The Ethics Around Psychedelic Tourism

BY Robyn Landau

The Ethics Around Psychedelic Tourism
Image by José Andrés Solórzano


The rise of psychedelic tourism raises new questions around ethical travel to indigenous areas where sacred plants are grown. How can we ensure that our travel habits are not damaging these regions?

Whether it’s people seeking rebalance post-lockdown, the new wave of science proving the mental health benefits, or a growing acceptance of alternative healing practices, one thing is clear: psychedelics have entered the mainstream. While people from all over the world have embarked on expeditions of self-discovery for thousands of years, it feels as though, culturally, there’s been a new surge in those seeking ceremonies, retreats and rituals with plant medicines used for their transcendental qualities.

The Ethics Around Psychedelic Tourism

Many want ‘authentic’ experiences within the indigenous cultures of which these plants form their ancestral fabric. This is why westerners are flocking to areas of the Amazon, Mexico and Peru for ayahuasca, mushroom and peyote trips. But this very individualised way of seeking the highest self-awareness can overlook key aspects which make a psychedelic journey the most profound: understanding the origins of the plants and cultures of which they are a part of. Before booking a month-long visit to the jungle with a native shaman, or high-end luxury psychedelic retreat, it’s important to arm yourself with the necessary knowledge to make informed decisions about where to go, what to consume and how to travel ethically in respect for these psychedelic plants and their native lands.

Studies have dated the ceremonial consumption of peyote back as far as 7,000 years ago, while Amazonian shamans, whose role is traditionally to serve as mediators between the spirit and human worlds, have used ayahuasca to move freely and communicate between the two. Today, the growing mainstream interest in ayahuasca means numerous retreat centres – often owned by outsiders – have popped up across the Amazon, fundamentally shifting the social structures and cultures of the host communities.

The Origins of Psychedelic Tourism

Psychedelic tourism isn’t new. It was first sparked in the 1950s when Gordon Wasson’s Life Magazine article famously documented his psilocybin ceremony with Mazatec curandera (healer) María Sabina in Huautla de Jimenez, Mexico. Sabina became a celebrity and a flood of western seekers flocked to Huautla including John Lennon, Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger. Tourism became so disruptive, it caused government authorities to set up military checkpoints on the road to the village who believed Sabina to be a drug dealer. The community ostracised her for compromising their Mazatec customs, burning down her house and murdering her son. At the same time, Beat poets like William Burrows were travelling to the Amazon for ayahuasca, and Aldous Huxley published The Doors of Perception, famously documenting his experiences with mescaline – the psychoactive component in the peyote plant.

Seeking the magic mushroom Mexico newspaper
Gordon Wosson's 1957 Life Magazine article

While these idealised visions from influential figures may have prompted the rebirth of shamanism in the western world, from an indigenous perspective Sabina’s story is seen as one of cultural appropriation and colonisation. Like her, many indigenous people who have been generous with their knowledge have suffered for it. Fast forward to today, and while ayahuasca tourism has helped bring money into native communities, most of this is not necessarily handed directly back to them. As the renaissance resurges, we need to ensure we don’t create a romanticised, one-sided image of the healers, plants and rituals. Doing so inherently minimises the complexity within indigenous cultures and the injustices they continue to experience.

Local Lands

The small town of San José del Pacifico, in Oaxaca, is now on the go-to list for psychedelic travellers in search of shrooms. There, you can find anything from dried mushrooms to honey and tea specifically made for tourists. Iquitos, Peru, is now marketed to westerners as the ayahuasca capital of the world. But other regions aren’t as inviting of outsiders. The growing demand for peyote has resulted in extensive harvesting and poaching in Mexico’s San Luis Petosi region. There has been a 40 percent decline in peyote where tourists flock, and a 100 percent decline in areas overtaken by the growing agriculture and mining industries. Most don’t realise peyote takes 15 years to grow, which begs the question of whether nature can keep up with growing demand. The Wixárika community, who are the primary custodians of the plant, rely their very existence on this ceremonial medicine and are taking action to protect it. Although generally unenforced, under Mexican law only a few indigenous groups are allowed to harvest peyote. However, new efforts are underway to decriminalise the harvesting of peyote, which has sparked opposition from groups who are trying to protect the plant from exploitation, thereby maintaining its medicinal use.

