A Shaman’s Murder Uncovers the Dark Side of Ayahuasca


More research is needed to fully understand ayahuasca’s effect on the brain. But, over the past decade or so, as a result of the drug’s widely touted benefits, hundreds of shamanic schools and ayahuasca retreats, many run by North American and European expats, have popped up that promise to cure all manner of ailments, while providing a mind-expanding experience. The most profitable retreats in Iquitos, Peru’s largest jungle city, bring in nearly $6 million annually and charge guests as much as $2,700 for a week’s stay, according to Carlos Suárez Álvarez, the author of Ayahuasca, Iquitos, and Monster Vorax. Proponents of the drug claim that the ayahuasca boom has helped to revive tribal culture and injected much-needed revenue into indigenous communities. But locals I spoke with disagreed. Ronald Suárez, a Shipibo-Conibo leader, told me that ayahuasca tourism has become an industry churning out a product for wealthy foreigners, “turning our medicine into a recreational party drug.” Native communities view the rain forest as a living thing, many locals told me, whereas outsiders have historically regarded it as a warehouse of gold, lumber, and oil worth exploiting—and that ayahuasca is no different. “This harms our culture very badly,” Suárez said. Now, in many of these communities, there is only suspicion and fear of the foreigner, he said.

Nowadays, ayahuasca can be found around the world—Brooklyn, Silicon Valley, Madrid. But the Amazon remains the epicenter. Although the ayahuasca ritual was declared part of Peru’s national heritage in 2008, the country has no formal guidelines for how a ceremony should be conducted, nor any governmental body regulating who can conduct one. In Pucallpa, the nearest city to Victoria Gracia, I saw ayahuasca sold in Coke bottles at markets, advertised on posters, and peddled by rickshaw drivers. According to author Carlos Suárez Álvarez, over the past decade, as demand has increased, the cost of ayahuasca has as well, going from about $10 a session to 10 times that, and often much more. And as the price of ayahuasca has risen, so has the number of pseudo-shamans. “It takes years to become a shaman,” Pedro Tangoa, a renowned Shipibo shaman, told me. “It requires patience and deep knowledge of plants and herbal remedies. These fake shamans have no idea what they are doing.” They see ayahuasca as a business opportunity, he said, and, as such, “often mix the ayahuasca with other, more volatile plants, such as toé and floripondio, to create a more explosive trip” for tourists.

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