Amazonian Curanderismo – the art and science of plant spirit medicine

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*Please note that this is part 1 of a 3 part series. Part 2 is on Plant Dieta and part 3 is on Icaros (medicine songs).

Artwork by Luis Tamani

There are many forms of “Curanderismo” (what many of us in the West might call shamanism- a term that actually originates in Siberia) – the practice of plant and ancestral spirit medicine. What we present here is our own ever-evolving perspective and understanding, formed during our time in the Peruvian Amazon, in a full-time 4-year apprenticeship with indigenous Shipibo curanderos of the Mahua-Lopez lineage.

They taught us a framework of curanderismo that we applied to facilitate hundreds of people through intensive healing retreats ranging from 2-10 weeks in length. Though we do not claim to be representatives of this tradition, we continue to be influenced by it and we have done our best to carry into our practice what we feel are the essential and transferable seeds of Shipibo curanderismo.

These seeds are now being nurtured in the soil of our own understanding and context, allowing new forms to emerge that are appropriate to those we serve. It is worth bearing in mind that curanderismo is a living, multidimensional and nonlinear system which is quite impossible to capture it in its entirety – here we only attempt to give you a snapshot of some of its elements.

What is Curanderismo?

Curanderismo is a blanket term that covers the many different forms of traditional spirit medicine/ shamanism across Latin America, though most of what we discuss here is specific to the Peruvian Amazon Basin and even more specific to the indigenous Shipibo tribe. Capturing this system in words is somewhat challenging because it is, in its nature, adaptive, permeable and in a constant state of evolution (especially since its exposure to Western influence). Each curandero expresses their craft in a unique way, reflecting their local environment and the needs of those seeking out their medicine.

Curanderismo- more than just ayahuasca ceremonies

Ayahuasca vine

Many people flocking to the Amazon to drink Ayahuasca in recent times are totally unaware that it is only one part ― and sometimes not even a very significant part ― of a much larger traditional system of medicine and spiritual relating. Animistic, curanderismo sees everything in nature as sentient and multidimensional and sees the practitioner of curanderismo as someone who has developed intimate relationships with these beings so that they may be guided and empowered by them in their healing work.

Essentially this is the science/art of spirit medicine, where the curandero combines their extensive knowledge of healing plants with their ability to enter into altered states of consciousness and then ‘channel’ a vast array of plant spirits, nature beings, ancestors, deities and archetypes for the purpose of healing and addressing the spiritual/energetic causes of dis-ease. It can be exceptionally subtle and complex, often defying rational thought processes. Cultivated in isolation, this form of medicine evolved without exposure to western medical ideas for thousands of years.

Branches and specializations

Curanderismo is a vast and dynamic healing system that is comprised of multiple branches and specializations. One of the primary branch splits you will see in the Peruvian Amazon, is that of indigenous curanderismo, which is practiced by various tribes such as the Shipibo in Peru or the Huni Kuin in Brazil and is considered to be closer to the ‘original’ pre-colonial form (although much of the indigenous practice now shows post-colonial elements). The other main branch is mestizo curanderismo which is a post-colonial blending of various indigenous cosmologies and practices with elements of Christianity as well as western thought, and philosophy.  Within both styles, many specializations of curanderismo can be found, see below for some of the most common.

