Cross-cultural and gender-related issues in Ayahuasca Retreats in Peru
Updated: Nov 4, 2020
Our first guest article on WOOP exposes topics that needs to be addressed. Cross-cultural and gender-related issues are unfortunately prevalent in Ayahuasca Retreat Centers around the world. Find out more in this article by Alexandra Zachary.
My name is Alexandra Zachary. I’m a 50-year-old Australian Naturopath and Sound Healer. I have been coming to Peru since 2014 to learn about the amazing pharmacopeia of the Peruvian Amazonian plant medicines, and to train with indigenous curanderos to become an Ayahuasquera. I have been living full time in Peru for three years, continuing to learn, do plant dietas, and with the blessings of my Maestros, have been serving my own ceremonies for two years.
In this article, I would like to raise some difficult, gender-related, and cross-cultural issues in evidence here in Peru, particularly those relating to the safety of female “Ayahuasca Turistas” and differing attitudes to sexuality and gender roles between indigenous, Peruvian, and Western people.
In many Latin American countries, there is a strong “machismo” element that pervades all strata of society, women are considered far inferior to men. This is so indoctrinated that some women perpetuate these ideas themselves.
To illustrate, here is a story…
I spent December 2018 to January 2018 at my Maestros camp south of Iquitos on the Ucayali river. He is from a large family of Mestizo curanderos and is the “Star Shaman” who works at many retreats in the Sacred Valley, earning big gringo dollars.
On New Year's Eve, he got extremely drunk, started a bar fight, and ended up in lockup for the night. Meanwhile, his 23-year-old Australian girlfriend got into a brawl with his local girlfriend, and general chaos ensued.
The next morning, as I was sitting in the gutter eating “pan y huevos” (bread and eggs) for breakfast, the family's womenfolk came and sat with me.
“Where’s the Maestro?”
“We haven’t seen him.”
“That damned Australian girl with her short skirts and breasts hanging out! She has caused all this trouble!”
Not once was there any comment about HIS misbehavior, nor any admonishment for drunkenness. No one said anything about him blowing his $2000 paycheck on alcohol for the whole town, despite buildings at the camp desperately needing repairs, and more than 20 children needing food. There was never any responsibility placed on him for bringing a 23-year-old Australian girl into the camp from a retreat group.
It was all the girl’s fault!
The male could do no wrong!
I was flabbergasted!
Now, I am truly grateful for my time learning with this Maestro. His Ayahuasca and knowledge of the plants is outstanding, with curative powers second to none. But I could not continue to work with him knowing he was continuously sexually inappropriate with retreat clients on many occasions, and due to his personal life the way it was.
Unfortunately, this is not an unusual story. There are many “scare stories” going around about rape and sexual misconduct with curanderos. The situation is more complex than clear-cut criminal events. There is complicit sexual exploitation. There are sexual manipulation and coercion, often under the influence of one of the most powerful psychoactive substances on the planet. And there are cultural differences in attitude that serve to perpetuate and excuse these behaviors.
Ayahuasca is my medicine. I have devoted myself to learning her ways and becoming her hands in the human world. The potential for healing with her is beyond anything I could have ever imagined. She has the power to completely transform your life. But the Ayahuasca tourism scene is fraught with problems, especially for women.
Many who have chosen to work with me since I began my own practice are women, making up 75% of my clients. Many come to me to heal their sexual traumas, or to heal sexual trauma sustained while taking “the Medicine” here in Peru. I have worked with rape survivors and survivors of sexual coercion. I have also worked with women with childhood sexual trauma and women who have survived sexual abuse through religious cults.
Women choose me - they tell me - because I am an older, Western, maternal woman with whom they feel completely safe. My hope is to help these women access the healing power of Ayahuasca in a safe and compassionate environment, assisting them to find their own power and pathway to wholeness.
Ayahuasca opens many doors. She can show you the deepest parts of yourself, your shadow, and your light. She can reconnect you to Pachamama (Mother Nature) and dissolve your ego into the oneness of Godhead. She can help cure many physical illnesses and assist in the healing of the body, as well as the mind/spirit. But she can be misused and mistreated too. Many elders in indigenous communities say that she is losing her potency now that the West has become involved. Perhaps that is the truth. Perhaps problems have always been with us humans trying to live together.
I have recently been learning with a Shipiba Maestra who shows none of these ethical issues in her practice. There is still a great cultural divide but it is a little less when it is a woman to woman, especially when the women are both empowered and independent. This is a better situation for me that does not compromise my own ethical stance.
Let us all try to venture into the future of psychedelic healing hand-in-hand as women who will not allow the continuation of abusive situations, who can work together, indigenous and non-indigenous, to preserve these precious medicines and practices.
With love and hope,
Chacruna Institute for Psychedelic Plant Medicine developed an Ayahuasca Community Guide for the Awareness of Sexual Abuse. This guide was created in several languages to raise awareness about sexual harassment, while also offering practical guidelines to keep female participants in ayahuasca ceremonies, retreats, and communities safe. You can access this guide here.
Alexandra Zachary is an Ayahuasquera, Naturopath, and Sound Healer working in Peru as an Integration Specialist. To learn more about her work check her Facebook page Sound Shaman.