A Beginner’s Guide to South American Traditional Healing and Herbalism

Published on May 14, 2024

By Kristen Boye BS, Natural Health

Kristen Boye

Kristen Boye is a natural health expert, writer, copywriter, and editor. Kristen was raised on an organic farm in British Columbia which inspired her life’s work. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Natural Health, is a Certified Natural Foods Chef, co-owner of a medicinal herb farm, and is a natural foods and children’s health advocate. Kristen lives with her husband and two children on their medicinal herb farm in Western North Carolina.

The world owes a debt of gratitude to the traditional medicine, plants, and healing practices of South America.

As one of the most biodiverse continents in the world, South America is home to thousands of medicinal plant species, many of which have been used to create life-saving drugs.

In this article, you’ll gain a foundational understanding of the diversity and nuances of Traditional South American Medicine and herbalism in five countries: Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Peru, and Colombia.

What is South American Traditional Medicine and Herbalism?

South American Medicine and herbalism are the traditional wellness practices of the indigenous people of the countries within South America, including:

  • Argentina
  • Bolivia
  • Brazil
  • Chile
  • Colombia
  • Ecuador
  • Guyana
  • Paraguay
  • Peru
  • Suriname
  • Uruguay
  • Venezuela

These ancient practices have existed for thousands of years and vary between countries, regions, tribes, and religious or spiritual groups.

There is no standard for South American Traditional Medicine and herbalism. It is as variable as the continent and its many indigenous tribes, all of which were affected by colonialism and Spanish invasions.

This has created a rich tapestry of various folk medicine and herbalism practices based on ancient wisdom from the Incas, indigenous tribes, and immigrants, such as enslaved Africans brought to Brazil and Colombia during colonialism.

Examples of some common practices within South American traditional medicine systems include:

  • A healer, shaman, or Curandero treats the physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health needs within their tribe and culture
  • Use of various traditional herbs and plants
  • Food as medicine
  • Women practiced midwifery
  • Spirituality plays a foundational role in the experience of health or disease. Often, complex cases were considered highly spiritual, with supernatural forces called upon to help heal the sick
  • Dancing, movement, and singing as healing tools
  • Bodywork
  • Shamanic journeys
  • Imagery
  • Use of hallucinogens, such as the San Pedro cactus or Ayahuasca
  • Healing ceremonies

    These days, traditional healing practices are typically used alongside modern medical interventions. 

    However, many of the indigenous and those living in rural areas still rely primarily on traditional medicine and herbs for health-related issues and preventative care throughout South America.

    Exploring Traditional South African Medicine & Herbalism in 5 Countries

    South America is the world’s fourth-largest continent, housing many landscapes and ecosystems.

    The Andes mountain region, for example, spans over 5,500 miles, from the continent’s most southern tip to the most northern coast of the Caribbean. 

    This mountain range, which crosses through Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela, is home to traditional healing practices quite different from those in tropical parts of Brazil or Colombia. 

    In this section, we’ll explore the traditional medicine and herbal practices of five South American Countries:

    • Argentina
    • Brazil
    • Chile
    • Colombia
    • Peru

    Traditional Argentinian and Chilean Medicine & Herbs

    Traditional Andean Medicine (named for the Andean mountain range, which encompasses many countries in South America, including Argentina and Chile) dates back to the ancient Incan Empire. It has been influenced by multiple indigenous tribes throughout the centuries.

    As stated in an article on the topic published in the Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine

    “The Andean medical system is formed by a complex combination of herbal knowledge, magic elements, and propitiatory rituals. The general cultural picture was described as a true tapestry of folk practices where the elements proper of the region and those that have been introduced by migrations both in pre-Columbian times as well as after the arrival of the Spanish are difficult to sort out.”REF#3962

    Regarding Argentina’s Incan roots, Archaeological evidence and written records from the Spanish suggest healers, known as “hampicamayoc,” practiced surgeries, sacrifices, mineral therapies, and rituals and relied on supernatural forces and a deep understanding of botanical medicine.REF#3963

    Ancient Incan Medicine still influences traditional medicine practices in Argentina and South America today.

    There are other influences in Traditional Andean, Argentinian, and Chilean Medicine.

    For example, in Argentina, The “Comechingones,” one of the few remaining folk cultures in Central Argentina, are still heavily influenced by the ancient Incans.

