Traditional Herbal Medicine in Bolivia, South America
Bolivia, a country in the very heart of South America, is a country of contrasts and traditions. There are three very distinctive geographical regions, namely the High Andean plateau, the region of the valleys, El Chapare, and the tropical, Amazonian region.
Due to the ecological diversity and individuality of each of these regions, there are distinctive medicinal plants growing in each one of them. There are over 2000 documented indigenous medicinal plants utilised by traditional practitioners who live and work in these regions.
Hence, there are Amazonian plants utilised by the native peoples of the Beni and Pando, plants from the valleys utilised by natural practitioners in the Chaco and Chapare, and plants utilised by the largest known traditional Shamans of Bolivia, the Kallawayas.
The Kallawayas' harmonic medicinal practices are rooted in the Tiahuanacu (400–1145), the Mollo (1145–1435), Inca (1438–1532), Spanish (1532–1825) and Bolivian Republic (1825–1997) periods of this region of the Andes.
The Kallawayas come from a region called Charazani, in the Province Caupolican of the Department of La-Paz, in Bolivia. This extends to the shores of Lake Titicaca, the highest in the world, where – as legend has it – the first Inca couple, Manco Kapac and Mama Ocllo emerged on the island of the Sun and whose heirs brought forward the Inca Empire.
The Kallawayan blend of magic and knowledge has tapped into the healing powers which Mother Nature offers to mankind. There are mentions of the Kallawaya healers in the writings of the Spaniard Garcilazo de la Vega, after the discovery of America, in his "Comentarios Reales" (Royal Commentaries) states: "these herbalists, the
Kallawayas, whose name in Aymara means 'carriers of medicinal herbs', are very knowledgeable in the science of Medicine". The fame of these noted herbalists must have been such that the Incas called their territory Qollasuyo to indicate that in those lands lived the Qolasiris or Qolitis (Healers) or perhaps from the lands where you could obtain Qollas or medicines. Either way the name Qollas must have been intimately related with their medicinal practices and the trading of medicinal herbs in which the Kallawayas were engaged.
The fact that the Kallawayas were able to live amidst the Inca Nobility as a result of their trade, must have given them the opportunity to become familiar with many of their customs and esoteric practices: amongst other things they must have learned the sacred language, which was exclusive to Royalty and hence the historians of the time were unable to decipher it and they could only report that the Kallawayas had their own dialect which was utilised to discuss confidential matters.
These medicine men travelled far and wide through South America, after each pilgrimage they gathered together in their lodges to exchange news and new procedures which they had developed during their travels. These meetings were real social events which were only open to members of their community or llajta. In this same way they incorporated in their pharmacopoeia all the medicinal plants which were brought by the Spaniards to Latin America.
Currently there are about 50 Kallawaya practitioners, and they have the knowledge of and ability to utilise some 900 indigenous medicinal plants.
Kallawayas view nature as a cycle of fluids with a certain and necessary asymmetry of hot and cold and wet and dry that causes a pendulum-like movement. Implicit to this are hydraulic dynamics in which liquids are concentrated or distilled by centripetal forces and dispersed to the periphery by centrifugal forces.
Health is the cycle of fluids and semifluids (water, air, blood and food) all of which, with the exception of blood, are distilled into secondary fluids (mucus, bile, sweat, urine, gas, milk and semen) and semifluids (faeces and fat). With the exception of fat, all of these need to be eliminated regularly and become toxic if they accumulate.
Disease is synonymous with interrupting the cycle of circulating blood distilling fluids and eliminating waste products (which are recycled).
Hot/Cold and Wet/Dry are important factors because they influence the fluidity of this hydraulic cyclical system.
AIR is an invisible fluid substance that provides breath to all living things. People, plants and animals share in this fluid which has a unifying principle between them. Breath is associated with the wind, wayra. This can cause mal de aire with muscle and nerve disorders such as Bell's palsy and muscle cramps. These are cold disorders which must be cured by hot treatments with steam baths, compresses and stimulating herbs such as Aniseed.
