Ayahuasca: A Peruvian Brew of Tradition and Tourism

“It’s a confrontation with your own inner darkness, your shadow.” —Diego Palma, shaman at Maha Templo

By Gabriella Borter

In the colored light filtering through the stained-glass window of Maha Templo, eighty mats are laid out in concentric circles, each with a plastic pail sitting next to it. “For the vomiting,” says Diego Palma. He watches his young daughter play with a toy on one of the mats, completely at home in this shrine that her father built in his own backyard. Palma is expecting a full house for his ceremony tonight–every single mat and pail will be used, most likely by a foreigner, who has come to Peru to drink ayahuasca tea.

Ayahuasca is also a foreigner in the Sacred Valley where Palma and his family live. The vine, formally known as banisteriopsis caapi, grows in the Amazon jungle and is regarded as a sacred medicine. For thousands of years, indigenous peoples of the Amazon have brewed the vine and have drunk the ayahuasca tea to purge themselves of evil spirits.

The western world did not hear of this “miracle brew” until the 1960s, when demand for psychedelic experiences was high. Over the years, perseverant tourists have traveled to Peru and sought out shamans in the depths of the jungle. Testimonies of incredible hallucinations and spiritual healing have continued to feed the growing global fascination with ayahuasca.

Today, perseverant tourists need not risk their lives trekking the jungle to find an ayahuasca shaman–one must be perseverant to avoid the ubiquitous drug. Once a sanctified aspect of indigenous culture, ayahuasca is now also becoming a fad, a tourist attraction, and a booming industry.  

Palma, like many other shamans, sees the benefit of ayahuasca’s accessibility in that it has the power to save lives. He claims it saved his.

“When I first tried ayahuasca, I was in a really unhappy marriage and I was a workaholic. I was really open to drinking whatever, poison if it was the right medicine, to change my reality,” he said.

Shortly after trying ayahuasca, Palma went to the jungle to learn about the plant at its roots. He has now been operating his company, Ayahuasca-Wasi Retreats, for eighteen years.

An overwhelming emotional response is common in first-time ayahuasca users, since the drug is a purgative in more ways than one; the drinker vomits, and also experiences a resurgence of memories and emotions from their subconscious.

“When you are in this expanded state of awareness, you will see all your reality from a different point of perception, a wider perception,” explained Palma. “All your traumas, all your childhood issues, all your wounds, all of your relationship issues with your mother and your father, everything. It’s a confrontation with your own inner darkness, your shadow.”

The result is a sort of high-power spiritual detox. Kelvin Carranza, a 27-year-old from Lima who has been drinking regularly for four years, describes the experience as “20 years of therapy in one night.”

Although the effects sound miraculous, Palma emphasizes that the ayahuasca’s purification of the soul is neither instantaneous nor brought about by the shaman. The healing requires unwavering determination on the part of the drinkers, before and throughout the ceremony, to rid themselves of negative energy.

In the past, Palma has had to make this clear to tourists who believe that either he or the ayahuasca will cure them of their woes. “My work is to hold the space,” he said. “You drink the medicine and you do the work. No one is going to do the work for you.”

Even for people who are committed to healing themselves, the ceremony can be daunting. Palma describes the setting of his ceremonies in the Maha Templo, which take place at night and in almost complete darkness. Those in attendance, anywhere from 40 to 100 people at his ceremonies, drink 50 milliliters of the ayahuasca tea. Palma and his assistant curanderos (facilitators) play musical instruments and sing icaros, the traditional shaman songs. This is the only sound in the room for the next four hours, except for the occasional belch of vomiting and the cries of people facing fears and painful memories that they had formerly suppressed.

But at the end of the four- to five-hour ceremony, there is an air of calm triumph in the room.

“Even in the worst cases, when people are screaming out their lungs and trying to hit everyone in the ceremony and we have to pin them to the ground, after some hours they are going to be telling you about their amazing experience,” Palma said.

Ayahuasca users might describe their experience as amazing at the end, but they take a risk by choosing to drink in the first place. Ayahuasca remains illegal in most western countries, the U.S. included (although the Supreme Court has made an exception for two religious groups of Brazilian origin that appealed for the right to use ayahuasca in ritual). This is  because ayahuasca tea is made with chacruna, a root that contains DMT (dimethyltryptamine). A Schedule 1 drug and the same psychedelic compound found in LSD, DMT is the source of ayahuasca’s hallucinatory properties and occasionally a cause of death for those who abuse it.