Specialisations within curanderismo

  • Hueseros who are the ‘bone doctors’ of the jungle. They are specialists in manipulating bones, tendons, and ligaments.
  • Tabaquero is someone who works almost entirely with different preparations of the very sacred and potent plant tobacco. A certain preparation can also be ingested to achieve an altered state for channeling work similar to ayahuasca.
  • Sananguero is someone who specializes in working with the ‘sanango’ family of plants and who creates different preparations from these plants depending on the various issues being presented.
  • Perfumera is a plant doctor who specializes in the use of fragrant plants and flowers for healing purposes. Almost like a jungle ‘aromatherapist’ but with an unmistakable wild edge that won’t be found at your local Spa.
  • Palero is someone who specializes in medicinal and purgative preparations made from tree barks and resins.
  • Vegetalista (o) is a specialist in plant medicines, basically a jungle herbalist. This word is sometimes used interchangeably with curandero and vegetalismo with curanderismo although typically a vegetalista is more focused on plant medicines then ayahuasca, and may not include ayahuasca at all.
  • Brujo is a black magic practitioner, someone who uses their connections with plants spirits, ancestors, nature beings and ayahuasca in order to cause harm, bad-luck, and illness to others. There are many types of brujo’s and they can often double up as healers.
  • Pusanguero is someone who specializes in love magic, which in certain instances may also be considered a form of ‘black magic’.
  • Midwives are those who specialize in plant and spirit medicine only in relation to women, birth, and babies.
  • Faith/prayer healers are those in the jungle who heal simply through prayer and song. For example, they may pray or ‘icarar’ a bottle of water and give that to the patient as medicine.

Styles of ayahuasca ceremony facilitation: traditional,  contemporary and religious

*Please note that people may use different names for the various styles described below and sometimes people use them interchangeably. The culture is also growing and changing rapidly, so you will need to do your own investigation to understand what kind of facilitator you may be working with*

  • Many of the seekers drinking ayahuasca outside of the Amazon jungle will likely be doing so with a contemporary facilitator/space holder, especially those attending one-off ceremonies or weekend-long retreats. This is a fairly recent development that has come with the rapid popularisation and expansion of ayahuasca around the world. Here we generally see ayahuasca being removed from the broader medicinal, diagnostic and cultural context within Amazonian curanderismo. With time it seems that the medicine starts to “naturalize” to its new environment and take on a new form in these places.

The facilitator will procure the medicine, either buying it ready-made or make it themselves from plants they buy online or from local growers.  They then serve the medicine to a group or individual and then ‘hold-space’ by singing songs (as distinct from icaros), playing instruments or putting on a playlist. Many contemporary facilitators have little or no traditional training but may be using plant ceremonies to compliment other healing modalities, an existing psychotherapy practice or a spiritual awakening practice.

  • The Religious use of Ayahuasca is not an area we are very familiar with so we won’t go into too much detail here, but essentially there are two main Christian religious groups that originated in Brazil: the Santo Daime and the UDV. Both use ayahuasca as a sacrament in their congregational gatherings. It’s a very community-based way of working with the medicine and is led by someone called a Padrino (a kind of shamanic priest). From what we have heard, it usually involves singing Christian Hymns mostly in Portuguese, lights/candles are on (by contrast, shipibo ceremonies are always held in complete darkness) and on occasion, there is dancing. They now have churches all over the world and it’s a fairly common way to work with the medicine these days. These churches have also inspired many contemporary practitioners who emulate their ceremonial style without the religious dogma.
  • An ayahuasquero (sometimes used interchangeably with the word for curandero) is someone who has at least some basic traditional training in the preparation of ayahuasca and the facilitation of ceremonies. They will likely have undertaken plant dietas and be at least somewhat skilled in the use of icaros, working with helping spirits and ceremonial energy work. For an ayahuasquero, ayahuasca ceremonies are the primary focus of their healing work and they may or may not have much knowledge of diagnosis, medicinal plants or other traditional healing practices outside of the ceremony itself.

This style brings some traditional insight in contrast to their contemporary and religious peers. Many Westerners with basic ayahuasquero training are complementing this work with other healing modalities. counseling and psychotherapy skills and spiritual practices.

Hanging out with one of our teachers, the curandero Don Roner Lopez.
  • A curandero is some who has undergone years, maybe even decades of traditional training and apprenticeship -they usually have extensive knowledge in the use of medicinal plants and a wide range of complementary healing modalities, have entered into deep relationship with helping spirits of plants, ancestors, deities and the more-than-human world through the practice of “Plant Dieta”, and are skilled in diagnostics, the use of icaros and spiritual/energetic work in ceremonies.

