The Traditional Ayahuasca Diet

Excerpted from Ayahuasca Visions: The Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman

by Luis Eduardo Luna and Pablo Amaringo, 1991, North Atlantic Books

Vegetalistas, like their counterparts, the Indian shamans of many indigenous groups of the Upper Amazon, claim to derive healing skills and powers from certain plant teachers, often psychoactive, believed to have a mother. Knowledge, particular medicinal knowledge, comes from the plants themselves, the senior shaman only mediating the transmission of information, protecting the novice from the attack of sorcerers or evil spirits, and indicating to him or her the proper conditions under which transmission is possible. Among the plant teachers large trees are considered particularly powerful.

The necessity of diet and discipline, which also includes sexual segregation, to learn from the plants was stressed by every vegetalista I met. The body has to be purified to communicate with the spirit realm. Only in this way will the neophytes acquire their spiritual helpers, learn icaros (power songs), and acquire their yachay, yausa, or mariri, phlegm the novice receives at some point during his initiation, either from the senior shaman or from the spirits.

The icaros constitute the quintessence of shamanic power. The icaros and the phlegm, both of which have material and immaterial qualities, represent the transference of the spirits of each plant, with all their knowledge and theriomorphic and anthropomorphic manifestations, into the body of the shaman.



“During the month we ate only fish, plantains, and rice without salt or any spices, and only twice a day. We took ayahuasca once a week.”

“We were supposed to be far from people who were not keeping the diet. There were people coming there, the relatives of the patients, women of fertile age. It was not possible to learn anything in this way.”

“He gave me a mixture of chacruna and tobacco to drink every four days. He told me that it was like this he had learned medicine: If the diet and isolation were maintained long enough, the plants themselves would reveal their properties in a sort of telepathic way.”

You can only become a good vegetalista by keeping a diet or fasting for years, then you become one that knows the science of the muraya, sumi, and the banco, which are the three highest degrees in the traditional vegetalista medicine in the Amazon.



The importance of psychotropic plants in the shamanistic practices of many indigenous groups of the Upper Amazon is paramount. For the Yagua, for example, contact with the spirits of the plants by ingesting them is considered “the only path to knowledge”.

Psychotropic plants correspond to the category of plants known among the Shipibo as muraya-cai, which means “shaman-makers”. These plants reveal the “real” world, while the normal world is often considered illusory.

The same plant may manifest itself to the vegetalista by means of several spiritual figures, all having common features among them, in such a way that there is no extreme contradiction between one vision and another.

The term “dietar” (to keep a diet) includes not only dietary restrictions (not eating salt or condiments, sweets, pork fat ,etc.), but also sexual segregation and other prerequisites, as for example avoiding the sun or making food, etc.

One of the reason shamanism is declining among Indians and mestizos alike is because young people don’t bother to keep the difficult diet.



Chaumeil, Jean-Pierre. 1983. Voir, Savoir, Pouivoir. Le chamanisme chez les Yagua du Nord-Est peruvien. Paris, Editions de l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales.

Chevalier, Jacques M. 1982. Civilization and the Stolen Gift: Capital, Kin, and Cult in Eastern Peru. University of Toronto Press.

Gebhart-Sayer, Angelika. 1984. The Cosmos Encoiled Indian Art of the Peruvian Amazon. New York, Center for Inter-American Relations 1986 Una Terapia Estetica. Los Disenos Visionarios del Ayahuasca entre los Shipibo-Conibo. America Indigena 46(1)189-218.

Mexico. 1987. Die Spitze des Bewusstseins. Untersuchungen zu Weltbild und Kunst der Shipibo-Conibo. Hohenscaftlarn, Klaus Renner Verlag.

Harner, Michael J. 1972. The Jivaro People of the Sacred Waterfalls. Berkeley, University of California

Huxley, Francis.1963. Affable Savages: An Anthropologist Among the Urubu Indians of Brazil. London, Rupert Hart-Davis.

Langdon E. Jean. 1979b. The Siona Hallucinogenis Ritual, Its Meaning and Power. In John H. Morgan (ed.), Understanding Religion and Culture:Anthropological and Theological Perspectives. Washington University Press of America.

Luna, Luis Eduardo. 1984. The Concept of Plants as Teachers Among Four Mestizo Shamans of Iquitos, Northeast Peru. Journal of Ethnopharmacology 11135-56.

Luna, Luis Eduardo. 1991. Ayahuasca Visions: The Religious Iconography of a Peruvian Shaman. North Atlantic Books.


Taussig, Michael 1987. Shamanism, Colonialism, and the Wild Man: A Study in Terror and Healing. The University of Chicago Press.

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