Lizards, Snakes and Frogs: An Introduction to Bolivia's Natural Healers

© Anibal Trejo/Shutterstock
© Anibal Trejo/Shutterstock
Photo of Harry Stewart
30 June 2017

The natural healers of Bolivia, known locally as the Kallawaya, form an important part of the country’s underfunded medical system. Some seek out their wisdom as an alternative to expensive modern medicine, while others desire natural remedies in addition to pharmaceutical treatment. From dried frogs to herbs and lizards, let’s take a look at the fascinating world of traditional Bolivian medicine.

Despite playing such an integral role in society, there are no university courses that teach traditional Bolivian medicine. Instead, the Kallawaya typically learn from their parents, and they absorb an ancestral knowledge that has been passed down through generations. Very little information on the subject has been written in text, with most practitioners adopting an oral approach to learning by observing those who are more skilled and knowledgeable.

Kallawaya on Isla del Sol | © Montserrat Boix/Wikipedia

The best Kallawaya are known far and wide for their expertise. Some clients travel internationally to consult with the most renowned healers, based on a reputation that is entirely word-of-mouth. Most customers, however, are indigenous Bolivians whose ancestors have been seeking out this sort of medical advice since long before the days of Spanish colonization. People from all walks of life visit the Kallawaya, whether they be lawyers and businessmen or the working class and the homeless. Clients are often charged according to what they can pay, a type of informal socialist healthcare that ensures everyone receives attention.

The remedies on offer are as exotic as they are diverse. Herbs and roots are sourced from deep within the Amazon as well as the high-altitude plains. Reptiles like snakes and lizards are preserved with alcohol in jars while frogs, ostrich eggs, and even cats have a place in the Bolivian Kallawaya’s repertoire. Most products can be purchased at the local Witches’ Market and must be dried out in the shade; prolonged exposure to direct sunlight is believed to diminish the healing properties.

© Anibal Trejo/Shutterstock

Although these natural remedies might seem strange to outsiders, they are taken seriously and are used to treat a variety of ailments. Lizard ointment is thought to be particularly effective for fractures and broken bones, while other remedies cure everything from fever to menstrual pains, diabetes, and depression. In the most extreme cases, some Kallawaya have even claimed to cure cancer.

Witches Market | © NeilsPhotography/Flickr

But do these practices really work? Although there have been very few conclusive clinical trails, anecdotal evidence suggests they do—at least to an extent. Some healers have earned international reputations and boast a long list of repeat customers. Others have the support of qualified medical professionals who frequently refer their patients for a variety of treatments. Even the Bolivian government has recognized the potential by allocating funding to such practices, particularly in rural areas where effective modern medicine is too expensive to obtain.

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