Ayahuasca in Peru

Ayahuasca in Peru: Discover the spiritual and therapeutic potential of ayahuasca, a sacred psychedelic brew, and navigate the growing landscape of ayahuasca tourism.

TL;DR: Ayahuasca is a psychedelic brew used by indigenous tribes in South America for spiritual and medicinal purposes. Research suggests its therapeutic potential in addressing conditions like depression and addiction. Early accounts by travelers portrayed ayahuasca negatively, but recent scientific evidence supports its medicinal benefits. Ayahuasca tourism has grown in Peru, attracting individuals seeking transformative experiences. However, concerns of cultural appropriation and unethical practices have emerged. Ayahuasca ceremonies involve communal settings, purging, and the singing of icaros. Participants must adhere to dietary and lifestyle guidelines before the retreat to ensure safety and respect for the sacred practice. Respecting these traditions honors the wisdom of indigenous cultures.

Ayahuasca: A Sacred Brew with a Rich History

Ayahuasca is a psychedelic brew made from plants that contain DMT, a naturally-occurring psychedelic compound. It has been used by indigenous tribes in Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil for spiritual and medicinal purposes. Translated from the Quechua language to English, the term ayahuasca means “Vine of the Soul.” 

Emerging research indicates that ayahuasca holds therapeutic potential, corroborating the numerous anecdotal accounts of its healing effects. Preliminary studies suggest that ayahuasca may have positive outcomes in addressing conditions such as depression, anxiety, addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). 

The English naturalist Richard Spruce first encountered ayahuasca in 1852 during a ceremony conducted by the Tucano people in Brazil. He wrote about his experience in a book called 'Notes of a Botanist on the Amazon and Andes' in 1873, which was the first scientific account of ayahuasca.

Throughout history, indigenous cultures have valued psychedelic plant medicines like ayahuasca as a means of spiritual exploration, healing, and connecting with the divine. The book 'Plants of the Gods,' written by Richard Evans Schultes, Albert Hofmann, and Christian Ratsch, further explores the significant cultural impact of visionary plants.

First Accounts of Ayahuasca in Peru

The use of ayahuasca has a long history, with the earliest non-scientific accounts dating back to the 17th century. Jesuit missionary Jose Chantre y Herrera documented the ingestion of what he called a "diabolical brew" in Peru during that time. According to Chantre y Herrera, ayahuasca rituals involved a shaman known as a "curandero" consuming the brew and invoking spirits through singing.

Chantre y Herrera observed that the initial effects of ayahuasca could lead to aggressive behavior, which eventually subsided into a trance-like state. He believed that the curandero's soul left the physical body, allowing the spirit of Ayahuasca to speak through them.

It's important to note that Chantre y Herrera had a specific agenda as a representative of the Jesuit mission. His writings aimed to promote the heroism of the Jesuits' work, and as a result, he portrayed the indigenous people of Peru and their ayahuasca rituals in a negative light, labeling them as liars and sorcerers.

Another Jesuit missionary, Italian priest Pablo Maroni, further criticized indigenous ayahuasca rituals in 1737, claiming that the brew deprived users of their senses and even their lives. Maroni's focus was on converting tribes to Christianity and establishing settlements of converted indigenous people.

In a slightly more positive light, Franz Xavier Veigl, head of the mission to Quito in Peru, encountered ayahuasca in Maynas in the 1750s. Although he considered it a substance used for "superstitious practices and witchcraft," he acknowledged its worthiness of mention.

In recent times, scientists have begun studying ayahuasca, examining its effects on the body, brain, and mental health. Contrary to the earlier biased accounts from traveling missionaries, evidence suggests that ayahuasca has significant medicinal and spiritual benefits. This has contributed to its popularity as an alternative treatment for various illnesses, spiritual exploration, and the emergence of "ayahuasca tourism."

Peru: The Epicenter of Ayahuasca Tourism

Tourism in Peru is experiencing significant growth, with a notable factor being the increasing number of individuals flocking to the Peruvian jungle to participate in multi-day ayahuasca retreats.

These individuals are drawn by the perceived benefits of this traditional medicine. Over the past two decades, Iquitos, Peru has emerged as the prominent hub for ayahuasca, attracting Western entrepreneurs who have established ayahuasca centers in the city and surrounding areas of the Amazon basin.

Every year, a large number of foreigners from various countries travel to engage in what they consider to be "authentic" ayahuasca rituals. They seek self-discovery, reconnection, relief from psychological issues, or a transformative spiritual awakening facilitated by a substance that may be illegal in their home countries.

Many participants of these retreats report profound experiences characterized by feelings of unity, interconnectedness, and valuable insights. The reverential atmosphere and various experiential aspects of the ritual are reported to play a central role in these positive experiences.

