Ayahuasca tourism and commercialization are distorting the cultural originality of the medicine’s traditions.

The big benefit foreigners receive when they visit us in our communities in the Amazon rainforest is they return home with a new type of warm happiness. Because, if you watch the foreigners, they can be quite cold. They have an entirely different culture. We Shipibo, indigenous people from the rainforest, we typically have a warm life when it comes to human relationships.

We’re very friendly, very happy, very warm, very talkative. We don’t have much land or wealth, no airplanes, no cars, no mansions, but we have what a latest model car can’t give you. We feel a great internal happiness. Our interior is filled with happiness and joy. And that’s a really big fortune. It’s really valuable. The sacred plants, like ayahuasca, help us strengthen this value.

The real masters of ayahuasca are the ones that start to feel this kind of energy inside and then what they do is help, help, help with it. That’s our mission, that’s our job, that’s our responsibility. We don’t have branded things but we have health and happiness. Because if you have happiness, you have life.

Pedro Lopez ayahuasca tourism
Maestro Pedro Tangoa López

My name is Pedro Tangoa López; I’m Shipibo, 50 years old. I was born in Nueva Betania, which is locales at 5 hours from Pucallpa traveling slowly in a boat with motor called peke peke. I have a bit more than 36 years in the world of traditional medicine. Almost 25 years ago I founded a traditional medicine high school. My grandparents and masters have had a really high level when it comes to traditional medicine, and we practice what’s traditional, what’s original. I don’t practice using the anthropologic words of modern shamanism. It’s not because I don’t like it, but I prioritize my own culture is first. I want to leave some seeds for the next generation of Shipibo.

The world of ayahuasca has exploded in a really strong way and it has started to distort entirely.

There are unique things from our culture. We are the original ayahuasca practitioners. Of course what’s modern is also good, but it distorts the cultural originality of the traditional medicine. And there it loses its essence. It loses the value. It loses many things. The knowledge of ancestral wisdom disappears with these practices. So, my flag will always be the originality.

The world of ayahuasca has exploded in a really strong way and it has started to distort entirely. This is a permanent threat, because, even the Shipibos are entering this stage of cultural distortion of the traditional medicine. And that’s really sad because when you see a Shipibo brother, or a Shipibo sister, in an ayahuasca ceremony, playing with a sound instrument, or with a drum, or a guitar, or dancing, for me, that’s like being in at the theatre. In traditional medicine, our ancestors never did that.

My traditional medicine is quite simple. Ayahuasca, pipe, tobacco and some plants, leaves for the healing because we follow two very important things. One: healing or recovery. Two: obtaining more knowledge, wisdom. You don’t drink ayahuasca to do a play-acting. Currently, that’s the threat and fighting against that is really hard because there’s a strong Western presence. Western shamanism has come and distorted the originality of the culture, bringing marijuana consumption and other drugs within the ceremonial context. There are a lot of problems.

Our attempt to cultivate, take care, and respect the essence of our traditional medicine is a really hard task and not many of us are following this path. Not many are giving life to the great sages of our culture. In the Shipibo world, there’s an average of 160 or 170 Shipibo communities and 30 or 40 years ago there was just one master in each community. Some communities had none. Now, there’s more than 10, 15 or 20 per community. It’s really boomed.

ayahuasca ceremony

A lot of foreigners come here for many reasons, but here’s something I need to say. There’s this wrong idea from foreigners, thinking that an old 70 years old Shipibo man that drinks ayahuasca must be some kind of great sage. This is not always true. 15 or 20 years ago many Shipibo brothers, about my age, became shamans due to the economic boom, not because they were great sages. Some of them become shamans overnight just for the economic benefits.

15 or 20 years ago many Shipibo brothers, about my age, became shamans overnight just for the economic benefits.

And here I want to offer an important message: the real masters live healing people permanently. They live healing different health issues, whether it’s their own population or foreigners. They’re the real masters. Not the ones that drink ayahuasca and start singing and dancing. So you have to be very careful in this aspect. The real masters are the ones that help you overcome your emotional, psychological, and physical problems. The real masters are the ones that tell you “hey, this is the real path to obtain benefits by using ayahuasca”.

