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This dissertation examines the cultural construction of ayahuasca (an Amazonian hallucinogen) and shamanism, their manifestations in the western imagination and experience, and their localized experience in the city of Iquitos, Peru, in the context of the phenomenon of shamanic tourism. Shamanic tourism has flourished in the last few years and is promoted internationally by several agents both local and western. The authors embarked on this research in order to answer two questions: first, what are the motives of westerners who participate in ayahuasca ceremonies, and second, how do they conceptualize and integrate their experiences in their existing worldview. Iquitos, Peru was chosen as a research site because as a gateway to the eco- and shamanic tourism serves as a location where different cultural constructions of ayahuasca co-exist, namely the urban mestizo and western, it can offer a better perspective on the appropriation of ayahuasca by westerners.
The author places the phenomenon of shamanic tourism within the historical context of the relationship of the West with the exotic and spiritual “other”, a history that has gone hand in hand with colonialism and exploitative relationships. She argues that shamanic tourism is not an anomaly but is consistent with the nature of shamanism, which has historically been about intercultural exchange, as shamanic knowledge and experience has been sought cross-culturally. In addition, in the West, esoteric knowledge has often been sought in faraway places, thus this intercultural exchange is also consistent with Western tradition. The research has shown that western interest in ayahuasca is much more than a pretext for drug use but rather is often perceived as a pilgrimage and should be looked at in the context of a new paradigm, or rather a shift in the discourse about plant hallucinogens, a discourse that tackles them as sacraments, in sharp contrast to chemical drugs. Ritual in this
context is instrumental but not as something that reproduces social structure; rather it fosters self transformation while at the same time challenging the participants’ very cultural constructs and basic assumptions about the world.