Channing Tatum has a recurring dream in which he sprints furiously across an unfamiliar landscape, then, arms outstretched, takes flight, soaring above the terrain like a hang glider. A version of this dream comes to him one night in spring of 2014, while dozing in a hammock deep inside Ecuador’s rainforest. This time he runs up a hill dotted with tall trees. At the crest stands a forbidding wall that rises as he draws nearer. Barefoot, he bounds up the wall and, reaching the top, sees a vast territory unfurling toward the horizon. He pauses, then plunges down the other side.
The next morning Tatum recounts the details of the dream to a group of us sitting on tree stumps around a smoldering fire, in a remote indigenous Sápara settlement near the border of Peru. The villagers have painted our cheeks with a reddish pigment made from tree seeds, issued us each Sápara names (Tatum takes “Tsamaraw,” which means “protector spirit”), and blown tobacco smoke into our faces to expel negative energy.
In our hands are coconut shells that contain a caffeinated elixir we’ve traveled 4,000 miles to find: guayusa, a plant native to the western Amazon, whose green, elliptical leaves have been a staple of the region’s indigenous populations for thousands of years.
The Sápara drink guayusa (“gwhy-YOU-sa”) for stamina, and as a tool to interpret dreams. Shipibo medicine men in Peru prescribe a strong, guayusa-based drink to patients who suffer from trauma, as a way to conquer fear. The Kichwa people, in Ecuador’s northern jungle, say the plant also kills hunger, and often pack guayusa leaves as their only sustenance on long hunting expeditions.
A Kichwa man had described to me the mystical circumstances surrounding the discovery of the plant’s energy-boosting properties. It was during an era of tribal warfare; one night the spirit of a tree told a sleeping Kichwa sentinel, “Hey friend, I can help you.” The sentinel awoke to find a bush rustling nearby. He chewed its leaves, and immediately felt alert and animated. Today the Kichwa refer to guayusa as “the night watchman’s plant.”
Tatum, the star of Foxcatcher and this summer’s Magic Mike XXL, has come to the Amazon to sample the plant for a different reason. An investor in the New York-based beverage startup Runa (a Kichwa word meaning “fully alive”), the first company to produce drinks containing guayusa, he wants to learn everything there is to know about it. We’ve spent the last few days with Runa’s co-founders, Tyler Gage and Dan MacCombie, drinking, farming, and literally bathing in guayusa as women pour bucketfuls over our heads.
Gage and MacCombie represent the latest entrepreneurial rush into the rainforest—a place from which, in recent years, marketers have emerged with billion-dollar beverage products like açai. Leveraging Tatum’s celebrity, the pair hope to break into the $30 billion energy drink market, a field dominated by Red Bull and brands like Monster Beverage, which has concocted a juggernaut out of guarana, another caffeinated Amazonian plant. Trouble is, unlike guarana, few people have heard of guayusa. Tatum, Runa’s unofficial spokesman (his exact role is still being hashed out), hopes to change that.
After Tatum finishes describing his dream, a soft-spoken Sápara man focuses on him: “Your running represents the instinct of always striving to go further,” he says. “By making it to the top, you made it in your personal, professional, and spiritual life—there is nowhere else to go. But that expanse on the other side: That is the platform to recognize who you truly are.”
I wait for Tatum to lighten the mood. After all, this is the Jump Street star whose dick jokes have gone viral. He’s also a well-known prankster off camera. In fact, earlier this trip, he yanked me from a raft into a fast-flowing river and goaded me into eating a squirming grub from a palm tree. I expect him to respond to this shamanic psychoanalysis with a self-deprecating joke.
Instead Tatum nods along earnestly, pauses, then takes a sip from his coconut shell and launches into yet another dream, about waking up in a room from which he can’t escape. “This happens a lot,” he begins, “and I wonder what it means...”