A Peruvian Shaman Talks Ayahuasca, Healing and Tourism 

    Isasina is a member of the Shipibo-Conibo, an Indigenous nation centered in Peru’s Ucayali River region. He is also an ayahuasca shaman.

    Born in the small comunidad or village of Nueva Betania, outside the city of Pucallpa, he left at age 13 to study in Peru’s capital, Lima. Later he obtained a degree in psychology. Today he splits his time between Nueva Betania and the city of Pucallpa, where he runs a clinic working at the intersection of “Western” science and the traditional plant medicine of his ancestors.

    I first met Isasina in Peru in April 2021. Introduced to me as Douglas, he later shared his Shipibo name. He took my partner and me up the river to Nueva Betania, and later led us in an ayahuasca ceremony.

    Recently, I reconnected with Isasina via Zoom, to ask him about the significance of ayahuasca to his people’s culture—and how an influx of foreigners seeking ayahuasca impacts his region. 

    Our interview has been translated from Spanish, and edited for clarity.

     

    Alexander Lekhtman: How do you combine two such different approaches to medicine?

    Isasina : My patients receive clinical care but I use plant medicines to awaken their nervous systems. I work with patients with mental health issues like anxiety, depression or PTSD. Through our approach, the patient learns how to communicate with spirits. Through our medicines, they seek healing in their soul and heart.

    Our grandparents taught us: “First learn from yourself, then learn from others, then learn from your environment.”

     

    What is “plant medicine”—does that just mean ayahuasca, or is it more?

    Every plant has its own energy and spiritual magnetism. We learn from plants. They strengthen our mental and bodily energy—our heart, stomach, blood and nervous system.

    But every plant has its own world. They give us recognition, healing and awakening. We drink plants to soothe our thoughts and bodies, control our fears and defeat our spiritual obstacles. It’s how we emerge from paths of darkness.

    In our culture there are many forms of pressure. One is your pathway, where you’re meant to be. The plants help you discover this.

     

    How would you define shamanism in your culture?

    Shamanism comes from our grandparents, from deep in the forest—where you’ll find the jaguar, anaconda, crocodile and the big bird. It’s a pathway that connects this land, the stars and our souls.

    Our shamanic practice is strict: drinking plants and dieting heavily. You eat almost nothing—just a little fish and banana. No salt, oil or other foods that can disrupt your energy. You have to be alone, in the forest.

     

    Many people in Pucallpa told us we had to “diet” before drinking ayahuasca. They told us to avoid certain foods, not use drugs, even abstain from sex. Is this your culture?

    We have different diets for shamanic and healing purposes, which foreigners often confuse. You must complete certain rules before you can serve ayahuasca to another. Otherwise you can’t defeat your fears and can’t help others. Mastery comes from years of training, meditating and drinking.

    “Shamanism is a relationship between plants, energy, ayahuasca and visions—the understanding that we are in different dimensions but connected.”

    When you drink a plant, it makes you dream—of things you’ve never thought of. It changes your frequencies. If you follow these practices for three months, you won’t be the same person as when you started.

    But it’s not really about obeying restrictions—it’s about purifying yourself. You give up your normal habits. If you don’t, the ayahuasca ceremony will be more painful. You’ll experience headaches or stomach aches, and you will vomit heavily. But if you practice these ways, you’ll feel greater spiritual connection.

    When you drink ayahuasca, you see the spirits of every plant and flower speak to you. This takes patience and hard work. So shamanism is a relationship between plants, energy, ayahuasca and visions—the understanding that we are in different dimensions but connected.

     

    Do you lead ceremonies with other plants?

    Not necessarily—we integrate other plants into the ayahuasca session. Consuming ginger, for example, helps you visualize more deeply and understand better when you drink.

     

    And besides ceremony, you also use plants for medical purposes—and provide “Western” medical care?