Palma proudly states that in his eighteen years of facilitating ayahuasca ceremonies, no one has ever needed to go to the hospital. Like all experienced shamans, he requires that the people who use ayahuasca under his watch abide by a strict diet for a week to ten days prior to drinking. This is essential to avoid dangerous chemical interactions with the psychoactive tea.

The ayahuasca diet varies depending on whom you ask, but most experts agree that people should not eat meat or spicy foods, drink alcohol, have sex or take any sort of medication in the period leading up to a ceremony. People with heart conditions or high blood pressure are also forbidden from drinking.

In recent years, ayahuasca has been implicated in several tourist deaths, garnering media scrutiny and an infamous reputation. These included the death of a French woman in 2011, who is thought to have had a preexisting heart condition that caused her to go into cardiac arrest while on the drug, and the death of a British man who was stabbed by another tourist at a ceremony in 2015.

Carranza says that ayahuasca is not to blame, but rather the tourists’ carelessness that leads to adverse reactions.

“It’s really frustrating how the news and the media blames ayahuasca for some deaths when the responsibilities of those deaths are on the people themselves,” he said. ”They’re not following instructions, they think it’s just another drug, they don’t do the diet, and they die.”

Peru’s International Center for Ethnobotanical Education Research and Service (ICEERS) states that “the use of ayahuasca by healthy individuals is relatively safe from the physiological health perspective.” One would have to drink many times more than the traditional tea serving to possibly overdose, and there is no evidence that it is an addictive substance.

But the ease of access to the drug in Peru and the eagerness of untrained “shamans” to make money off of tourists can lead to unsafe practices. A practitioner like Palma who runs well-established retreat companies provide their guests with the proper food, accommodations and all of the safety information prior to the ceremonies. Tourists who do not pay $1200-$6000 for these five- to ten-day retreats may not learn the precautionary information, but they can still try ayahuasca for a cheap price at one of the countless kiosk shaman shops in Peru.

To ensure that his clientele is more serious about healing than the tourists who walk into shops off the street, Palma has his guests fill out a form detailing their motivations. He also does not accept groups at Maha Templo, because the healing process is “a very personal thing.”

Not all retreat centers, or shamans, are discerning when it comes to taking money from tourists. More and more people are setting up business in the burgeoning ayahuasca tourism industry, lacking the familial healing background of the ancient Amazonian Shipibo and, more alarmingly, the proper training to facilitate ayahuasca ceremonies.

According to Andres Valladolid of Indecopi, the Peruvian government agency for the protection of indigenous intellectual property rights, there is no official registration process to start an ayahuasca business. Anyone, Peruvian or foreign, can come to the country and earn a living by engaging tourists in the ancient cultural tradition without certification. Consequently, it is almost impossible to distinguish “authentic” healers from untrained drug dealers, and there have been numerous reports of corrupt retreat centers and criminal shamans.

In 2008, the Peruvian National Institute of Culture declared that indigenous ayahuasca rituals were part of the national cultural heritage, distinct from “decontextualized, consumerist and commercial western uses.” Aside from issuing this statement, the institute has not made any legal progress to defend the intellectual property rights of indigenous ritual; the government is still struggling to pass laws that will regulate who can open an ayahuasca business.  

It seems as though the rapid commercialization of the drug has presented as many safety challenges as it has wondrous healing experiences, but defendants of the medicine are still optimistic about ayahuasca’s potential to continue improving lives.

“This is not a business,” Palma said firmly, surveying the magnificent Maha Templo. “It’s my way of life.”

Editor’s note: This article was updated on June 22, 2018.

Gabriella Borter is a junior in Morse College and an English major. Contact her at gabriella.borter@yale.edu.

[aesop_image img=”https://live-tyglobalist.pantheonsite.io/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/Ayahuasca.png” align=”left” lightbox=”on” caption=”From left to right: Carolina Dowell, Juana, the author, and friend Amber Banks.” captionposition=”left”]