What Is The Shamanic Plant Diet?

The Plant Diet…in the words of Guaman Poma de Ayala

The term “diet” is the literal translation of the Spanish word “dieta”, which refers to the shamanic training as it is practised in the Peruvian Amazon.

Guests who wish to deepen their experiential understanding of Amazonian shamanism and are prepared to commit themselves in a disciplined – yet very friendly, comfortable and welcoming – traditional setting, may also engage in the proper shamanic training and initiation with the plant teachers diet.

The traditional shamanic plant diet – which is, essentially, the shamanic initiation the Amazonian way – is better suited to those who have been previously exposed to the Ayahuasca experience in the jungle and who preferably speak Spanish. We are happy to offer short “testers” of shamanic plant diet – from just 2 weeks onwards – to those who have a specific interest in experiencing Amazonian shamanism, but cannot altogether commit to the lengths of the traditional shamanic apprenticeship/initiation with plant teachers (which would require – aside from strong commitment and flexibility – at least 3 months, to start with).

Why the plant diet?

Jungle vines in the Amazon rainforest of Peru. Photo © El Mundo Magico 2000-2016

Jungle vines in the Amazon rainforest of Peru. Photo © El Mundo Magico

This is done, in the Peruvian Amazon, to become a shaman, a Maestro. The concept of plants as teachers is of paramount importance in Amazonian shamanism. The actual dietary restrictions imposed by the “diet” are only an aspect – a conditio sine qua non – albeit an important one, of the training. The other reason why traditionally one may be required to do “la dieta” is healing, physical and emotional healing. These are the two essential – and parallel – avenues at the core of the experience with the plants: shamanic apprenticeship and healing. Anthropologist Luis Eduardo Luna thus reassumes this concept:

“The plants which are used as plant-teachers have a double function. They may be used as medicinal plants for various illnesses, or as plant-teachers if they are used under the special conditions of diet and segregation.” (*)





The traditional apprenticeship

The "Lupuna blanca" master tree, in the Amazon rainforest of Peru. Photo © El Mundo Magico 2000-2016

The “Lupuna blanca” Master tree, in the Amazon rainforest of Peru. Photo © El Mundo Magico

“The Lupuna is a magical tree, and is also the greatest Master tree of the jungle.  The spirit of the Lupuna tree is known as the Master of the shamans or the Master of the Masters. Inside the Lupuna dwell many spirits of Plant Teachers and Master Trees of the jungle, that’s why it’s a magical tree.   When you learn from the Lupuna you must be willing to be part of the guardians of the forest, who conserve, protect, respect and love nature.” 

Maestra Ercilia

It is important to stress that the traditional apprenticeship may be a long commitment, that would require normally a minimum of three months of “plant diet”, in the jungle. Icaros – the magical songs that the plant spirits teach to the apprentice – may be received at the end of an even longer period of diet, which may last up to six months. Thus, for an initial shamanic apprenticeship, done the traditional way, one should consider a plant diet between three and six months, up to one year and more. There are indigenous and mestizo (i.e. mixed blood or acculturated) shamans who routinely advance their knowledge, retiring ”al monte” (that is, in pristine, isolated jungle areas), and doing the plant diet, at any stage of their training, whether novices or expert vegetalistas, young or old. Since in Amazonian shamanism the plant is the teacher, the larger the number of plants one diets with, and the longer the diet, the more advanced and comprehensive one’s knowledge becomes. The real apprenticeship is a business that may last years, not weeks or months, but Western pilgrims will nevertheless be able to benefit in many ways even from a few weeks or few months shamanic plant diet.

In any case, no matter what your main drive is, curiosity shouldn’t be at the core of your motivations for doing this retreat. Serious motivation and an “unbending intent”, yes. A deep magnetic attraction and love for plants and the rainforest, an inner resonance with the shamanic path and/or a specific need for healing, should be at the core of your desire to engage with the plant teachers diet.

The intrinsic value of the plant diet retreat as a inner and sacred journey in the wilderness

Photo © S. Witte

Alongside the two main traditional avenues of healing and shamanic apprenticeship, we may envisage a third opening worth to explore for the plant diet retreat: an inner and sacred journey in the wilderness. In the proliferation of shamanic journeys openings in the modern world, the “teacher plants diet” is a unique experience that may offer you a revolutionary potential of deep transformation and perceptual shift, of a different understanding of the world and of yourself. The teacher plants open the gates of perception, but in order for that to happen one’s intentions should be pure and strong, as preliminary condition of success. The settings where this may take place are unusual ones.

The “don Juan” of Carlos Castaneda spoke of “stopping the world”, of practising the art of “not doing”, to interrupt the flux of habits and consolidated ideas that we have about the world, very much a like a Taoist “not doing”. An “interruption” of the world as we know it, that is – an interruption of the normal way of living and relating with the world – is what Saints, Sages, Yogis and Prophets of all ages did, retiring in the wilderness to find themselves and open to the Spirit, cultivating their inner essence away from the worldly seductions of civilization. Even Huang-Ti, the mythical Yellow Emperor who ruled the four corners of the world, took refuge for several months on a mountain, to find his true self! Fasting, celibacy and isolation in the wilderness were the conditions where revelations took place and illuminations were received, for thousands of years, worldwide. Without going too far in cultural parallels, think at Jesus and his forty days spent alone in the desert!

Set aside shamanic apprenticeship and healing – for which long commitments are required – the intrinsic value of the plant diet is that of an inner journey of self-discovery, of a vision quest in the amazing environment of the Amazon Rainforest. This is one aspect of the plant diet: a retreat in the wilderness in search of the inner self. This value is intrinsic to the experience, and may paradoxically be even independent from the actual shamanic training side – which is and remain, however – the main reason for which one should be doing it. You will learn about the plants, the way the shamans of the Amazon do! Worth to take note of, there are shamans who diet the plants throughout their entire life!!