Air concentrates in the sonco (respiratory and circulatory centre), and disperses uscles, causes contractions and paralysis.
Blood orwayar is the life principle, and FAT wira is the energy principle. Fat is carried by the blood to parts of the body and in this system a person with dark coloured blood is described as having fatty blood.
In the sonco fat is separated from food by the force of the blood coming together in an inward spiral of centripetal movement, this force then reverses itself in an outward movement and disperses the fat and blood to the parts of the body.
The same illness may have dual origin, according to the principle of contradiction of opposites, that is it may come from the heat or the cold. For example a cough may be caused by heat or cold, if the cause is caused by cold, the treatment is with hot herbs such as vira vira, cedar etc, however if the cough is caused by heat, then one should drink cold herbs such as linseed, ices and so on.
One of the ways of establishing whether the origin of the cough is heat or cold is the result obtained by the treatment with the various herbs, the other is establishing the circumstances surrounding the onset of the condition.
I will now describe a brief selection of some of the numerous medicinal plants commonly used in traditional medicine in all regions of Bolivia:
English name: Basil
Botanical name: Ocimum micranthum Willd.
Description: Introduced in America during the Spanish conquest, this hierbita –- this aromatic herb – with its wealth of healing and medicinal qualities, spread vastly and now grows wildly throughout the Amazon region of Bolivia.
Therapeutic properties and indications: Traditionally used in Bolivia for the treatment of headaches, an infusion of basil leaves is recommended for the urinary system for the treatment of kidney and bladder diseases, for the female reproductive system to regulate period pains and for the nervous system to help dizziness and the acute pains of neuritis.
The infusion of 5-6 leaves of basil is used for the cardiovascular and respiratory system treatment of hypertension and chest diseases.
An infusion of 3 leaves of basil in boiling milk is a very good tonic for the treatment of astenia, anaemia and vitamin deficiencies
For the treatment of migraines, upon waking take an infusion of 3 bay leaves and three Cerrate puta leaves in a mug of boiling water.
The infusion of a teaspoon of crushed bay seeds in a pint of boiling water is excellent for the treatment of cystitis.
For nervousness, hysteria, anxiety, depression and insomnia take an infusion of 4 basil leaves and a 3 inch piece of bark of sangre de toro in 1 pint of water.
Sipping several times a day an infusion of 6 leaves of basil and a 3 inch piece of lemon peel in ½ litre of water is recommended as a good sedative for the treatment of irritability.
As a treatment for symptoms of heart disease such as palpitations, tightness of chest, shortness of breath and suffocation place 12 leaves of basil in ½ litre of water and boil for 5 minutes. Take one teaspoon in the morning and one teaspoon at night for five or six days.
For heart arrhythmia (change in the frequency and rhythm) boil 10 leaves of basil and one quarter leaf of Ambaibo in ½ litre of water.
Bathing in an infusion of leaves of basil is very beneficial for the treatment of rheumatism and arthritis.
For the treatment of tonsillitis, sore gums and toothache, gargle with an infusion of leaves of basil.
For the treatment of torticolis, rheumatic pains, sprains and cramps, massage with a maceration of 15 leaves of basil in alcohol.
For the treatment of hair loss it is recommended to have daily scalp massage with a 24 hour decoction of 4 leaves of basil.
For lips, hands, feet or cracked nipples prepare an ointment with jojoba and 4 dry leaves of basil.
Cola de Caballo
English name: Horse tail.
Botanical name: Equisetum giganteum L.
Common names: Taikiji kawayu in San Ignaciano.
Description: This plant with many healing properties thrives at river banks and in damp places.
Therapeutic properties and indications: The infusion of a finger-width piece of horsetail in ½ litre of boiling water stops any type of haemorrhage such as menorrhagia (vaginal haemorrhage of uterine origin) and haematuria or blood in the urine.
The same infusion is used to bathe wounds and skin ulceration.
