A smiling cashier welcomed me in the lobby. His arms were akimbo. He wore a polo shirt that read, “Refugio Herpetológico.”

“Welcome!” he exclaimed in Spanish. “How are you?”

I forced a smile and forked over my 3,000 colones — about $6. He handed me a receipt and escorted me through the gift shop, toward the Refugio’s main entrance. Then he pointed to a trim young man in the corner, also wearing a printed polo shirt.

“This is Marco,” said the cashier. “Your tour will start in a couple of minutes.”

Damn it, I thought. It figures.

Robert Isenberg is a writer based in San José, Costa Rica, where he serves as a reporter, videographer and photojournalist for The Tico Times, Central America’s most respected English-language newspaper. He is the author of The Archipelago: A Balkan Passage and the… More…

Fifty years ago, William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg published The Yage Letters, a book largely consisting of the correspondence between the two on their separate treks through the Peruvian rainforest. Although their travels were a decade apart, both went in search of yagé — an entheogenic drug better known as ayahuasca. Burroughs’ quest for what he would wind up calling the “space-time drug” was motivated, in part, by the promise of a cure for his heroin addiction. But both beat writers were also lured by rumours that the drug provided answers to the mysteries of god, the universe, everything.

Fast-forward a half-century and it’s no longer the counter-culture’s very outer fringes heading to Peru to try ayahuasca. Drug tourism in the Amazon is a veritable small industry, with hundreds of shamans in Iquitos, Pucallpa, Puerto Maldonado and Cusco offering “trips” to North American and European tourists. Some — like me — even book an ayahuasca… More…