It’s really sad to see news in the radio, newspaper or other media, whether locally or worldwide, about huge scams being created by Shipibo masters. Issues about raping, harassment, theft and other horrible things. There are deaths due to ayahuasca consumption, simply because some of the current young practitioners do not have the training. They have no preparation or experience.

Because at the end, the ayahuasca healer’s duty is like that of a scientific doctor, because your life and your health is in their hands, and they must be prepared for that. You cannot have three days of ayahuasca ceremony and say, “I’m an ayahuascologist”. For the great master, it’s years and years because each patient can have a very particular type of problem. In the “boom” of ayahuasca, not every retreat center is prepared to that extent.

I receive a lot of complaints. It can make me stressed because I receive a lot of these things from people that have been in a retreat center and come with an expectation, with a hope to overcome their health issue, but they return home worse and frustrated. This is because the master didn’t explain things properly to them and didn’t start a healing process for the specific issue of the individual. They just make you drink ayahuasca and think this will fix your issue. They tell you, the ayahuasca is going to heal you. But it’s not that simple. Ayahuasca is a medium. It is the key that opens the possibility of healing. The one that heals is the master because he has learned, gained a level of inner formation from experience of living in a constant diet.

The real master has a discipline. Of course he doesn’t drink beers or liquors. You don’t see him there laying around. A lot of people would ask, “but why don’t they eat pork?” Because it’s not compatible with the plants, energetically speaking. The energy of pork is too strong, so if I take a plant at the same time as eating pork, the plant’s energy disappears and vanishes from my body. Well, there’s an uncountable amount of things that real maestros set aside because they’re not beneficial for us. That’s from our cosmovision of Shipibo medicine culture. We learned to be more conscious and to have more respect for the plants.

This enables us to heal people not from their symptoms, but, from the cause of their problems. That’s the big difference. In the sciences at the hospitals in the cities, it’s all about “what are your symptoms?”. To become a healer I diet with a plant to absorb its energy and that’s what I channel into you through my ícaro (magical songs). It’s known as mantra in some places. But I channel that energy to help you with your problems.

We channel that energy through our ícaros. You start to feel a liberation that takes you to the point where you feel, just, “woah!”. This is just with the ícaros. I don’t give you pills. I don’t give you antibiotics. I don’t give you anything. The world needs to start understanding that this kind of healing, the true practices, are the ones that had given life to our ancestors. Our ancestors practiced this, but today we are too used to pills. The pharmacological industry is huge too. They invent us stuff and say “drink this and that’s it”. But it’s a drug, it’s a chemical substance, we take it and bad things can happen to our insides. Whereas the plants have no secondary effect. That’s why it has to be a person, a real master with a lot of knowledge, as I said earlier, that works with the plants.

We have a lot of experience healing local diseases within the Amazon, but foreigners come with health issues that are totally different. In my Amazon community, it is rare when we suffer from stress or insomnia. These are big city issues. So the foreigners come with these emotional and mental issues, or other things that frustrate life. They clearly have the wealth but not the health.

But there are many issues here. If you ask an old Shipibo healer “how many years do you have using ayahuasca”, he’s going to tell you “all my life, since I was a child”. But we need to take care. Let me give you a message: there are many Shipibos giving ayahuasca, old men and women, who are not real masters. In their ceremonies, they sing festivity songs. The foreigners don’t know the differences between ícaros and festivity songs. The healing ícaros are entirely different. I’m not against the festivity songs, but people should be careful. Because the shamans are handling the life of a human being. It’s the most sacred thing you can have in your hands.

There are many Shipibo ícaros uploaded to YouTube that are just festivity songs that our ancestors used in big parties.

And then what happens, the healing ícaros are even upload to YouTube. And when a real master hears this, they think, “this is singing to a tree but it’s not connected to the healing powers” or  “they are singing to a random drink, or a random river, or a mermaid”. There are many Shipibo ícaros uploaded to YouTube that are just festivity songs that our ancestors used in big parties. They sing to the spirits of nature, but they’re just chants, festivity songs thanking the nature. They are not sung in healing rituals or ceremonies.

