It seems like no one is going to let us forget how bad the economy has gotten—not Wall Street, not our daily newspaper (if it still exists), not our unemployed brother, who's still sleeping on our couch. Sure, you can escape the stress by taking a vacation, but for some people, the average sun-and–piña colada getaway won't do the trick. That's why many travelers are opting for the strong stuff: a vacation involving mind-altering substances. Indeed, the world offers plenty of trippy tutorials on the meaning of this topsy-turvy life, whether it's a cultural immersion where the ceremony is as important as the high—like drinking kava with a local tribe in Fiji—or a beach party in the Caribbean fueled by hallucinogenic tea.
Of course, there's a big difference between freeing your mind legally while on vacation and doing something that'll land you in a Burmese prison. We've stuck to substances that are currently decriminalized or largely tolerated in their destinations. But laws can vary over time and within countries, so check before you, um, pack your pipe (and bring your lawyer's cell number). It goes without saying, but always use caution: Talk to your doctor, only purchase from legitimate sources, always bring a friend, and register with your local consulate on arrival. It's one thing to tune in and turn on, it's another to completely drop out.
KAVA IN FIJI
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The buzz: Traditional kava, a root that's ground into a powder and then strained through a sock, makes a waxy, pinkish-gray tea. Sound disgusting? That's because it is—but its potent effects (lucid, high-def dreams) have made it a centuries-old favorite among Fijian Islanders. The earthy-tasting liquid numbs and coats the inside of your mouth and throat, but after two or three cups are passed around the fire, you're dancing and singing with reckless abandon.
Where to score: Nearly every hotel offers some touristy version of the tea ceremony, complete with watered-down kava. It's a great starting point for the weak of stomach or those nervous about taking the plunge. But to experience the real thing, take a tribal tour into the undergrowth, meet the locals, and get down with the strong stuff.
Where to chill: Once you've entered the kava circle, there's no turning back—you have to sit and drink until the kava is finished (usually about three cups total shared between participants). The oddly elegant Fijian shuffle dance is usually part of the kava ritual, so give it a shot if you can still stand up. Otherwise, sing and clap along with your kava kin.
Where to come down: At your hotel, of course. The Likuliku Lagoon Resort has the only overwater bungalows in Fiji, where you can stick to the in-house ceremony or trek out with a tour guide. Relax on your private deck post-ceremony while the waves wash over your feet.
POT IN AMSTERDAM
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he buzz: Remember that hazy weekend you spent in the Red Light District back in your Eurail days, hitting a four-foot bong with a couple of patchouli-drenched Australians? Well, you may be all grown up and over the natty dreads, but perhaps you're not above spacing out with a little of Amsterdam's finest green. Ultramodern coffee shops, a great music scene, and a new crop of design hotels offer a more mature way to toke.
Where to score: Avoid the touristy Red Light District in favor of vegging out to short films or trip-hop DJs at the New Dampkring coffee shop on Haarlemmerstraat. For more visual stimulation, check out Green House Namaste on Waterlooplein, an ornate shrine to all the jewels in India. Most coffeehouses rotate their menus based on what's fresh, so ask the staff for assistance. Some words of warning: Marijuana is technically illegal here, but small amounts are tolerated; the city has been considering further restrictions, so check before you light up. In any case, smoking wherever and whenever you please is a major tourist faux pas, especially since Dutch authorities banned tobacco smoking in public places in early 2008. You might not get ticketed, but you won't make any Dutch friends, either.
Where to chill: It's always fun to trip out at the teeny-tiny Pianola Museum, where you can listen to over 20,000 player piano songs on several different automatic ivories. When the sun goes down, keep the tunes going at Melkweg, a music venue housed in a deserted dairy factory that hosts indie acts like Peter Bjorn and John and big-name DJs like Steve Lawler.
Where to come down: The beloved Cake Under My Pillow hotel is so friendly that they'll overlook your bloodshot eyes and help you cure your munchies. It's situated above the De Taart van m'n Tante cake shop, so a slice of the sweet stuff comes free with your stay. Still hungry? We'd suggest a cone of frites courtesy of the Vleminckx Sausmeesters on Voetboogstraat (yeah, don't even try to pronounce that one).
MAGIC MUSHROOMS IN THE BRITISH VIRGIN ISLANDS
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The buzz: If you've never tried magic mushrooms, here's the gist: The good (sparkly hallucinations and giddiness) usually outweighs the bad (occasional nausea and dizziness). And the distinctive, unpleasant taste is easily washed away with a Corona. But don't expect to chew on some 'shrooms and suddenly see dead presidents landing in spaceships. Much like the menu at Taco Bell, there are generally five ingredients to every trip, and visual hallucinations are just one of them. Body highs, intense emotions, introspectiveness, and a distortion of time round out the experience.
