Truffle Report Learns About Authentic Ayahuasca Experiences From the Director of Katari Healing Centre in Tarapoto, Perú
Ayahuasca has become extremely popular among westerners in the past decade. It is now fairly common to hear about people travelling to Peru or other South American countries to participate in ceremonies that are often described as life changing and transformative. While this increasing popularity has brought some positive consequences for the people running the retreats, it is also contributing to a decline of the traditional use of ancient sacred plants. Luckily, there are those working to preserve the ancient traditions and knowledge of the Amazon, known as vegetalistas.
Herbert Quinteros is the director of Katari Healing Center, one of the most renowned and prestigious healing retreats in Peru. Katari is a project that also involves permaculture and traditional music production.
Katari means snake in Aymara, an indigenous language of South America. In the Amazonian cosmovision, snakes represent life and movement. Their hearts are close to the earth, and the earth is sacred to vegetalistas such as Herbert.
Vegetalista, not Shaman
When it comes to naming his calling, Herbert prefers to be called a vegetalista or a medicine man. To him, the term shaman doesn’t quite fit.
“The term shaman comes from the north of Siberia. Here in the Amazon, we are vegetalistas. Shamans tend to connect more with spirits, we connect with plants. We chant to them in a language that is used to connect and communicate with nature. We use plants, roots, barks and more to expand consciousness and guide people through a catharsis process. Plants are the ones that heal them. If you want to use the word Shaman, I would say that the plants are the Shamans.”
“Following a strict previous preparation and diet is extremely important for your body to receive the plant. People need to have in mind that they’re receiving the spirit of these sacred plants that will expand their consciousness. If you eat pork or drink coffee, for example, before a ceremony, your body is going to spend a long time purging those toxins. You want the plant to reach deep into your spirit to heal it and the diet allows this to happen quicker. Each plant has a very specific diet that must be followed before and after taking it. It is extremely important. To us, taking the plants is like a sacrament,” says Quinteros.
Fifth Generation Vegetalista
For Herbert, being a vegetalista or medicine man is a family tradition. He is the fifth generation in a lineage that also includes two of his elderly uncles. His official training started when he participated in a ceremony for the first time at the age of 16, but he was born into the practice, and considers his heritage a source of pride and honour.
“My family comes from Lake Sauce, a couple of hours away from Tarapoto. My great grandparents owned some land and they grew medicinal plants there. They were known in town as medicine men or vegetalistas. People would come to them to treat different afflictions. They became very well known in their community and knowledge about the traditional use of plants was taught generation after generation.”
“My training involved a lot of learning about the traditional use of plants but also learning about myself. I trained with different indigenous communities of the Amazon like the Shipibo, Cocama, Ashaninka and Witoto people to learn about their traditions. In these travels I was able to learn a lot about different plants and incorporate them into my practice.”
The Amazonian Cosmovision: God is in Everything
For vegetalistas, tradition is everything. They use plants and substances such as ayahuasca to connect with their ancestors and the natural world.
“In the Amazonian cosmovision there are three important elements: Runas (mankind), Sacha (jungle), and deities, and they are all connected. There’s no division between them. There’s a synergy and reciprocity between all three. To us, God isn’t in heaven…he’s in everything! He’s inside of us and inside of every element of nature.”
“Unlike modern society that only thinks about profit and exploiting the earth, we believe in Ayni, which means reciprocity. Giving back and working together. We work with the earth every day. The water spirits are in water and we use water to clean ourselves…everything is connected. To us, earth is alive and we respect it. That’s why we fight for it and for nature’s voice to be heard.”
Quinteros on Ayahuasca Tourism
In the past few years, ayahuasca and shamanic tourism have significantly increased. While this might seem harmless from afar and even beneficial from an economic standpoint, there are a lot of risks associated with it.
“The traditional way of guiding these ceremonies is being lost with the shamanic tourism. Some retreat centers don’t even chant the Ikaros themselves anymore, but play CDs in the background. This also happens in big cities too because there is no real connection to ancient knowledge. Anyone could give you a consciousness-expanding plant, but not everyone can give you the proper containment and guidance. The Ikaros are an essential part of a ceremony because they’re how we communicate with the spirits of the plants. It is important to maintain the traditions.”
“It can also be very dangerous to fall in the hands of someone who doesn’t have the required experience to properly guide these kinds of ceremonies. It’s a very serious issue. Some people may never return from their trip. These plants open portals, our role is to help you navigate them and bring you back but, with shamanic tourism sometimes these ceremonies are led by people who don’t know how to close these portals and that can be very dangerous. Some people stay in the other realm and it’s hard to bring them back. Sometimes, the plants may even be mixed with chemicals. It is very important to do extensive research and really know who you’re going with.”
Who is Eligible to Participate in an Ayahuasca Ceremony?
Herbert says that there is no age limit when it comes to taking sacred plants. He knows some vegetalistas who are in their 90s and are still leading ceremonies and drinking ayahuasca. He also knows of certain communities that allow children to have diluted tiny quantities of the beverage as well. However, their consumption is not safe for everyone, physically or emotionally.
“You have to be ready to face yourself before even thinking about participating in a healing ceremony. Not everyone is eligible and people need to be aware of that. For example, people who take medication such as valium should not participate in one of these ceremonies. People with severe PTSD associated with specific episodes should also be careful because the plants can make you face that and they might not be ready. People with heart conditions, gout, and diabetes should also avoid it,” says Quinteros.
“People should also have in mind that this is a healing ceremony and not something recreational. Most of the people that come here are people that are in the journey of finding themselves. No one should come to a retreat looking to see nice colours and experience cool visions. This is serious. The point of coming to the plants for help is to heal and to become a better person. I can tell right away when someone comes just for experience and I have rejected them in the past.”
The Most Transcendental Experience of His Career
To Herbert, every single ayahuasca ceremony that he has led throughout his 25 years of experience has been transformative. He said that he has learnt a lot from each and every single one of them and that they have all impacted his life in different ways. However, he quickly remembers a very specific one when asked which might stand out.
“I once led some ceremonies for a group of people that were very powerful politically and economically, in a country that I’m not going to name because it’s not the right time yet. These people have been able to open up their country to these plants so that they’re allowed for alternative therapies and traditional use. To me, that’s a big step and makes me really happy.”