Each curandero has their own gifts, strengths, plant diets and spiritual connections and so no two will be the same. They utilize a unique constellation of approaches to treatment. To a curandero, ayahuasca is only one small part of an entire system of medicine and spiritual relating, and in some cases, the brew may not be used at all. Working with a curandero usually takes place over weeks, months or even years.

The curandero’s medicine bag

Most curanderos will use a combination of modalities to help their patients address the cause of their disease and return to a state of balance. Some of the primary modalities include:

  • Purgatives are medicines used to cleanse and detoxify the body by causing it to either vomit, shit, sweat profusely, expel mucus through the sinuses or all of the above. They are a vital step in this medical system and may be used quite intensely depending on the strength of the patient and the conditions being treated. Purgatives are often given at the outset of a treatment process to cleanse the body in preparation for receiving medicines (our Shipibo teachers would often tell us that we need to ‘clear space’ for the medicine spirits to be able to enter and do their work). In some cases, purgatives are done every day or every other day. They also cleanse on energetic, emotional and psychic levels and can lead to profound shifts in health and consciousness all on their own.
  • Specialized healing diets and fasts are given to all patients regardless of their condition. Most healing diets avoid salt, sugar, oil, strong spices, meat (occasional fish and chicken may be allowed but pork is a STRONG taboo) for the duration of the treatment, although extra restrictions may be advised depending on what plant medicines are being administered or the condition being treated. Sometimes water fasting is also prescribed. This is another essential part of a curandero’s treatment and this practice can also yield outstanding results all on its own (not to be confused with the practice of Plant Dieta which is explained in depth in part 2 of this blog series).
  • Behavioural restrictions such as avoiding the release of your sexual energy through intercourse or masturbation during the treatment process (that energy is conserved and utilized toward the healing instead), and being advised to enter into periods of isolation, silence and/or undistracted rest. Sometimes you may also be told to avoid swimming or going into direct sunlight.
  • Plant medicines are multidimensional in their use in this context. They are not simply seen as a collection of chemicals with certain ‘actions’ but rather as physical correspondents of sentient beings, which can treat a human on multiple levels (in fact some medicines are given for their spiritual or energetic effects as opposed to physical). Sometimes only one preparation is given and sometimes many different medicines are used both internally and externally depending on the condition(s) being treated. This can include tinctures, infusions, decoctions, creams, inhalants as well as eating certain plants or their seeds. Sometimes animal parts are also used, such as the fat of a boa constrictor being rubbed into joints or eating the organs of certain jungle animals.
  • Plant baths are another keystone modality for most curanderos. Plant baths such as vapor/steam baths, flower baths or smoke baths are generally used to treat conditions that are more energetic and spiritual in nature. Examples of this would be those caused by black magic (brujeria), external entity attachments, envy, bad luck or soul loss.

    A plant vapor bath for cleansing and protection
  • Bodywork is utilized either through massage with medicinal plant creams/salves or through a type of jungle ‘cupping’ method. Hueseros will have a much deeper knowledge in this area and may work to reset bones, ligaments, and tendons in painful yet effective ways.
  • Dietas of master plants are usually undertaken by students of curanderismo but in some cases they may be prescribed for healing purposes, usually to strengthen the patient’s spirit or to give them energetic defenses. Dietas are covered more in depth in part two of this series.
  • Ayahuasca and ceremonial energy work are primarily performed through very precise medicine songs called Icaros. These songs can be likened to surgical tools in the energetic sense, they are empowered by spirits who allow the curandero to energetically ‘see into’ his patient and accomplish a vast array of energetic functions. Icaros are covered in depth in part three of this series. Before the boom in popularity of ayahuasca that occurred in the late 90s/early 2000s, it was more common for patients to attend ceremonies without drinking the ayahuasca themselves. Simply being present in the ceremony was often enough for a curandero to make their diagnosis, do energetic work using icaros and receive guidance on the patient’s treatment plan from the doctor spirits.
  • Complimentary modalities are also currently used at many of the Westernized ‘healing retreat centers’ in the Amazon. It is not uncommon to see traditional curandero treatments being complemented by yoga, meditation, qi gong, art therapy, counseling and various psychotherapeutic modalities, spiritual practices from other traditions, integration counseling, acupuncture and even certain ‘modern’ health practices such as enemas, liver cleanses and raw vegetable juices. In our experience, these additions can be very useful in treating cases of more ‘Westernised’ illnesses, mental health conditions, and trauma.