Traditionally known in the Amazonian regions of Bolivia for the treatment of tuberculosis, infections of the gums and oral mucosa.
For the treatment of digestive disorders such as diarrhoea, enterocolitis, jaundice, liver and spleen imbalances.
The infusion of horsetail provides a refreshing cold drink for very hot days.
For bad circulation and arteriosclerosis take the infusion of a large piece of horsetail in 1 litre of water nightly.
For the treatment of hyper-cholesterolemia and high blood pressure take the infusion of 1 piece of horsetail and 1 piece of another plant called suelda con suelda in ½ litre of boiling water.
For weight loss take daily an infusion of horse tail and suelda con suelda, to which a few drops of lemon juice are added prior to its ingestion. Drink this infusion in place of soft drinks during six days and rest for two days, repeat intermittently.
A very good remedy, in infusion, for the treatment of haemorrhoids.
How to make horse tail mother tincture:
Grind the piece of horsetail very finely, place it in a glass bottle and add clear alcohol, in sufficient quantity to cover the plant material completely. Leave to macerate in the sunshine for a period of 15 days. Shake thoroughly each day.
English name: Copaiba
Botanical name: Copaifera officinalis L.
Common names: Palo de aceite (Oily stick,) (Spanish,) Raë in Chácobo.
Description: This beautiful tree has healing properties which are well known to the inhabitants of the Amazonia since many a century ago.
Therapeutic properties and indications: The balm or oil which circulates inside the Copaibo and which flows abundantly when the tree is punctured or injured, is traditionally reputed for its uses as a very good intestinal and nervous purge and can be used very successfully in apoplexy and convulsions. Very useful in rheumatism, colic and pains, a good emenagogue, depurative and cleanser of the urinary system: kidneys, urethra and bladder, purifies the lungs and helps asthma and tuberculosis.
English name: Guayaba
Botanical name: Psidium guajava L.
Common names: Guayabo, Guayabera (Spanish); Chuará cacoto (Chácobo); Essajjo (Esse Ejja); Buare (Tacana); Kotï (Chimane); Bayabarr (Chiquitano); Paji (Ignaciano); Pojki (Trinitario).
Description: The fruits of this shrub, which is widely distrib- uted throughout the tropical region of Bolivia, when they are still green and unripe are astringent and laxative.
Therapeutic properties and indications: The infusion of any of the parts of the guayabo shrub (flowers, leaves, twigs, peel of the fruit) is a very effective treatment for diarrhoea.
The infusion of three guayaba leaves in ½ litre of boiling water is traditionally used to cleanse and aid the healing of skin wounds and ulcers. This same infusion as a mouthwash is very good for the treatment of bleeding gums.
The infusion of Guayabo flowers is a traditional herbal remedy for sexual weakness, foul smelling vaginal discharges and severe abdominal cramps.
The tincture of Guayabo leaves is a very good remedy for the treatment of varicose veins.
The infusion made with guayaba fruit peel and two twigs of everlasting or Siempreviva in ½ litre of water is a good traditional Amazonian remedy for enterocolitis and arthritis.
The infusion of a piece of Guayabo wood is used in traditional Bolivian Amazonian medicine for the treatment of neuralgia and disorders of the peripheral nerves, stomach aches and diarrhoea.
The infusion of the bark of Guayabo is an excellent traditional remedy for the treatment of psoriasis and heat rashes.
The syrup which is prepared with the water, guayaba fruit and bee's honey is a very good tonic for sexual weakness, impotence and nervous exhaustion.
Botanical name: Chenopodium ambrosioides L.
Common names: Paico, Caré (Spanish); Kare (Chácobo, Cavineño, Tacana); Siye siye (Esse Ejja); Sikoko (Chimane); Rripiarrirr (Chiquitano).
Description: This medicinal herb has medicinal priorities known world-wide and grows extensively in the Bolivian regions.
Therapeutic properties and indications: The infusion of a twig of Karé (the size of a thumb) in ½ litre of boiling water is traditionally used for the treatment of excessive abdominal wind, abdominal cramps, indigestion, bloatedness. Good for stimulating the flow of bile.
