The Apprenticeship of Don Julio Llerena Pinedo
by Francesco Sammarco & Dino Palazzolo
Don Julio Llerena Pinedo was a remarkable “Maestro Palero” (an Amazonian shaman specialized in working with ”palos maestros”, or master trees), and an ”espiritista’ (follower of the ”spiritualist” esoteric tradition), with over 41 years experience in working as a ”vegetalista” (a term which distinguish the non-tribal shamanic healers of the Amazon region of Peru). What follows here is the account of his first ”dieta” (e.g. the traditional shamanic training) with ”plantas maestras” (teacher plants) – and how he entered this magical world – as it was narrated to Dino Palazzolo and Francesco Sammarco, respectively, in May 2001 and in September 2002. Don Julio worked with El Mundo Magico as part of our remote shamanic expeditions in the Amazon rainforest of Peru, until 2003/2004.
He lived with his family, treated his patients and took care of his ”chacra” (small allotment of land, in a cleared jungle plot, cultivated with manioc and plantains) in the Northern Peruvian Amazon, some 300 km downriver from the jungle town of Iquitos. Sadly, Don Julio – after a long period of retirement – passed away in Iquitos, at the age of 89, on the 19th of January 2007.
A very moving and gentle healing icaro of Don Julio – recorded live by us during a memorable Ayahuasca ceremony with him in 2002 – is featured in our special icaros compilation available for download at the page here.
The Apprenticeship of Don Julio
Don Julio began his diet with teacher plants long time ago, to heal himself from an Amazonian viper byte. He had already tried to treat the byte with conventional medicine but the wound got increasingly worst. Back then, he was living in Pucallpa, the largest city in the Ucayali department of the Peruvian Amazon. One day he went to see a curandero from the district of San Miguel (an area famous for the many powerful curanderos that live there), who was temporarily staying in Pucallpa. This curandero was a palero (i.e. a vegetalista who has learnt the ways of the plants by dieting with the barks of ‘teacher trees’) and strongly advised don Julio against going to the hospital, warning him that there they would have almost certainly amputated his leg, considering the advanced status of his illness.
The curandero maintained that don Julio’s wound would certainly heal if he would follow a diet of six months that he himself would supervise. Don Julio accepted and – following the instructions of this curandero – began a period of segregation in the rainforest, to diet with the plantas maestras and the bark of ‘teacher trees’. He started first with Chiric sanango and Uchusanango  (Tabernaemontana sp.) – and then with Chullachaki caspi (Brysonima christianeae), mixed with Chucuhuasa (Heisteria pallida) and Shihuahuaco (Dipteryx micrantha). After 5 months, whilst still dieting with Estoraque/Estorake (Myroxylon balsamum) and Ayahuma (Couropita guaianensis), a man with a suitcase appeared to him in dreaming. The man invited Julio for a walk and brought him to a pueblo (small village). They entered together inside the pueblo’s pharmacy and Julio was here introduced to the pharmacist who happily and kindly welcomed both visitors. Julio was shown the pharmacy and was told of a large number of medicines that were kept there. No medicines were given to him, but their scent was enough to make Julio feel very well. In a following dream Julio was near a river when an indio appeared to him. Julio was offered by the indio a bow and the arrow he kept in his hand and was told to catch with that a fish…Julio however knew that the spirits of the plants were challenging him and refused to do his task, since this would have meant for him to embrace brujeria (evil sorcery): the arrow, in fact, symbolized evil (since it can harm, wound or kill). Even the Christian faith – don Julio explains – teaches that men are constantly challenged on their path towards faith and knowledge.
In yet another dream, don Julio saw the Capirona (Calycophyllum sp.) and Chuchuhuasa trees, side by side, and was told to climb the Chuchuhuasa first and the Capirona after. He went up the first tree but at some point he was neither able to go forward nor to go back, was truly scared and believed he would have fallen. At this point he decided to climb the Capirona tree. Whilst he was on the Capirona, an extremely powerful, strong wind blew from all sides. Julio firmly grabbed the tree and, to his surprise, he did not fell. When the wind stopped he realized that he could climb the tree down, and so he did… The challenge consisted in not screaming out of fear of falling down the trees.
