On an exceptionally sunny morning in Pisac, set in the Sacred Valley of Peru, I look out my window at the four blissed-out travelers, sprawled whimsically across the grass.
They attended a full-moon Ayahuasca ceremony the night before, led by the well-loved ‘Sacred Valley Tribe,’ an international group of musicians and neo-shamanic facilitators known throughout the area, and the world.
“It was beautiful,” my British friend tells me. “About 80 people in the room, and not a hint of darkness or bad vibes. It was just amazing.”
He frolics off, and rejoins his medicine sister, a young woman, laying on the grass in the fetal position, wrapped in a blanket, staring intently into space.
There is a joke in Pisac, that if you can play the guitar, you can pour Ayahuasca.
This small Andean town, just 45 minutes outside Cusco, has become a major point of introduction for young travelers coming to Peru, looking to expand their consciousness through shamanic traditions.
Head into any café, and you will discover a bulletin board plastered with advertisements for community sound healing events, aromatherapy massage, permaculture projects, astrological counseling, and of course, shamanic plant medicine ceremonies.
Andean coca readings, mountaintop San Pedro cactus ceremonies and Ayahuasca retreats mixed with a healthy dose of yoga and juice fasting abound in this quaint mountain pueblo.
All of this may sound appealing on the surface – it did to me. I was enamored with Pisac’s majestic landscape, its small-town feel, friendly markets, and a host of international travelers. And after living off the ubiquitous pollo a la plancha and sopa de quinoa for nearly half-a-year, there is something undeniably satisfying about handcrafted pizza and a simple cappuccino. You can also find some seriously delicious carrot cake if you know where to look.
Yet after living in Pisac and the Sacred Valley for several months, I came to understand the shamanic-hipster vibe of this place by another term: Colonialism.
Colonialism or A Revival of Traditions?
Peru has a profound history of shamanic plant medicine use, dating back far into the pre-Incan era. As an anthropology student, I remember studying ancient sites like the enigmatic Chavin de Huantar that existed centuries before Machu Picchu was a blip on the map, illustrating the depth of these traditions.
Over countless generations, ancient Peruvian cultures developed complex methods of training that often entailed immense sacrifice, giving shamanic practitioners their well-earned authority. A Shipiboonanya, or Ayahuasca shaman, for instance, would need to live in isolation, and undertake a strict diet for no less than a year, before serving the medicine. This tradition is still alive and intact.
Today in Pisac, however, all it takes is a few Shipibo tapestries, a handful of Spanish folk songs, and a psychedelic advertisement to serve this intensely formidable brew.
Of course, Ayahuasca neither grows, nor was traditionally used anywhere near Pisac – its roots are in the Amazon, miles below the Andean slopes. And, despite its popularity in the area, either does the San Pedro, or huachuma cactus, which was traditionally associated with Chavin, mentioned above.
What’s happening today in Pisac, and in all of Peru, can be seen either as a revival of traditions that were nearly destroyed by colonization, or an unconscious continuation of this same force by well-intentioned travelers and eccentric expats. Perhaps it is a bit of both.
What’s The Difference?
The difference lies in how travelers and modern-day shamans are relating to the cultures and traditions that they are connecting with, and often profiting from.
Right relationship implies an authentic connection to a people and place, rooted in mutual respect and understanding. This authentic form of connection is dynamic and takes time – something that many travelers simply do not invest while on their two-week, rapid-fire shamanic pilgrimages.
Exchange is also an inherent aspect of the right relationship. Appropriation means taking something as your own without permission, while also not offering anything of comparable value in return. In a colonial context, there is no exchange, only appropriation.
The sad truth is that many retreat centers in Pisac are content to simply take these ancient traditions, along with your money, and give nothing back to the indigenous people. The rub is that there are plenty of well-meaning travelers who happily go along with this scheme, probably because they don’t know any better. This is extraction 101.
Some people would argue that shamanic plant medicines themselves don’t belong to any one culture – that they are essentially ‘free reign.’
Should Traditional Practices be ‘Free Reign’?