Where to score: On Tortola in the British Virgin Islands, it's legal to possess and consume psilocybin mushrooms but not to sell them—so the infamous full-moon dance parties at Bomba's Surf Shack on the beach in Cappoon's Bay serve mushroom tea instead of straight 'shrooms.
Where to chill: Surf Shack proprietor Bomba's lunar-based schedule comes straight out of the Farmer's Almanac, so check his Web site for specific dates. The dance-party atmosphere can be fun but intense—tons of island expats, Caribbean surf bums, strong rum, and other drugs—so if you start to get stressed, just hop in a cab and head for the pool at your hotel. The locals are so used to spaced-out tourists that no one will bat an eye.
Where to come down: The best way to see the BVIs is to charter a catamaran. The gentle rock of the boat, the gleam of the Milky Way, and the sound of the waves are the perfect backdrop for the earth-loving feeling that mushrooms can bring. The Moorings has a huge selection of boats available for charter, but don't 'shroom and sail—make sure there's a crew to skipper the boat while you trip out.
TEMEZCAL IN MEXICO
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The buzz: You can get just as high from a thorough detox as you can from taking drugs—which is why Mexico's temezcals, or sweat lodges, are so popular. In this ancient Mesoamerican ritual, participants lie on the floor of a rounded adobe hut, gazing into a central fire while a shaman creates a steam with medicinal herbs like arnica, chamomile, aloe, and sage. Expect total euphoria from the one-to-three-hour ritual, where temperatures range from 90 to 120 degrees Fahrenheit.
Where to score: Avoid the ramshackle temezcals that dot Mexico unless you want to hang out with wild-eyed New Agers chatting about the power of crystals. Instead, go for tried-and-tested local favorites run by trained pros, like the Maya Spa Wellness Center outside of Tulum.
Where to chill: Find a resort that specializes in the ritual. The ultraluxe Zoëtry Paraiso de la Bonita has a white adobe temezcal on the beach, heated by burning wood from the sapote tree, and an experienced shaman who will lead you through the nearly three-hour ceremony before bringing you to bathe in the ocean. If authenticity is your aim, opt for the Posada del Tepozteco in Tepoztlán, about 45 minutes outside of Mexico City, which has hosted everyone from Diego Rivera to Angelina Jolie and Antonio Banderas.
How to come down: Drink water (bottled—this is Mexico!). The dehydration from the sweating can leave you with the same kind of shaking hangover you get after an endless night at the bar.
COCA LEAVES IN BOLIVIA
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The buzz: In the major coca-producing countries in South America, only the processed form of the leaf—i.e., cocaine or crack cocaine—is illegal. The coca leaf itself, which is held in the side of the cheek (much like chewing tobacco), is a huge part of quotidian life in the Andes. The mild high you receive is a far cry from the angry jolt of a rail of cocaine; there's a pleasant mouth-numbing, a sense of well-being, and a serious buzz that lasts all afternoon. Plus, it's a great way to alleviate altitude sickness in the mile-high terrain.
Where to score: Bolivian president Evo Morales is an incredibly vocal supporter of the people's right to profit from traditional uses of coca leaves, and the tourist-friendly country has largely avoided the violent, high-profile conflicts plaguing other producers like Colombia. A stroll down the street in the capital of La Paz will take you past numerous coca carts, where you can buy leaves by the handful (but you'll only want to put one or two in your mouth at a time).
Where to chill: You'll be dying to use your brain, so head over to the Museo de la Coca and learn something (be sure to bring a pen and paper for unexpected strokes of genius). The museum covers the social, economic, and agricultural history of Bolivia's most ubiquitous plant and is a fascinating window into a culture where coca is found in everything from toothpaste to soda.
Where to come down: Lake Titicaca, the largest freshwater lake in South America and the source of a considerable number of bad jokes, is only a bus ride away from La Paz and has some of the most striking scenery this side of Machu Picchu. Grab a ride on a minibus from outside the gates of El Viejo Cementerio in La Paz to Copacabana, where you can swim laps in Lake Titicaca until the coca wears off. Crash in the penthouse suite at the Hotel La Cupula overlooking the oceanlike lake for only $36 a night.
