Ayahuasca is rapidly becoming the discerning backpacker’s drug of choice in South America, as they shun mainstream cocaine and paraguayo in search of something a little more esoteric. In intricate ceremonies taking place in the Amazon rainforest, tourists imbibe the hallucinogenic liquid, which is said to be “like 10 years of therapy in one night.”
While some tourists are led to the practice by an innate need to “find themselves” (yeah, that guy), others revel in the opportunity to sample a legal hallucinogen to which they would not have had access at home. However, while Ayahuasca ceremonies are legal in Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, where are recognized as an intrinsic part of indigenous cultures, in Argentina the practice is very much illegal.
Over the weekend, Córdoba’s Anti-Narcotics Force (FPA) shut down an ayahuasca ritual taking place in the heart of the city. Eight people were about to take part in the ceremony, organized by three individuals who were then arrested by the officers, who also confiscated 1.3 liters of ayahuasca liquid, 32 artisanal snuff tobacco cigarettes, and AR $12,500 (US $417) in cash.
In a raid at a house where the head organizer was staying, a further 3 liters of the liquid were found, as well as 783 grams of cooking residue and 114 snuff cigarettes. Those arrested were a 65-year-old Peruvian man, accused of leading the ritual, as well as two women aged 50 and 63, who allegedly helped organize and promote the event.
What is Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca, also known as yage, is a blend of two Amazonian plants: the Banisteriopsis caapi (ayahuasca) vine and another psychostimulant plant, often chacruna (Psychotria viridis), a shrub which contains the hallucinogenic drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT). DMT is illegal in many countries, such as the UK, France, Canada, and the US. It has been used as a shamanic medicine in the Amazon for centuries.
In shamanic medicine, there is no differentiation between mental and physical health; the ayahuasca ceremony is considered to be a path to rebalance and self-healing. Advocates of the drug say that ayahuasca is a successful treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), drug addiction, and depression and emotional traumas, although psychologists have warned those with pre-existing mental disorders against taking the powerful hallucinogen. It has been further popularized by celebrities, such as old white dudes Sting and Paul Simon, as well as Lindsay Lohan, because obviously.
It is used in religious rites in Brazil, but Peru, Ecuador and Colombia have seen a boom in ‘shamanic tourism’ since the 1990s, which has been considered by some as a welcome cash injection to marginal rural communities. There are about 100 registered ayahuasca centers across these countries, usually owned by foreigners or mestizos who hire indigenous shamans to carry out the ceremonies. According to Clarín, a week’s worth of ceremonies can cost more than US $4,500.
Ayahuasca has attracted growing controversy in recent years, as the drug’s popularity booms among foreigners eager to experience their own “awakening.” There have been questions over the regulation of the practice, especially in the city of Iquitos in the Peruvian rainforest, where tourists can buy cups of ayahuasca on the street and take it unsupervised.
It has also been implicated in a number of deaths. In 2014, British student Henry Miller died after taking the drug, as did 24-year-old New Zealander Matthew Dawson-Clarke in 2015. That same year Canadian Joshua Stevens stabbed Unais Gomes to death, saying that it was in self-defense after the 26-year-old Brit attacked him while high on the drug during a ceremony in Peru.
The most shocking ayahuasca-related incident took place in April of this year, when Canadian Sebastian Woodroffe allegedly shot dead 81-year-old Olivia Arévalo, spiritual mother of the Shipibo-Konibo indigenous tribe. Woodroffe was promptly lynched by villagers who blamed him for her death. He had gone to the Amazon to study ayahuasca under Arévalo’s guidance.
The double murder “cast a harsh spotlight on the unregulated world of ayahuasca tourism,” according to an article from The Guardian. Despite the fact that the drug is legal for spiritual ceremonies in many countries in the Amazon basin, the current trend for the ritual among Western tourists has prompted accusations of cultural appropriation and abuses, with some shamans calling for an end to the commercialization of the drug and for the practice to revert to its original purpose.
Ok so, what’s the deal in Argentina?