    This indigenous group lived in the Argentina Provinces of Córdoba and San Luis (Ibarra Grasso, 1986) and was considered extinct after Spanish invasions. However, isolated descendants can be found in this mountain range today.

    Members of this tribe traditionally practice a shamanic type of medicine involving native medicinal herbs, which coexist with other modern medical systems.

    The Mapuche indigenous have also been influential in traditional Andean medicine in Argentina and Chile.

    Mapuche indigenous healers utilized medicinal plants based on their views of the cosmos and spirituality.REF#3964

    The Mapuches believe medicinal plants have a soul and are created by the divine to heal. They also believe plants are governed by rules determining how they may be used by humans. 

    If these rules are not respected, the plants can work in opposition to the individual who has broken the cosmic, social, or natural balance.

    Examples of Traditional Herbs from Chile and Argentina

    The Andes mountain range and other areas within Chile and Argentina represent vast and varied ecosystems home to hundreds of plant varieties.

    Some examples of herbs used in Traditional Andean, Argentina, and Chilean medicine and herbalism include:REF#3965 REF#3966

    • Asteraceae
    • Belladonna
    • Boldo
    • Box-leafed Barberry
    • Chamomile
    • Chilean strawberry (Fragaria chiloensis)
    • Chilean guava berry (Ugni molinae)
    • Chilean wineberry (Aristotelia chilensis)
    • Clove
    • Congorosa
    • Eucalyptus
    • Fabaceae
    • Ground cherry
    • Mint
    • Orange ball tree (Buddleja globosa)
    • Papaya
    • Parsley
    • Pau d’Arco
    • Petunia
    • Sage
    • Soapbark
    • Tobacco 
    • Verbena

    Traditional Peruvian Medicine & Herbs

    Like Argentina, Peru has a rich history of traditional medicine and herbalism going back to the ancient Incas.

    Northern Peru is at the center of the Andean “health axis,” with roots going back to traditional practices of Cupisnique culture from 1000 BC.REF#3967

    Peru’s traditional medicine systems owe their diversity to the country’s varied ecosystems, which include mountains (the Andes), rainforests, and deserts.

    Curanderos, also known as healers or shamans, were the facilitators of traditional medicine within Peruvian indigenous cultures.

    Curanderos’ methodologies varied from place to place but generally included the use of a healing altar, known as mesas, for ceremonies, an extensive understanding of plant medicine, protective charms made of herbs and perfumes, the use of herbal extracts as sprays to ward off evil spirits, the use of guinea pigs as a diagnostic tool, prayers—Christian and indigenous—, herbal baths, and hallucinogenic rituals.

    The indigenous and many Peruvians, especially in remote areas, still rely heavily on traditional medicine and herbs.

    Examples of traditional Peruvian herbs include:REF#3968

    • Amaranth
    • Ayahuasca
    • Banisteriopsis caapi
    • Cat's Claw
    • Celery
    • Chamomile
    • Chinese Skullcap
    • Cilantro
    • Clubmoss
    • Lavender
    • Lemon Balm
    • Maca
    • Quihuicha 
    • Pennywort
    • Petroselinum sp (a species of parsley)
    • Quinoa
    • San Pedro cactus (a hallucinogen)
    • St. John’s Wort
    • Sweet Marjoram
    • Thevetia peruviana (Yellow oleander)
    • Tobacco
    • Thyme
    • Valerian
    • Wild Radish 
    • Wormwood
    • Yacón (Smallanthus sonchifolius)

    Traditional Brazilian Medicine & Herbs

    Brazilian Traditional Medicine is a complex fusion of cultures that have occupied the country throughout the centuries.

    First, you have the indigenous population, of which there were over 200,000 groups before Portuguese colonization. Then came the European colonizers and enslaved Africans. All these groups contributed cultural influences to the traditional medicine of Brazil.REF#3969

    Like many other traditional indigenous cultures, native Brazilian medicine combined naturalism with mystical or spiritual rituals.

    For example, the Indigenous possessed a vast knowledge of plants used to treat minor or moderate diseases. However, they would use rituals and evoke supernatural healing powers for severe conditions.

    The introduction of enslaved Africans during colonialism brought with it elements of Traditional African Medicine, including their knowledge of plant medicine, healing, and spiritual rituals.