HASHISH IN MOROCCO
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The buzz: In Morocco, hashish is to marijuana what jam is to fruit: delicious, concentrated, and readily available no matter what time of year. Known as kif, this North African delicacy is technically illegal, but as Morocco's biggest foreign currency earner after tourism, it has been basically decriminalized. Tokers report that police have little interest in arresting tourists for possessing small amounts (but it's up to you whether to test that theory).
Where to score: In nearly every alleyway or village square in Morocco, you'll hear "Kif for you!" This exchange is akin to buying a Rolex in Chinatown. After making a cursory glance for police officers, smart buyers will step aside and inspect the merchandise to make sure that the kif is squishy and smelly (old hash is usually hard as a rock, has no smell, and isn't very fun to smoke). The kif can either be sautéed down in butter and baked into food or smoked in a long, thin pipe—it burns at a very high temperature, so the length of the pipe is a key element in cooling the smoke before it hits the throat.
Where to chill: Chefchaouen, a town not far from Tangier, is the unofficial capital of Morocco's unofficial drug trade—the varieties of kif available here are astonishing, as is the architecture: hundreds of simple Berber dwellings, painted bright shades of blue and white. It's about four hours from Fez on a bus, so plan to stay at least a night, though it's likely you'll want to chill out even longer.
Where to come down: If you're still in Chefchaouen, the cheap and charming Casa Perleta is located just off the main medina. Ask for room 6, which has a view of the Rif Mountains. If you're heading back to medieval Fez, La Maison Bleue is filled with canopy beds, stained glass windows, and carved cedar doors, a perfect accompaniment to the lush hash high.
BHANG IN INDIA
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The buzz: During the annual Holi festival of color in March, people all over India get stoned on bhang, marijuana buds and leaves that are ground into a green paste and cooked with milk, clarified butter, and spices in traditional drinks such as thandai and lassi. Bhang also gets cooked into pastries and cakes, if you're not down with drinking butter.
Where to score: Bhang beverages are available at street carts, local shops, and restaurants during the festival. Marijuana is technically illegal, but because Holi is a religious event, authorities turn a blind eye.
Where to chill: By far, the best place to bhang is in the town of Barsana, located between New Delhi and Agra. There, Holi includes a mind-boggling ceremony in which women beat men with sticks and attempt to capture them—and the poor suckers who get caught are forced to dress in drag and dance around. In retaliation, the men throw buckets of colored paint on the women. It's a completely gorgeous, other-worldly, and once-in-a-lifetime experience that goes with bhang like peas go with pods. Don't worry—the men wear hockey-like padding, and the women don't hit very hard.
Where to come down: There are hundreds of tour operators across India that will take you to experience the festival, but the well-respected Artisans of Leisure won't let your bhang-addled head rest on anything less than a four-star pillow in nearby Agra. They'll organize a private chauffeur to bring you to and from the festival and a guide to show you all the sights.
PEYOTE IN MEXICO
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The buzz: Occasional partiers looking for a carefree weekend tripping in the desert should stop reading now. Peyote is the final frontier of crazy intense psychotropics: We're talking 15-hour hallucinations and at least one bout of vomiting. But the hallucinations—which fueled the mad scribblings of Aldous Huxley, Hunter S. Thompson, and William S. Burroughs and has been described by many as "an encounter with God"—can bring you to a place of total harmony with yourself and the world around you. Or so we hear.
Where to score: The peyote cactus grows in the deserts and mountains surrounding Real de Catorce, a former silver mining town in central Mexico (and far from the drug conflicts that have been plaguing Mexican border towns). There are numerous unofficial guides who, for varying fees, will drive you out to the desert and help you find a plant, which is chopped into buttons and eaten. Workers tending to the numerous peyote-themed craft stalls in the central village square can point you in the direction of a guide. Be careful, though, and pay due respect: Even though peyote consumption has been decriminalized, harvesting the cactus is still illegal except for religious purposes. Make sure your guide is trustworthy and knows how to properly cut the peyote so that it won't destroy the plant, which is sacred to the native Huichol Indians.
Where to chill: Channel your inner Beat poet among the Joshua trees, cactus flowers, and gorgeous mountain views of the surrounding desert. Head east of town to the Cerro Quemado, the holy mountain and annual sacred meeting place of the Huichol Indians. But be prepared with a GPS and warm clothes to battle the evening chill in case you don't make it back before sunset.
Where to come down: The Mesón del Refugio, a boutique hotel housed in an 18th-century mansion in Real, has an enormous glass ceiling above the lounge, where you can soak up the twilight and gleaming stars after a long day in the desert.
