Learning to be an Ayahuasca and San Pedro Shaman

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As many of you know, I spent two years in Peru apprenticing with an ayahuasca and san pedro shaman. These were two life-changing years that ultimately led me to where I am now: assistant-managing an ayahuasca and san pedro retreat centre in Ecuador, where I’m continuing to learn and assist in ceremonies.

Let me tell you a bit about how all this happened, what it’s like to learn to be an ayahuasca and san pedro shaman, and where it’s all going.

This post was originally published in 2017. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content. 

How I stumbled into learning to be an ayahuasca and san pedro shaman in Peru then Ecuador. Notes on shamanism, being a healer, and what's next for me. #FullTimeTravel #TravelPlanning #TravelTips #TravelWebsites #Ayahuasca #SanPedro #Peru #SpiritualTravel #SpiritualJourney #Shaman #PeruTravelTips #Ecuador #BecomingAHealer #ShamanApprentice #PlantMedicine
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ayahuasca and san pedro shaman
A sketch drawn of me singing and holding space in ceremony

Learning to be an Ayahuasca and San Pedro Shaman in Peru

When I landed in Peru for the first time in March 2014, I had no idea what the following year had in store. Sure, I had known about ayahuasca for years and had been quietly calling it into my life, so I knew I’d participate in a ceremony or two. But as one thing led to another, my life veered in a new direction, and I took up an apprenticeship with a shaman there. (If you want to read the whole scoop on how that happened, check out Becoming a Shaman).

What it’s Like to Apprentice With a Shaman

There is no actual manual or official process for this stuff – at least in Peru (we’ll explore some of the differences by country later on). And depending on the teacher (and the student), every apprenticeship is different.

Actually, if there were a manual, my life would have been much easier. I’m a smart girl; give me the textbook and I’ll study it, take the exam, and earn the accreditation. Blamo.

Instead, this apprenticeship was a very counter-intuitive process for me.

As with many spiritual endeavours, shamanism is not about book-learning or other such heady pursuits. Instead, it’s about things that are way more intangible. In fact, as I’ve learned (and am still learning), the less I try to be this or feel that, the more smoothly wisdom and knowledge comes. It’s about getting out of my head and honouring my intuition, which ultimately can’t be taught or learned in any conventional format.

Has this been frustrating for me? You betcha. But ultimately rewarding? Hell yes.

But…specifics. You probably want to know what I actually did as a shaman’s apprentice.

In Peru, I assisted my teacher with all his ceremonies and retreats. Logistically, people often need assistance during ceremonies. Depending on the ceremony (san pedro or ayahuasca), this can entail tasks like helping people to the bathroom, offering tissue if somebody is crying, and emptying puke buckets (mostly specific to ayahuasca ceremonies – a glorious job).

Aside from the logistics, the ceremony is spent singing medicine songs (known as icaros), which call in certain energies and spirits, protect the space, and help to move stuck energy. Icaros can be sung to the group in general, or to specific people, sometimes done in conjunction with body and energy work similar to reiki or massage.

As an assistant/apprentice, I learned many icaros and sang them as needed (to the group as a whole or to specific people). I was available to help people in need when my teacher wasn’t around, or when a female energy was specifically required. Sometimes it was a matter of answering questions, providing assistance, doing bodywork, or simply offering a much-needed hug.

When I wasn’t assisting my teacher with his ceremonies, I continued my apprenticeship by participating in ceremonies, both with my teacher and other curanderos (healers). I also did a few plant dietas, including one in the jungles of Peru with my teacher’s teacher. (See also: A Month in the Jungle: Doing a Plant Diet and Ayahuasca Retreat)

working with san pedro and ayahuasca in the Sacred Valley of Peru

Moving on From Peru

Despite a very close relationship and reciprocal commitment between my teacher and I in Peru, it didn’t last. (See also: Apprenticeship Update: BIG Changes for The Professional Hobo)

It was a heartbreaking upheaval in my life, but one that ultimately had to happen. With a good dose of retrospect and wound-licking, I can now see how divine this turn of events was.