I’ve met many Peruvian curanderos with big hearts, who stress the importance of universal love and acceptance and recognize that Spirit does not belong to anyone – that human beings belong to the earth itself. Of course, they don’t see themselves as ‘owning’ these plant medicines either – they come from the earth, from Pachamama, who nobody owns.
Yet this honorable perspective is not an excuse for travelers and would-be shamans to appropriate these traditions and continue to marginalize local indigenous people.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for a traveler looking for a shamanic experience is to accept this duality and to choose their experiences wisely.
The ‘Sacred Valley Tribe,’ perhaps the most popular shamanic group in Pisac, is known for their Full Moon ceremonies of 80+ people. Essentially an ‘ayahuasca rock concert,’ these gatherings exemplify a type of fast-food shamanism that Pisac has unfortunately become iconic for.
With no real homage paid to indigenous cultures, these types of circles chant the names of Hindu deities while bedecked in Andean clothing, drinking an Amazonian plant brew, served by a European.
Let me clarify – there is nothing inherently wrong with chanting to Shiva, wearing traditional clothing, or with European people experiencing and even serving plant medicine, as long as they have cultivated an authentic relationship to the cultures they are drawing from.
The problem is that this unchecked trend of mixing-and-matching gives people a very twisted idea about what shamanic plant medicine is. It normalizes appropriation, paints a false picture of living traditions, and perhaps even dishonors the indigenous people who fought and died for their culture.
Beware of The Phoney Shamans
Travelers are only part of the equation. Anyone who has visited Peru can speak to the countless Peruvian ‘shamans’ who will gladly offer you their services. Just walk down the streets of Cusco and you will be offered all manner of plants and ceremonies to make your head spin.
Here’s the truth: Just because someone is local, doesn’t mean they know what they’re talking about.
Many of them even act the part, and will gladly whip out their panpipe flute and rattle, because playing the flute makes you a shaman, right?
Yet the reality is that these people are responding to a demand created by foreigners putting a high price on plant medicine traditions. They are bystanders and perhaps even victims to this situation, not the perpetrators of it. It’s the traveler’s responsibility to do their research and support reputable, ethical, and authentic shamanic practitioners.
In most neo-shamanic or New Age circles I’ve encountered, I’ve noticed a severe lack of discernment. It almost seems like an epidemic infecting some very sincere people seeking the sacred. Some people so badly want to experience something spiritual, exciting, sacred, novel, beautiful, etc. that they will essentially turn off their filters, and accept anything at face value – especially if it confirms a pre-existing idea of what something (a ‘shaman,’) should look like.
Perhaps this is just an aspect of spirituality, which at its most harmless looks like New-Age Kirtan, and at its most dangerous looks like fundamentalism. Yet this trend is especially problematic in a place like Peru, where mind-altering plants collide with young, naïve travelers seeking transformation, while the specter of global inequality is ever present.
The Traveler’s Responsibility
This is a lot to take in but at the end of the day, it’s quite simple: I believe that people traveling to South America specifically to partake in plant medicine ceremonies should do their best to find reliable, reputable, highly trained, and ideally indigenous practitioners. Thankfully, there are foreigners working in collaboration with indigenous peoples and are often doing great work to decolonize the plant medicine market, and create beneficial, respectful relationships.
If you ask me, I don’t think anyone in their right mind should participate in plant medicine ceremonies in Pisac. There’s really no valid reason to do so, besides its convenience. If you want to learn about ayahuasca, take the time to visit the Amazon. If you want to learn about coca, make the trek to a Quechua community. If you want experience huachuma, go to Chavin.
Invest the time and energy necessary to form an authentic connection with indigenous peoples – spend quality time in their communities, and learn about their lives and their struggles.
The recent documentary film, When Two Worlds Collide, shows us that indigenous people in Peru are still fighting and dying to protect their land and their heritage. Not only is it possible, but I think it’s imperative for anyone visiting South America to educate themselves on the difficult realities these communities are facing, and have been facing, for literally hundreds of years.
As travelers, we have the opportunity to cultivate the right relationship, and to be of service to the peoples and places we are connecting to. With relationship comes responsibility, and we are all capable of calling for a deeper level of integrity and respect in the evolving world of shamanic tourism.