Ayahuasca & Cultural Hybridity: The Changing Landscape of Amazonian Shamanism

How the West “Discovered” Ayahuasca

Apart from a handful of hippies, ethnobotanists and anthropologists, ayahuasca was relatively unheard of in the west at the turn of this century. Despite being sampled by notable cultural icons such as Paul Simon and Sting in the early 90s(1)https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/aug/08/ayahuasca-bees-klaxons-devendra-banhart, knowledge of this potent hallucinogenic brew had not yet reached mainstream awareness. It wasn’t until a widely circulated article, published by National Geographic in 2006, that stories about ayahuasca’s healing properties started to trickle into the cultural zeitgeist(2)http://kirasalak.com/Ayahuasca.html

Although ayahuasca is a relative latecomer to the western psychotropic scene, it has been used by indigenous Amazonian peoples since at least 1500-2000 B.C, according to archaeological evidence.(3) … Continue reading The first post-Columbian references to ayahuasca come to us from various sixteenth century sources during the European colonization of the Americas. These sources are symptomatic of the puritanical Christian worldview that was prevalent at the time, created by European missionaries who referred to ayahuasca as a substance used in devilry and witchcraft.(4)https://bibliotecadigital.aecid.es/bibliodig/es/consulta/registro.do?id=662

It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that ayahuasca entered western academic discourse when explorer and naval officer Manuel Villavicencio published the 1848 book Geografía de la República del Ecuador which outlined the various shamanic practices of the Jivaro people. A steady stream of different anthropology books were published shortly after this time, bringing the occult world of Amazonian wizardry to a western audience.(5)https://scholar.colorado.edu/concern/undergraduate_honors_theses/kw52j875n

How Ayahuasca Infiltrated the Cultural Zeitgeist

Despite the available literature, mass-scale western interest in the hallucinogenic brew started to take off about 15 years ago, with western-style “ayahuasca lodges” and “retreat centres” cropping up all over the world, most notably in and around Iquitos, Peru, a place many consider to be the epicentre of ayahuasca tourism.

With a population of over 500, 000 people,(6)https://worldpopulationreview.com/world-cities/iquitos-population Iquitos is one of the largest towns in the entire Amazon region and the largest town in the Peruvian Amazon. Home to a significant number of mestizos, Iquitos is believed to be the birthplace of what is now considered to be the global “standard” in terms of how ayahuasca ceremonies are conducted.(7)https://www.jstor.org/stable/4253328

As documented by medical anthropologist Marlene Dobkin de Ríos and her contemporaries in the 1960s and later on in the 1970s and 80s, members of the local community (mainly mestizos) would gather in a forest clearing or in the house of a curandero to drink ayahuasca together.(8)https://www.jstor.org/stable/4253160 The curandero would run the ceremony by dispensing ayahuasca to the attendees as well as singing icaros (magical incantations) and oraciones (prayerful medicine songs), while shaking a chakapa (leaf-rattle) and blowing mapacho (tobacco) smoke at people to induce healing.

Numerous western ethnobotanists and anthropologists started to venture into the Amazon during this period and they would often return to the west filled with outlandish tales about this mysterious jungle medicine that made you hallucinate, purge and, heal. As westerners started to trickle into the Amazon with romanticized notions of finding a shaman, most of them likely encountered Spanish-speaking mestizos who would have been familiar with their own ceremonial practices and could then point them in the right direction.(9)https://maps.org/product/ayahuasca-medicine-the-shamanic-world-of-amazonian-sacred-plant-healing/ As word continued to spread, this type of mestizo ceremony became synonymous with drinking ayahuasca, to the point that they are now inseparable from one another in the western mind.(10)https://www.intechopen.com/chapters/1171594#:~:text=The%20long%20history%20of%20altering,%2C%20and%20pipes%20%5B16%5D.

It is important to note that while sitting in a maloca (ceremonial hut) with a shaman and a group of other people is now considered a “traditional” setting for an ayahuasca ceremony, there are, in fact, countless different ways that ayahuasca has been consumed in a ritualistic setting over the centuries, with this mestizo-derived practice being but one of many examples. The typical Iquitos-inspired scene described above is merely what has passed into global “ayahuasca culture” and describes how the vast majority of ayahuasca tourists and non-native peoples experience ceremonies the world over. Even tribal peoples such as the Shipibos, famed for the secrecy surrounding their ayahuasca rituals, have started to adopt this mestizo ceremonial practice to accommodate tourists.(11)https://mainiti.org/center/

While some more traditionally-minded Shipibos bemoan the erosion of their own practices in favor of mestizo ones, others are quick to point out that having a culturally “neutral” ceremonial practice actually helps to conserve their own rituals, making them uniquely their own and out-of-bounds to outsiders. 