I’m honoured to have learned so many things from my former teacher in Peru. He spent his whole life in the pursuit of spirituality in various ways that married well in his unique work as a shaman. Among other things, he was an effective bridge between the western psychology of most participants, and the native South American medicines and cosmology. This allowed participants to get the most from the experience and integrate the lessons learned, so that the ceremony became a lasting form of healing and not just a “trip”.

In working with my former teacher, I gained an arsenal of experience and wisdom that serves me today, both in and out of ceremony.

When I left Peru, I also left behind any ideas I had of working with the medicine or becoming an ayahuasca and san pedro shaman. I knew that if I were meant to continue this work, I would be led back to it.

And so it was.

Continuing the Journey in Ecuador

Similar to Peru, it wasn’t plant medicine that drew me to Ecuador; it was a house-sitting gig. After a few months in the States after leaving Peru, I was offered a house-sit for a couple of months in Cuenca, and off I went.

My timing was impeccable, because a friend of mine who has worked and facilitated at a variety of ayahuasca and san pedro retreat centres, had just taken a position as manager of Gaia Sagrada, which just happened to be an hour outside of Cuenca where I was staying.

So I visited the retreat centre, and did a san pedro ceremony with the staff there. I liked the property and the people, and was offered a chance to work there. But after my experience in Peru, I was gun-shy. So I decided to do a retreat as a participant once I had finished house-sitting.

I ended up doing two retreats, and at the end of it, I committed to return a couple of months later as a staff member.

Learning to be a Shaman in Ecuador

The process of becoming an ayahuasca and san pedro shaman in Ecuador is very different to Peru. In Peru, it’s about doing plant dietas (a dieta being an intensive process involving weeks of isolation, a ridiculously simple diet, drinking special teas, and doing ayahuasca ceremonies). In Ecuador, it’s about doing vision quests, sun dances, and working with the elders. And although there is an official four-year process of vision quests and sun dances, there still is no manual or specific way to learn the art of shamanism.

I’ve been lucky in Ecuador, because the shamans at the retreat centre here have acknowledged my training and relationship with ayahuasca and san pedro, and thus have given me some great opportunities to assist and even help lead ceremonies, even though I’m not formally trained in the Ecuadorian way. And because the ceremonial format is a bit different in Ecuador (or at least among the Ecuadorian shamans I’ve worked with), it has been a great chance to learn even more about the various ways to hold a ceremony. In addition to singing in ceremony and performing certain blessings and prayers, I’ve also learned how to tend the sacred ceremonial fires – which is a pretty big deal.

So, my apprenticeship has continued whilst living in Ecuador. I’ve expanded my skill sets greatly, and also been able to bring some of my knowledge and practices that I learned in Peru to help and support retreat participants in new ways. I’ve learned new icaros from the shamans in Ecuador, and I’ve taught them some of my icaros from Peru. My apprenticeship is much more informal; instead of answering to one teacher, I have many to learn from, and I’m also learning that the ultimate teachers are the plants themselves (ayahuasca and san pedro).

tending the fire for a sweat lodge ceremony using san pedro and ayahuasca
Tending the (very large, very hot) fire for a sweat lodge ceremony

Becoming a Healer

My former teacher in Peru was fond of telling people that there’s nothing to fix. We are already perfect as we are – lumps, bumps, and all. What he offered, was an opportunity for people to come home to themselves, and in so doing, to learn, to grow, to heal, and ultimately, to wake up.

This too, was a counter-intuitive process for me. For the longest time I couldn’t understand what my teacher meant when saying “there’s nothing to fix”. When I first arrived in Peru in early 2014 and started doing plant medicine (san pedro and ayahuasca) ceremonies, you could say I was a broken woman – physically and emotionally. I’d recently escaped an emotionally exhausting relationship, and I’d suffered a near-fatal accident a year prior. In my first six weeks of doing ayahuasca and san pedro ceremonies, I experienced immense – even miraculous – healing. I accomplished more than 10 years of psychotherapy could get close to, in addition to physical healing that I initially thought would be impossible. For example, the scars (not to mention the chronic pain) from my accident the year prior practically disappeared.

