Detoxing, Ecuadorian Style

By Victoria Zhao

I still cannot believe that I am actually here in Ecuador. Only a week has gone by here, but every single day feels like two or more! If time continues to fly by so fast, though, I would expect that in the blink of an eye the entire eight weeks will be over.

The group of twenty interns all arrived in Guayaquil late last Monday, and we rested that night in a hostel close to the airport before leaving the next morning for Cuenca. It was an overwhelming experience, to say the least — in addition to the stress of having to remember nineteen new names and faces, I had also never stayed in a hostel before! 

The next morning, we left promptly at eight for our four hour bus ride. On the bus, we were given more materials about the city that we would be staying in for half of our time in Ecuador and the work that we would be doing in different regions. Given that before my arrival I did not know what at all to expect, it was surprising at first to see that our schedule was precisely planned out, for every single day that we would be in the country. 

A map of the northeastern corner of Cuenca.

A map of the northeastern corner of Cuenca.

Now thinking back, I should have realized from the first early morning that our days would begin early and end late. For the last week, we have dived into learning more about international development and improving our skills in the Spanish language. Morning sessions begin at nine; Spanish classes end at six. Barring the lunch period between 12:30 and 2:00 when we return to our host families to eat, we are busy busy busy.

While I haven’t had much time to explore the city on my own, Cuenca is absolutely lovely. The historic center of the town is a beautiful UNESCO World Heritage Site, well known for its colonial-style architecture and lush parks. My host family lives approximately a thirty minute walk to the west from the Spanish school, so I plan to take a look at the Cuenca City Bus Tours when we have a free day.

The entire city is also filled with different cultures and traditions. In our Spanish classes, we learned about a special tradition that is believed to heal and rid the body of sickness. And last Friday, we ventured to the outdoor markets ourselves to experience the process.

Another student receiving the limpias from the curandera.

Another student receiving the limpias from the curandera.

The art of las limpias, which quite literally means “the cleaning,” has been passed down from generations and is still commonly used as a medicinal tool in rural and indigenous communities. It is believed that the process scares away fears and heals el mal de ojo — bad energy from the eyes that leads to pain in the head — and el mal aire — pain in the legs or a tiredness in the body — among other ailments. Culturally, the curandera must be a woman with a strong will. Apparently that is the only way to rid the body of its ailments!

In Cuenca, many mothers bring their children to the markets for the limpias when they are scared, have trouble sleeping in the night, or cry excessively. While learning about the process in class, I was strongly reminded of a type of mental and physical detoxification. 

When we arrived at the market Diez de Agosto, the curandera sat me down in a stool and began by beating my body with bunches of herbs. Eucalyptus is one of the herbs used, and all are considered to have healing properties. Afterwards, I was rubbed with an egg that was meant to draw out negative energy from the body.

The entire group, cleansed after the limpias!

The entire group, cleansed after the limpias!

Next, the curandera held a bottle of a special  mixture that included water, alcohol, and herbs under my nose. Just breathing in the smell made me light headed! To finish the process, I rubbed some of the mixture on my hands and breathed in the scent. Finally, she marked my forehead and wrists with crosses in ash. I was officially cleansed.

Within the market, there were at least six curanderas working simultaneously to assist mothers and children. Each woman differed slightly in her actions to rid the body of negative energy, and among the twenty students we all received slightly different treatments. Some women held the mixture of water and herbs in their mouths before spitting it onto the client’s body. Others broke the egg and placed the yolk in a bowl. But although each limpia was slightly different, we all had to follow the same rules — we could not thank the curandera afterwards, and we also could not bathe for twenty four hours. These actions would cause the bad energy to return to the body.

Afterward, the entire group returned to classes to discuss the market and the process. I feel that understanding the limpias was just a beginning to gaining a better understanding of the indigenous people in Ecuador, and would be helpful in the field when we are living in those communities. Ultimately, although the ritual was a little strange to me, I am happy that I participated. Although I am not sure if the limpias did indeed cure me of sickness, it was a great way to experience a tradition firsthand!

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2 Responses

  1. Diego Andrade says:

    Hi Victoria,

    Welcome to Ecuador!! I will start Smith’s MBA next month, but I did not know some school students are in my country!! I am really glad to know that you have enjoyed your stay here so far. I actually live in Quito but will be pleased to assist you with anything you need during your stay!!

  2. Washington Zhao says:

    Nice! Written well! Keep on writing, it will pay off.