Quito’s Traditional Healers

Quito’s Traditional Healers

Quito’s traditional healers

Go to any downtown market in Quito, Ecuador’s capital city, and you’ll probably notice the stalls belonging to the curanderas. Their display cabinets are often distinguished by garish, almost toy-like, little cartons depicting amorous couples, coupling, or beaming children. Typically they contain aphrodisiacs and fertility snake oil with unsubtle names like ‘Amor’ and ‘Macho’, or soaps promising ‘instant attraction’ with various magical and esoteric effects.

“They can easily draw on a natural larder.”

Curanderas, or traditional healers, remain very popular in Ecuador and here in the Andes they can easily draw on a natural larder comprising a hundred or more herbs within an hour’s drive of the capital. Traditional herbal preparations include rue, or herb-of-grace, to regulate menstrual cycles and even coax abortions, and cedron whose bitter seeds are believed to counter snake bites. There’s guayusa, a kind of holly, whose infusions with their caffeine-based stimulants are typically favoured by rainforest hunters whose nickname for it is the ‘night watchman’, and many other more run-of-the-mill herbs like camomile and lemon grass.

Edison, my guide, opted instead for the juice vendors’ stalls and ordered a fairly humble naranjilla alfafa. Grey-green in colour, it looked awful. Resembling a tomato, the obscure naranjilla, or ‘little orange’, is commonly used in juices across Ecuador but here Edison’s medicine was mixed with alfalfa grass and a quail’s egg. “It’s very healthy,” he assured me, licking his lips, “and rich in iron”.

As we continued around the market, Latin America’s rich array of ‒ to Europeans at least ‒ strange fruits and unusual vegetables was readily apparent. There were tamarillos, or tree tomatoes, and granadillas, oversized passion fruits, mountain papayas and oritos, or finger bananas, dozens of potatoes streaked with colour, heads of purple maize and curious cloves of intensely-flavoured ‘male garlic’. The latter, I heard, are used not just in food but as amulets to ward off the evil eye and bad luck.

Outside, more curanderas stalls lined a clutch of busy little streets, their signs incorporating close-up pictures of eyeballs superimposed with lists of ailments and afflictions. “You could also try a limpia,” said Edison. Puzzlement crept across my face.

In the curandero’s varied armoury it is the limpia which is perhaps the most profound and elaborate. The limpia is a kind of spiritual cleansing rooted in the ancient traditions of the region’s indigenes and remains a well-known practice across parts of Latin America. For locals it’s traditionally a cure for emotional trauma, something to counter a run of bad luck or feelings of disharmony and acute unease. For tourists it’s sometimes diluted as a kind of tonic or quasi-spiritual massage ‒ much depends, I suppose, on whether you’re a believer.


Back at my (totally respectable) hotel a few days later I stripped to my underwear for a session with a curandera. A stocky woman in her sixties arrived and ushered me into the bathroom where I sat on a stool. As if I were dusty and cobwebbed, she brushed me from top to toe with a hefty bundle of sage, nettles, basil and rue. She murmured and sucked in air while my skin tingled. Sprayed with scented water, she made me exhale over a chicken’s egg which was gently rubbed over my crown. The egg, it’s believed, can absorb impurities and anything causing an ‘imbalance’.

In many ways this was a ‘limpia-lite’ ‒ the process often involves a patient lying on the floor, arms outstretched like a crucifix, while recounting their trauma or whatever it is that’s bothering them. Some curanderas will even leap over their outstretched clients, frightening unsettled souls back into their rightful bodies.

After about forty minutes of this and that she was done, and I remain stout in body and soul. But I’ve never quite been able to look at English nettles in the same way since. 

Why visit Quito?

Named after the pre-Colombian Quitus tribe, the city was the capital of the Incas’ northern empire before the Spanish conquest in 1534. Now a World Cultural Heritage Site, Quito has  magnificent colonial architecture, but the city also offers an experience of contemporary Ecuadorian city life.