Is this not “fixing”? Well, no. Not entirely. To approach any healing process with an idea that we need fixing is to focus on what we feel is wrong with us. And as long as we continue to focus on what’s “wrong”, the more energy we give to that idea (of something being wrong, and needing fixing), and the less we have the opportunity to change that story.

On the premise that there’s nothing to fix, so follows that the healer doesn’t heal. In the arena of ayahuasca and san pedro healing, the “shaman” (which although I’ve used this term a few times now, I do so begrudgingly – see my note below) simply facilitates and holds space for the plant medicine to do its own work, and ultimately for the “patient” to heal themselves. This theory applies to most healing modalities; and any healer who insists that it is solely their own personal talents and efforts that heal people, should be given a wide berth in my opinion.

A Final Note About Being a “Shaman”

A Q'ero shaman in Peru
A Q’ero shaman in Peru

I’ve used the word “shaman” quite a bit in this post, and a few others as well. I do so because it’s an easily accessible term, but it’s also fraught with obscurity and can create a slippery slope for the “shaman” in question.

See, the word shaman is simply a catch-all term for a healer, more specifically a healer who uses indigenous healing arts. For some shamans, it’s holding ayahuasca and san pedro ceremonies. For other shamans, it’s working with other indigenous plants, or spirits, or elements, or energetic forms of healing.

So, to be a shaman actually doesn’t mean much of anything. And yet, it does. The sheer title of “shaman” catapults the healer in question to a sort of rockstar status, surrounded by intrigue and magic. This creates a slippery slope for the shaman, who can easily let all those accolades go to their head, at which point ego can work its way into the job. And once ego gets in there, it can be harmful for both the shaman and the patient in question. I’ve seen it happen – it ain’t pretty.

So please forgive me for even supposing that I am – or will be – a “shaman”. Maybe I am already one, or will become one. But truly, I’m just Nora, and I like it that way.

What’s Next for Nora

I have no idea what’s next. I’ve enjoyed my time in Ecuador, learning so much about ayahuasca and san pedro shamanism, and being given great opportunities to assist the shamans. But living and working at a busy retreat centre can be exhausting, especially with an online business to run as well.

As such, I’ve decided I will move on from Gaia Sagrada in June. I may well return, but for the moment, I need a breather, to take a step back and re-evaluate a few things.

In the same way that there’s no manual for becoming an ayahuasca and san pedro shaman, there’s no manual for life. One of my biggest challenges (and when successful, greatest gifts) has been to simply accept the present moment for what it is, without projecting into the future or dragging up stuff from the past.

I have no idea if I’m going to become a full-fledged ayahuasca and san pedro shaman. I don’t know if I’ll ever offer my own ceremonies. If I do, I don’t know if it will be in Ecuador, or Peru, or another country entirely. As much as living a life where my future is a giant question mark can be unsettling, it’s also a gift, and I’m accepting that gift with both patience and an open mind.

ayahuasca ceremony fire
ayahuasca ceremony fire

2019 Update: While working with plant medicines irrefutably changed my life, I don’t currently have any desire to return to my work as a “shaman”. This is for a variety of reasons, including concerns I have about the environmental sustainability of ayahuasca and san pedro, and my observations of people who are using it for the wrong reasons. But more than anything, I’m simply not called to it in the way that I once was. Perhaps it has served its purpose in my life….at least, for now. 

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34 thoughts on “Learning to be an Ayahuasca and San Pedro Shaman”

  1. Nora,
    I am continually in awe of your ability to be comfortable with the unknown. I aspire to be more at ease myself with not knowing the next steps. By sharing your journey it somehow helps me on mine. Thank you.
    On a sidenote…some years back you talked of different ways to travel with free accommodation. One of which was workaway.info. Well, I leave next week for 2 months to St. Thomas to volunteer at a Wellness Center. All thanks to you and your website.
    I so appreciate and enjoy all that you do. And I wish you great peace and clarity as you uncover your next steps.