The healing is entirely different. It is in another context. It requires proper respect because you get into a connection with the spirits of the plants. You get into sacred grounds, because you’re in another dimension. That’s why we take ayahuasca. You can’t even get up. You don’t even want to listen to the conversations inside the circle, inside the ceremony hut, within the surroundings of the ceremony. All you focus on is the ícaros. The ícaro helps you to have peace. It helps you finding yourself. It helps you find liberation.

Shipibo pottery. Photo: Dominik Janus

Imagine yourself in this context; you’re in a really strong vision and the guitar starts, or the sound instrument, or the bongo and the dancing. I mean, you have to be a scoundrel to achieve this level of lies and scam. I’m talking as a Shipibo who is ashamed of this kind of acts and behavior from newbie masters, or masters that only do this for the money. You might read this and think “Oh no, he is in a bad mood”. But, I don’t have rage. I don’t have revenge. I only have love. But I do have sadness because of how ayahuasca tourism has influenced the use of the medicine.

The fakes and newbies are destroying us. The people practicing the traditional medicine. I don’t know how to properly call them. But they’re destroying us. In the past, the destruction came from industrials, the politicians, the religious people, but now our own Shipibo are also burying us. So my expression is because of that. Not because I feel envious, not because I feel hate. My heart is entirely different. But it does take me to these levels of expression because every day I see that there are more people practicing these things.

At the same time, there’s a small group of youngsters that say “but the originality, we need to maintain the originality”. So, this is a good thing because if we lose what is original in the world of Shipibo traditional medicine, believe me when I say this, if our grandparents are gone and the knowledge is gone, this will be a great loss. The saddest thing is that there’s currently a huge cultural devastation happening.

If we don’t do anything, in 10 to 15 years we’re going to be talking as we did with the disappearance of mahogany in the Amazon.

Another issue I want to raise is the harvesting of ayahuasca. Each ayahuasca vine is getting farther away each time because there’s more consumption of ayahuasca. They send it abroad. They consume it everywhere. And the saddest thing is that they harvest it and don’t sow a new one. With the chacruna plant (also used in ayahuasca brews), you harvest the leaf and after 3 months there are new leaves. But an ayahuasca rope, if you cut it everything dies, and you have to sow again. There’s a need to consume ayahuasca. I know that a lot of people have found answers to their problems. But there’s also a need to be concerned because there’s less ayahuasca every day. I think that if we don’t do anything, I think that in 10 to 15 years we’re going to be talking as we did with the disappearance of mahogany in the Amazon.

We should be aware and also worried about what to do because the consumption keeps growing. The need to consume ayahuasca keeps growing because it actually helps people. They discard their pills. I’ve witnessed that. They rather consume ayahuasca to throw away their stress, their depression, their insomnia, their problems. And that’s really good because it helps them keep a peaceful mind.

For us, in our Shipibo culture, the ayahuasca is the integral medicine. But you need to have some respect. You need to take care of the sacred because that’s what allows you to connect. There are beings in this space, but maybe we have our eyes covered. We can’t understand their communication. We can’t listen. We can’t perceive because of modernization and all the big technologies are turnings us into robots.

It is not like you drink ayahuasca and “boom”, say good bye to your problems, no.

During these years of work, many Europeans have come to me. They want to fix the problems they’ve been carrying for 30 or 40 years in one night. But your body is a human body, not a robot’s. You’re not a mechanical being. The plant healing unfolds in a process. It goes step by step. It is not like you drink ayahuasca and “boom”, say good bye to your problems, no. We need to learn how to have more patience, which a lot of people lack.

Of course, in Europe, in America, there are big technologies and other such things that consume you. As you’re driving your car, you also have your phone around, or your sandwich, you’re always in a rush. But when they arrive here, that’s one of the biggest issues I have. Making them understand that they need to have patience. That in the first night they’re not going to have the answer to millions of problems. They must think as human beings, not as a mechanical person in the society.

This technology has even reached the Shipibo masters, right? You can see the masters with a cellphone. But we have a control over that, and that’s what our ancestors have left us with, that legacy, that knowledge. We are already liberated from things that dehumanize us, things that make us not think as human beings, that make us want to just consume and destroy. But the destruction is getting worse and that’s a big threat for our communities.

