Ayahuasca Tourism

Not only have Westerners and Northerners participated in the aya-huasca religious ceremonies of the Santo Daime and the UDV, but there has also been in the past ten years or so a dramatic increase in the number of Europeans and North Americans who have journeyed to the Amazon to participate in guided tours of rain forest ecology and indigenous culture—tours that will often include one or more ayahuasca sessions guided by a local mestizo shaman. The increasing interest in ayahuasca tourism was triggered in part by the writings of the visionary philosopher Terence McKenna and his scientist brother Dennis, especially their astonishing work The Invisible Landscape (1975), and Terence McKenna's True Hallucinations (1993), books that described their exotic hallucinatory, ethnobotanical, and alchemical adventures. Interest in ayahuasca was further increased by the two books by Bruce Lamb on Manuel Cordova de Rios, the already mentioned Wizard of the Upper Amazon (1971) and the sequel Rio Tigre and Beyond (1985);

and an amazing collection of paintings of ayahuasca visions by the erstwhile ayahuasquero Pablo Amaringo, along with his story of giving up the practice of healing because of his distaste for the sorcery associated with it (Amaringo and Luna 1991). The rock musicians Sting and Paul Simon each shared stories about their experiences with ayahuasca, which lent further celebrity allure (Grunwell 1998). Several mestizo ayahuasqueros have also traveled repeatedly to the United States and Europe, conducting ceremonies in Western houses with middle-class, educated, mostly white participants. Ayahuasca jungle tours are advertised on the Internet and in magazines such as Shaman's Drum.

Ayahuasca tourism has come in for its share of criticism from those who decry naive and possibly exploitative intrusions into indigenous cultures, and those who warn tourists of being duped by ignorant fake shamans, or damaged and poisoned by sorcerers. Nevertheless, one cannot simply dismiss a whole category of people, many of whom are sincerely seeking some spiritual wisdom and insight into their lives and some of whom are desperately seeking relief from illnesses that Western medicine has been unable to cure. Some miraculous cancer "cures" have been reported (MAPS 1998). On the side of the indigenous cultures, the ayahuasca tourists, like other tourists, contribute desperately needed funds to local South American economies. Ecological preserves are being set up to protect the rain forest and all its medicinal and psychoactive plants. Ayahuasca tourism and ecotourism converge in their goals and methods. There is always the possibility of abuse, but the positive effects are also real.

Similarly, the ayahuasca churches have been criticized as exploitative misappropriations of shamanic methods and teachings. It is true the churches have each created their own mythology, and rarely acknowledge the contribution of the native Indians to their medicinal and ethnobotanical practices. Indeed, the hierarchy of the UDV, for example, claim that their founder Mestre Gabriel realized that in a previous incarnation he was an Inca king who showed the Indians how to prepare and use the ayahuasca. Once again, the native people's know, edge and methods are disparaged and marginalized. However, it is not true that the churches represent a decadent shamanic practice. They represent a syncretic religious form that makes this hallucinogenic healing brew available to thousands of urban residents both in South America and in North America and Europe. In meeting with people of the different churches, I have not been drawn to join their particular religion or accept their ideology, but nevertheless I've appreciated their values, which are humane and supportive of family and community.

Out of studies by North Americans in Peru and Brazil, with mestizo shamans and anthropologists who have studied with them, has grown a network of Western psychedelic seekers who come to aya-huasca often with considerable experience with psychotherapeutic uses of psychedelic drugs. It is from this loose collection of consciousness explorers that most of the accounts in this book are drawn. I call their approach a hybrid of shamanic and psychotherapeutic methods.

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