However, it is important to acknowledge that while many participants report positive and transformative experiences, there is also the potential for negative or challenging encounters during ayahuasca ceremonies. Individual reactions and responses to the brew can vary, and it is crucial for participants to approach these experiences with caution and under the guidance of experienced and responsible facilitators.

The increasing demand for traditional ayahuasca experiences has not been without its share of controversy.

Concerns Surrounding Ayahuasca Tourism in Peru

There are concerns regarding the cultural appropriation of sacred indigenous practices, where they have been transformed into business opportunities and marketed to uninformed Western individuals as a quick fix. Additionally, some people raise alarms about reported deaths related to ayahuasca, although the exact causes remain unclear.

It is crucial to acknowledge that the majority of curanderos, being highly skilled, have devoted significant time and effort to undergo extensive training in order to attain a deep understanding and reverence for the sacredness of their practice.

However, the increasing popularity of modern-day ayahuasca retreats, with their potential for financial gain, has also attracted individuals who may not possess the same level of integrity. These charlatan curanderos prioritize monetary gain over genuine healing and may lack the knowledge and experience necessary to guide participants in a safe and positive manner.

A small number of unethical individuals posing as curanderos have intentionally harmed Western tourists and attempted to undermine the growing trend of ayahuasca tourism. They have contaminated the brew with dangerous substances like the highly toxic toé (Brugmansia), commonly known as angel's trumpet, which is lethal in any form. In other cases, fake curanderos have exploited ayahuasca's capacity to enhance suggestibility and engaged in reprehensible acts of sexual exploitation with vulnerable women.

While ayahuasca itself is not inherently dangerous for most healthy people (as a toxic dose is approximately 20 times higher than a typical ceremonial dose), contaminated brews and malicious “curanderos” can pose serious risks. 

In addition to the concerns mentioned earlier, it is important to consider individual health factors and contraindications, such as pre-existing cardiovascular conditions or vulnerability to psychotic disorders. These conditions may increase the risk of adverse reactions or complications during ayahuasca experiences.

Thorough research should be conducted to ensure the safety of retreat centers and the credibility of curanderos.

Experiential Elements of Ayahuasca Ceremonies

Ayahuasca ceremonies take place in communal dwellings known as malocas, characterized by their large conical roofs, specifically designed for the purpose of ayahuasca journeys. These malocas hold deep symbolic significance for native communities, representing the unity of indigenous groups.

During the ceremony, participants sit in a circle on their own mats or thin mattresses, facing one another and the curandero/s

To facilitate the process, participants are provided with purge buckets in case they feel the need to vomit. In the context of ayahuasca shamanism, vomiting is not seen as an undesirable side effect but rather as a potent method of purifying the body from intrusive entities and negative energies. It is viewed as a way to release negative energies, toxins, and emotional blockages, allowing for a deeper healing and transformative experience. In Spanish, ayahuasca is sometimes referred to as "la purga," which translates to "the purge."

A significant component of ayahuasca ceremonies is the presence of "icaros" or "ikaros" – magical songs sung or whistled by the curandero throughout the experience. Each participant typically receives a personalized icaro believed to embody the spirits of plants, animals, and ancestors.

These icaros assist participants in embracing the vivid visions and profound physical sensations produced by the medicine. The visionary experiences may be educational or insightful, leading to the reference of ayahuasca as a “plant teacher.”

Preparing for an Ayahuasca Retreat: Dietary and Lifestyle Guidelines 

Prior to participating in an ayahuasca retreat, attendees are expected to adhere to specific dietary and lifestyle guidelines that may differ from their usual routines. These requirements are put in place to ensure a safe and respectful experience for all participants.

Participants are advised to avoid consuming foods containing the amino acid tyramine, such as mature avocados, chocolate, cheese, yogurt, buttermilk, peanuts, eggplants, figs, grapes, pineapples, plums, raisins, prunes, and lentils. This caution is due to the potential interaction between these foods and the MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors) present in the B. caapi vine used in ayahuasca brew. Combining them could lead to dangerous increases in blood pressure. Additionally, it is recommended to avoid red meat, pork, fermented foods, stimulants, caffeine, spices, chili, fats, oil, salt, and sugar as much as possible.

The purpose of adhering to this dietary regimen, known as "dieta," is to establish a respectful connection with the spirit of ayahuasca and to prepare the body and mind for the upcoming journey. Many retreat centers also require guests to refrain from any drug use, including both prescription and recreational substances, including alcohol, for at least one week prior to the first ceremony. It is strongly recommended to abstain from sexual activity and masturbation for 1-2 weeks before the ceremonies as well.

While some of these recommendations may appear inconvenient or unnecessary to some, it is important to consider the wisdom and experience of the curanderos who guide these ceremonies. Indigenous tribes in the Peruvian Amazon have been working with ayahuasca for thousands of years according to some researchers. Respecting and following these guidelines is a way to honor the traditions and knowledge passed down through generations.

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