Mestizos: Cultural Go-Betweens and a Bridge Between Two Worlds

When you consider their heritage and history, it is perhaps unsurprising that mestizos should be the ones to make ayahuasca ceremonies accessible to the rest of the globe. Straddling two different worlds, mestizos are natural go-betweens, and bridge the gap between western and native ideologies since, historically, they were usually born to native mothers and European fathers. As the de facto cultural intermediaries of the Amazon region, their dual heritage makes them naturally suited to deciphering more arcane tribal practices, allowing these mysterious rituals to become more accessible to outsiders.

For people unfamiliar with the Amazonian cosmovision, mestizo rituals come with a sense of familiarity since they are inspired, in part, by a Christian ethos.(12) … Continue reading Since most westerners have been shaped by the Judeo-Christian worldview, there is a sense of intuitive understanding when a curandero “officiates” a ceremony by using prayerful songs and chants to guide his “flock.” The ceremonies almost always centre around a list of unchanging rules, and this repetitive sense of order and ritual is one that westerners will find comforting and familiar.

When we compare the popular Iquitos-style ceremony with other examples of ayahuasca usage practiced by different tribal peoples, it is easy to see why this is the one that has captured the global zeitgeist in the way that it has.

For example, men of one of the Pano-speaking communities sit around in casual, non-ceremonial settings and drink ayahuasca as a bonding ritual.(13)https://daily.jstor.org/the-colonization-of-the-ayahuasca-experience/ There are no rules to “anchor” oneself to and no particular set of pre-prescribed customs to follow, meaning that the men simply enjoy roaming around in the astral realms and then sharing their visions with one another when the medicine has worn off.  If you are new to psychotropic medicine, this approach could be scary at best and downright dangerous at worst, making the presence of an experienced curandero necessary for newbies or for more experienced drinkers having a difficult ceremony.

Another tribal usage of ayahuasca was famously documented by the botanist Melvin L. Bristol who noted that in some Sibundoy communities in Amazonian Colombia, both women and men use the sacred vine to learn about the spirit of nature as well as to psychically visit family members while out on long, lonely hunting trips.(14)https://www.jstor.org/stable/41762247

These are just two examples of how ayahuasca is used amongst tribal peoples. There are, in fact, many other ways in which ayahuasca is used in more isolated communities, which only serves to highlight the universality and accessibility of the Iquitos-style ceremony, which has now been adopted all over the world – from formal ceremonies taking place in the Amazon and beyond, to informal ceremonies in which people drink alone in their living rooms.

It also highlights the fact that people of dual heritage are often the first to simplify and reframe more obscure cultural practices, filtering them through the lens of their own unique worldview and bringing them to a place of neutrality. Being both Spanish and native, they are not quite one thing or the other and so any newly adapted cultural practices that take shape through them are not the special property of any specific group or tribe. Mestizos are somewhere in the middle and, thanks to their unique vantage point, they are able to straddle two worlds, two realities, two points of view.

The Birth of the Ayahuasca Tourist Lodge

Ayahuasca lodges are a natural – if expensive and touristy – outgrowth of these mestizo ceremonies which had typically taken place in living rooms and jungle clearings. When more and more gringos started to come to the Amazon asking to sit in ceremony with local curanderos, a couple of enterprising westerners saw a gap in the market and erected the first ayahuasca center.

These are arguably the most outwardly “western” of all shamanic Amazonian institutions and have been built to accommodate the west’s growing interest in the sacred vine. Blue Morpho and Temple of the Way of Light, two of the most well-established ayahuasca lodges in Iquitos were founded in 2002 and 2006 respectively, and have been seeing steady streams of visitors pass through their doors since that time. Both places are believed to have paved the way for countless other copycat centers to crop up, and, at the time of writing, there are believed to be at least 113 tourist-focused ayahuasca centres in the Iquitos area alone.(15) … Continue reading

More and more westerners have been gravitating towards drinking ayahuasca with a curandero at an ayahuasca center because they are lost, apathetic, depressed or anxious and feel that traditional western psychiatrics and/or psychotherapy have failed them. Lured to the jungle by tales of miraculous healings, ayahuasca is often seen as a last-ditch attempt to find peace, while for others, it is nothing more than an exotic curiosity. Whatever someone’s personal reasons are for seeking out ayahuasca, many westerners fork out enormous sums of money to go and stay in western-run centers, which, on the one hand, creates local employment opportunities while on the other, puts non-locals in charge of one of the community’s most precious and unique cultural commodities.

