Carlos Suárez Álvarez

Carlos Suárez Álvarez

Carlos Suárez Álvarez has a Masters in Amazonian Studies from the Universidad Nacional Colombia and is the author of the multimedia book, Ayahuasca, Iquitos and Monster Vorax. He has lived in an indigenous community in the Colombian Amazon since 2008.
Carlos Suárez Álvarez

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Have you ever thought of visiting an ayahuasca lodge in Iquitos to experience a “traditional” medical treatment? Well, forget about it, because it wouldn’t be possible for a “gringo” like yourself to be treated in a traditional way, despite what those places announce on their websites. The use of the word “traditional” as a publicity hook isn’t a matter of bad faith, however; the people who run those centers, who are mostly foreigners, believe it themselves.

It is a business. I myself have confirmed that there are at least 40 such ayahuasca lodges in Iquitos, capital of the Peruvian jungle. Last year, 10 of those centers lodged 4,000 visitors, each of whom stayed for at least a week, paying from 100 to 200 dollars a night, for a total revenue of around 5,600,000 dollars.

traditional ayahuasca ceremony

A Modern Tradition

If tradition means a set of socio-cultural practices that have been passed down from one generation to the next without change, then the ayahuasquero complexes in Peru are not traditional, since they are the result of heterodox influences.

I accept that there is a corpus of common elements that might be called a tradition, but I prefer to use the word “local.” Although it is difficult to say what that tradition consists of, it is clear that the treatments designed for foreigners are not “traditional.”

The Forest and the Market

The ayahuasca practices of this region are an expression of what the anthropologist Jürg Gasché1 calls “societies of forest-dwellers”: those who live in and off the forest and are characterized by a notable egalitarianism: no adult can tell another what to do or how to do it, nor are there coercive means to achieve that which is socially legitimate (the law, the police, judges). There are no hierarchies, nor do certain individuals accumulate power or wealth. The person who does not willingly share his surplus goods is systematically robbed or maligned. The only specialized roles have to do with gender, insofar as each couple of a man and woman combine the bodies of knowledge needed to live well.

The market economy is razing the planet, due to a highly complex and ultra-hierarchical system of productive specialization where people are not autonomous, since to ensure their living, they must comply with a large number of rules and obey their superiors. The accumulation of money or power is the basis of modern society, and the person who achieves that is not only admired, but also protected by laws, police, and judges.

The current “traditional” medical treatments are integrated into the schemes of the market economy. While they do, in fact, use aspects of the local practices, there are fundamental differences in the importance and function of each aspect, as well as in the expectations, ethical practices, and socio-economic relations of the different participants.

traditional ayahuasca ceremony

1. The Shipibo onanya (wise man) Pedro Pérez treating a baby on the banks of the river Pisqui.

Ayahuasca, Means and Ends

The first difference lies in the role that ayahuasca plays. Locally, it is tool that the healer employs to enter the world of the spirits, channel the chants he receives from the spirits into his healing, and capture information about the illness of the patient and the medicine the patient needs. It often happens that the local patients do not drink ayahuasca, as in the case of the ceremonies run by the Shipibo, who are currently the most popular “shamans” in Iquitos. In the 10 ceremonies I participated in the small Shipibo settlement of Vencedor, on the river Pisqui, I did not see a single patient drink ayahuasca.

In the lodges, everything revolves around the drinking of ayahuasca, which is known as the “Medicine,” capitalized for emphasis. A client may drink it up to six times in ten days, which is exorbitant in local terms. In some lodges they do not adhere to the practice of “diets” (the abstention from sex and certain foods), nor do they give the patients medicinal plants other than ayahuasca, even though those two practices are locally regarded as crucial for an effective cure with ayahuasca.

The Purge and the Visions

The inhabitants of the region refer to ayahuasca as the “purge,” which is a metonymy for the main effect of drinking ayahuasca: the expulsion, through defecation and vomiting, of the “filth” in the patient’s stomach, which is related in turn to his or her bad energies; it is a purge both of the body and spirit. The term mareación (dizziness/nausea) refers to the physical effects of the plant. On a local level, drinkers also seek to have visions but, generally, it is only to discover the cause of the illness the person is suffering from or ascertain whether a relative who is not present in the ritual is or is not well.

For Westerners, the main attraction is DMT, the active ingredient in chacruna, the jungle plant which is cooked with the ayahuasca, and to which the visions are attributed. It is not so easy to see visions; however, the obsession foreign novices have with visions exerts pressure on the ayahuasqueros and, in order to meet their expectations, in some cases, they add another plant to the usual mixture of the ayahuasca vine and the chacruna leaf: toé (Brugsmansia sp.), which contains scopolamine, said to intensify the visions but with possible dangerous side effects.