The Ethics Around Psychedelic Tourism
Hunting peyote, photo by José Andrés Solórzano
The Ethics Around Psychedelic Tourism peyote
Cutting peyote, photo by José Andrés Solórzano

This doesn’t necessarily mean travelling to these local communities for transcendent experiences is wrong. It’s about gaining appropriate understanding to avoid perpetuating colonialism, cultural appropriation and environmental harm. Travelling to these regions can be paired with learnings of how to give back and support local communities, and there are well-trained guides who can guide people along this trajectory.

The Ethics Around Psychedelic Tourism peyote
The Wixárika community

Modern Shamanism

The word ‘shaman’ today is ultimately a catch-all term for a variety of healers, ranging from those working with herbs to psychoactive brews. But a rise in demand and the influence of western capitalism is shifting the shamanic practice and internal structures of power altogether. There have been accounts of local shamans taking advantage of westerners, or appropriation scams marketed to them. Neoshamans, often charlatans with little training, are becoming more widespread, and are not always well-trained at supporting people through dark moments in their psychedelic journeys.

However, the world of Neoshamanism isn’t all bad. The local indigenous rituals were developed for specific cultural backgrounds, never westerners. Ayahuasca traditions, for example, were not historically conducted in groups, rather they were used as a sentient medicine to heal the body and mind, says Danny Nemu, author of Science Revealed and Neuro-Apocalypse. “It’s not the case that rituals were going on in any way that westerners are now going to. The way shamanism was practised in most places did not involve group rituals. If you were ill, you’d go to the shaman, they would go on a journey on their own and then come back with your cure.”

The Ethics Around Psychedelic Tourism peyote
Ayahuasca in Brazil

It’s important to remember that westerners do not understand or live alongside the local land in the same way as these indigenous communities. Instead of western travellers embedding themselves into a cultural framework that was never intended for them, it may be more appropriate to look for well-trained Neoshamans who are translating the traditional rituals into versions perhaps better suited for westerners. Famous ethnopharmacologist Dennis McKenna has touted another potential benefit of neoshamanism, saying it has helped rescue and preserve indigenous traditions that would have otherwise vanished. There’s also the added benefit of tourism’s potential to protect indigenous communities from threatening industries, like agriculture and mining – as is the case of San Luis Potosí. If we can ensure cultural, environmental and economic sustainability for host communities, it can help regenerate sustainable development through travel.

Like McKenna, Nemu agrees that with the right approach, ayahuasca tourism is wonderful. “Its adoption in the west is really important and ayahuasca itself has an agenda to protect its homeland from the threats it is facing in regards to mining and agriculture,” he said. “If you want to go travel and be a soldier working on behalf of nature, ayahuasca will help you out.”

Social Stewardship

Psychedelic tourism is thriving and to oppose its rise also poses inevitable social harm, hindering some of the potential developmental benefits to the host communities. But it does mean we need to be more conscientious of how and why we are engaging in their customs. “We need to encourage people to think more deeply about their actions and the potential consequences of what we’re doing,” says Neil White, writer and filmmaker of Yagé is Our Life, a film documenting the changing landscape of ayahuasca in local communities. “We have no real idea what the impact or consequences of our current actions are. It could be good things, or bad things,” he adds.

 Yagé is Our Life
Still from Yagé is Our Life by Neil White

So if we’re looking to travel to transcend, how can we do so in ways that prompt stewardship for local communities, the lands and sacred plants we are seeking? Here are some key things to think about when considering the accumulation of stamps on your passport.

Local Impact & Respect

Before travelling, do your due diligence. Educate yourself and read about the local impact on that community. Who is it beneficial for, and if so, where does the balance lie? Is the retreat developed in relation to, and in support of, the local community? Where is your money going, and what other ways can you support the local cultures? There are other ways you can contribute to their development beyond money alone. “When going, you can take gifts like guitars and hammocks, not money,” says Nemu. “The idea of one person having more money than anyone else is not part of their culture.” Read up on what other mining or agricultural developments might be impacting the land, and the role this has on people and plants.

