The Medicine Man

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Traditionally, when illness strikes in the Peruvian Amazon, the person to seek has been a curandero. Spanish for "healer," a curandero is a skilled practitioner and treats everything from bad luck to a bad back. The forest is the pharmacy. Knowledge of native roots, barks, flowers, leaves, is a centuries-old inheritance. With the advance of Western medicine, the ancient art of being a curandero is increasingly at risk of being forgotten. Curanderos remain a part of Peruvian culture. They practice in Latin America, Central America, and in parts of North America, where they are known by several different names.

In a northern region of Peru called San Martin, a curandero named Rosendo has been exploring the bodily and spiritual effects of plant medicine for seven decades. Since the age of 12, he calls himself a curandero vegetalista. Today, in his mid-eighties, he is part psychiatrist, priest, and a vital part of the rural community.

The physical toll of living in the densely forested hills—ranching and farming coffee, cocoa, and bananas—is intense. Rosendo often treats patients for muscle, joint, and bone pain and his patients aren't just local. People come from as far as Lima to ingest his concoctions of boiled leaves, roots, and bark. For severe infirmities, Rosendo will lead a one-on-one session called dietas, which includes drinking the woodsy tisanes. The treatments last up to a month or more and take place in a hut on his small mountain ranch. "The plant teaches you," Rosendo says.

If word-of-mouth reviews are any indication, Rosendo's methods work. Most everyone in the area knows someone whose life was made better with the help of Rosendo. He is semi-retired, having quit full-time healing in order to grow the cash crops from which many of his patients make a living. It's unclear whether his knowledge will be passed down.

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