    Reply
    • Hi Lori,
      I’m SO touched that recounting my own journey has been helpful to you.
      And I’m thrilled that you’re off to volunteer abroad! Please do stay in touch and let me know how your experience turns out. 🙂

      Reply
  2. Hi Nora,
    I have been following you couple of years. Because of you, I am booked as a volunteer in Gaia Sagrada in August 🙂 and looking forward.

    I have being as volunteer with a family in Mexico for three months and now I am heading to Cancun and from there to Yoga/health retreat in Mexico.

    Thank you: Adalgeir

    Reply
    • Hi Adalgeir,
      How cool that you’re coming to Gaia! I won’t be here when you arrive, but there will be at least a few people who will remember me. 😉
      I hope you have a fabulous rest of your time in Mexico – seems like you’re on a great path of living and working/volunteering at some cool retreat centres!

      Reply
  3. Fascinating stuff. I’ve only recently (past 1-2 years) started reading into shamanism and it’s something I want to continue to learn about. I’m also intrigued by plant medicine and think it could help with some of my own issues. I also completely relate to the concept of focusing so much on what needs fixing that no energy is left for change. In other words, I love everything about this post and hope you’ll continue to write about it! Thank you!

    Reply
    • Hi Charity – thank you! Glad it resonated with you. Plant medicine has certainly changed my life…..so if you’re called to it, I encourage you to find a place that resonates with you to give it a shot!

      Reply
  4. Off topic but my thanks also for your experiences that you have shared. I was already signed up for Vaughantown in Spain before discovering your site which filled me in on the details of someone who had actually had the experience. I have recommended your site to many.

    Since then I have done 4 sessions with V-Town and will return next spring as I live in Chiang Mai, Thailand and our air is bad during the “burning season” of March and April. I would love to do an ayahuasca retreat personally but not as an apprentice.

    Please continue to inform us of new adventures we can also experience – I am 76 and have been traveling all my life – some volunteer sites consider me too old (I understand that) so I have to continually search for others that will let me share my abilities with them – teaching ESL in Thailand, for example, is allowable only up to age 60. Silly, as they really need teachers – but personal tutoring is always available anywhere.

    I am sure your next door is gently opening for you…

    Reply
    • Thanks, Brenda!
      I’m so glad that you keep returning to Vaughan Town – I had so much fun there!
      But what a shame that your age is a limiting factor to others. I’m glad you’re finding ways around it however, such as with personal tutoring.
      As my own next doors are gently opening, so I hope they continue to open for you as well!

      Reply
  5. Nora, I’m hoping I can become a healer through bourbon ingestion. The shamans must all be in Kentucky, because I haven’t met any in California yet. Safe—and intriguing, but I don’t need to advise you of that—travels to you.

    Reply
    • Tom – Ha ha! I think you’d make an excellent bourbon shaman. I’ll put some feelers out for bourbon shamans you can apprentice with. Oh gosh….I can see it now…. 😉

      Reply
  6. Dear medicine sister, thank you for a great article! ❤ It did really make things clear to me. About where I am going and why. I have been feeling the deep calling to go to South America and learn how to work with the medicine, but somehow the Peruvuan way did not feel 100 percent right. Now when I read about the Ecuadorian way I understand why! Thank you do much! It’s to Ecuador I need to go. I can see it now after reading this post.

    I wonder if you can recommend or know any place that would want to welcome someone who is seriously dedicated to the mwdicine work and wants to do a series training to learn how to assist and maybe some day, if the universe wants, to become a curanderita?!

    With love and gratitude!

