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British Teen Dies After Indigenous Yagé Ritual in Colombia

The yage ceremony has been used for centuries in the Colombian Andes for its curative properties, and as a rite of passage.

by Simone Bruno
Apr 29 2014, 8:10pm

Photo via Periodismo Itinerante

A 19-year-old British tourist has died after drinking an ayahuasca plant-based hallucinogenic brew called yagé during an indigenous ritual, Colombian authorities said.

Officials found Henry Miller's body on April 23 at 10AM on the road that leads to the natural hot springs of Río Mocoa, near the Putumayo region’s capital, Coronel Richardo Suarez of the Colombian National Police told VICE News.

“The young man attended the ritual, and everything seems to indicate that he began to suffer health complications after his second drink of yagé. We are currently awaiting autopsy results and a report from Legal Medicine to reveal more about the incident,” Suarez said.

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Ayahuasca is a traditional plant used by indigenous communities of the Amazon for centuries but its consumption is becoming a trend and an alternative adventure for tourists who are looking to have an exotic hallucinogenic experience.

The Trance of the Amazon's Indigenous Communities
The yagé ceremony has been used for centuries in the Colombian Andes for its curative properties, and as a rite of passage.

According to indigenous beliefs, it begins as a healing process, a soul cleansing, and a physical purge. There are typically eight to 140 participants in a single ritual, and they each have two to three drinks of the bitter entheogenic herbal brew.

“At this point the suffering begins. The plant makes you aware of your weaknesses — your defects. It’s a process of realization in which you face your soul directly, as if in a mirror, and you confront the intimate fears from your past and future,” Alirio Lozano Piranga, a member of the Coreguaje indigenous community told VICE News.

Piranaga, along with other indigenous communities of the Upper and Lower Putumayo region, such as Siona, Cofán, Ingas and Huitoto may practice the yagé drinking ceremony up to three or four times in a single day, as proof of ancestral endurance.

After the healing effect, comes the enjoyable part of the experience.

“There is a pleasant moment in which you begin to have visions and feel a very special awareness. The yagé begins to tell stories by speaking through imagery. The day after you consume the beverage, the world is clearer,” said Piranaga.

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Julio César Payage, a “taita” or shaman from the Siona community of the Buena Vista Reservation in the Lower Putumayo region, told VICE News the use of ayahuasca is not without risks.

“Many people until now have felt the great benefits of spiritual healing, but the plant also shows that it can be risky if it is consumed incorrectly,” Payage said.

In “Ruta del Ayahuasca,” a documentary piece produced by the Institute of Applied Amazonian Ethnopsychology, researchers determined that “this plant can serve as a catalyst for other psychotic disturbances, and provoke obsessive compulsive disorders. There is a distortive affect: the risk is that the person who participates in the drinking ritual might be taking other medications, which could lead to a dangerous combination of psychopharmaca, which is why it is so important that the drink be administered under expert supervision.”

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Suárez said the Colombian authorities have met with the indigenous communities to warn about the plant’s risks and invite them to implement restrictions so that the ritual does not become an uncontrollable tourist attraction and to make sure it is not "being administered by people claiming to be shamans and experts of the culture.”

“Not anyone can use the sacred yagé plant,” Payage said. “They have to be wise, an elder, often older than 60, someone who is respected as a traditional leader in their community. This shaman understands the deep spirit of the person, to know whether or not they are actually meant to learn from the plant.”

Photo via Flickr