    Because there is such a variety of plants here, we have many different treatments for illnesses. For example, when someone has the flu, we give them a cooked infusion of plants like basil, eucalyptus, lime, honey and ginger. We use plants for broken bones, surgical scars and caring for pregnant women.

    In the past, plants were our only form of survival. But today our medicine integrates “occidental” and traditional approaches. People go to medical clinics and hospitals for a diagnosis, but then return home and will also heal with plants.

     

    How does your clinic operate?

    Today our group of plant masters has our own clinic in Pucallpa with up to 500 visitors each year. We opened during the pandemic because our COVID patients needed special care no one was giving it to them.

    “We’re fighting every day for the government to respect and value our cultures.”

    We have 10-20 visitors a day between Monday-Friday. Most people come to drink ayahuasca, and to practice diets. During the day we meet with patients who need plant treatments. Then our ayahuasca ceremonies start at 8 pm. Some stay for just one to three days. Others want to stay one to three months, and we have them visit the communities in the forest.

    Traditional medicine is still very marginalized in Peru. We’re fighting every day for the government to respect and value our cultures.

     

    When did Pucallpa experience a tourism boom, and why?

    Historically, Pucallpa was the center of the Shipibo-Conibo peoples. But when the Spanish came, the Shipibo-Conibo moved farther up the river, away from the city. That’s how we preserved our culture.

    Before 2000 this was a very dangerous area for tourists. The city was wilder—you still felt the forest’s energy, the footsteps of the jaguars and serpents. We had no ayahuasca centers here like in Iquitos. The villages, too, were very restricted and they tried to hide their culture.

    But tourism to Pucallpa increased after 2000—primarily because of interest in ayahuasca and Indigenous culture. Little by little, the city modernized. Many migrants from within Peru came here, as did mostly European and US foreigners in search of alternative medicine. It has impacted our local culture.

    More hotels opened up. The government created more police and other services. Robberies that were so common on the highway stopped. Transportation to the villages improved.



    When did ayahuasca start to become a real industry?

    That began around 2005, and in 2010 it started to boom. Communities are now using their culture to make money and survive.

    Today we have many ayahuasca businesses—some are real healing centers, but others are more superficial. Many centers in the city give you ayahuasca with no preparation—they just want you to have visions for four hours.

     

    Do you normally welcome visitors in your village?

    Before the European conquests our Indigenous communities had a sharing mentality, but then came an era of shock and crisis. Today we are still overcoming this trauma.

    In the last century, it was difficult to enter our community and there was much fear. But after 2000, more foreigners began visiting us. The communities also opened up to outsiders, seeking support for our health care, education and childcare needs.

    My community today is very open. You can walk freely and participate in our life, there is brotherhood and sharing. Not all communities are there yet—you need permission and must follow their protocols. 

    Before the pandemic my family received many visitors—from Lithuania, France, England, Canada and the US. And from South America: Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia and Bolivia.

     

    Why do they come to you to drink ayahuasca?

    People come to us with many different illnesses. And they come in search of peace. Here you can swim in the river, hear birds and see monkeys. At night you see many stars.

    They drink in the community and also deeper in the forest, on the lake. But we treat our ayahuasca like sacred medicine, not a hallucinogen. We don’t give it to just anyone.

     

    When we first met, you didn’t offer us ayahuasca; it only happened because my partner asked for it. To me, it didn’t feel like you were exchanging a service.

    I’m happy to hear that. Thank you for your trust. I didn’t offer it to you because it wasn’t the right moment. When a medicine is profound, it presents itself. And you have to take advantage of it.

     

    Has the international popularity of ayahuasca actually changed your traditional practices around it?

    In older days, our masters spent decades dieting in the forest and learning from nature. Only they drank—it was rare for anyone else to drink. Even today, we don’t drink it for visions or even to know that “Things must be this or that way.” We drink it to help us understand.

    Today we give it to people who don’t believe or understand our culture. We have a big responsibility to give each person a safe and proper dose. In our clinic we require everyone to purify and detoxify with plants before they drink. Drinking carries high risks. You can fall into a dark emptiness if you’re not careful.