These centers have sparked intense criticism from westerners and natives alike who view them as neo-colonial institutions that are driving up the price of ayahuasca for locals while also cutting corners in order to meet the high demand of people wishing to drink ayahuasca. For example, some centers do not insist that you drink with a shaman and play icaros using a loud speaker instead, while others ignore age-old rules such as allowing menstruating women to drink, or using only partially-trained shamans and allowing people to forgo the strict pre-ceremony diet rules (no pork, spices, alcohol).

Some argue that it is not important to adhere strictly to these rules since western interest in ayahuasca is what is helping keep shamanic practices in the Amazon alive to begin with. As Amazonian youths continue to leave the jungle and move to larger cities, the more cut off they are from their shamanic heritage as they become more urbanized.

If it weren’t for western interest in ayahuasca, it is believed that Amazonian shamanism would slowly die out and so if ancient practices need to evolve to keep up with the times, then so be it. It is always better to adapt to change and allow something to evolve organically over time than to allow it to become completely extinct. Having said that, it is also important to pay heed to age-old rules since they are often put in place for our safety and well-being.

Ancient Medicine for the Modern Mind

The more technologically-advanced and alienating the western world becomes, the more people feel cut off from a visceral connection to their ancestral past, with its strong ties to the ancient rituals and customs that have been sustaining people for millennia. With no way of connecting to nature and to the rites or rituals that have allowed people to feel connected to the land, many westerners feel spiritually and culturally barren, with many young people reporting a feeling that something vital is “missing” from their lives. It is therefore not surprising that practices such as shamanism, which place human beings at the interface between the spiritual and physical aspects of nature, have been eagerly devoured by westerners, longing to fill the spiritual void in their lives.

Studies have shown us time and again that feeling connected to the land, not just as a political entity but as a living, breathing being in its own right, is vital to fostering feelings of connection, joy and well-being and can help stave off depression, anxiety and apathy.(16)https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/04/nurtured-nature Time spent in nature, whether through activities such as gardening or hiking are powerful healing modalities, while shamanic practices take this a step further by connecting us with something numinous and profound, not just in the world “out there” but to something deep within our souls.

A Return to Nature

Westerners are particularly drawn to lodges in the Amazon, the home of ayahuasca, not only because it adds an air of authenticity and legitimacy to the ayahuasca experience, but also because being immersed in nature allows us to feel that we are connected to something that is beyond the five senses. Although Judeo-Christian culture tells us that Nature and God are antithetical to one another, the experience of being on ayahuasca while surrounded by the sounds and sights of the jungle often confirm that this is not true. The ensuing feelings of catharsis and release are also usually accompanied by a feeling of expansion, of being connected to something bigger, mysterious, untouchable, vital and alive.

Although native peoples use ayahuasca for a variety of different reasons and in a variety of different contexts as mentioned earlier, western usage of ayahuasca is normally – at least initially – limited to a desire for healing and/or an exploration of one’s own consciousness. For many native peoples (including mestizo populations), however, there are as many uses for ayahuasca as there are tribes in the Amazon and, in the native/mestizo worldview, the desire to experience healing or explore one’s own consciousness are only incidental and of little overall importance since an individual’s microcosmic awareness is merely a function of the macrocosm of which they are but a small part.

By contrast, western conditioning leaves people believing that they are macrocosmic entities in their own right, and the understanding that they function as part of a larger ecosystem is not actively encouraged in most cultural institutions starting from early childhood. With a focus on individualism and less emphasis on collectivism, westerners believe that they are at the forefront of their experiences, which translates to a more psychological and clinical approach to understanding ayahuasca visions. Where indigenous and mestizo people see spiritual and ancestral realms, westerners are more likely to see symbols and abstractions. While indigenous beliefs state that every plant has a spirit that must be propriated and placated in order to form a symbiotic relationship with the plant’s “ibo” (Shipibo for “owner” or “soul”)(17)https://raokaibo.org/the-shipibo-cosmovision/, westerners are more likely to relate this back to themselves in some way.

