In the back room of a small shop in Quito, Ecuador, a petite, elderly Ecuadorian woman rubbed a bundle of stinging nettles over my naked body. As she muttered in Spanish, her hands made quick scrubbing motions from my head to my toes. Within seconds, my body buzzed with a prickly, burning sensation. Welts popped up in angry red streaks.
“Your energy is blocked. We must open your energy lines,” she said. As she scrubbed my now-irritated skin one more time, I couldn’t help but wince at the pain.
Emma Lagla is one of Ecuador’s limpiadores (cleaners). For centuries, these traditional healers have used what they consider magical, sacred plants from the Ecuadorian landscape to treat folk illnesses including the feeling of bad luck or a tainted aura.
I’d come for a spiritual cleansing, a process that involves a vigorous rubdown with traditional plants to remove bad energy. If the burning sensation and the stinging welts that danced over my body were any sign, I needed it.
In every downtown market in Ecuador’s capital city, curanderos (traditional healers) offer their skills in stalls filled with plants like roses, valued for their spiritual heartiness; lemongrass, which can be mixed into horchata to reduce inflammation; and guayusa, an Andes holly-like bush used by native indigenous tribes as a stimulant. In addition to scented oils that salespeople swear will make your lover desire you more, the stalls include other Andes Highlands plants like rue (herb-of-grace), used to help with menstrual cycles; and ishpingo, an Ecuadorian spice that has anti-fungal properties and can be made into a tea to cure stomach ache.
Brick-and-mortar stores run by curanderos along the side streets, offering not only herbal products but also treatments, are also popular. (Limpiadores are a particular kind of curanderos who perform the cleansing treatments.)
“These ladies here are waiting for patients to clean their bad spirits, bad energy and stress,” said Marcos Peralvo, my Quito tour guide, of the other people waiting in the shop when I entered. “It is a kind of an ancestral magic type of medicine, but it is not natural medicine. You’re coming here for treatments that the doctors are not able to cure, like cleaning the auras and cleaning up the body spirits. They are using those herbs, and those herbs are going to absorb the bad energies of people. That is our belief.”
While adults seek cleanings, the majority of patients are babies whose anxious mothers are looking to protect their offspring’s “pure auras”.
Fortunately, stinging nettle is not used on babies. Instead, I watched a woman hold her baby as Lagla patted the infant with a soft bundle of herbs that included mint and marco (ambrosia arborecens), an anti-rheumatic herb commonly used to treat bronchial and respiratory issues. After fussing, the baby settled down as Lagla placed a necklace of hard green berries around its neck for protection. She then stroked the baby with a handful of rose petals soaked in rose oil to help soothe its skin and infuse it with good energy. The baby fell into a quiet sleep in its mother’s arms.
“Now she will give the mother herbs for a tea. The mother has to drink it because she is still nursing her child,” Peralvo said. “She must drink this tea several times a day.”
Limpiadores can provide other services like herbalism and massage, said Peralvo. Others claim to address other problems such as dealing with an unfaithful husband, casting love spells, finding lost items or even “treating” textbooks to help students excel in tests. Some claim the title of llamadors (callers), who can call back a departed soul into an individual’s body.
During an extensive cleaning, the healer performs a limpia, an Andean cleaning procedure born from the belief that Mother Nature is the cure for any ailment. A limpia may involve rubbing an egg and a dead black guinea pig over a patient’s body to assess health. Then come the herbs and stinging nettle, known in the Andes for its cleansing powers.
Not being ill, I didn’t require the full black guinea pig or egg treatment – instead, my cleansing was simpler and quicker than a full limpia. It was more like a spiritual massage, a quick scrub to wash away the bad energy. With my body still on fire from the nettles, Lagla gathered her rose petals soaked in rose oil to anoint my skin.
“This will soothe your skin and your spirit,” she explained, her granddaughter translating. “You had stress and low energy.”
Beliefs in these traditions run deep in the Andean highlands of Ecuador, but are losing ground in the country’s metropolitan areas. But not completely – at some hospitals, doctors allow limpiadores to “clean” patients while they administer their own treatments. There’s evidence that your brain can convince your body that a treatment works – to the point that, in some cases, a placebo can work as well as modern medicine, at least when it comes to conditions like pain management.
Locals like Peralvo, who grew up in the rural highlands north of Quito, need no convincing. He believes in the healing properties of the herbs, he said, and he has used them himself: once, after a noisy parade scared his two-year-old daughter, she fell ill and wouldn’t stop crying. His then-wife didn’t believe in folk remedies, but he convinced her to let him to take the baby to a healer.
“After she was cleaned, the healer told me she would sleep for at least three hours. My baby, she never naps in the day, but she did. She fell asleep and when she woke up, she wanted to go to her room and walked there all by herself,” Peralvo said.
“You have to believe in those kinds of things for it to work, but some people from the cities, they don’t believe in this kind of thing.”
As I left the little shop in Old Town Quito, the welts on my skin still burned but I felt oddly relaxed. The tension of travelling for 10 days seemed to melt away. By morning, I felt lighter in my soul and energetic. Maybe I just wanted to believe in the cleansing power of the limpia – but even if the ritual was a placebo, I’d learned that can go a long way when it comes to healing.