Quito highlights include: 

  • The Cathedral, home to the superb 18th century tableau The Holy Shroud. 
  • Plaza da Independencia – the city’s main square is a great place to people-watch and the neoclassical Government Palace lines one side. 
  • A vast array of shops, cafes and restaurant.
  • Enjoy the city and rural views from the rounded hill El Panecillo – the ‘bread roll’.  
  • Head just 25km north of Quito and you can cross the Equator!

Ecuador is a small, friendly South American country and a trip combines perfectly with a tour of the Galapagos Islands or a Peruvian adventure.  Trip ideas include:



Peru – Chachapoyas and the fortress of Kuelap

Peru – Chachapoyas and the fortress of Kuelap

As we trudged the last few steps to summit the lofty ridge, Alfredo, my guide, noted casually that all a man needed here in Chachapoyas was a machete, Wellingtons and a horse. Well, he had the machete, we both wore Wellingtons and somewhere far below grazed our sturdy horses.

Before us stood a trapezoid gateway set in large blocks of finely cut masonry. The fortress’s encircling walls stretched away either side. Beyond the portal, we entered a cleft-like tapering passage open to the sky. A dozen or so carvings depicting a face, some serpents and perhaps a bird lined the short passageway which rose to a second slender opening just wide enough for one person at a time.

Kuelap fortress entrance

Chachapoyas town is the capital of northern Peru’s Amazonas Department (though much of this vast area is far removed from anything truly Amazonian) but ‘Chachapoyas’ also refers to an area corresponding to the lands once ruled by the Chachapoyan people. It was the Incas who called this mysterious tribe ‘Chachapoya’ – people of the clouds – and even today little is known about them.

It seems they were a tough and belligerent lot who held their own in difficult country. They were famed as shamans and traders in forest products such as exotic feathers from the Amazon basin. Their unusually fair-skinned women were noted even by Spanish priests. The cloud forest hills around the Utcubamba River appear to have been the Chachapoyan heartland. Kuelap, their remote enigmatic fortress, is the region’s outstanding site but there are enough forest-cloaked ruins and eerie burial sites to keep budding Indiana Jones’s busy for weeks if not months.

Shaped rather like a half-kilometre long ship with rounded ends and a broad mid-section, Kuelap’s ten- to twenty-metre high pale yellow masonry walls crown what is a spectacular naturally fortified site. As we headed inside I saw the remains of roundhouses, low-walled huts standing on stone plinths which once boasted tall conical thatched roofs. In the mid-1990s one was completely rebuilt and beautifully re-thatched. It doesn’t take much imagination to realise just how impressive this must have looked in its 15th-century heyday when the ridge bristled with up to five hundred such houses.

Kuelap fortress reconstructed house

Alfredo explained how the fortress had several distinct quarters. We strolled up to the ‘Pueblo Alto’, or upper town, and a D-shaped watchtower, the ‘Torreón’, at its tip.  We paused at the peculiar Tintero or ‘Inkwell’, a sort of inverted cone-shaped pit which archaeologists conjecture could have been a sacrificial shrine or solar observatory (perhaps to gauge the onset of the rains and the maize-planting season). Then, at one point, Alfredo carefully moved a loose rock from a wall, reached into the nook and gently extracted a human bone. “Post-mortem burial” he announced solemnly. It was a common practice here but most of the hundred or so reburials in these walls have long been looted.

We ate a picnic lunch down beside the site’s small office and then, while Alfredo chatted to the guards, I returned alone for another foray. The handful of morning visitors had gone and I had Kuelap and its strange brooding atmosphere to myself.

Kuelap fortress wall detail

The fortress covers around six hectares but it’s reckoned the entire outlying settlement of terraced fields and hamlets was perhaps seventy or eighty times that. Alfredo had explained how it was finally conquered by the Incas in around 1470 when, it’s estimated, three thousand people lived here. Just sixty years later the Spanish invaded the region and eventually built the present-day town of Chachapoyas around 25km to the north. And then, oddly, despite their conquest during which Kuelap could hardly have gone unnoticed,  they seemed to have forgotten about it until the 1840s when a roving judge from town apparently ‘rediscovered’ the site and sparked renewed interest.