    Sara

    Reply
    • Hi Sara,
      I’m so glad this article was so very helpful for you!
      Unfortunately I don’t know of any curanderos or centres that specifically accept students. Generally speaking, these things unfold organically. It’s a matter of drinking with a few curanderos and finding one whose style resonates with you, and starting to learn as you go.
      However, the founder of Gaia Sagrada is looking at starting up a “shaman school” (at the earliest, next year), which you might be interested in. Keep an eye on their website for details.

      Reply
      • Could you please share whatever you feel might be useful to me in my quest for places and people who care to help others as shamans or plant medecine experts? I am gathering information and learning all I can, and welcome any kind advice. I’m trying to find out more about how to help people be happier by learning from nature and methods that stem from thousand year old traditions that promote inner peace through self reflection.

        Reply
      • Heyo Sara,

        I’m currently in the process of finding places/shamans that provide apprenticeships. Anything that you could help with would be much appreciated.

        Thank you,
        Diego

        Reply
  7. It was soooooo lovely to meet you and have you here at Gaia Sagrada, Nora. You are such an exceptional, unique and wonderful person. I was so happy to meet you and look forward to you return when someday your path leads you through Ecuador once again! Luv, Christine

    Reply
  8. You ARE a shaman, dear Nora, with your beautiful heart, your amazing Icaros, and your wise advice! Today’s shamans are those people with big hearts that want to help others! So glad I have gotten to meet you! luv c

    Reply
  9. You’ve certainly been on an interesting journey, especially the last few years. I ‘ve enjoyed reading about it. I’m sure you’ve seen that some people arrive really desperate for help at ayahuasca “retreats” (years ago, I was one of them and also very naive). The quality and safety is all over the map and some of them are quite dangerous. I’m glad you’ve been in good hands, but solo women especially should be aware that there are some very dangerous and dark “shamans” out there. Some have only dollar signs and bad intentions on their minds. I hope your readers will do a lot of research and choose wisely with eyes wide open.

    Reply
    • Great advice, Laura!
      Indeed, it’s very important to do your due diligence and make sure you’re in good hands. And yes, solo females need to be extra careful given that they are more prone to being taken advantage of.
      As for shamans having dollar signs in their eyes, it’s an unfortunate byproduct of the rising popularity in plant medicine (there’s even a term for it now: “ayahuasca tourism”). People who aren’t qualified shamans want in on the action and will start offering ceremonies. That’s where it can also get dangerous.

      Reply
  10. Nora,
    I am glad that your sessions with ayahuasca have transformed your mental anguish away from your accident. After seeing you in Toronto I was worried you might not be able to heal. I am glad you are progressing in a positive manner.

    I have contemplated an ayahuasca session, but because of my heart attack I have been warned not to conduct a session. Maybe my age (67) has something to do with it also.

    Happy for your progress young lady.
    Mike

    Reply
    • Hey Mike,
      Indeed, you met me at a very interesting time in my life, and in the middle of what was one of the most dramatic years of my life. I can’t even begin to describe the things I was going through (or was about to go through) when we met. That year will form a big part of my next book, whenever that gets written!
      Thanks for your ongoing support and friendship since then; I really appreciate it!

      Reply
  11. So would you say doing the Munay Ki did indeed bring about profound positive change in the few months that followed Nora, as claimed by the process? I ask as I am considering experiencing the rites within the next few weeks.

    Reply
    • Hi Janet,
      Honestly, it’s hard to say. Around the same time as receiving the Munay Ki rites, I was also starting to work with plant medicine, and healing in general from a pretty traumatic year prior.
      So was it the environment? The plant medicine? The Munay Ki? Or a combination? I really can’t say.
      I will say that for me, during and immediately after receiving the rites I didn’t feel any tangible shift. But I’m also a little dense in the “energy” department (ha ha); other people feel these things more.

      I would say, if you’re called to receive the rites, go for it. There’s certainly no harm in it.