     

    But we didn’t follow many precautions when we drank with you. Was that dangerous?

    It was not dangerous because we are prepared to receive someone at any moment. We knew that you two were mentally prepared, because my Tia Flora helped orient you. It’s important that you are open, and that we are open to you. You must want to learn.

    Before drinking, we diagnose each patient and make recommendations depending on what your goal is.

     

    So what’s a red flag for you? How do you know when someone is not ready to drink?

    When someone is in mental or physical pain. I can’t give ayahuasca if they are crying or shaking. They must address their stress first, and we work together with other plants. They can join ceremonies but not drink, and we sing to them.

    When they are ready to drink I’ll give them a smaller dose or a microdose, and I watch to see how they react.

     

    What is the normal procedure for an ayahuasca ceremony?

    Before we begin, we pray for our paths to be opened. We blow in a melody, to call between this Earth and the astral world. We ask the ayahuasca to guide us.

    After drinking and feeling the medicine’s effects, about 30-60 minutes later, we begin to sing songs, or icaros. The songs are codes of healing and connection, that we sing only through ayahuasca. Through song, we call the force of nature and transmit it to people.

    “When we drink, it’s not important that we have visions—it’s a small part. What matters is the liberation that helps you feel and work better on yourself. “

    We smoke mapacho (tobacco). It’s important because it cleans toxicity from our bodies and spirits. It helps open a door that teaches us about life. We also blow with a rose water.

    Ayahuasca’s effects make you vomit or cry, and move your body in ways you’ve never done. But it’s a form of liberation.

    Throughout the ceremony, everyone must be concentrated and in their own world. You must begin to overcome your traumas and your questions. 

    Afterwards you reflect and comprehend what you went through. You feel relief in your body, and your thoughts and emotions are more balanced. You must maintain this spirit by eating healthier. You can’t consume other drugs after the ceremony that may affect you negatively.

     

    How is it different in more commercial ayahuasca centers?

    The energy is very different in larger groups. You receive a very potent dose, and the whole point is just to have visions.

    When we drink, it’s not important that we have visions—it’s a small part. What matters is the liberation that helps you feel and work better on yourself. To see more clearly the path you must take.

     

    There are clearly severe inequalities in Pucallpa and the Ucayali region. Is ayahuasca tourism helping this situation, or making it worse?

    It’s true we have very high inequality. Our own government is involved in corruption.

    But ayahuasca is not at fault for anything. The government needs to invest in development, but there’s little focus on the communities. The cities have better education and health care—while deeper in the Amazon, there are often no basic services or good quality of life, no infrastructure or technology. Our teachers can’t go to their schools sometimes because there’s no transportation.

    “We need to ask our Shipibo youth to reclaim our rights as people carrying ancestral medicine.”

    And COVID was very hard on Indigenous people—they were left on their own. People are leaving these areas because the state doesn’t care about helping them.

    Meanwhile people are buying up plots of land from the communities, to grow coca farms. We have illegal trafficking of drugs, animals and lumber. The state has no control—you see traffickers in the city port. The government gives people no other choice so they exploit the forest to make money.

     

    Do you think your work can help wake people up to start solving these problems?

    What makes my work relevant to the whole world is teaching our youth to conserve our Shipibo culture and the environment. We go into these communities and speak about these issues. We use ayahuasca, too, as a tool.

    We need to ask our Shipibo youth to reclaim our rights as people carrying ancestral medicine, so that no matter what happens in the future, we can be self-sufficient and be recognized and valued as healers.

     


     

    Photograph by Alexander Lekhtman

    Kevin Garcia assisted with translation for this article.

    • Alexander is Filter’s staff writer. He writes about the movement to end the War on Drugs. He grew up in New Jersey and swears it’s actually alright. He’s also a musician hoping to change the world through the power of ledger lines and legislation. Alexander was previously Filter‘s editorial fellow.

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