Psychedelic Travel: A Long and Rich History

Elio Geusa

Elio Geusa

february 21, 2023

Have you caught the plant medicine travel bug? You’re not alone!

Inspiration for travel comes from a wide variety of sources from as far back as we look into history. Travel from one place to another can be compelled out of necessity for food, water, shelter, natural disaster, or war avoidance, and it can also come from less urgent but equally inspiring motives such as family, religion, and simple curiosity.

What you will be learning

In this article, you will learn of a few examples of how psychedelic plant medicines have inspired human beings to travel, often for very long distances and through difficult conditions, for their interest and dedication to their plant medicine rituals. You will learn about native people in Mexico, ancient Greek mysteries, mushroom collectors of Scandinavia, and and ancient traveling medicine man in South America.

Has the human relationship with psychedelics inspired us to travel from one place to another, not only in recent history but throughout the centuries and millennia? Absolutely – in looking at the evidence of the role psychedelics have played in human history, it is clear that this relationship has indeed inspired people to travel for reasons directly related to their use of plant medicines.

Of course, the most well-known and prevalent example of traveling for psychedelic purposes in modern times is for attending an ayahuasca retreat. Over the last few decades, increased awareness in both scientific and popular circles of ayahuasca as a potentially life-changing experience has inspired people from all over the world to travel to Central and South America to join in an ayahuasca ceremony. In many ways these travelers, coming together from far-flung countries and from all walks of life, are modern-day pilgrims – travelers committed to a long and purposeful journey in search of personal betterment and greater spiritual fulfillment. These modern-day pilgrims, and their journeys into the Amazon to attend ayahuasca ceremonies with native healers and teachers, demonstrate that the pilgrimage – travel for religious or spiritual purposes – is a fundamental part of human behavior, present in all ages and cultures.

But modern-day travelers flying across oceans and mountains to attend an ayahuasca ceremony are not the only pilgrims whose travels focus on psychedelics: whether it is the DMT from ayahuasca, psilocybin of mushrooms, or mescalin of cactus, these compounds have inspired journeys for time immemorial.


The Wixárika’s Sacred Cactus Migration

The North American desert
The North American desert where the Wixarika people live.

We begin our healing journey in the south of North America. The Wixárika are a people native to Northern Mexico and the Southern United States. Their ancient cosmology, still followed today, incorporates the belief that the world was created in an area of the Southern Chihuahuan desert in Mexico, in an area known as Wikiruta. Every year, the Wixarika people travel from all over their native lands, which are spread out across the southwest United States and Northern Mexico, and gather in this location to harvest peyote cactus, a potently psychoactive succulent that is native to the region. The Wixarika harvest enough cactus to eat in ceremony while they are there as well as enough to take with them for the rest of the year.

In taking peyote, active with the psychedelic compound mescalin, the Wixarika commune with their ancestors, interact with the spirits of the natural world, and communicate with the gods to set their intentions for the coming year and continue granting life to the souls of the Wixarika people. The peyote cactus is a fundamental part of the Wixarika people’s culture, so much so that the increasing environmental pressure on their native homelands, and the subsequent threat of the peyote cactus’s native habitat, is itself potentially a threat to the Wixarika people themselves.

The trip to Wikiruta is done once a year and it is centered on the harvesting and use of the peyote cactus. Despite increasing challenges of land privatization, black market harvesting, and government inaction, the Wixarika people continue their yearly pilgrimage to harvest peyote and partake in their sacrament of ‘the plants of the gods’.

The Elusinian Mysteries

Traveling from North America to Southeast Europe, the ancient Greek pilgrimage of the Elusinian Mysteries was a series of initiations led by high priests of the Greek oligarchy where attendees performed various rituals, partook of a drink called kykeon, and were exposed to occult knowledge. The purpose of the Mysteries was, according to Plato, “to lead us back to the principles from which we descended, … a perfect enjoyment of intellectual [spiritual] good” and that “he that has been purified and initiated shall dwell with the gods.” Famously, a part of the Elusinian Mysteries involved a ritual process of initiates having visions and seeing glimpses of the afterlife.

The ancient Greek ruins site of the Elusinian Mysteries
The ancient Greek ruins site of the Elusinian Mysteries

The cult of Demeter and Peresephone were the sponsors of these ancient Mystery initiations, held about 10 miles north of Athens in a place called Elefsina, which to this day contains the ruins of the grounds wherein the rituals of the Mysteries were conducted. Importantly, Demeter is the goddess of agriculture, grain, food, and the fertility of the ground for planting and harvesting. Initiates of the Elusinian Mysteries included people from all walks of life and likely included a “who’s who” of important people in Ancient Greek society. The initiations are thought to have been conducted for over a thousand years during ancient Athenian civilization. For these centuries, year after year, Greeks would make the journey north out of the city of Athens to visit the worshippers of Demeter and participate in the Elusinian Mysteries.