View from Kuelap fortress

Sitting by the watchtower gazing across to muscular sun-dappled hills, I thought how deceptive the landscape looked. All was voluptuously lush and green to the horizon yet I was at about three thousand metres. There was an almost European softness to the landscape dotted here and there by grazing cows. Yet the rustic adobe houses with corrugated roofs clearly suggested elsewhere. The climate, too, is marked not so much by hot or cold, but idyllic, generally dry winters and soaking summers of muddy tracks and sodden villages.

And where was the cloud forest? Well, it still crowned most of the hilltops and lower down there were random groves and thickets full of orchids, bromeliads and velvety fuchsia. The Chachapoyans would have cleared extensive tracts to grow potatoes and high-altitude grains, but much of the remaining forest is now under pressure from expanding farms and immigration.

In the following days I was to see what other Chachapoyan ruins and tombs were like, forest and all, with my new local guide Jose to slash a way.

About Amar Grover
Amar Grover is a freelance travel writer and photographer. He has travelled widely across the Indian subcontinent and China, Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. You can see some of his work at pictographical.co.uk, blogs at https://pictographical.wordpress.com/ and occasional tweets @samarkandHK

India ‒ the Aravalli Hills and Kumbalgarh Fort

India ‒ the Aravalli Hills and Kumbalgarh Fort

The Aravalli Hills ‒ among the world’s oldest ranges ‒ stretches about 800km from the edge of Gujarat state through Rajasthan to the very fringes of Delhi. For the most part they are fairly rugged and cloaked in forest, dotted with a handful of pretty lakes, obscure villages, esteemed holy sites and a clutch of temples filled with some of India’s most virtuoso carving.

Most visitors simply pass through these hills en route to, say, the lakes and palaces of Udaipur, or the sacred little town of Pushkar, the great temple of Ranakpur or the unhurried tranquillity of Sariska National Park. But there are no designated hiking trails, never mind signposts, and it’s not an area that lends itself to random, play-it-by-ear exploration. How, then, to enjoy the Aravalli on foot and embrace the great outdoors?


Kumbalgarh Fort

One simple answer lies in Kumbalgarh Fort near Udaipur. Built in the 1400s by Rana Kumbha, a ruler whose prowess saw the construction of thirty-one others, it lords it over the Aravalli range at around three and a half thousand feet. There is no other fort quite like it ‒ or as high ‒ in Rajasthan.


Kumbalgarh Fort Gate

Three imposing gateways guard its approaches while another four protect a citadel crowned by the Badal Mahal, or ‘cloud palace’. While by Rajput standards the buildings are not truly palatial, their views are sublime. Little seems to have changed since Colonel James Tod, writing of an 1818 visit in his classic Annals and Antiquities of Rajasthan, evoked a panorama “over the sandy deserts and the chaotic mass of mountains, which are on all sides covered with the cactus…” Yet, after decent monsoon rains, the distant plains can be surprisingly green.

Perhaps most striking of all is Kumbalgarh’s vast encircling wall. Tall and muscular with crenellations, loopholes and splayed bastions, it winds around the edge of an undulating plateau much like China’s Great Wall. Many local guides and books still wrongly claim its perimeter extends for an astonishing thirty-six kilometres but even on a short visit some years back I had been doubtful.


Kumbalgarh Fort wall line

Now, with a full day set aside to ramble, I set off anti-clockwise along the broad ramparts designed for patrolling guards and even horses to move with ease and speed. Within minutes, you feel (and indeed are) deep within the Aravalli countryside. After a few minutes more you’ll likely leave behind whatever groups of visitors have cursorily investigated the ramparts this far and then thought better of going any further.

