Ayahuasca Retreats: Pseudo Shamanism Or The Spiritual Enlightenment We All Need?

What's behind Ayahuasca's growing popularity amongst young women?


by Bridget Minamore |
Published on

The city of Iquitos in Peru is unreachable by road. When tourists head north from their Machu Picchu treks, or south from Ecuador or Colombia, they’ve either flown in or taken a days-long boat ride along the iconic Amazon River. Iquitos is also a city that welcomes tourists. If you’re a Westerner in a restaurant, expect to be given three menus: one in Spanish, one in English, and – thinner than the rest – one ‘Ayahuasca Menu’. This will typically be free of red meat, pork, spicy food, fried food, caffeine, dairy, and overripe or fermented food. If you order something off this menu, your waiter will likely ask (with a wink and a smile) if you’ve abstained from everything. By ‘everything’ he means the foods above, as well as sex.

Also known as Yage, Ayahuasca is a liquid hallucinogen taken primarily in Peru, Brazil, Colombia, and Ecuador. It is usually made up of two main plants: the Ayahuasca vine and a chacruna shrub. Both are native to the Amazon and the shrub contains DMT, a powerful hallucinogenic drug that is illegal in the UK. In South America however, Ayahuasca is not simply a drug but an essential part of religious ceremonies within tribal societies. For centuries, shamans have administered the drug as both medicine and sacrament, but times have changed. In 2008 the Peruvian government recognised Ayahuasca as an essential part of its cultural heritage and made taking it legal within the confines of a religious ceremony – regardless if you’re a native Peruvian or not.

Already a country with a strong traveller trade, the new laws caused a boom in figures. Now, Iquitos is at the heart of Ayahuasca tourism. Estimates vary, but the numbers of Ayahuasca centres in northern Peru are said to now be into three figures. Can’t fly to Peru? No bother: Washington State is home to a new ‘Ayahuasca Church’, ‘aya meetups’ are organised privately in London, and you’re a simple Google search away from dozens of large-scale Ayahuasca retreats across Europe in places like Berlin, Barcelona, Zurich, Copenhagen and, somewhat incongruously, in British suburbia. There are also ‘UK & Ireland’ retreats advertised, which seemingly only take place in Marbella. There’s an irony here – I know that if one of my friends told me she was going to Marbella to get high, a religious ceremony is not the first thing that would come to mind.

Saying that, I’d probably be unsurprised either way. Ayahuasca’s growing popularity in the West, particularly amongst middle class people and young women, can be partly attributed to our growing interest in non-specific ‘spirituality’. As the number of atheists and agnostics increase, it seems as though Millenials are looking to find deeper meaning in their lives as well as in the world around them. Many young women are turning away from alcohol and recreational, guilt-heavy drugs like cocaine, and eschewing the booze-fuelled ladette culture of the early 2000s. Instead, young women have got back into the Tarot cards that were abandoned in their teen years, are swapping gym sessions for yoga classes, and embracing vague but supposedly authentic concepts like ‘wellness’. However, we’re greedy – we want the sacred experiences, we want the cultural exchange that comes with dipping into ‘exotic’ spiritual practice, but not the rules and regulations that come with strictly adhering to religion all year round. It’s no wonder that Ayahuasca retreats, where you literally go to a different country to take something people insist is not a drug, are a perfect fit.

But, why go to the trouble of wanting to take Ayahuasca in the first place? It can be expensive, costing hundreds or even thousands of pounds. The experience itself is also notoriously physically unpleasant, with vomiting and diarrhea not just a common outcome, but an expected one. Ayahuasca Menus, well known in cities like Iquitos, are only so restrictive in an attempt to cleanse your body before you violently throw up for prolonged periods of time.

The relatively unregulated trade is also dealing with some new dangers. In Iquitos you can buy Ayahuasca on the street in cups, which is not only a defiance of the law that says it must be taken within a religious context, but leaves people vulnerable to unknown levels and quantities in the mixture. Tourists have been known to become ill and even die in recent years, and reports of the sexual assault of young women on Ayahuasca retreats are beginning to filter through. In 2015 an anonymous open letter began circulating online, detailing 15 women’s sexually abusive experiences at a retreat in Peru.

However the high from the drug can last up to six hours, and there are many, many accounts of Ayahuasca changing peoples’ lives. On the internet, no drug is spoken about in more reverent terms than Ayahuasca. The phrases toe the line of cliché and cross into hyperbole; 'eye-opening,' 'enlightening,' 'overwhelming' and 'necessary' appear in the accounts over and over. Reports range from visions of the past, present and future, advice from family, friends, God, the gods, and yourself, the appearance of monsters and/or the Devil, as well as the many people who say they become animals in their minds and explore the jungle around them. Others have more sedate experiences: walking through a maze but always knowing which way to turn, or meeting a small child and reading a book. Spiritual answers are found when taking Ayahuasca, but also physical ones; it’s easy to forget the root is still used as a medicine. People around the world claim Ayahuasca has done everything from cure long-term drug addiction to shrink uterine tumours, and there are ongoing studies about the drug’s properties as an anti-depressant.

Michelle, a writer who is now 35, took part in an Ayahuasca ceremony in Argentina when she was 29. 'I spent several months thinking about doing it,' she tells me. 'I had read a lot about plant medicine and was trying to figure out a few things creatively, so just decided to try it and see what happened. The ceremony took place in the shaman’s high-rise flat in Buenos Aires and it was just me and him. It was a strange and largely positive experience… I would do it again as I think that it can be a useful therapeutic tool but would warn against it as a recreational drug. I think it can have some quite unintended and negative consequences if you do not acknowledge what the experience might dredge up.'

