I never heard of Limpia before I arrived in Ecuador. My guide Giovani with Metropolitan Touring tells me that Limpia is a cleansing procedure which is typical of Andean medicine. It involves the use of natural herbs, oils and rubs to cure diseases, reduce symptoms, and ward off spirits.
In Quito, we visit the Mercado de Santa Clara, a municipal market located in historic Old Town that was established in 1904. I am overwhelmed with the sights and smells of this large building that houses vendors from all over Ecuador. Most of them are indigenous people who live outside Quito in neighboring villages and have come to sell their produce. After passing through stacks of fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, housewares and just about everything, we see a row of “clinics.” These clinics distinguish themselves from each other by nothing more than the booth numbers and the names of the ladies who run them.
We step into number 8: clinic of Senora Rosa Lagla. The clinic is a narrow 8×2 feet booth packed with plants, most of which are unrecognizable to me. On one corner of the clinic is a bench where Rosa asks me to sit down while she examines me. Limpia is not performed only when you are ill, rather as part of a wellness maintenance program. Giovani explains to her that I am a writer and would like to learn more about Limpia. Rosa doesn’t speak English, but I can understand her slow and articulate Spanish.
She decides to demonstrate her work by rubbing a particular kind of herbal leaves on my arm. I couldn’t identify what this was and my skin instantly starts stinging. Small rashes develop and I rethink this research on “natural medicine.” Rosa instantly rubs rose petals on my skin, which helps calm down some of the irritation. She tells me that these herbs are used to whip kids when they behave badly. That this is also the first step in Limpia because it helps you get control over your feelings, namely “pain and suffering.” It is suppose to heighten your senses and increase your awareness. You see, Limpia is an act of bodily, as well as spiritual cleansing, and you can’t cleanse your spirit unless you first control your mind.
Rosa then shows me her collection of fresh herbs she uses for her practice. She picks up huge bundles of fresh mint, sage, rosemary, rue every day from the market. There are also scented oils, lotions and medicinal drinks that she prescribes to her patients.
Limpia patients include adults who still believe in this practice, and a lot of kids. Ecuadorians have a custom to take babies from birth until the age of one or two to a Limpia clinic on a regular basis. This is mainly to release past life and birthing traumas, balance their energies, and keep off bad spirits and diseases. As we leave Rosa’s clinic, we see a few parents lined up with babies in their arms. I ask one of the dad’s if I could film the treatment being performed, and he tells me no.
My hotel in Old Town Quito, Casa Gangotena offers personal in-room Limpia service that allows for privacy as one does need to take off their clothes for a proper ritual. The following day, Rosa comes to my hotel room to perform with her bag of herbs and oil. She makes house calls for $30 (it costs only $10 to see her at the clinic and no appointments are necessary). She sets up in the large marble bathroom and places a chair in the middle. I volunteer my husband to be cleansed, so I can observe and make notes, or so I tell him.
He strips to his shorts, takes a seat in the chair and closes his eyes, while Rosa treats him with a number of plants, flowers and oils in some order that she only understands. Most of this involves tapping him on the head, shoulders, legs and body with bushes. It lasts for 15 minutes and doesn’t feel spiritual or magical. Just a lot of dusting leaves and brushing the skin. There is a huge mess on the bathroom floor, as if a strong wind went through a garden and Spring turned to Fall in matter of minutes, but Rosa cleans it all up. I ask my husband how he feels afterwards and he uses “refreshed, relaxed” as if he came out of a spa session.
Perhaps the treatment really works because he doesn’t fall ill during the rest of our travels, but mostly the outcome of personal Limpia is to generate blessings of peace, harmony and prosperity. Traditionally though, Limpia is not a one-time fix, rather than a maintenance of a healthy balanced body, as most holistic wellness methods are.