Their loss ‒ even laziness ‒ was my gain. The wall drops steeply to a few spurs and then snakes north by the rim of a deep valley. Of the township that once thrived here, just a few modest temples – some of their sculpture and decorative motifs still intact – remain, and I paused here and there to imbibe the atmosphere and soak up the views.


At an ancient baori ‒ a deep traditional well with a broad flight of steps reaching down into its innards ‒ I watched villagers fill cans of water and load them onto patient camels. We shared sweet custard apples they pulled from nearby trees and then they trudged away, caravan-style, towards home. Though Kumbalgarh is now government property overseen (like most monuments) by the Archaeological Survey of India, two distinct hamlets remain within its walls. Later, near Bheelwara village, I watched buffaloes tilling fields from atop a part-ruined stepped embankment, while locals bathed and washed clothes in a cluster of picturesque rock-pools.

Ideal for a meaty day walk, the great perimeter wall proved to be no more than around fifteen to seventeen kilometres. Restored just over a century ago, it’s still in remarkable condition, with just two small breaches and a handful of mildly overgrown sections. And I had it pretty much to myself. For most of the way the lofty Badal Mahal, a useful beacon, remains visible and you can easily take shortcuts back to the drinks’ vendors by the main gates.


Kumbalgarh Fort wall snakes away in the distance…

I made a day of it. At sundown, I lingered by an ancient airy temple whose voluptuous stone apsaras, or carved dancers, blazed molten amber. The citadel perched on a hill behind. Few spots in Rajasthan are both so quietly exotic and casually exclusive.

About Amar Grover
Amar Grover is a freelance travel writer and photographer. He has travelled widely across the Indian subcontinent and China, Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. You can see some of his work at pictographical.co.uk, blogs at https://pictographical.wordpress.com/ and occasional tweets @samarkandHK

Bhutan ‒ Thimphu’s Tshechu

Bhutan ‒ Thimphu’s Tshechu

Brandishing a graphic, over-sized wooden phallus, a young man dressed rather like a pantomime clown gambols across the monastery’s courtyard. He stops, paces about impetuously and then, to loud guffaws, waves it at the crowd. A second appears toying with another which he slaps repeatedly against his palm. There is mischief and bawdiness in the air. An audience of high monks and regular people – parents, grandparents and children – titter gleefully. And the show goes on.



This is the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, perhaps the last word in exotic destinations and probably the world’s only proponent of ‘gross national happiness’ over gross national product. I suppose a few prudish onlookers might find this peculiar display a tad gross but there’s no denying the audience’s general appreciation, if not happiness, on the day.  Mystique aside, most foreign tourists are drawn to the country’s distinctive Buddhist culture and spectacular dzongs, or fortress monasteries, set against an impressive backdrop of gorgeous mountain scenery.

Bhutan’s religious festivals form a particularly important part of the local ‒ and tourist ‒ calendar. The best known of these are tshechus, typically three- to five-day events held to honour Guru Rinpoche, a heroic 8th-century Indian sage whose epic travels were pivotal in bringing Buddhism to Bhutan and Tibet. His role here has never been forgotten but the Bhutanese have elevated his memory into a striking combination of social gathering, morality play and spiritual instruction. Every district dzong (and many villages, too) hold an annual tshechu at varying times of the year and traditionally mere attendance brings merit.

Topping the tshechu list is the one held in Thimphu, Bhutan’s capital, from the tenth day of the eighth lunar month ‒ usually September or October. Thousands of Bhutanese throng a large open courtyard fronting the imposing Trashi Chhoe Dzong, a huge building (and seat of government) built in the 1960s using time-honoured traditional techniques. It’s an occasion for locals to dress in their finest clothes, eat, drink and enjoy a pervasive bonhomie.  Four days of dancing and socialising peppered with a dash of bawdy humour prevail but at its heart this remains a profoundly spiritual event overseen by senior monks, nobility and officials.