Another threat is the destruction of the environment, and that’s more sadness than worry when you see your plants being cut down by people with machinery. You can’t do anything against this huge shark, big company, alone. I have that problem, I try to maintain my plants but the oil companies invade us and destroy everything with their machinery because with the government and the Estate they have agreements, you and your voices cannot do anything against this huge wolf. This is another way our natural medicines fade away.

Our medicines make us healthy. I very rarely consume pills or antibiotics. And a lot of people would say “but if Pedro works from Monday to Saturday, he must live like an old man and be so tired,” not really, the plant gives me energy because I use it well. If I misuse it, I would be tired, physically, mentally and spiritually. This plant has its own spirit and it teaches us, but for that we undergo a diet. We drink ayahuasca to allows us to open this world of medicine and see your health issues, or your problems. Where do they come from, what’s causing them, that’s where we start to work. Sometimes there are things in the past that your current life won’t leave, it’s like a chain. You’re chained to them. And we remove it, vanish it, untie it so you can carry on with your life and live it in full.

Another issue I want to talk about is the ayahuasca dose. In my culture we usually drink just one glass of ayahuasca during the ceremony. One glass is enough for me to work until 1 or 2 am. Some people want more, but that’s a very European or American mindset. Let’s say that the first round we drink a small glass at 8 pm, 9 pm another small glass, and at 11 pm, they want another glass, then at 1 am or 2 am, another glass. That’s not medicinal anymore. That doesn’t have a benefit for your health anymore. That’s just insanity. That’s just a distraction. Others want to have some visions, they want to feel more. But the ayahuasca is not a drug; the ayahuasca is a medicine, a medicinal drink that needs to be handled with respect.

Foreigners preparing ayahuasca. Photo: Paris Tume

If these persons come and they ask us to behave like that, I refuse. I tell them: “if you’re going to do that kind of things, don’t invite me”. Or I just don’t participate; because I’m not going join the insanity. I apologize to those who consume this way. I’m sorry but in our world, the Shipibo world, the Shipibo culture have been around for more than 5000 years before Christ, in the Amazon, with this ayahuasca practice, and as that messenger I tell them, my wise grandparents never did that. We just drank one glass and that was enough to heal.

The good use will bring you a good benefit and the misuse can ruin your life.

What are people looking for with 2 or 3 doses? That’s just insanity. As they can’t consume 100 pills in one day, it’s the same thing with ayahuasca. The good use will bring you a good benefit and the misuse can ruin your life. Because in this trance, in this path, in this strong effect, you can find yourself against other energies. That’s why a double doses or a triple doses affects your nervous system and that’s why there are a lot of deaths, due to cardiac issues, because their heart can’t resist it, their organism can’t resist, they can’t tolerate it

Why do they want to consume it like this, in a way that’s not original, in a way that’s not good for their health? And I hope that they take this message with tranquility because the one sending it is an old person that knows what he’s saying.

I have old masters. They drink less than me. And the doses they take are very refined, the kind that gives you mental turmoil. So, what kind of task are you going to do when you have an effect that’s 3 times the normal doses. I mean, it’s medicinal, yes, but, this quantity is not, not anymore. It can affect your liver, it can affect your digestive system, it can affect your mind. It can affect many things. Well, I don’t know how to say it but it’s a warning. It’s an advice from an old person. We want the ayahuasca to be a medicine that helps you overcome your problems. I don’t want them to think that it’s some kind of drug, to take that out their minds. And maybe a lot of people come with that purpose in mind, they want to find something stronger for their lives, for their experiences, but no. Those are really wrong ideas.

I hope that with this message, the people looking for a good and healing experience, that want to live in a very different way, they search for the real deal, the original way, under these guidelines, under these recommendations.

And I’m really happy with this Kahpi space, so I can inform more people, and let the world know about the essence, the original way, how we should handle the use of ayahuasca.

A lot of times, and with this I conclude, in most of the international ayahuasca retreats they make people starve; the famous fasting. They show a massive list of things, pages and pages, and say we shouldn’t consume them. Also, that a woman with her period can’t participate in a ceremony. Such a lie! You become a master, so you can protect those energies and convert them into medicine. Well, there are many other things. I hope to have another opportunity, so we can share more.

Translation from Spanish to English by Maria Riega and Jessica Bertram.

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Maestro Pedro Tangoa López
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