My impetus for spending a month in the Amazonian jungle of Peru was to further my studies to become a shaman by doing a plant diet and ayahuasca retreat with my teacher’s teacher at a place called Sachamama, about 20kms outside of Iquitos.
There are many such retreat centres in the jungle, and each one has a different flavour and system, largely according to the presiding shaman. Here is a general overview of the process, as I experienced it.
Isolation is a key element to doing a plant diet. Both isolation from communication (such as internet) and society, but also isolation from others. You’re not even supposed to touch anybody during the time that you’re on a plant diet.
I was initially terrified of the idea of having no connection to the outside world and nothing to do and very little interaction with others for a whole month, but after a week or so, I got into a groove and appreciated the experience. I even considered it a holiday. How luxurious not to have to do much of anything, and just to be with myself! This is something we rarely (if ever) afford ourselves in life.
I started off occupying my time as much as possible with books, walks, yoga, and anything else I could find to do, looking often at the clock during the seemingly interminable days; but eventually I took joy in simply swinging on my hammock, listening to jungle sounds, and napping.
The reasoning behind this isolation is not only for introspection, but also because plants are pretty quiet (duh), with subtle energy. When doing a plant diet and connecting with the spirit of a plant, you need to quiet your surroundings – inner and outer – to become sensitive to the plant’s wisdom.
The food during a plant diet is very simple. The specifics vary depending on where you are, but generally there is no salt, sugar, spices, meat, and minimal (if any) use of oil. The only fruit allowed is the occasional slice of lemon squeezed over food or into drinking water. There is also strictly no consumption of alcohol, caffeine, or drugs – a requirement that should be observed for at least a week both before and after the retreat. (Chocolate is also a no-no after the retreat for at least a week, since it’s hard on the liver).
I expected the diet to be dull and soul-destroying, yet again was pleasantly surprised. Although I regularly fantasized about eating a juicy mango or some delectable sweet, I rarely missed salt and enjoyed a surprising amount of variety.
I was served foods like lentils, vegetables (both raw and stewed), eggs, fried plantains, the occasional piece of fish, a healthy amount of rice, and occasionally pasta. Simple yet delicious, one of my favourite meals (that wasn’t fish) consisted of boiled potatoes, beets, and carrots, with a squeeze of lemon on top served with a tomato salad and hard boiled egg.
Meals were served at 9am and 3pm daily, delivered in a tupperware container to my tambo. Eating just twice a day was another source of concern for me, but quantities were generous and I was rarely hungry. I realized a lot of my prior consumption of food had more to do with psychological cravings and having something to do rather than pure nutrition. Without choice in the matter, I got by – quite gracefully. (Though admittedly in the last week I was sustained by the knowledge that I’d be enjoying a syrupy hot cinnamon roll at Lima airport as a reward for my jungle diet penance).
Ayahuasca ceremonies were held on Tuesday and Friday nights at 8pm (the ceremony lasts 3-4 hours). On these days we only got one meal at 10am; as with any ayahuasca ceremony, fasting is a requirement, not only to increase the plant medicine’s effect, but also because ayahuasca is a purgative and you don’t want undigested food in your system.
Ceremonies were held in an open-air (but roofed) temple in a jungle clearing, with participants having the freedom to move around outside the temple as they wished (though for the most part it’s expected that you stay in the temple, sometimes out of necessity as ayahuasca can be incapacitating).
As with most ayahuasca ceremonies, don Francisco (the owner and shaman of Sachamama) guided the ceremony process by singing Icaros (medicine songs), and because of my training and the plant I was dieting, I was given a chance to sing as well – which, in the throes of ayahuasca, can be quite a feat.
The Plant Diet
A major component to doing a retreat at Sachamama (and many other similar jungle retreat centres) is the plant diet. Depending on your state of being, experience, and needs, the shaman will select a plant or tree from the jungle and make a brew with its leaves/flowers/bark/roots (depending on the plant), which you drink about 1/3 cup of twice daily. Though not an entheogen like ayahuasca or san pedro, the subtle effects of this plant medicine can be felt physically and spiritually, especially as the diet progresses. As such, my teacher generally insists on dieting a plant for at least a few weeks.
Ayahuasca is actually a brew of up to nine different “master” plants, including ayahuasca, chacruna, altaruna, tobacco, piri-piri, chiri sanango, canelilla, and others. Thus, it’s common to diet one of these master plants, but there are also a variety of others that can be dieted.
I dieted the Altaruna plant, whose spirit helped me to work on self-expression (understanding and expressing my needs as well as knowing my boundaries), opening my heart, understanding subtle energies, and ultimately to be able to capture and express the spirits of plants when I sing icaros in ceremonies that I assist with (and am being trained to eventually lead). Altaruna also works on opening both the throat and third eye chakras. Although altaruna might be prescribed/dieted for other reasons, the above (and more) is exactly what I got from the experience.
I will likely be doing another plant diet at home in the Sacred Valley (with my teacher) later this year, and I’ll return to the jungle and Sachamama next June for another one. It was a transformative experience that I’m ever so grateful for, and would recommend for anybody who is serious about working with plant medicine to further their spiritual and physical well-being.
Other articles in this “Month in the Jungle” series:
Part 1: Iquitos
And Part 5: Excerpts from my Jungle Journal!