed off, she began to observe positive changes, too. “I used to think about things way too much, but now I am way more laid-back,” she said.
The couple were split on their opinions of the hotel. “It’s heavily branded. I don’t see it as a true sanctuary,” said Charlotte’s boyfriend Josh, an electrician who had a less powerful experience. “It’s, ‘Come in and take this DMT for this money and then go home.’ I don’t think it’s a spiritual sanctuary.”
Large parts of the bufo community also take a dim view of the hotel, along with the marauding healers who approach travelers in Tulum, including on the beach, offering bufo. “We can do it at dawn so you have the whole day to relax on the beach,” one said.
Another speed-toading critic, David Gallegos, a California therapist who claims to have often been a lone voice at the World Bufo Alvarius Conference (WBAC) regarding the importance of integration, bases his practice on helping people return to better mental health after psychedelic experiences.
He said three of his patients came to him following ceremonies at the hotel, which he claims can cause people damage and precipitate psychosis, insomnia, and paranoia.
“I'm seeing the mental-health side of things, and it's going really dark very fast,” Gallegos said. “I have to put up the beware sign about ‘Dr Alvarius.’ His name has come up with clients who have experienced paranoia at least minimally for a whole month afterwards. People are not sleeping after having their ego wiped out with such high doses.”
Urging bufo not to be taken without a proper safety protocol set up between the participant, facilitator, and a therapist beforehand, he added: “They come to me saying, ‘All I want from you is to feel normal again. I want to feel grounded again.’”
But bufo is generally safe and can bring about transformative and positive benefits where other treatments may have failed, said Rak Razam, a key figure in the bufo community who is editor-in-chief of self-help news website reset.me and co-organiser of the WBAC, which last took place in Mexico City in 2020. But, he cautioned, “there are some health screening issues and reasons why some people are incompatible with it, such as heart problems, extremely high or low blood pressure, and the taking of antidepressants.”
“Also, for people with other underlying issues like bipolar disorder and depression, the medicine must be approached with great care and reverence: It can be the single most profound experience of a person’s life, which is really why it is not to be rushed.” He added that there are organizations like the Conclave, which provide guidelines for practitioners and clients.
“The reverberations will continue to work within you and through you. People have to make sure it’s the right time for them, and that they have enough space in their life to digest the experience and make whatever changes or course corrections are needed … It’s not something to tick off the bucket list, like a bungee jump or a cruise,” said Razam.
But, he added, “It can be life-changing.”