Misha Vallejo

2011 - 2012

Protected by the Taita Imbabura and the Mama Cotacachi volcanoes, Iluman, a small indigenous village in the north of Ecuador, wakes up with the singing of roosters early in the morning. This is a town of around 10 000 inhabitants where weavers and Yachacs coexist. Yachac is a Kichwa word that means "healer" but most of the times is misinterpreted as "shaman".

It is known that the Yachacs were the first indigenous people to realize the healing forces within plants. With the help of eucalyptus, plantain, chamomile, black nettle, “chilca”, dandelion and horsetail they heal illnesses, fright, lovesick, bad luck, hexes and even economic problems.

On each Yachacs’ house, there is a small placard with their name, profession and register number (similar to the ones doctors or lawyers have). There are around 300 legal healers in this town, but it is said that the number of illegal ones is even higher.

Each healing session costs from $25 to $100 (depending on the severity of the case) and takes from half an hour to an hour. In the premises where the rituals take place, there is an improvised altar with catholic figures, minerals and amulets. Medicinal plants, cigarettes, eggs, candles, carnations, spices, cologne, alcohol, dollar bills and even guinea pigs are also used during these sessions. The majority of the indigenous people, and the Yachacs are no exception, practice an active syncretism: a mix of catholic rituals and Nature worship. In their prayers there is a symbiosis between catholic deities and nature forces: they invoke God, the Inti (sun), the Pachamama (mother Earth), the Virgin Mary, the Quilla (moon), Jesus Christ, the Saints, the mountains, the fire, the rivers.

In a not too distant past, the Yachacs had big influence in their society; they had political power given by the community and spiritual power given by the gods of nature. They hardly had to worry about surviving in a hostile environment, because the society would provide for those who can communicate with the gods of Nature. But nowadays they deal with their heavenly given powers and earthly given struggles. Being a Yachac is just a profession that gives them a regular income that allows them to survive, which is good from one side, but from the other, it is a danger to their culture because rituals are getting adapted, making them more spectacular to attract tourists and their wallets.

This story's protagonist is the 69 year old Yachac Luz Maria Otavalo. She inherited the ancestral knowledge from her father and has been practicing as a professional healer the last 40 years. “I believe in Inti and Quilla, in the mountains and volcanoes, in the plants and rivers, in the energy of Nature, but also in God and the Virgin and in Jesus and the Saints. I go to mass every Sunday.” – tells me before the next client arrives

{{ readMoreButton }}

  • An indigenous woman during the cleaning ritual.

  • Luz Maria Otavalo's patio plays the role of a waiting room for her patients. She is a well known Yachac, and her customers usually come from other towns and villages, as well as from other countries (including tourists). The waiting time varies from 30 minutes to several hours.

  • Although the majority of Yachacs consider themselves catholics and pray to Jesus, the Virgin Mary and other saints during their rituals, they don't lose their strong link with nature gods as the sun, the moon, the stars, the Earth and the mountains.

  • During a cleaning session the Yachac touches the patient's affected area with an energetic powerful stone found on the Pichincha vulcano.

  • The Yachac Luz Maria Otavalo, one of the 300 members of the local shamans association, blows fire to a patient during a cleaning session.

  • The decoration in a Yachac's practice room includes catholic images of icons and saints mixed with elements of their own culture (energetic stones and minerals, flowers, herbs) and elements of the western contemporary culture.

  • A foreign tourist is blessed at the end of a "cleaning" ritual.

  • In the northern highlands of Ecuador live the Otavalo indigenous nationality, whose main income comes from farming and tourism.

  • Before the "cleaning" ritual, the patient is given a candle with which he has to touch his hole body in order to transfer his energy to the candle.

  • During a "Limpia" or spiritual cleaning session, the patient is purified by fire, smoke, parfum, alcohol, eggs, nettle and carnations.

  • Although the spiritual practices gives them a little more income every month, the Yachacs still live in the same poverty environment as other indigenous people in Ecuador.

  • Some of the rituals include the sacrifice of guinea pigs. Their blood is poured to the ground as a tribute to the Pachamama (Mother Earth).