Instead of asking yourself how you can have the most powerful experience, think about the wider collective impact of your personal journey. Understand the local impact on cultures to avoid contributing further to the spiritual colonisation that has continued to sweep some regions ever since the popularisation of María Sabina. Since the retreats are made specifically for westerners, it means white-majority audiences are both influencing local culture and limiting access to some of the plants and medicines for the indigenous groups.

If and when you do get to a host community, listen to all the instructions and guides they give you. Far too often, outsiders won’t place as much value on the preparatory diets and customs instructed by the guides. These are crucial steps fundamental to the experience to follow, and ignoring these are simply disrespectful to both the plants themselves, and those who are bringing you into the culture and healing practises they have cultivated over generational lifetimes. It’s simple: do as you are told. If you’re instructed to wear shoes when walking on the land, it’s because the jungle is inherently dangerous. Trust that you’re entering a culture which has its reasons behind the methods. Don’t question the rationale behind the wisdom.

Choosing Your Plant Medicine

When considering options of plants, choose ones that grow widely and easily. Ensure you are not further threatening or endangering those already at risk. Eliminate from any consideration plants like peyote, which is nearly extinct and should be left for the Wixárika community who view the plant as a sentient member of their culture. There are various alternatives which provide the same experiences and benefits. The San Pedro cactus, another local plant, grows easily and is more widespread. Equally, synthetic mescaline is easily available, and provides the same benefits. In fact, Huxley first tried synthetic mescaline in The Doors of Perception himself.

While everyone seems to be talking about ayahuasca, its powerful visions and ability to remove us from depressive, stagnant or anxious symptoms, it’s best to think of it as ‘the big one’. There are other options, like psilocybin, which offer a safer entry point for those at the beginning of their psychedelic journey. Ayahuasca has historically been the bridge between the human and spirit world, consumed by the shamans, which means like other plant medicines, the brew is incredibly sacred and was never meant for the individualistic ‘tripping’ experiences most westerners seek. Think about this before you embark on a journey with the medicine, and ask yourself what your real intention is, and what role you see for yourself in communing with the plant.

Ceremonies & Guides

Learn who your guide will be, and make sure it is someone you feel has safety of care. Read up on what lineages they are trained from. “If you’re going to go drink ayahuasca with someone, it should be someone you trust,” says Nemu. “They will be looking after your psychology and soul for an entire evening.” Bad brews or inexperienced shamans are more likely to cause harm than the ayahuasca itself. “Decide what kind of shaman you want to drink with. There are benefits from both indigenous and western shamans,” says McKenna. The journey is highly personal and can be a profound experience, so take the time to consider your personal needs. The option best suited to yourself should be based on your experiences to date and notably, the way you live your lifestyle.

The Ethics Around Psychedelic Tourism ayahuasca

Closing the ceremony and integrating your experience is equally as important as the main event itself, so it’s important to know how you will be supported in this, if at all. If available, ask friends or those in your wider network for recommendations from people who have had positive, restorative and responsible ceremonies. Well trained guides don’t only exist in South and Central America, so it’s equally important to consider other geographical options. There are many native psychedelic plants that can be consumed in other environments which aren’t disruptive for indigenous communities.

And perhaps most importantly, while it seems everyone and their mum is trying out psychedelics, headed to a retreat and touting their transcendence, you don’t need to consume a medicinal brew to reach these higher states of awareness. The benefits of psychedelics on mental health are being clearly proven through both indigenous and scientific lenses, but their real power lies in accelerating our connectedness to the larger world, and there are multiple other ways to do this. A spiritual practice can mean many things. Staring up at the cosmos, experiencing the vastness of nature’s beauty, or simply learning from other cultures helps to remind us of the larger forces at play that shape our existence. At the core, a spiritual practice is anything that helps us feel a greater connection to the world, and the inclusion of it in our lives is beneficial to our health and wellbeing. So while psychedelics may fast-track us to this higher connectedness, it’s up to ourselves to adopt our own ongoing practices.