This bias towards visions and DMT clashes with the ethnographical evidence of local use. The terms most widely used for the medicinal brew—ayahuasca (in Peru and Brazil) and yajé (in Colombia)—refer both to the vine and to the brew itself, whether or not it contains chacruna. Some ethnic groups only cook the vine, without any additives, like the Tucano Oriental, the Marubo, the Achuar and the Matsiguenga.  The latter’s word for the vine, kamarampi, means “the medicine for vomiting.”2

traditional ayahuasca ceremony

2. A purification ritual prior to an ayahuasca session in Kapitari, a lodge near Iquitos.

To Accumulate or Not Accumulate

The idea that the ayahuasqueros never charged for their services until the recent boom is mistaken. The plant healing of the Amazon is an open medical system; the healers often house the patients who live in other places in their own homes. At times there will be several of them and, since he cannot attend to his own means of living, it is understood that the patient will pay him back, be it with food, work, merchandise or, preferably, money. Since the healer is the only specialist in his society, he may be tempted to accumulate money. However, if he does not share his excess goods in an acceptable way, the society he belongs to rights the wrong with insults, thefts or accusations of sorcery.

However, the new market economy encourages accumulation and ayahuasca has turned into the only body of local knowledge that has made some indigenous people wealthy. The prospect of accumulation introduces a novelty into the customary practices. While the patient is a burden for the healer in the local systems, in the ayahuasca centers, each extra day the patient stays means more money.

Environmental Awareness

The forest-dwelling societies maintained equilibrium between themselves, as humans, and the other species in the ecosystems, not because they loved Nature but because they feared it. There are many myths, and related diagnoses of illness, about how the indiscriminate exploitation of the forest will cause spirits, like the Madremonte (roughly, the Mother Witch of the Forest) to send an illness to the guilty party through sorcery.

Social relations among the forest dwellers are governed by reciprocity, but this is impossible between humans and the dueños (the spirits who are the “masters” of the forest) because humans only take, they do not give.  Since the principle of reciprocity is crucial, how do humans right that imbalance? First, they only take what they need; and, second, through rituals in which they symbolically pay Nature back with prayers and offerings.3

Paradoxically, the enormous demand for ayahuasca and the rising prices that are paid for it mean that uncultivated ayahuasca vines are increasingly scarce in the area surrounding Iquitos. This is yet another blow to the biodiversity of the forest.

ayahuasca brewing

3. The growing demand for ayahuasca threatens the traditional settlements in large parts of the Peruvian Amazon.

The Triumph of Christianity

Even though the healing that revolves around ayahuasca (curanderismo ayahuasquero) incorporates aspects of Christianity, this has only penetrated the rituals in a superficial way (invocations of Jesus, recitals of “Our Father,” etc.) Paradoxically, however, it is the Western ayahuasca tourists, disenchanted with their own religious traditions, who attach Christian sentiments to the “traditional” treatments.

Witchcraft is an integral part of the local systems. It is thought that the most serious illnesses are caused by the sorcery of evil brujos (ayahuasca witches). To heal the patient, the healer thus has to “send back” the evil to the aggressor. This dual role means that the healers are feared by others, and even by their own patients at times.

No one talks about sorcery in the lodges. Influenced by Christianity, which equates spirituality with a disinterested kindness, the clients expect the “shaman” (no longer known as “sorcerer/healer”) to be the embodiment of a saint, and they may become vulnerable in this situation.

The Influence of Terminology

Christianity also has an influence through the terminology that Westerners use. The tendency to regard ayahuasca as “sacred” does not have an ethnographical justification, because, while the local healers acknowledged that the medicine opens one up to a spiritual reality, they also knew it might be both divine and permeated with sorcery. In Shipibo, ayahuasca is called oni, the root of which is “to know,” and it belongs to the category of rao (medicine/poison) plants.4 In Matsiguenga, it belongs to the category of kepigari5 plants, “those which intoxicate,” and it means “the medicine for vomiting.”

It is doubtful that “ayahuasca” means “vine of the soul”; to call it “the bitter vine” may be more accurate. In the Quechua dialect that is spoken in the Peruvian region of San Martín, a stronghold of ayahuasca practices, the word ayak means “bitter.”6 Among the healers themselves, a bitter plant is synonymous with a medicinal one. Furthermore, the missionary Franz Xavier Veigl, who traveled in the region of the Marañon around 1760, wrote, “Of the plants worthy of mention, the premier one is hayac-huasca, which means ‘bitter plant’ and is used for superstitious practices and witchcraft.”7

Independently of their therapeutic benefits, which I do not question, the modern treatments are not “traditional.” Rather, like this article, they are yet another expression of an expanding market, and are partly responsible for the disappearance of the last surviving autonomous societies in the world, along with their medical knowledge.

This article was translated by Jimmy Weiskopf

  1. Jürg Gasché and Napoleón Vela, Sociedad Bosquesina (Iquitos, IIAP, 2011).
  2. Glenn Shepard Jr., “Will the Real Shaman Please Stand Up?”, in Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond, eds. Bia Labate and Clancy Cavnar (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014).
  3. Gasché, Sociedad Bosqueina.
  4. Jacques Tournon, La Merma Mágica (Lima: CAAAP, 2002).
  5. Shepard, “Will the Real Shaman Please Stand Up”?
  6. Joshua Homan, personal communication.
  7. Justin Williams, Investigating a Century-Long Hole in History: The Untold Story of Ayahuasca From 1755-1865 (Undergraduate diss., University of Colorado, 2015).

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