As you can see, working with a curandero can be a multifaceted, potentially confronting and generally not for ‘tourists’. Better suited to individuals with conditions in need of healing, to those with a genuine intention to deepen their relationship with themselves, a need for a thorough cleanse,  a desire to cultivate their own relationships with master plants or to deepen an existing healing practice.

Though we have a preference for how we ourselves choose to work with these medicines, we also appreciate the different paths and approaches (when they are done responsibly) and believe that each unique offering brings something different to the spectrum of healing that is deeply needed on this planet right now.

As mentioned above, none of these categories are static and new ones are evolving all the time. This exploration is just to give a general idea and potentially help to guide you toward the type of practitioner that may be most suited to your needs.

Jungle chaos and the dark side of the force what to look out for

Many who seek out the services of curanderos/ayahuasqueros have romantic ideas of ‘shamans’ and indigenous tribal people and often conjure up images of Yoda and Pocahontas type figures in their mind’s. It’s easy to understand why, in a culture so deeply disconnected from its soul and wild nature- much of what happens in the jungle can seem miraculous and awe-inspiringly magical. In our experience though, curanderismo can have a significant shadow side and we would be doing you a disservice if we didn’t at least touch on this side of the story.

  • Curanderos as doctors as opposed to enlightened gurus or psychologists

Many people assume that skilled curanderos are psychologically individuated or realized/illuminated beings, but in our experience, this is often not the case. They may be exceptionally skilled at their work as plant doctors, in the navigation of spiritual realms, as spiritual channels, express highly developed psychic abilities and even help to bring about ‘miracle healing’ in some cases -but most curanderos are just regular people with all their own wounds and trauma’s who have become adept at practising what we would call a ‘spiritual-energetic doctoring’ tradition – where the aim of medicine work is channelling/transforming into plant spirits temporarily for purposes of diagnosis, healing, cleansing and purging- most often rooted in a dualistic worldview. In fact, at times there may appear to be quite a disconnect between the healing being done and the one doing the healing.

This is distinct from the ‘awakening’ approach where the purpose is the realization of our true nature beyond concepts of Self/Other as described in traditions such as Dzogchen Buddhism, Taoism, Advaita etc- or the psycho-therapeutic approach where the purpose is self-exploration, individuation, shadow-work and the healing of relational wounding and trauma.

It’s important to understand that the lenses or maps that one uses to navigate altered states can make a big difference to the outcome of our work with plants. This will covered in more detail in other posts.

While the plant medicines themselves have great potential to assist on the paths of awakening and psychological healing, many Westerners may be disappointed if they are seeking this kind of guidance and modeling from a curandero. For this reason, we are now seeing many facilitators in the West seeking to integrate these other frameworks into their offerings or the various healing centers in the Amazon and around the world bringing psychotherapists and yogic practitioners onto their ‘teams’ to support and complement the potent yet specific work of traditional curanderos.

  • Ego-inflation, black magic, and the path of paradox.

Unfortunately, it can be very tricky to navigate the world of curanderismo (and all types of ceremonial/spiritual facilitation really as we now see with all manner of gurus and tantrikas being called out for ‘bad behaviour’) with integrity and a genuine heart of compassion and service. The process requires that one learns to channel very potent energies which have the potential to achieve very impressive results. People can become drunk on the power they feel and the positive projections they receive, wanting to take credit for the results which often leads to ego-inflation.

