MANU PROVINCE, PERU – Along the banks of the upper Madre de Dios River is Parign Hak, a traditional healing center that welcomes tourists and locals to stay for a week or more to be immersed in the culture of the local Harakbut people.
The husband and wife team who operate the center, Vicky Corisepa and Alberto Kiramo, are members of the Wachiperi people, a subgroup of Harakbut. Their goal is to spread knowledge about traditional uses of medicinal plants and indigenous healing methods.
They say the center is for people to relearn and express cultural practices that are at risk of being lost. Visitors to the center spend time in the jungle eating traditionally prepared food and take a break from modern technology.
They have teamed up with Jessica Bertram, a German native and rain-forest tour guide, who is fluent in English, Spanish and Quechua.
Parign Hak started out as a small platform on the bank of the river for Corisepa and her family to spend the night close to their banana plantation. The initial building was washed away in a flood, and a new complex was built to include three guest huts, latrines, dining room, conference room, two showers, staff quarters and a maloca (ceremonial space).
Since its founding four years ago, about 100 visitors from all over the world have stayed at Parign Hak, including guests from Yugoslavia, Croatia, Canada, Spain, Italy, United States, Sweden and Switzerland.
Many native medicinal plants grow in the forest surrounding Parign Hak.
One such plant, a tree known locally as catahua, or Hura crepitans, has a caustic sap that is used as a tooth extractor. The sap is combined with cotton and applied to the hollow of a painful tooth, which causes the tooth to die and slowly be expelled from the mouth.
Another is Soliman spp., a plant with roots that are traditionally used to break magic love spells from the plant pusanga, which some Amazonians have been known to use to lure lovers into their midst.
The Estoraque tree, also known as Peru balm, or Myroxylon spp., is known to natives to heal common respiratory ailments, such as asthma. Western researchers have identified numerous other medicinal uses, such as diuretic and anti-cancer properties.
Another plant found around Parign Hak is chacruna, Psychotria viridis, a DMT (N, N-dimethyltryptamine) containing bush that is combined in a tea with a vine known as ayahuasca, Banisteriopsis caapi.
Normally, chacruna is not psychoactive because the DMT is broken down by monoamine oxidase enzymes in the human digestive system, however adding the ayahuasca vine acts as an MAO inhibitor. This tea is considered a long-standing, valued part of Amazon culture, in particular because of its ability to act as a medicine, healing people’s physical, mental and emotional problems, Bertram says.
Stefan Kasian, a naturopathic medical doctor who has served as adjunct clinical faculty at Bastyr University California in San Diego, believes that plant medicines like ayahuasca have an important place in modern medicine, not only to mitigate increasing health care costs, but also because they work in “the realm of psychoneuroimmunology … (which) has established how the quality of our thoughts and emotions affects our immune system and vice versa.” Having led medical tourism internationally since 2012, Kasian has witnessed firsthand the profound benefits, he says.
People have sought help at Parign Hak for a variety of ailments, including immune system issues, fatigue, depression, emotional trauma and sexual abuse.
Jose Chinipa, a local man who is both Wachiperi and Amarakaeri, previously sought treatment for chronic back pain from medical doctors in Cusco, the ancient Incan capital high in the Andes. He even spent about five months in a hospital for treatment of degenerated vertebral discs in his lower back. Eventually, doctors at the hospital told Chinipa there was nothing more they could do for him and sent him home. Feeling desperate, he came to Parign Hak. Within three months, he says, he did not need to use his walking stick anymore and was very hopeful.
Typical treatment involves an intensive cultural immersion experience, where people stay in a traditional Harakbut hut for one week and eat traditional meals made from local produce and fish.
Beroto, one of Corisepa’s sons who works at Parign Hak, suffered from severe alcoholism until two years ago when he gradually was reintroduced into his culture and started to spend more time with his family. After going back and forth with making progress, he has healed himself from alcoholism.
Steve, another of Corisepa’s sons who also works at Parign Hak, was diagnosed with tumors in both his brain and chest three years ago. Now, after treatment at Parign Hak, the tumors are gone, and doctors cannot find any traces of the tumors, Bertram says.
It’s not just visitors who have seen the health benefits of being immersed the Harakbut culture.
Vicky Corisepa was diagnosed 13 years ago with pulmonary fibrosis and was told she had two years to live. Surgery was offered, but Corisepa was hesitant. Ultimately, she chose not to go ahead with the operation and instead to start working with Bertram. Now, 13 years later, she is healthy and no longer has pulmonary fibrosis because of the intensive cultural immersion, she says.
Alberto Kiramo has also found healing. For years, he suffered from chronic sinusitis, but after being immersed with the cultural work with his wife, Vicky, at Parign Hak, he no longer has the sinusitis. Also, he has greatly improved his self-esteem and cultural identity, something he says he had been in denial about.
Bertram was diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression, all after living in Peru for some time, getting married and starting a family. After her experience with doctors in Cusco, Bertram looked for answers elsewhere. Eventually, she became a rain-forest tour guide and found healing with ayahuasca.
Kasian says that “the biochemistry of (ayahuasca) helps optimize serotonin and dopamine in the brain ... Yet the deeper causes of depression are addressed by means of the unique properties of the ayahuasca brew, which can amplify a participant’s inner world of imagery, which encourages self-reflection during ceremonies (that) can lead to transformative changes.”
Although antidepressants are commonly prescribed in modern medicine, Kasian says they “are solely focused on fixing an imbalance in the brain chemistry and often cause side effects. (They) do not address the psychosocial causes of depression, such as poor diet, lifestyle choices or dissatisfaction in life choices.”
Bertram says the results of her shift are evident in her family: “I’m getting the most mind-boggling results in my kids. I see no trace of dysfunction with them. I am amazed at their level of awareness and positive and creative mindset. I did not have that as a teenager.”
Parign Hak is attracting outside attention. Late in September 2018, a documentary filmmaker from Lima filmed part of a series, “Masters of Energy,” at Parign Hak, which is examining various methods of healing around the world.
Chris Ballantine is a naturopathic medical student at Bastyr University in San Diego. He is a member of the board of Ballantine Communications, the parent company of The Durango Herald.