There is certainly circumstantial evidence to suggest that these Mysteries involved providing a psychoactive of some kind to the travelers who arrived in Elefsina. Plato’s own words describe the ritual as a way to “dwell with the gods” – an idea that is virtually universal among native American tribes who use psychedelics for spiritual and healing experiences. And the ritual’s inclusion of visions and conjuring of other worlds certainly suggests that initiates partook of an extraordinary experience.

Perhaps more subtly and more circumstantially, it is also interesting to note that the cult of Demeter worshipped agriculture, grain, and harvests. This suggests that the stewards of the Mysteries had a higher than usual understanding of the behavior of grain – planting, growing, harvesting, and storing, as well as its behavior under various environmental conditions. It would not be too much of a stretch to believe that they had some specific knowledge of the ergot fungus which can spread across grain and produce the highly psychoactive compound lyseregic acid dithalamide – LSD.

Of course, some might consider it a significant circumstantial leap to assume that a group dedicated to worshipping a goddess of agriculture were in fact also offering psychoactive offerings to retreat initiates in ancient Athens. On the other hand, it does make sense inductively, but without hard evidence it is simply a theory.

However, that hard evidence has in fact been unearthed – recently discovered ergot found in a temple dedicated to the Elusianian goddesses provide a great deal of hard evidence that such powerful substances were indeed a part of the Elusinian Mysteries.

Mushrooms of the Great White North

Scandinavian art showing children collecting red and white amanita mushrooms in the snow
Christmas motifs are sprinkled throughout this Scandinavian art showing children collecting red and white amanita mushrooms in the snow

From the South of Europe we now travel to the far north of Europe to the land of current-day Scandinavia and the home to reindeer, Santa Claus and wild amanita mushrooms. The rich and complex symbolism connecting modern-day Christmas traditions with the red-and-white speckled amanita muscaria mushroom is beyond the scope of the present article, although we explore this topic in depth as it relates to psychedelics and history.

However, the important connection to travel here is once again evident, that mushroom hunters were compelled to forage and gather for their special treats, often traveling deep into the forest to visit the pine stands that the amanitas a so fond of. And, so the story goes, some of the more spiritually adept and skilled mushroom hunters of this place and time would themselves continue on their own journey from home to home, delivering their collected mushroom harvests to the people of their area.

Ancient Traveling Shaman

Finally, we return from Europe back to the Ameriacas, this time to present-day southwestern Bolivia – the same general part of the world where we hold our ayahuasca retreats – where a most extraordinary archeological discovery was recently made.

Ancient artifacts from a well-traveled Amazonian user of primitive psychoactive substances
The ancient artifacts belonging to a well-traveled Amazonian user of primitive psychoactive substances

A small pouch that dates back approximately 1000 years was discovered in a cave that was explored during an archeological excavation in 2010. The pouch, which mostly likely belonged to a traveling medicine man or shaman, was sewn together using the skin of three fox noses. The inside of the pouch, when tested, was found to contain traces of a variety of substances, including dimethyltryptamine (DMT), the active compound found in ayahuasca, as well as the powerful psychedelic bufotenin and the monoamine oxidase inhibitor harmine, which allows DMT to be taken orally, as well as possibly the presence of psilocin, a component of psychoactive mushrooms.

In the words of the author who published on the discovery, “The presence of multiple plants that come from disparate and distant ecological areas in South America suggests that hallucinogenic plants moved across significant distances and that an intricate botanical knowledge was intrinsic to pre-Columbian ritual practices.” In a separate interview, the author states plainly: “This person was moving very large distances or had access to people who were.”

As has been pointed out in reporting of this amazing discovery, there is no archeological evidence present in this discovery to indicate that the previous owner of the pouch used the substances him or herself. It may well have been that the pouch’s owner was a traveler and/or perhaps a purveyor of such active plant medicines throughout a large region of territory, which could also explain how the pouch could contain substances that were native to distant parts of the region.

Join Us In Peru As A Modern-Day Pilgrim

In the modern world of airplanes and the internet, modern-day pilgrims are significantly more well positioned than the shamans of the Artic or the ancient Bolivian traveler to experience a safe and satisfying travel experience involving plant medicine and revelatory experiences. And when working with AYA Healing Retreats, you are always in good hands as our experience and professionalism is second to none.

But the very evolution of psychedelic travel from the primitive and ancient world to the evolution of the ayahuasca retreat of today is itself a testament to how important plant medicines have been in inspiring human travel over the millennia. This inspiration dates back almost far back as we have evidence for human travel and its continued presence in today’s modern world shows clearly that plant medicines and travel are in fact forever tied together and a fundamental part of the human experience.

We welcome you to Iquitos Peru to take part in something very much like the ancient pilgrimages of days past – a spiritual quest, par excellence, that will leave you changed for the best, fulfilled and renewed.

We await you here in Iquitos Peru, modern-day pilgrim!


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