Plants medicines are also non-specific amplifiers of big-egounconscious material and may lead shadow aspects of the mind to the surface. While this can be therapeutic in the right circumstances, without sufficient awareness, willingness to hear feedback or commitment to growth, these aspects may start creating chaos (this goes for anyone working with plant medicines long-term). This can result in any number of very confusing situations- for example, a skilled curandero may successfully assist in the healing of a grave illness in one patient and then go on to engage abusive patterns with another.

In the Amazon, it is not uncommon to see curanderos entering into competitive ego-battles with other practitioners, attempting to spoil the reputation of their ‘competitors’ and steal their clients by spreading lies about them or attacking them energetically in ceremony.

There is also the brujeria (black magic) aspect of the tradition to consider. Here one is undertaking dietas and cultivating spiritual relationships similar to that of the curandero but with the intention of causing harm, illness, and death. In the Amazon, many illnesses are thought to be caused by black magic and so healers need to be adept at identifying, removing and defending against such energies- and then placing protections on their patients to prevent its return. Obviously, the Brujo’s don’t like this, so energetic battles can result which can then escalate into full-on multi-dimensional wars and its painful consequences. Even more confusing, is that some curandero’s will double up as brujos when paid to do so or when driven by envy or anger.

Basically, we learned that your personal ethics could be all over the place and it would still be possible to achieve pretty impressive healing results with clients.

The world of curanderismo is not black and white; this is jungle medicine; wild, chaotic, potent- it can be full of illusions and tricks, and sometimes that is exactly what gives it the medicinal potency in the first place. It can really force one to sit in the hot seat amongst many paradoxes and contradictions, this is neither a good or bad thing- it simply is what it is. The shadow of this medicine can be hard to spot in the beginning but becomes glaringly obvious to anyone who spends time in this wild world with their eyes open and at least some measure of awareness. In our personal journey, this shadow has brought us some of our most unexpected gifts and teachings that continue to unfold and challenge us on many levels.

  • Charlatans and ‘instant-noodle shamans’

It is also wise to keep a lookout for the many charlatans and ‘instant-noodle shamans’ that have come with the massive boom in ayahuasca tourism. Make no mistake, for many people ayahuasca is a business and this commodification has created opportunities for numerous individuals to pretend to come from traditional family lineages, to have ‘authentic’ training or to be powerful curanderos, both in the Amazon and around the world. Unfortunately, it can be hard to spot charlatans if you are inexperienced within the world of curanderismo and plant medicine- and sometimes even if you are experienced because Ayahuasca, positive projection and issues with transference may blind you from someone’s shadow initially.

We also cannot look at curanderismo without turning towards the effects of the painful and violent history of colonization that is ongoing to this day; Displacement, inter-generational trauma, dismantling of tribal structure, indoctrination by missionaries, widespread habitat destruction, the influence of materialism, cultural appropriation, western industrial culture and the commercial ayahuasca sales paradigm have all had a devastating effect on the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, their culture, spirituality, and way of life. This topic is a book in and of itself and will be covered in more depth in later posts, but is important to keep in mind because its consequences are deeply embedded and are very much a part of the package in our experience.

Bearing all of the above in mind, we recommend really doing your homework, asking plenty of questions, using your intuition along with your discernment and preferably getting first-hand recommendations from someone you can trust before settling on a curandero, ayahuasquero or contemporary facilitator. It is also wise to be aware of anyone who is putting admixture plants into their ayahuasca brews to increase its ‘visionary’ potency (especially a plant called Toe) – or brews claiming to be ‘ayahuasca’ but are actually made from other plants such as Syrian Rue and Mimosa.  Always ask what is in the brew and who made it and then do your own research on the ingredients and its interactions and contra-indications.

For anyone who feels genuinely drawn to this path, navigating these obstacles can be well worth the trouble and may even be a part of its trickster magic. We have been fortunate enough to witness and personally experience profound healing and growth from this system and feel deep gratitude for all that we have received and continue to receive from our other- than- human teachers.

*Please note that this is part 1 of a 3 part series. Part 2 is on Plant Dieta and part 3 is on Icaros (medicine songs).