The LURE Guide to: Ayahuasca
BEFORE AYAHUASCA WAS TRENDY, IT WAS A TOOL FOR INDIGENOUS AMAZONIANS.
Ayahuasca might be the latest buzzword in Peruvian tourism, but for several Amazonian tribes, it’s a sacred tradition. Meaning “vine of the spirits” in the indigenous Quechua language, the use of ayahuasca as a spiritual plant medicine can be traced back 2,500 years, thanks to archaeological excavations.
“This form of natural healing is deeply rooted in indigenous Amazonian culture,” a Mexican anthropologist specializing in shamanic tradition, withholding her name for privacy reasons, tells LURE. “People in modern civilization are often completely alienated from nature. It's challenging to communicate these cultural complexities to them.”
Ayahuasca works in various ways. It physically “cleanses” the body through vomiting and diarrhea (what’s known as la purga), and mentally through its powerful psychoactive properties. The concoction is considered an illegal Class 1 drug in the United States.
“It is not addictive,” says shaman Magno Zambrano Panduro, who practices in jungle villages around Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon. “It heals your mind and your body. You encounter your biggest passions – and worst fears.”
Since the 1990s, ayahuasca retreats in South America have become popular among tourists seeking mind-altering experiences and ayahuasca as an alternative therapy for illnesses. For some, the indigenous tradition offers a solution where they believe Western medicine has reached its limits.
Ayahuasca tourism has become one of Peru's most lucrative markets. A 10-day ayahuasca retreat in Iquitos costs upwards of $1,000 USD. Around 40 individual camps are estimated to together earn multi-million dollar revenues annually.
Traditionally shamans, or curanderos, take ayahuasca with their patients. Magno says doing this allows him to identify negative energies, deep-seated traumas and even physical conditions. He first took ayahuasca at the age of 11 years old.
But at more and more ayahuasca retreats, foreigners down the drink alone and are tended to by ayahuasqueros, who are able to prepare and cook the ayahuasca brew, but have never received formal training. Magno calls them “pseudo shamans,” as a growing number of ayahuasqueros have been implicated in tourist deaths.
It’s no wonder that ayahuasca retreats are being disputed as an appropriation of indigenous culture, transforming sacred medicine into a business scheme.
But it’s a double-edged sword. Many ancient traditions are in danger of being forgotten, particularly as more rural Peruvians migrate to urban centers, increasingly displaced by deforestation in the Amazon.
“Today around 25 percent of Western pharmaceuticals are derived from rainforest materials, but only 1 percent of plants of the Amazon have so far been tested,” says the website for the Temple of the Way of Light, a healing center in Iquitos. Early research on ayahuasca suggests it might also be a promising treatment for depression, anxiety and addiction.
So the full healing potential of Amazonian flora might never be known. Magno told us there are fears about ayahuasca going extinct due to overharvesting. The price for the “banisteriopsis caapi” vine, the raw ingredient in ayahuasca, has tripled in the last six years. Over the last half century, over 25 percent of the Amazon has been lost to logging, mining and the agricultural production of cattle and soybeans for global export.