This infusion is also a remedy for enterocolitis and diarrhoea, cramps and dizziness.
A remedy frequently used for diarrhoea in infants and children, in some far away homes where this plant is readily available the decoction of two drops of Karé is given to infants who have difficulty settling at night due to infant colic.
A multi-remedy, it is also recommended for the treatment of menstrual problems, cystitis, urinary retention and constipation.
For the treatment of haemorrhoids it is recommended to have frequent sitz baths with decoction of leaves of Karé.
To prevent fainting spells and dizziness the Amazonian healers suggest that a teaspoonful of an infusion of Karé should be taken before retiring at night by those prone to them.
The infusion of 4 leaves of Karé and half an ambaibo leaf in ½ litre of boiling water is given to sip to help mothers who have retention of the placenta to help with its expulsion.
For amenorrhoea and oligomenorrhoea prepare an infusion of a piece of Karé root and ¼ a leaf of Sangre de Toro in ½ litre of boiling water.
For the treatment of gastritis, hepatitis and other inflammations of the digestive tract drink twice daily a cup of infusion of a small piece of Karé and one leaf of Pata de Vaca (Cow's Foot) in ½ litre of water.
Hot compresses with the infusion of Karé alleviate the pain, itchiness and burning sensation caused by some types of dermatitis and insect stings.
The crushed leaves of Karé applied to the site of a bee sting or a wasp sting helps to prevent further infection.
English name: Tajibo
Latin name: Tabebuia ipe (Burt & Esch), also known as Biginonia Longisima.
Common names: Lapacho, Encina de America, Tajibo (Spanish); Nishu (Chácobo); Tiji (Cavineño); Taded (Tacana); Nonense (Chiquitano); Siwaruki (Ignaciano); Wöji (Trinitario).
Traditional Amazonian Medicinal Uses: Flowers: The Infusion of 8 – 10 Tajibo flowers in ½ litre of boiling water lowers fevers. When taken 3 times a day it calms nervous tension and palpitations, a tonic with excellent results in the treatment of anaemia.
Leaves: The Infusion of Tajibo leaves should be taken twice daily for the treatment of dizziness, nervousness, migraine and high blood pressure.
A very effective analgesic for pains in the joints due to rheumatism, gout, arthritis.
The hydrosol is very effective for severe skin ulcerations.
For the treatment of diseases of the urinary system: kidneys and bladder take the infusion of 2 Tajibo leaves and 6 Pitanga leaves for a period of 6 days.
Bark: The infusion made from 2 teaspoons of powdered tajibo bark in ½ litre of boiling water, should be taken three times daily over a period of three months for the treatment of arteriosclerosis, diabetes, uterine cancer and lung diseases.
For the treatment of muscle wasting, rickets, poor circulation and bone tuberculosis take daily an infusion made of 1 teaspoon of Tajibo powder and 1 teaspoon of powdered Pega pega root in ½ litre of water.
Take small sips during the day, of an infusion of 1 teaspoon of tajibo powder and a tablespoon of grated Patuju rhizomes for the treatment of peptic ulcers of the stomach and duodenum.
The infusion of a teaspoon of tajibo powder and 8-10 ground ripe Suelda con Suelda fruits before breakfast for the treatment of high blood pressure.
To cleanse the blood and as a remedy to eliminate uric acid and treat gout, rheumatism and arthritis take twice a day a cup of an infusion of 2 teaspoons of Tajibo bark powder, one leaf of Sangre de Toro (Bull's blood) and 8-10 Suelda con suelda flowers.
Therapeutic properties and Indications:
Respiratory system: bronchitis, tonsilitis, colds, coughs.
Skin: eczema, herpes, pimples, wounds.
Digestive system: flatulence, gastritis, heartburn, nausea.
Urinary system: cystitis, blood in the urine.
Skeletal system: bruises, gout, rheumatism, sciatica.