For another young woman, Ayahuasca helped her initially get clean following a long battle with addiction: 'I did a cleanse, and I had the eye-opening experience of Ayahuasca. It was really intense, and I saw my whole life in front of me. I had to let go of past things I was trying to hold on to that were dark in my life… like I saw myself die. It was insane. I saw myself being born. And now? I’ve felt different ever since. Just being ok with, you know, the wreckage of my past and letting that go and starting fresh… I’m in a good place… it feels good.' The young woman’s name? Actress Lindsay Lohan, who spoke about her Ayahuasca experience on her post-meltdown, 2014 docu-series Lindsay){href='https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lindsay_(TV_series)' target='_blank' rel='noopener noreferrer'}.

Others found Ayahuasca a little more conflicting. Ffion, 26, is a trainee barrister. Speaking about her Ayahuasca experience, she says: 'I was travelling in Peru with a female friend, and we had spent the whole trip deciding whether we would work up to trying Ayahuasca. Neither of us are huge drug-takers but both were tempted to try what was supposed to be the most intense hallucinogen in the world. We were fresh out of university and I think both wanted to have the kind of life-changing experience you hear about (though we’re both too cynical to admit this now!). I think taking Ayahuasca is much the same as most hedonistic western tourism. We pretend we’re there for a spiritual experience but really we’re just there to get high. There was something mildly fraudulent about the whole thing, despite the fact that we really went out into the jungle and imposed ourselves on a village shaman… looking back, god knows how genuine the whole charade was. Although that might just be my default outlook on things, being British and cynical. The hippy American dude we were with – who was typical in every way – had a very spiritual experience, but he probably has a spiritual experience brushing his teeth. My view is they are obviously fleecing you a bit, but you deserve it.'

For Peruvians, the ethics around the Ayahuasca tourism trade are an even more complex web. Andrea, a student from Lima in Peru, feels conflicted: 'Whenever people hear I am Peruvian now, they don’t only mention Machu Picchu but also Ayahuasca. They are eager to know if I have taken it and how it was. I usually disappoint them by saying I haven't, and telling them how important it is to respect the ceremony and realise the importance and intensity of the whole experience – which means not doing it in the US or London with a white 'neo-shaman'.Foreigners own most of the new retreat centres. Consequently, lot of pseudo-shamans have arisen – not just gringos [white foreigners], but also Peruvians from Lima, people with indigenous heritage, and even people from indigenous communities. But none of them have been prepared to conduct the ceremony or provide proper support to participants. They decontextualise and modify the Ayahuasca ceremony, not only because it is taken out of the environment where the plant is from, but also because some aspects of the ritual (or even the whole ritual itself) are modified to fit the modern western rational.'

Andrea goes on to stress the importance of respecting the religious aspect of the ceremony, saying: 'the ritual and its different aspects (such as the "ícaros" or sacred chants sang by the shaman) are not just accessories, but part of the healing "power" that Ayahuasca provides. It also occurs in the environment where the plant grows and together with a community that has a key role in providing the containment needed during the healing process, which doesn't occur only while you are taking it. Everything is entangled; one can't exist without the other. Many people don't have proper information, are not well-prepared for the ceremony, and unaware of the consequences it might have on their lives. So more and more, there are people not even looking to engage in a healing work but take Ayahuasca as a recreational drug. That is also because of the way tourist industry is providing access and accommodating itself to that kind of demand. Peru is a very fragmented society, with a very strong colonial legacy. The spreading of retreat centres and Ayahuasca tourism in general definitely underlies the long-term discrimination and exploitation of many indigenous communities. They are not receiving full benefits for the service they are providing or the knowledge they are sharing. Indigenous communities need to be given a key role in shaping the industry. Ayahuasca’s commercialisation should be regulated so that it is not taken by the pharmaceutical industry that will, as has happened with so many other medicinal plants, end up also criminalising its use.'

On the surface, Ayahuasca – with its shamans, enlightenment, and jungle retreats – appears virtuous, something spiritual and without the messy ethics that drugs like cocaine have. But as Ayahuasca becomes more popular, the debates around the trade and the Westerners who fuel it are getting more public, as well as more heated. After murmurings that 2014’s first World Ayahuasca Conference in Ibiza didn’t centre indigenous voices enough, 2016’s second event took place in Brazil. However, things weren’t plain sailing, with an open letter from the Indigenous People of Acre, Brazil stating: 'even though this event has a large number of indigenous participants, we are not feeling included in its creation and organisation.' In 2015, the Ethnobotanical Stewardship Council (an NGO that raised tens of thousands of dollars to ‘address issues in the ayahuasca industry’) disbanded after a number of academics in the field criticised their ‘alarmist campaign tactics, and lack of indigenous representation, scientific rigour, and clear goals’. More recently, environmental groups have got involved; the ayahuasca plant is getting harder to find, and there are fears of deforestation. Meanwhile, different indigenous communities have differing views on the trade – some believe the ceremony is too sacred to share with Westerners, while others embrace the opportunity to share their spiritual practice with foreigners, even those same people don’t understand its importance.

With no clear answers, perhaps the easiest thing would be to avoid Ayahuasca entirely. However if you are a Western tourist who does want to take part in a ceremony, being respectful while also staying safe is key. The International Centre for Ethnobotanical Education, Research & Service has published a ‘Good Practice Guide’ for taking Ayahuasca, and the Women’s Visionary Council has a list of 21 safety tips for young women participating in ceremonies that use psychoactive substances. Do your research, always travel with people you trust, and be sure to pay very, very well. It’s difficult (and maybe impossible) to be an ethical Western consumer – especially when it comes to drugs – but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t always try.

Like this? You might also be interested in…

The Joy Of Sesh: How Memes Took Drug Culture Mainstream** **

The Politics Of Drugs At Work

Is It Ever OK To Take Drugs With Your Parents?

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us