This basic difference in how ayahuasca is experienced has been impacting ayahuasca tourism since it first began to gain momentum in the late 90s but especially in the early-mid aughts and beyond. Native and mestizo curanderos have found themselves having to adapt themselves to a new way of thinking, with many of the western-run lodges they work at offering “circle meetings” the morning after a ceremony so that people can sit around and analyze their ayahuasca journeys. Although many participants are keen on tracing a vision back to some unresolved childhood trauma or momentous life event, some become convinced in the objective reality of a spirit world and absorb themselves into the native cosmovision which they had previously regarded as superstitious nonsense.

Spirituality and the Intellect

In fact, talking about one’s ayahuasca experience in a circle with other drinkers has become a major component in western ayahuasca circles and although there are, naturally, elements of this amongst mestizos and natives, the focus given to the visions is different. While the western mind thrives on breaking things down and putting them back together again, the indigenous/mestizo understanding of the world is more holistic and integrative. This means that if a native or mestizo person requires healing, the origin of the malady is believed to have its roots in the spirit world. As the Shipibo understand it: all imbalances are a direct result of a lack of unity between the different realms of nature and it is our job as humans to constantly try and re-establish harmony or “jakon nete” between everything in existence.(18)https://raokaibo.org/the-shipibo-cosmovision/

Native peoples believe that much of what ayahuasca reveals to us transcends our personal history and timeline, however, as more and more westerners come to the Amazon to drink ayahuasca, the more indigenous and mestizo curanderos find themselves trying to understand – and accommodate – how the western mind grapples with the medicine world. Similarly, westerners with long-time exposure to ayahuasca are also just as likely to adopt a mentality more sympathetic to indigenous worldviews and so as time goes on and the world continues to change, it is likely that we will begin to see a fusion between western psychoanalytical approaches and native spirituality.

Final Thoughts

As with all cultural interchanges, the “world of ayahuasca” has experienced massive changes over the past decade and a half, bridging the gap between western and indigenous worldviews and creating new cultural models for the ayahuasca experience to expand and flourish. These changes, while inevitable, have also created tensions between “purists” who believe that ayahuasca should be reserved for native people, and “innovators” who believe that it is important to move with the times and adapt to new societal needs and circumstances.(19)https://daily.jstor.org/the-colonization-of-the-ayahuasca-experience/

Although the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural hybridity is a delicate balancing act, there will always be westerners who try and co-opt foreign cultures with no regard or respect for the culture’s original custodians. Similarly, there will always be westerners willing to humble themselves in the face of native wisdom and knowledge systems, helping to preserve and propagate traditions so that they are kept alive for future generations.


1 https://www.theguardian.com/music/2010/aug/08/ayahuasca-bees-klaxons-devendra-banhart
2 http://kirasalak.com/Ayahuasca.html
3 https://www.archaeology.org/issues/503-2303/digs/11212-digs-peru-nazca-ayahuasca#:~:text=Earliest%20Ayahuasca%20Trip%20%2D%20Archaeology%20Magazine&text=Analysis%20of%20hair%20from%2022,make%20up%20the%20drug%20ayahuasca.
4 https://bibliotecadigital.aecid.es/bibliodig/es/consulta/registro.do?id=662
5 https://scholar.colorado.edu/concern/undergraduate_honors_theses/kw52j875n
6 https://worldpopulationreview.com/world-cities/iquitos-population
7 https://www.jstor.org/stable/4253328
8 https://www.jstor.org/stable/4253160
9 https://maps.org/product/ayahuasca-medicine-the-shamanic-world-of-amazonian-sacred-plant-healing/
10 https://www.intechopen.com/chapters/1171594#:~:text=The%20long%20history%20of%20altering,%2C%20and%20pipes%20%5B16%5D.
11 https://mainiti.org/center/
12 https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwignKPlrPaEAxV4PEQIHXjmCK0QFnoECCUQAQ&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.thelovepost.global%2Fmatters-mind%2Farticles%2Fayahuasca-are-we-appropriating-or-%25E2%2580%259Cdrawing-inspiration%25E2%2580%259D-ayahuasca%25E2%2580%2599s-complex&usg=AOvVaw06yNgHH0VKVG-_DcCZmgmD&opi=89978449
13, 19 https://daily.jstor.org/the-colonization-of-the-ayahuasca-experience/
14 https://www.jstor.org/stable/41762247
15 https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwik96CcrvaEAxVqEkQIHRPbAOAQFnoECBoQAQ&url=https%3A%2F%2Frealitysandwich.com%2Fayahuasca_sessions_talk_alan_shoemaker%2F&usg=AOvVaw3gq9P4CcvBunG151LymcOh&opi=89978449
16 https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/04/nurtured-nature
17, 18 https://raokaibo.org/the-shipibo-cosmovision/