      Reply
      • Thank you so much for replying both so quickly and comprehensively! I guessthe only ‘harm’ is in the cost (£59) so still something to weigh up practically. I am usually like you re having I hope a healthy balance of trust/open-mindedness and cynicism with anything in this field – including with my own direct experiences. I saw a video of techniques and thought of reiki and I suspect I’m unusual in not crediting reiki the superior adoration most show it, as I think it is just one among many healing modalities, so that made me more unsure of the Munay Ki rites…but of course I’m sensing big changes imminent in my life that a little help or push/shove from spirit wouldn’t go amiss towards! So this do wonder if maybe a risk worth taking. Thank you though – and enjoyed your articles too. And yes I am interested very much in plant medecine too, and presume in Europe that magic mushrooms and Fly Agaric would have been used as native shamanic helpers. I have read a bit but need to read more..would love to try experience but know it needs to be safe and we don’t seem to have that kind of organised teaching set up as per Central/South America in the UK using them.

        Reply
        • Hi Janet,
          I wish you well in making your decision about Munay Ki. If you end up going for it, please tune back in here and let us know how it went for you!
          PS – I also have been initiated in Reiki healing, and while it’s a useful tool in my little “energy healing toolbox”, I don’t consider it the be-all or end-all of healing.

          Reply
          • Thanks Nora and I will! Am about to start an online astro-tarot transformational course, so that may shift things instead..gulp! It’s using the new Scorpio moon (conjunct my moon/neptune) and then the mercury retro starting at Samhain. It uses tarot, something I have never been comfy with, as a transforming not divinatory tool. It is all probably yet another part of the journey/jigsaw/adventure…and my it’s been a long one. I would love to read your own too sometime. With the best of wishes to your continued travels, of all kinds!

  12. Hi. How did you afford to live while you were with the shaman in Peru? Did he offer you a bed, did you work for it to be free of charge or what?

    Reply
    • Hi Leah,
      No, I had my own accommodation which I paid for. It happened to be on the property of my teacher (I rented a house from him), but that was a separate deal; I was his tenant before I became his assistant/apprentice.

      Reply
  13. Hi Nora,
    Thanks for the article. Very insightful.

    I’m heading out to Ecuador when the COVID stuff settles down, and was looking into going to the Gaia Sagrada. My ultimate goal is to become an apprentice like what you did.

    I was just wondering what’s the best way to approach this? As you’ve stated in your article, there’s no set rule book, but just wondering if there are certain cultural idiosyncrasies that may be beneficial to know when approaching a shaman and becoming an apprentice.

    I have experience with Ayahuasca, albeit minimal, but have used other medicines outside the traditional Caapi and Chacruna/Chaliponga admixture. Do the Ecuadorian shamans ever deviate from this traditional mix, employing other plants, like e.g. Jurema (Mimosa Hostilis)?

    I know this article is a little old, but if you have time, I’d be interested to know these things, especially the process of becoming an apprentice.

    Reply
    • Hi Daniel,
      Unfortunately in my opinion, there is no set process nor do I have any specific recommendations about finding a shaman to learn with. The reason for this is that this kind of work is ethereal enough that the adage “when the student is ready the teacher will appear” is truly appropriate!

      Not everybody is suited to this work, but if you are, then you will find your teacher by doing the first thing you have to do in any apprenticeship of this sort: working with the medicine for your own healing.
      So my recommendation is to find a centre to work with the medicine that resonates with your ideologies. Drink for yourself. Do the work. Then see what happens.

      Regarding Ecuadorian practices and plants used, that varies with the shaman, and their own lineage and training.
      I’m sorry I can’t be more specific. It’s an organic process!

      Reply
      • Thanks for the reply!

        Your response was pretty much exactly what I expected as far as it being an “organic process”.

        Thinking about doing a retreat at the Gaia Sagrada soon, so we’ll see what happens there.

        Reply
  14. I found it cool that you were able to assist your teacher in all the ceremonies and retreats. Peru is a really cool place so I bet it was a lot of fun. I’d love to go on a retreat like that one day.

    Reply

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