In another dream he was carried away by the wind into a red sea, where the water looked like blood. In front of him only the sea and the sky could be seen. Again, the man with the suitcase accompanied him. Together they walked through the sea until they reached a town. Once there they entered again into a pharmacy. The pharmacist even this time was very welcoming and said to the two men: “I have many medicines here!” They asked Julio whether he wanted any and Julio answered yes (he thus accepted to learn the medicina). After that they all went into a ironmonger shop and Julio was offered an arpon (harpoon) but he refused: “It is bad (es malo)!” he said. He was then offered a comba (unidentified) which he refused, as well. He was finally shown some yunke (anvils) and was asked to lift them: in that instant the comba disappeared only to get inside Julio’s body (making him stronger). He then lifted the anvils but could only do so up to his shoulders. The man with the suitcase, his guide, commented that Julio was lacking the diet (with teacher plants) and left saying that he would be back. At this point Julio woke up.
In a further dream Julio found himself into an unfamiliar place where there was a house. The man with the suitcase, his guide in every dream, popped out again and led Julio to the house of an ill lady. The guide asked Julio to discover the illness the lady was suffering from, but he did not know what to answer. Despite that, Julio performed a check-up on the woman and immediately realized the nature of the illness she was afflicted by, and referred it back to his guide. “I am being tested”, he thought. When asked again by the guide on the type of remedy that he would have used to treat the woman, Julio did not know what to answer. However, he saw some blisters on the body of the woman, and the idea of giving her an injection crossed his mind. Julio referred back to the guide who asked: “How do you do the injection?”…Despite the fact that he was unprepared to answer, these very same questions opened his mind and made him understand what to do. The guide continued his questioning: “Where do you put the syringe?” – he asked. “In the buttocks!” – Julio replied. “Do it now, then!” – the guide insisted. Julio replied that he did not have the syringes with him. At this point the guide opened his suitcase that contained syringes and many kinds of medicines, took out a very small medicine bottle, and gave it to Julio who felt like an electric current transferring into his body, originating from the medicine. He then administered an injection with this medicine to his woman patient and put everything back into the suitcase when he finished with it. At this point the guide gave the suitcase, with all the medicines inside, to Julio saying that from then on it belonged to him. Julio was then brought into another house where an ill man was lying. Here he diagnosed the man a high intestinal fever and whilst pondering what kind of medicine to give him, he thought of a pill. The guide confirmed that his diagnosis was correct, reassured him that everything was going OK and carried on asking Julio: “Which pill?” Julio chose a particular pill from the suitcase, and administered it to the ill man, in a glass of water. At this point Julio was left with the suitcase, and invited to call again his guide, if he needed help, after they both left the house of the ill person.
After six months of diet with the plantas maestras Julio returned to Pucallpa, whilst the wound caused by the viper’ byte was almost entirely healed up. It healed completely little time after. One day a couple invited him to go to the cinema with them, but he refused and while he saw them going away hugging each other, he realized with certainty that the two would have soon split up…He thus understood that he could divine. He also noticed that when he encountered other curanderos they recognized in him a great strength and some of them commented ironically: “Tu es un demonio!” (You are a devil!). Another day a maestro ayahuasquero named Vasquez, a medico (shaman) with twenty-five years of experience in working with ayahuasca, asked for Julio’s help because he was convinced he had many enemies that wanted to kill him. Vasquez – trustworthy in Julio’s power – invited him to attend an ayahuasca ceremony that was to be held in the few days ahead, to be protected by him. Julio was pondering whether to go or not, since he was a palero – and was therefore not used to drink the ayahuasca brew. In the end he decided to go to the ceremony a tomar la medicina (to drink Ayahuasca) but decided to serve himself with it rather than been served by Vasquez. In a vision Julio was told to smoke its mapacho, he did it, and soon after he saw a storm coming towards them and all becoming black. Maestro Vasquez told everybody to smoke their Mapacho as many enemies were approaching. Don Julio saw Maestro Vasquez’s enemies launching an attack with the intent of killing him. Vasquez was about to give in. During the unfolding of these dramatic attacks, however, Don Julio did not feel any personal harm, he only felt something like small stings bothering him. He was then told by his spirit helpers to blow mapacho smoke (soplar) and sing his icaros (ikarar). Soon after having done this all the enemies ran away! “Here we are” – commented Vasquez – “That is what I was waiting for!”
 Luna (in: Luna, L.E., Amaringo, P.: Ayahuasca Visions – The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman, Berkeley 1999, 66, n.113) says with regard to this plant that it “[…] can be a great teacher, but it is extremely dangerous […] and only the strongest vegetalistas can prepare it”.