Like the hundreds of Bhutanese making their way on foot to Trashi Chhoe Dzong, foreign visitors should adhere to a dress code – no T-shirts, tank-tops, sandals and shorts. Our ‘smart’ but dull efforts paled beside the locals in their kaleidoscopic array of colours: the men in ghos (knee-length robes), the women in tight- fitting kiras (long dresses with blouses and short jackets). Set against the backdrop of a medieval-looking monastery cradled by forested hills, the event is such a visual feast that merely the faintest understanding of proceedings makes it readily accessible.

We’d arrived to find the place filled with an expectant audience. Dignitaries and lamas gazed down from the dzong’s high verandah, while an orchestra of monks armed with gongs, cymbals and horns sat to the side. As the day wore on, troupes of men and women appeared periodically to sway and gyrate gently in gleaming silk costumes. These were folksy dances ‒ clean wholesome entertainment, elegant but seemingly without real edge. Their performance was punctuated by the appearance of those cavorting and frolicking ‘clowns’ who admonished and teased sections of the appreciative crowd.


But it was mostly the spectacular cham dances that grabbed one’s attention and held our interest. Performed by monks or dancers from Bhutan’s Royal Academy of Performing Arts, they wore haunting masks of animals and grotesque demons over magnificent billowing costumes of silk brocade.

Some of these dances have names reminiscent of a gothic horror movie – ‘Dance of the Lords of the Cremation Grounds’ or ‘Dance of the Terrifying Deities’ – but most recount significant episodes in the lives of Buddhist teachers and elements of theology. This, I was told, was how Bhutanese once learnt about their faith. Watching the performers twirl and gyrate, duck and weave, it seemed their routines have hardly changed in centuries.

So I sat back and relaxed as the Black Hat dancers’ complex rituals – every hand gesture and footfall, each tassel and accoutrement loaded with meaning – get on with the serious business of taming malevolent spirits.

About Amar Grover
Amar Grover is a freelance travel writer and photographer. He has travelled widely across the Indian subcontinent and China, Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. You can see some of his work at pictographical.co.uk, blogs at https://pictographical.wordpress.com/ and occasional tweets @samarkandHK

Morocco ‒ Telouet and its Glaoui Kasbah in the High Atlas Mountains

Morocco ‒ Telouet and its Glaoui Kasbah in the High Atlas Mountains

Inspired by Marrakesh’s distinctive and enduring vogue for riads ‒ traditional courtyard homes in the old quarter converted into luxurious boutique hotels ‒ it’s now virtually de rigueur for visitors to enjoy their sensuous, almost pasha-like, experience.

Yet the desert city’s best known – and ultimately infamous – ‘pasha’ was T’hami El Glaoui. Along with his elder brother Madani (who became the Sultan’s Grand Vizier), from the 1890s through to the 1950s they evolved from mere tribal leaders high in the Atlas to rulers of great swathes of southern Morocco. T’hami, so-called ‘Lion of the Atlas’, particularly charmed European high society with sophisticated banquets and lavish gifts. At home he proved a master of cunning and intrigue. He befriended Winston Churchill and attended the Queen’s coronation; yet back in Marrakesh, it was often said somewhat chillingly, he never forgave and never forgot.

The journey to their roots at Telouet, deep in the High Atlas Mountains, lends an evocative glimpse at the past and is just a short detour from the classic southern route to Ouarzazarte. Heading away from the city across the Haouz Plain, I turned towards the dark mauve-tinted peaks. Their muscular ramparts loomed through the haze forming a seemingly impenetrable barrier to the oases and sub-Saharan regions lying beyond.

Ascending gradually at first through rounded hills and scattered villages, the road climbed more sharply after Taddert into stark mountains riven by deep valleys. By almost every bend youths waved me down to hawk large ammonite fossils, amethyst and other assorted minerals neatly stacked at roadside stalls. Then, at nearly 2300m, I finally wound across the Tizi n’Tichka pass and promptly plunged towards Ouarzazate and the desert.