COBRA WINE IN VIETNAM
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The buzz: When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. And when life gives you poisonous snakes, you can apparently make snake wine. The people of Le Mat, a village in northern Vietnam, have been known historically for their skill at capturing serpents. Their annual Snake Wine festival in late April/early May is your opportunity to down a few shots of the local aphrodisiac: a glass of super-potent rice moonshine, served with the still beating heart of a cobra.
Where to score: In Le Mat, an easy day trip from Hanoi, nearly every restaurant serves some kind of snake wine, be it a glass of fermented snake blood, snake liqueur, or rice moonshine with a snake pickled in the bottle. Velo Asia can organize a private cycling trip to burn off all those insidious serpent calories, or you can ask any of the day-tour operators in Hanoi to take you in a minibus.
Where to chill: You can get surprisingly drunk on snake wine. Set your watch so you don't miss the snake parade, when locals mime snake legends and march down the street in a gigantic cobra costume.
Where to come down: Sleeping in a town filled with dead snakes is a recipe for bad dreams, so head back to Hanoi for some luxury R&R at the famous Metropole, a post-colonial wonder with period furniture and bamboo-covered walls. Legendary literary drunkard W. Somerset Maugham paved the pass-out-cold route at the Metropole years ago, so they're used to guests that smell like the bottom of a wine bottle.
AYAHUASCA IN BRAZIL
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The buzz: For more than 3,000 years, Amazonian tribes have been using this tea—brewed from the vine of the ayahuasca plant and the leaves of the chacruna, a member of the coffee family—to cure emotional ailments. Current practitioners describe it as a confrontation with one's innermost self. But this is no sissy sipping experience: Because the tea contains dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, you'll have emotional highs similar to what you experience on Ecstasy and hallucinations on par with peyote. The trip can last from 2 to 5 hours, depending on the amount of tea you drink.
Where to score: Heart of the Initiate, a U.S.-based organization, offers ayahuasca workshops at an eco-resort on the coast of Brazil, where the indigenous, religious, and ritual use of ayahuasca is protected by federal law. The workshops—either 8 or 17 days—begin with 2 days of decompression, followed by ayahuasca ceremonies every other day, led by an experienced shaman. The company insists that ayahuasca is not a recreational drug, warning that you should expect to "get comfortable with being uncomfortable."
Where to chill: The simple answer? You won't. The ceremony itself can get quite intense—there's chanting, songs in tribal languages, incense, and, of course, drinking the tea. And you should expect to throw up. Just as in ayurvedic traditions on the other side of the world, vomiting is an expected and therapeutic part of the process. Champions claim that ayahuasca purges the digestive, circulatory, and neurological systems, and many participants report a feeling of well-being and internal "cleanliness" that lasts after the ceremony.
How to come down: Feel free to wander within the bounds of the resort, but don't give in to the siren song of the beach—the riptides can be extremely dangerous. Coming down from the experience as a whole, though, is a longer process. Past trippers talk about sporadic bursts of emotional insights for weeks after the workshops—so you may as well do that on the beach in Rio.
ABSINTHE IN PARIS
The buzz: Absinthe's Belle Époque heyday—and its popularity with dissolute artistes such as Baudelaire, Van Gogh, and Oscar Wilde—resulted in a bad-boy rep for hallucinations and bizarre behavior. Suspicions about the drink's potency led to a ban in France for nearly 100 years until its repeal in 2001. The truth is that absinthe won't make you see green fairies or cut off your ear—it just adds an up-tempo booze buzz that makes the world a little brighter.
Where to score: Since the repeal, the anise-flavored beverage has been mixed into overpriced cocktails in models-and-bottles territory. But there's only one way to do it right. Absinthe must be properly "louched"—that is, diluted with a slow drip of ice water, which changes its color and viscosity. An absinthe fountain is the easiest way to louche your drink, so pick one up at Vert d'Absinthe, an absinthe emporium in the City of Light.
Where to chill: The best places to drink absinthe are where it flows freely. Les Caves du Roy in Paris has an enormous selection as well as dark nooks in which to drink yourself silly. But since you can only sample so many kinds of absinthe before you fall flat on your face, try making a weekend of it. Each October, nearly a thousand tourists make the four-hour trek from Paris to Pontarlier in eastern France to attend the Absinthiades, a three-day absinthe booze-fest.
How to come down: With coffee, croissants, and more absinthe, suggests expert Brian Robinson, review editor for the Wormwood Society. If you can't bear that idea, head to the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz. Its namesake was an avid consumer of absinthe back in the Lost Generation days, but the bar's expertly shaken martini will ease you back to equilibrium much more gently.
by Barbara Cleveland
April 21, 2009
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