Herbal teas are much of the traditional medicine of Cuzco. The city’s people may go to doctors or pharmacies when something is wrong with their bodies, but they are more likely to go to the markets where herb sellers listen to their stories about what ails them and prescribe for them teas from roots, leaves, and flowers, depending on what the specific ailment is.
Herb teas play an important role in the life of every Cuzqueñan. When they are sick they go to these places of natural medicine to cure their ailments. But it is not just the vendors that prescribe herbs. People’s mothers and friends, as well as strangers do the same. Whenever one is not feeling well and people notice, a discussion opens about what specifically is wrong and what is good for treating it.
In making this diagnosis, whether they are herb vendors or just ordinary people, they are relying on wisdom that comes down through the generations, even though in every time period people rethink it and change it a bit. While a lot of knowledge exists among the general populace, the vendors and other natural healers develop specialize and detailed knowledge that people come to trust. This is both knowledge of herbs, but also of the ailments of the bodies.
Sometimes, these ailments are not the same, or understood int eh same way, as by medical science. Nonetheless, there are relevant to local people, sometimes more so that the knowledge of doctors, because the make immediate sense given the local understandings of the body and its interaction with nature and other people.
Medical science might not always agree, though bio-prospectors study this indigenous repertoire of cures to try to find the active properties. Once identified they try to patent them under national and international law in order to make a commercializable medicine.
Local peoples decry this as exploitation and improper enrichment and privitization of knowledge embedded in the ways of ordinary people that have been generated over many generations.
Every day, from very early in the morning, the herbalists bring fresh herbs that were gathered very recently through a network of people stretching far into the valleys and mountains, as well as from people who raise some of them. Every market has stalls dedicated to the sale of fresh herbs, both those for the kitchen and everyday meals, as well as those that have more medicinal use.
However, this distinction between food and medicine is not one that is common in Cuzco. All food is expected to have a good benefit on the body and is part of bringing together and making sure all is well in the life of the body and the person, both in relationship with nature and with society. Whether a good soup or a bitter herbal tea, it is expected to have a medicinal effect on those who consume it.
The market stalls are like health clinics for natural healing. Patients come, they get advice and buy herbs, then they drink them, and often come back to comment ont he effect and even buy more. This back and forth, between herbalist and patient, far more than is possible in a formal medical clinic with its rigid hierarchy between healer and patient, allows the herbalist to build even more on their knowledge base and rework their offerings to meet the changing health needs of their patients.
During the day herb teas are sold as refreshing beverages in Cuzco’s streets and by its markets. It is easy to recognize the sellers. The majority of the women are from rural areas and they wear white smocks and hats. They have some white, medium sized buckets of porcelain where they keep their tea. The buckets are special in that they can keep the tea cool and not let it heat in the noontime or afternoon sun. On top of the bucket they place they herb from which the tea was made, along with limes that can be squeezed in if people wish. This is a sign that the cool drinks are made from natural herbs as well as from barley.
The use of barley tea as medicine, and as the base for other herb infusions, has a long history in the Andes, dating to the Spanish conquest.
Whatever their origin, herbal teas are the basis of good health and healing in Cuzco. After all in the countryside, many people have no access to modern pharmaceuticals, as they say here “they know no pills.” The only medicine they have is from plantas.
Nevertheless, in the city, the massive development of a formal medical structure built on Western biomedicine is slowly undercutting traditional medicine. People are more and more becoming bound to the pharmaceutical companies as the nature of their lives, and hence their bodies changes in interaction with modernity.
For the foreseeable future, though, the vendors still go to the market every morning with the plants they get through their networks and then sit and talk with the people of Cuzco. They listen, think, and prescribe, whether the issue is for condimenting food or healing an ailment. It is well worth visiting the various markets of the city–San Pedro, Wanchaq, Rosas Pata, San Jeronimo, Ttio, etc. to see this important medical culture in action, and just maybe find out what kind of tea is good for you.