Ayahuasca Tourism: Ground Zero
By Peter Gorman
I am ground zero on Ayahuasca Tourism. That’s the type of tour that people take to the Peruvian or Ecuadorian or Brazilian Amazon during which they drink the legendary visionary medicine ayahuasca. It’s often the primary reason for people going to the Amazon, particularly the Iquitos, Peru area, where more than two dozen camps exist exclusively for the purpose of serving the medicine.
Ayahuasca tourism is a dirty word in a lot of circles. It carries the negative implication of Westerners going into the Amazon to steal a vital and traditional medicine from the curanderos and shaman who work with it. And indeed, a lot of curanderos—who are generally the doctors on the rivers on which they live—have been lured away from taking care of their community for lengths of time by the opportunity of serving tourists for relatively big bucks. On the other hand, those who run the camps defend their work by noting that 15 years ago interest in the medicine was waning on the rivers and few curanderos even had apprentices. With the boom in ayahuasca tourism, that has changed dramatically. In fact, it wouldn’t be unfair to say there are an awful lot of people serving ayahuasca who shouldn’t be, just because of the need for curanderos and the price people are willing to pay for it. Beyond that, many curanderos now do have very legitimate apprentices, the result of locals seeing the respect shown the curanderos by outsiders.
So it’s a mixed equation as to whether ayahuasca tourism is good or bad for the people in the Amazon. Either way, the phenomenon exists and has been growing for several years.
It had to start somewhere, and that was with me.
In 1986, after two trips to the Peruvian Amazon, during each of which I had the opportunity to travel deep into the jungle and drink ayahuasca, I wrote an account of my experiences that was published in High Times magazine as a cover story. Other pieces had been written about ayahuasca—early Amazon explorers had discussed it, Marlene Dobkin de Rios had written books about it, and Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs had written The Yaje Letters, for example—prior to my story, but most of that material was either scientific in nature or obscure. And in the pre-internet days, discovering something obscure meant hours and hours at a library; even then it’s doubtful that most town libraries would have carried material on a subject as little known as a jungle medicine.
But a story in High Times magazine, with the cover line, Ayahuasca—Mindbending Drug of the Amazon, as awful as it was, got peoples’ attention. And it was, I later discovered, the first cover story in a national magazine on the topic.
As a result of that story, the two big Amazon tour companies operating out of Iquitos at the time began to get requests from their clients to provide this experience to their guests. One of them even sent someone down to talk with one of the curandero’s I’d written about—Julio, who became my great friend and teacher—and asked him if he would come to the Iquitos area once a week and hold an ayahuasca ceremony for tourists. Julio, quite old and a river person who was shy around outsiders, said no. But Julio’s young apprentice, Salis Navarro, said he would do it. And he did. And that was the beginning of ayahuasca tourism. The medicine had always been available to people like me who found ourselves deep in the jungle, but from that point on tour companies found it necessary to offer the medicine as part of their package.
Tuesday, August 04, 2009
Ayahuasca Tourism: Ground Zero