As the weekend’s arrests show, ayahuasca is illegal in Argentina, though that hasn’t stopped tourists trying to trip their balls off in dingy city flats in the center of Córdoba. The last ayahuasca sting operation took place nearly two years ago in a “holistic center” in Yacanto de Calamuchita in Córdoba province, where 11 people were said to be taking part in a ceremony.
However, just because it’s illegal doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Centers in Argentina are taking advantage of the massive drug tourism that ayahuasca has generated, and a cursory search on Google reveals multiple mysterious centers across the country offering ayahuasca rituals. The sites rarely reveal names, instead urging those wishing to participate to contact them by email or through specific Facebook pages.
As with many things, the rich and famous still have access to the drug. In 2016, controversy arose when it was revealed that famed gallerist Ignacio Liprandi had hosted a VIP ayahuasca ceremony in Tigre, over the course of which three young girls were sexually assaulted. The incident took place in 2014 and had been hushed up until the news broke two years later.
It was also an Argentine who founded Ayahuasca International, one of the largest commercial ayahuasca companies. Alberto José Varela founded organization in 2001, which he describes as “the largest virtual environment of information, communication and connection between people around the world interested in ayahuasca and who have already had the experience.”
The company offers ayahuasca retreats in Latin America and Europe and which has since been slated for commercializing a once sacred ritual. “These people are poisoning indigenous culture,” Colombian ayahuasca practitioner Andrés Córdoba told Playground. “They have no respect for the plant, nor the knowledge nor the people who want to try it.”
Two members of Ayahuasca International were arrested in the coastal city of Mar del Plata in January for carrying out a shamanic ritual with natural hallucinogens. The pair – a Spanish tourist and his Argentine wife – had been leading a ceremony with the drug “Kambó,” a hallucinogenic drug made from secretion from the skin of the Amazonian frog Phyllomedusa bicolor.
The ayahuasca question in Argentina is not merely an issue of narcotics regulation but also slots into a wider issue of racism toward indigenous peoples and immigrant communities in the country. Ayahuasca is also often viewed unfavorably in Argentina due to the widespread xenophobia against the country’s large Peruvian community.
When news of the Córdoba arrests broke on Cadena 3, the comments section attracted particularly charming comments such as the following:
“Time to put those Peruvians on a plane back to their country, after they’re fined and arrested. We have enough on our plate already to deal with imported [criminals].” Ayahuacha is very much considered a ‘Peruvian’ drug and as such, attracts negative comparisons in a country which often views its neighbors to the north with suspicion.
The issue with drugs tourism is that it puts the wants and needs of tourists first. While ayahuasca, performed in situ in a controlled setting in the Amazonian rainforest may well be a spiritual interaction with ancient shamanic medicine, people recognizing the money to be made from gullible tourists can set up ceremonies wherever, with limited regulation.
Indeed, Córdoba seems to have become an ayahuasca hotspot in Argentina. The millennial travel site The Culture Trip described Córdoba as one of the “most psychedelic spots in Argentina” and a place to get in touch with your spiritual side, “whether it be doing an ayahuasca ceremony with a shaman in the hills, getting high on your own supply in any of the trippy sites dotted around the area, or getting mystical on Cerro Uritorco.”
As ayahuasca consumption is illegal in Argentina, there is no regulation of the ceremonies taking place. By ignoring national laws and promoting illegal drug use in Argentina, The Culture Trip links ayahuasca to the illegal drug tourism industry, where privileged tourists come to Latin America to dabble in narcotics in blatant disregard for the complexities of the issues in play. Sure, there are benefits to ayahuasca, both for those taking the drug and for low-income rural communities, but there are clearly also dangers.
There is hardly a massive international illegal market for ayuahasca, at least on the same scale as cocaine, but those going to ceremonies in Argentina are simply ensuring the continuation of the lazy equation between Latin America and illegal drugs at a time when these countries are desperately trying to distance themselves from this image.
Legal ceremonies are available all across the Amazon basin, where there is a history and a culture of the practice, but attending rituals in Argentina simply promotes a tourist-first approach to traveling which puts the needs of the traveller before that of the local community. Tourists need to become more conscious of the impact of their actions upon local communities if tourism is ever to become sustainable.