By now almost all of us have heard of Ayahuasca. The hallucinogenic medicinal plant used by indigenous communities in Central America is said to be a powerful healer and/or herb that makes you hallucinate and throw up a lot. Now that thousands of foreigners have found out, the old tradition has become a bit of an informal industry full of opportunists.
In Peru, I met Víctor Cauper Gonzáles, a 55-year-old Shaman from Pucallpa, locally renowned for his treatment of complicated illnesses. He has an impeccable work ethic and only cares for those who have health problems. We talk about the seven years he spent wandering the jungle before becoming a Shaman, the dangers of fakers, and how the boom in Ayahuasca tourism has impacted his hometown.
Victor, how did you get into Shamanism?
Víctor Cauper Gonzáles: I decided to become a Shaman 36 years ago when I was in college studying to be a primary school teacher. I come from a family with a very strong tradition of shamanism: my grandfather was a renowned shaman and he taught me many things. He would ingest Ayahuasca and travel to different places and planets, and share with me his perceptions of those places.
So you followed in your grandfather’s footsteps?
Despite my upbringing, I initially chose an educational path and went to university, but I was not very happy with that and I knew that my calling was to continue our family tradition, so I dropped out of school and went to the jungle for myself, where I lived only for seven years. I had no money, no nothing at all; I survived in the jungle-like our ancestors, eating plants and fishing. After seven years, I knew I was ready to become a shaman and heal others.
Was there someone who trained you?
No. Having a good teacher to guide you is important, but being a Shaman also requires intuition and patience. You have to be able to get in touch with plants. It’s something that you have to learn by yourself, it comes gradually, but if you don’t have it in you, a teacher cannot help you.
How was your first experience with Ayahuasca?
I followed a very strict diet during my stay in the jungle, I learned about all the medicinal plants and survived on my own. An Ayahuasca diet dictates that you can’t consume sugar, salt, or alcohol, and you can’t have sex, so I dedicated myself entirely to following the ancient wisdom passed down from my ancestors. But those seven years were my preparation process —I didn’t consume any Ayahuasca at that time—.
When I finally felt ready to take it, the long wait was worth it: it was amazing. Since I trained my body and mind so well for a long time, I was able to immediately travel to different times and dimensions during that first Ayahuasca experience. I connected with the spirit of my grandfather and also spoke with the spirit of the plants. Since then, Ayahuasca has been a very important part of my life.
Nowadays there are a lot of foreigners who come to Latin America to take an “Ayahuasca vacation”, and sometimes they take it without any preparation. How do you feel about that?
It’s very dangerous. Some serious travelers understand the benefits of this medicine, but there are also a large number of foreigners who see Ayahuasca as an interesting way to get drunk or high. But if you’re not prepared, if you don’t follow the diet and don’t know what you’re doing, you can’t benefit from taking it. So many people also end up having bad experiences.
There is a very common misunderstanding. Ayahuasca is not a drug, it is a very strong medicine that needs to be ingested responsibly, and that can solve or alleviate many illnesses. That said, it’s not a quick fix either: it has to be a slow, gradual and deliberate process. Most of the people I’ve treated took Ayahuasca dozens of times over a while to heal, but many don’t have the patience for that. They want to go on vacation and heal, but patience is the very essence of Ayahuasca.
What differences do you notice between the time you started practicing Shamanism and now?
Now it is an industry: Westerners have realized that there is money involved. Many retirement centers are run by Westerners, in a similar way to illegal mining. They come and steal our ancient wisdom and sell it for profit.
When I started, Ayahuasca was about curing people, diagnosing illnesses, and helping people get better. But now some companies market this and completely contaminate the culture of Ayahuasca.
What’s worse, there are Shaman training programs. People come, sign up for a course, take a few workshops, maybe get a certificate, and call themselves Shamans. Then they go and treat people, which is extremely dangerous since you can’t become a Shaman in two weeks. Can you imagine a doctor operating on a person without any proper knowledge or equipment?
What motivates you to keep going, despite these changes?
It is very rewarding to heal people. Sometimes I have patients who have lost all hope and modern medicine can’t help them anymore, so they come to me. I have helped people with cancer, AIDS, diabetes, tumors, and stomach problems, you name it. Most keep in touch with me and tell me about their progress, their families call me to thank me; it’s an amazing feeling.
What kind of people comes to you for treatment?
I used to have only local patients, but foreigners have started to visit me as well in the last three years. I don’t have a website or anything, so I have no idea how these people from China to the Czech Republic find me. It must be word of mouth.
Is there someone you would deny treatment to?
I only treat people with serious physical illnesses, not those who come looking for adventure. I can tell them apart easily and when I check my plants they tell me who needs Ayahuasca and who doesn’t.
For example, I would not attend to you. The plant spirits tell me that you don’t have any problems with your body, just a little confused and have some emotional problems, but nothing big. You don’t need Ayahuasca.
Ha, well, what person in their twenties isn’t confused and emotionally challenged?
Exactly, you can’t force a flower to bloom: it will, but in its own time. Ayahuasca will not give you ten years of maturity, you have to experience and learn certain things in life for yourself.