A few kilometres beyond it is the turn-off for Telouet where a thread of tarmac weaves for twenty kilometres through hills of juniper and holm oak towards the Glaoui brothers’ historic heartland. Already it feels like another, older Morocco far removed from swanky Marrakesh or frivolous Agadir.

Mud-brick village houses merged together with gleaming white minarets soaring above their flat roofs, while burnous-clad men rode stout mules and kohl-eyed women carried fodder – for many visitors this is their first experience of a far more rural and traditional Morocco. As Telouet came into view, my eyes were drawn to the striking bulk of the Glaoui’s crumbling edifice backed by the barren, faintly snow-capped peaks of the High Atlas.

Glaoui kasbah, Telouet

Glaoui kasbah, Telouet

Their story really begins in 1893 with Sultan Moulay Hassan’s shambolic return to Marrakesh from a raiding expedition far to the south. Things had not gone well: of an army of ten thousand, less than a third were now struggling back across the Atlas, weak and cannibalistically hungry. In the teeth of a particularly harsh winter, they trudged north up the Ounila Valley towards Telouet with the main mountain passes yet to come.

Madani, the local Berber chieftain, heard of their plight, sensed an opportunity and graciously welcomed the Sultan with a near miraculous feast. His hospitality continued for days. The profoundly grateful Sultan quickly made Madani caid, or governor, of a vast southern area and gave him a prized (and in Morocco virtually unique) Krupp canon. The Glaoui were on the rise and now had an impressive armament to prove it.

I set off with Ali, a local guide, next morning to visit their part-ruined palace, or kasbah. We walked down past village houses inhabited by haratin families ‒ descendants of negroid slaves that once served the Glaoui ‒ continued beneath the main walls and entered a gateway near a field once used for fantasias, exuberant displays of horsemanship. The kasbah’s guardian appeared with a huge fat key to unlock another gate. We entered an irregularly shaped sloping courtyard, ducked into a twisting passage and reached a gloomy, sinister-looking tunnel barred by crossed planks and ‘Stop’ painted on the wall. “That leads to the kitchens,” announced Ali, “but you can’t go there”.

Today one can see just a small part of this rambling complex: sections are clearly unsafe, or blocked or simply out of bounds. There’s little chance of following Gavin Maxwell who, in his marvellous 1966 Lords of the Atlas, recalls stumbling across white but manacled bones in the dungeon (“With the turbulent history of Telouet they could have been either a hundred or less than five years old”). I followed Ali upstairs to a series of salons and, allegedly, the harem. Most are well preserved with decorative yew-wood ceilings, elaborately incised stucco, geometrically-fluted doors and ceramic mosaic tile work known as zellij.

Yet the place retains a brooding atmosphere, its ambitious grandeur quite at odds with the harsh and remote setting. From the roof, you get the sharpest sense of its atmospheric decay: a warren of rubble-filled courtyards and collapsed towers, crumbling plaster and cracked pisé walls, and broken skylights. Dung-splattered storks’ nests, their occupants gliding about elegantly, add a surreal touch. The kasbah was never quite finished, its older, more traditional section of towers and courtyards blunted by a stark, vaguely European frontage of straight, stern walls.

What, I wondered, did locals now think of the Glaoui. Ali thought for a moment, “C’est difficile,” he began hesitantly. “As strong Berber tribal leaders they could be admired. But against that was their collaboration with the French….especially T’hami helping them exile the king.” The Independence-minded King Mohammed V – the present king’s grandfather – soon returned a hero to head Moroccan independence in 1956; the Glaoui were finished and dispossessed. Telouet’s fantastic decline might also be seen as official revenge against this controversial family – never quite forgiven or forgotten.

If you would like to explore this region of Morocco or the Atlas Mountains then call Tribes 01473 890499

About Amar Grover
Amar Grover is a freelance travel writer and photographer. He has travelled widely across the Indian subcontinent and China, Central Asia, the Middle East and North Africa. You can see some of his work at pictographical.co.uk, blogs at https://pictographical.wordpress.com/ and occasional tweets @samarkandHK