Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Reality of What Things Cost in the Amazon

On a discussion board I occasionally post on, the question of the cost of going to a jungle compound to drink ayahuasca with a curandero has been getting a lot of play lately. And some of the posters think that curanderos who charge $50 a night for a gringo to visit their compound is way too high. They argue that deep in the jungle or even in Iquitos, locals don't pay nearly that for a traditional Tuesday or Friday night ayahuasca ceremony. Which is true: Locals on the river often pay with work, or a chicken or some bananas. Locals in the city often pay with prepared food or with what money they can afford.
But in the last several years, with ayahuasca interest having spiked among tourists, several curanderos have built jungle compounds, places where people can come to drink the medicine and then sleep surrounded by rainforest without having to take riverboats a half-a-day up or down the river, deal with mosquitos and possibly snakes and so forth. The new compounds have simply made the medicine more accessable to a larger number of foreigners who would otherwise not be able to get it.
And, of course, that brought up the question of paying for medicine and that brought out some tempers. To help clarify matters, I posted this note to give those who don't know an idea of what's involved in building and maintaining one of those jungle compounds.
Here's that post:
I don't have any horses in this dance, as nearly all of my work with ayahuasca has been done way up the river with Julio and now with his son Hairo.
But I think what's often missed about the costs in Peru is the reality that the more you make, the more people you'll wind up supporting. I don't know, for instance, Percy's personal circumstances [Percy is a young curandero who charges $50 a night, evidently], but I'll bet he paid good money for the land he's using on the Nauta road. I'll bet he had to pay several men for several day's work to demark it, and, if it's fenced, to fence it. He had to pay to get his buildings built and for any equipment he has, from a stove to buckets to carry water. And all of that stuff had to be bought in Iquitos and hauled in, piece by peace, leaf-roof section by leaf-roof section.
Those things are not inexpensive: On a small piece of land I bought recently three kilometers off the Nauta road and a kilometer into the jungle, the initial cost of the land was just $3,000. Getting title changed, having a path semi-cleared to get into the land, having red paint markings put on trees to demark the land--under the watchful eye of two officials from the Dept. of Agriculture, eliminating a squatter who was buring primary rainforest to make charcoal, having a jungle hut and kitchen built, having a swimming hole dug and paying for a part time guardian---those simple things cost more than double the cost of the land. And my joint is anything but a compound that anyone but the heartiest soul would want to visit.
But in the case of people who actually accomodate guests at their compounds, there may be four or five people who work full time at maintaining the place, building new accomodations, cutting wood for fires, hauling water, checking for snakes, guarding the property, going to town to buy food, cooking and so forth. And each of those people might be the head of their household, with several people depending on them.
So the guy asking $50 a night from visitors could easily have a payroll of $500 a week, not including his own families' needs, whether or not he has visitors on a given week.
And he or she is probably happy to be able to provide so much work to so many. But someone has to pay the freight for it to happen because the curandero can't do that all by him/herself.
I think any evaluation of costs-to-the-gringo has to include this reality. To ignore it is to not understand how things work in the Peruvian Amazon.


Anonymous said...


I find this so crazy that people even think they should work for free or less...And who is working for free?! not me, not you, so why should they do that... My opinion about people who think so have money issu. and it would be nice if they solve that : )

All my best to you.

bamboo said...

Interesting article and one that got me thinking. In my experience with aboriginal sweats and the healing done through particular ceremony and ritual, we were expected to pay both in offerings of tabaco to the creator for "spitual/life teachings" and work on the land for the elder shaman operating the sweats. The odd time someone new would come to a sweat and would be appalled at the thought of any sort of payment that would be made for what they considered to be divine teachings. It makes me wonder if its western rebellion against the catholic/protestant/jewish established practice of making church donations or just the fear of being scammed?
I was suprised when you mentioned this in your article as I was hoping (wishfully and with a certain sense of fantasy) that it had not yet reached the amazon.

Bottom line is people have to eat and you can afford to travel from north america to peru for a week, fork over the cash and happy for the experience.

bamboo said...

The last line on my post should read "if you can afford" and "be happy for the experience"

cheers, bamboo

Arbol said...

You gotta pay to play, no matter what diversion one is trying in their lifestream atm. To many people want things for free. Tickets to ride! Those few complaining, don't have a clue as to the reality behind 3rd world situations. They live in their own personal little Disneyland and whine about every little tiny expectation catered to them.

esoter1c said...

Anyone complaining about $50 for ceremony, doesn't deserve ceremony.

esoter1c said...

$50 is nothing for a dream.

People pay $150 here in Vancouver.

I personally pay about $20 & brew my own. ;)

Phoenix said...

so many people, especially gringos don't know the value of things. None of those complaining could last a year living in the jungle. I'm happy to have experience guides. of course picking ethical ones is another matter.