The diet with plant teachers

Teacher plants (plantas maestras) may be “dieted” in the form of a special preparation made by the shaman who makes a beverage with water and the scraped roots, barks or other parts of teacher plants, trees or vines, for the apprentice (dietero, if male, or dietera, if female) to drink over a set up period, in conditions of celibacy and physical isolation in the jungle. The brew may either be obtained by scraping parts of the fresh plant and leaving them into water for some time, or else, using the so called bañomaria method. In either case the shaman may whistle or sing his icaros to the medicina (the tea that the dietero/a will drink, prepared by the shaman). Dieteros (or dieteras) on the other hand, will sing the icaros of the plant they are dieting with, to their plant medicine.

As it should have been clear by now, the dieta is of course something more, much more complex, magic and mysterious than a simple “diet”. Along with the implicit food restrictions – no salt, sugar, spices, oils, fats, alcohol, stimulants, pork meat (and, according to the purpose of the diet and to the maestro), a pre-condition without which the proper outcome would not be guaranteed – there are other specific conditions to respect, among which two are very much important: celibacy and and certain degree of physical seclusion.

The altered state of consciousness – which is the configuration needed to access the plant spirit world – is therefore achieved by a series of restrictions, whilst being alone in the forest with the shaman. That is the traditional way. During the period of the apprenticeship (dieta) the candidate must also refrain from entering in contact with menstruating women (including having his/her clothes touched/washed by, or having his/her food prepared by a lady in this condition). Traditionally, it is only the shaman who should attend the apprentice during the time of his/her own diet, and only the shaman should take care to bring (or even prepare) the food for the apprentice. There are different traditions, set-ups and ways to see menstruating women and the dieta, and almost any maestro has his or her own views on the topic. Female apprentices are – of course – most welcome to join in. Shipibo Maestro Rosendo even maintained that women learn plant-based shamanism more quickly than men, as the spirits of the plants teachers enter and settle inside them more easily.

One important thing that many shamans vegetalistas have stressed as being the most vital aspect of the dieta training is “dietar la mujer”, that is, refraining from sexual activity. Main reason being that teacher plant spirits are said to be very jealous of human sexuality. So, as sign of respect for them, one must enforce this precept whilst doing the diet. Also remember the words of Carlos Castaneda’s don Juan: “warriors who adventure in the unknown must be tight with their sexual energy”. Plant spirits are jealous and energy must be preserved to engage in encounters with the unknown!


What’s the main difference between the plant-teachers diet and a normal Ayahuasca retreat?

Cielo Ayahuasca (Banisteriopsis caapi) vine leaves Photo: F. Sammarco

The difference between the “plant diet” and a normal retreat is the special settings and conditions where the first takes place, in the Amazon Rainforest, where the shamanic teachings are received under the guidance of the shaman, whilst fasting, observing special dietary restrictions and been in a relatively more wild and undisturbed reserved area of the centre. The main difference is in the intensity and the unicity of the experience, as in the long apprenticeship one will be exposed to an incredible amount of rituals and ceremonies – with plant teachers like Ayahuasca, San Pedro, Brugmansia, Mapacho, Piñon blanco, Piñon colorado and master trees like Lupuna blancaChullachaki caspi, Remocaspi, Renaquilla, Renaco, etc, – with a great potential for the transformation of one’s life. Guests enrolling for the shamanic apprenticeship should not interact with visitors and should not have physical contact with them (e.g. must avoid kisses, hand-shaking, hugs, etc.) to avoid unbalancing energies, and must also avoid direct exposure to the rain and to the sun. Guests doing the plant diet may be required to smoke (although not necessarily to inhale) Mapacho – organic jungle tobacco – as part of their apprenticeship.


Ayahuasca and Tobacco: Two Important Plant Teachers

Mapacho (Nicotiana Sp.) bundles. Photo: F. Sammarco

The spirits of the Ayahuasca and Tobacco plants are believed to be – by all the vegetalistas of the Peruvian Amazon – closely related. The use of tobacco is really a must for all dieteros: like all over South America, Mapacho (Nicotiana Tabacum, Nicotiana Rustica) – either cultivated, or in its most potent wild form – is considered a sacred plant with the power to cleanse, purify and protect one from negative energies and malevolent spirits. Not by chance, at the beginning of each ceremony, the Ayahuasca brew is soplada (e.g. is blown smoke on), with a mapacho cigarro (i.e. a cigarette made with jungle tobacco), to tame and guide in a benevolent way the indomitable spirit of the Ayahuasca medicine. The blowing of mapacho smoke over a patient’s body (top of the head, back, chest, hands and feet) is a consolidated practice during every healing session and during all Ayahuasca ceremonies.

Anthropologist Luna thus report on the importance of the use of tobacco among the vegetalistas of the Peruvian Amazon:

“Although I emphasized [..] the use and role of ayahuasca, it is important to realize that this plant is one among others which belong to the category of the plant teachers. Tobacco, one of them, is in a way more important than ayahuasca, because it is considered to be a mediator between the vegetalista and other plant spirits. Sin el tabaco no se puede usar ningun vegetal (without tobacco no other plant can be used), says Don Emilio. Tobacco purifies the body and expels the illness. […] Tobacco is also the food of spirits […] Mastering the use of tobacco, either smoked, or ingested orally or through the nostrils, is part of the shamanic initiation […]. Tobacco is always present at ayahuasca sessions.” (*)

Luna, L. E. Vegetalismo. Shamanism Among the Mestizo Population of the Peruvian Amazon – Acta Universitatis Stockholmiensis – 27, 1986:159.