    See: Traditional African Medicine: Herbalism In Africa for more information.

    Finally, European settlers, specifically the Jesuits, brought their traditional views on medicine, herbalism, and religion.

    Inspired by Brazil’s rich diversity of plants, their interactions with the indigenous, and the prohibitive costs of importing herbs from Portugal, the Jesuits were eager to conduct empirical studies on Brazil’s medicinal plants. 

    They kept copious records of their discoveries, which initiated the first pharmacopeia studies developed in the country.

    The Jesuits also learned to prepare native Brazilian herbs to treat the sick.

    Unfortunately, though they gained much from their interactions with the indigenous groups, the Jesuits also perceived the healing rituals of the Brazilian shamans as demonic, which was a blow to native Brazilian traditional medicine.

    Brazil’s traditional healers were shamans or priests, also known as kumuã, traditional plant specialists, and midwives.REF#3970

    The practices of Shamans varied from tribe to tribe. They included herbalism, rituals, singing and dancing, the use of mineral and animal therapies, surgeries, ceremonies, and the use of hallucinogens, like Ayahuasca, which would induce a trance during ceremonies to impart healing, extract pathogens, restore the soul, and gain knowledge about the origins of an illness.

    Today, many tourists visit Brazil to experience shaman-facilitated Ayahuasca ceremonies.

    Brazil’s unique climate, which includes the Amazon Rainforest and the world’s most biologically diverse savanna, the Cerrado, makes it a rich source of medicinal plants and herbs.

    Brazil has the highest total of biodiversity in the world, comprising over 45,000 species of higher plants (20–22% of the total existing on the planet),

    Here are a few examples of Brazilian herbs and medicinal plants:REF#3971 REF#3972

    • Açaí
    • Annatto
    • Belladonna
    • Brazilian Quina 
    • Berbenacea (Borraginaceae), popularly known as “erva-baleeira
    • Carapichea ipecacuanha (ipecac)
    • Cinnamon
    • Cowfoot Leaf (Piper umbellatum)
    • Garlic
    • Marcela (Achyrocline satureioides)
    • Panax ginseng 
    • Passionflower
    • Incarnata L
    • Pilocarpus microphyllus 
    • Pubescens seeds
    • Senna
    • Suma (Brazilian Ginseng)
    • Valerian
    • Yellow Elderberry (Sambucus australis)
    • Wardlew (Pilocarpus microphyllus)

    Unlike some other countries, Brazil has progressively protected access to traditional medicine and herbs.

    Brazil is one of the few countries in the world that provides public support for the payment for herbal medicines approved only based on long-standing and widespread prior use. Brazil has a list of 12 herbal medicines funded by the government and has other provisions in place to protect traditional medicine and herbalism practices.REF#3973

    Traditional Colombian Medicine

    Colombia, with its mountains, forests, jungles, and tropical coastal regions, is a hotbed of plant life, accounting for approximately 10% of the world's biodiversity and about 50,000 species of plants.REF#3974

    As with other South American countries, Colombia’s traditional medicine practices are diverse and influenced by various indigenous groups, such as the Wayuu, Embera, and Arhuaco, and the healing traditions brought by European and African ancestors during colonization.

    These healing practices are typically facilitated by an ordained community healer/Curandero. These practitioners rely heavily on plants and religious/spiritual rituals for treating the physical, mental/emotional, and spiritual aspects associated with illness.

    Curanderos also act as community leaders, counselors, and spiritual guides and are highly respected for their wisdom and counsel.

    Some Colombian traditional healers with roots in Amazonian healing practices also facilitate Ayahuasca ceremonies to bring healing and spiritual or mental/emotional clarity.

    Traditional Afro-Colombian healers blend the wisdom of Traditional African Medicine with that of the Colombian indigenous.REF#3975

    Examples of traditional Colombian herbs found in the Andes, rain forests, and coastal regions include:REF#3976

    • Aloe Vera 
    • American Black Nightshade
    • Arnica
    • Artemisia
    • Basil
    • Broadleaf Plantain
    • Calendula
    • Castor Oil Plant
    • Chamomile
    • Clemón (Thespesia populnea (L.) Correa)
    • Eucalyptus
    • Ginger
    • Gliricidia sepium
    • Oregano
    • Prosopis juliflora 
    • Peppermint
    • Totumo 
    • Xanthium strumarium
    • Yerba santa

    A Note About the Challenges Facing Traditional Indigenous Healing Practices

    South American Indigenous Wisdom about healing and native plants has been exploited since colonial times, including the last century.