Uña de Gato
English name: Cat's Claw
Botanical name: Uncaria tomentosa (Willd) DC
Common names: Uña de Gato (Spanish); Kakatao (Chácobo); Tsarutse vekuno (Cavineño); Akuisha shehuiï (Esse Ejja); Vinametidi (Tacana); Uretü (Chimane); Tariponrr (Chiquitano).
This medicinal plant has been known and utilised since ancient times by the natives of Amazonia. This small shrub grows up to a height of 25 metres, and today it is one of the most popular herbal medicines requested world-wide.
The infusion of a teaspoon of dry, chopped cat's claw bark (twice the amount is required for fresh bark) in 1 litre of water, is a very good remedy for the treatment of growths in the uterus, stomach and lung.
This decoction should be done on low heat, for a period of 30 minutes, allow to cool and sip throughout the day.
According to existing information this infusion has a very good immune stimulating action which helps to prevent HIV from progressing to full-blown AIDS.
The infusion of 1 heaped teaspoon of powdered cat's claw root in 1 litre of slowly boiling water for 30 minutes is diuretic, sudorific and depurative of the blood. It should be sipped as a cold refreshment during the day to keep blood cholesterol levels low.
This infusion is also very useful for boosting the immune system, to prevent bad circulation and helpful with pre-menstrual syndrome.
Cat's claw is a good anti-diabetic and taken regularly it can help to prevent the onset of allergies, arthritis and disorders
associated with an inefficient immune system.
The information provided in this feature is only a minute part of the incredible wealth of the traditional herbal and Shamanic practices of Bolivian indigenous healers, of which the Kallawayas are the most prominent group. Their system of healing also encompasses a humoural theory which in addition to the four classical humours of the Greek (that is phlegm, blood, black bile and yellow bile), add ether to complete the way the practitioner looks at the patient. A great deal of importance is also placed on the nine levels of the soul and Mother Earth, the Pacha Mama which forms an integral part of the healing ceremonies.
It is worthwhile to mention that some of the medicinal plants which I have described – such as cat's claw and basil – are, of course widely available in the U.K., while some of the others may be available in the future, as they are beginning to be ecologically marketed.
Suppliers of Latin American Herbs
* R.E.A.L. Ltd, P.O. Box 58, Stevenage, Herts SG2 8PF (Herbs and Essential Oils)
* Peruvian Imports Ltd. Contact John Young, Tel: 01869 369839, Fax: 01869 369884.
* Higher Nature Herbs, Burwash Common, TN19 7LX. Tel: 01435 883484, Fax: 01435 883720.
* Life Spring Distributor: Belinda Francis of Galen's Garden. Tel: 020-8393 8548.
* The Nutri Centre, 7 Park Crescent, London W1N 3HE.
Tel: 0171-436 5122, Fax: 020-7436 5171.
1. Radetsky P. (1994) The invisible invaders London, Little, Brown.
2. Abel Malek S, Bastien J., Mahler W. F., Reinecke M. J., Robinson W. E., and Zalles Asin J. (1996) Drug Leads from the Kallawaya herbalists of Bolivia. The Journal of Ethnopharmacology 157-166.
3. Zalles Asin J, De Luca M. (1993) El verde de la salud Bolivia. Punata.
4. Evans S. R., Hofman A. (1992) Plants of the Gods USA, Healing Arts Press.
5. Lunny V. (1997) Aromatherapy London. Salamander.
6. Oblitas Poblete E. (1969) Plantas Medicinales de Bolivia Cochabamba, Amigos del Libro.
Carole Mackler said..
Loved your information. I am trying to find out more about quequina? I receive it from a Bolivian women...and I love it. What are the chemical properties? Thanks Carole
Rose Morley said..
Please can you tell me where I can go for kallawaya healing in Bolivia I'm her now and very interested to come I have a fair few health problems please advise
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Jorge E. Beltran said..
I have many requests from family and friends that do not speak English, please advice how and where I could the Spanish version. I'll appreciate your response. Thanks.
Jorge E Beltran