    As previously mentioned, many life-saving medications and drugs, such as ipecac, cardiovascular medications, and anesthetics, were born from South American plants that American pharmaceutical and supplement companies then took over.

    Yet the indigenous have received very little, if any, compensation for sharing their ancestral knowledge. 

    In some cases, drug patents, government corruption or oversight, and the overharvesting of native plants have made it impossible for indigenous people to continue their healing traditions.

    As was the case in North America, Traditional South American medicine was also once considered taboo, evil, unscientific, and made impossible or illegal to access in some cases, while Shamans, Curandero, and Traditional Afro-healers were also viewed as dangerous and persecuted for practicing their forms of traditional medicine.

    Fortunately, things are changing with some countries incorporating traditional medicine into their healthcare systems or at least recognizing it as a birthright of the indigenous.

    Unfortunately, overharvesting popular medicinal plants, such as Cat’s Claw, Palo Santo, and Maca, remains problematic for the indigenous and local ecosystems in many South American countries.

    We can help by becoming aware of endangered or adulterated herbs and plants and only buying from supplement companies that employ sustainable sourcing practices.

    In our pursuit of health and healing, let us always be mindful of what has been given and taken at a significant cost to the world’s indigenous people.

    Interested in Learning More About Traditional Healing Systems and Herbalism?

    At Gaia Herbs, we are committed to preserving traditional plants, their role in supporting health, and the indigenous wisdom that makes them available today.

    In addition to our work on our Regenerative Organic Certified (ROC) Herb Farm, raising awareness about adulterated herbs, and working with suppliers who value sustainability in sourcing, we have written several articles outlining traditional healing practices worldwide.

    Browse these articles to learn more:


    • 1. , "Reproductive medicine in northwest Argentina: traditional and institutional systems ", J Ethnobiol Ethnomed.
    • 2. , "The Inca healer: empirical medical knowledge and magic in pre-Columbian Peru ", Journal: Revistas de Indias, 2015.
    • 3. , "Medicinal Plants Used in Mapuche Traditional Medicine in Araucanı´a, Chile: Linking Sociocultural and Religious Values with Local Health Practices ", Complementary Health Practice Review.
    • 4. , "Anti-Inflammatory Chilean Endemic Plants", Pharmaceutics, 15(3).
    • 5. , "Native Plants of Argentina – A General Overview. In: Pharmacological Properties of Native Plants from Argentina ", Springer, Cham.
    • 6. , "The Globalization of Traditional Medicine in Northern Peru: From Shamanism to Molecules ", Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
    • 7. , "The Globalization of Traditional Medicine in Northern Peru: From Shamanism to Molecules ", Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
    • 8. , "Brazilian traditional medicine: Historical basis, features and potentialities for pharmaceutical development", Journal of Traditional Chinese Medical Sciences.
    • 9. , "The coexistence of traditional medicine and biomedicine: A study with local health experts in two Brazilian regions ", PLOS One.
    • 10. , "Medicinal Plants and Herbal Products From Brazil: How Can We Improve Quality", Frontiers in Pharmacology.
    • 11. , "Medicinal plants in Brazil: Pharmacological studies, drug discovery, challenges and perspectives", Pharmacological Research.
    • 12. , "Introduction to Medicinal and Aromatic Plants in Brazil ", In: Albuquerque, U., Patil, U., Máthé, Á. (eds) Medicinal and Aromatic Plants of South America. Medicinal and Aromatic Plants of the World, vol 5. Springer, Dordrecht.
    • 13. , "Folk medicine in the northern coast of Colombia: An overview", Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine.
    • 14. , "Cultural Diversity of Afro-Colombian Traditional Healers: Preservation and Conciliation of Knowledge", Aquichan [online]. 2011, vol.11, n.3, pp.287-304. ISSN 1657-5997.
    • 15. , "A review of medicinal plants used as antimicrobials in Colombia", Medicinal Plants as Anti-Infective .