The tradition of herbal healing that started before the Mayan calendar is alive and well in Belize.
Belizeans’ faith in herbal healing remains unabated, and herbal remedies are available everywhere in the country… from the local farmers’ markets to the gift shop at Francis Ford Coppola’s posh resort Turtle Inn in Placencia.
One of my family’s favorites, available at the San Ignacio market most Saturdays as well as at health food stores in Spanish Lookout and elsewhere, is Jungle Oil by BodyBelize Apothecary.
“Repels insects, stops that crazy itch, reduces swelling, heals bug bites” proclaims its label.
Belize is refreshingly unfettered by U.S. FDA labeling regulations. More to the point, Jungle Oil really does do what it claims to do.
Perhaps the most renowned traditional healer of modern times in Belize was Don Elijio Panti, a shaman and true traditional medicine man.
Rosita Arvigo, an American-trained doctor of Naprapathy, studied with Don Panti, and, in her 1994 book “Sastun,” wrote about her adventures. Dr. Arvigo also penned two more books specifically about the Mayan use of herbs: “Rainforest Home Remedies: The Maya Way to Heal your Body and Replenish your Soul” and “Rainforest Remedies, 100 Healing Herbs of Belize.” All three are available on Amazon.
“Sastun” reads like a novel, a story of Arvigo’s herbal and shamanic apprenticeship with Don Elijio, while the other two are more useful as reference books. “Rainforest Remedies” catalogues Belizean plants and their uses by the Mayans and others.
“Rainforest Home Remedies” references herbs from Belize and beyond and also features advice for natural treatments for common ailments based on Mayan knowledge and philosophy.
If you’d like to try some of the remedies, the prescriptive books contain information about suppliers of the various herbs recommended (though the books were last updated in 2001 and not all suppliers are still in business).
A number of Dr. Arvigo’s formulas are also available for sale via her website, www.rositaarvigo.com. In Belize, you can find many of the remedies at Casa Mascia pharmacy.
In addition to co-authoring Arvigo’s books on herbal healing, Dr. Michael Balick, Director of the Institute of Economic Botany of the New York Botanical Garden, worked with Arvigo to create the Belize Ethnobotany Project. Through a contract Balick had with the National Cancer Institute to collect tropical plants for study regarding their effects on cancer, more than 3,000 plants from all over Belize were sent to the United States for further study.
If you fantasize about following in Arvigo’s footsteps, you’re too late to know Don Elijio Panti, who passed away in 1996 at the age of 103. There are other traditional healers in Belize today, but you have to search them out through word-of-mouth and a bit of effort.
You could create a treasure hunt out of looking for more information on herbal healing. You might run into stories like so-and-so’s ex-husband, whom no one in the family is speaking to though he lives next door, has accomplished miracles unknown to western medicine…
Finding a way to connect with him could be quite an adventure.
Don Elijio Panti’s great-niece and apprentice, Aurora Garcia Saqui, offers a herbal clinic as well as a medicinal plant trail at Maya Center, outside Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, near Dangriga. Her book on traditional Mayan healing methods and herbs, “Ix Hmen U Tzaco Ah Maya,” was released just last year.
If your Mayan’s not up to snuff, the title translates as Maya Herbal Medicine. It’s available on Amazon.
Other medicine trails can be found in San Ignacio at the San Ignacio Resort Hotel, as well as next to Chaa Creek Resort, outside town. The founders and owners of Chaa Creek, Mick and Lucy Fleming, were friends of Arvigo when both were new settlers in Belize decades ago.
Arvigo developed the trail by Chaa Creek. You can go around the trail alone using a pamphlet available to help you understand what you’re looking at, or you can take a guided tour.
Mick and Lucy, meantime, have developed their property into a stunning eco-resort in a beautiful spot on the Macal River.
The healing properties of the trees and plants that grow so plentifully in Belize are taken for granted by many Belizeans, whether they identify themselves as Mayan or not. Our guide on a cave tubing expedition lectured us on the obvious medicinal properties of the plants we passed as we hiked a mile to the spot where we could put our tubes in the water and begin our float through the limestone caves.
He discussed these plants and their medicinal uses as casually and matter-of-factly as an American teenager would discuss taking aspirin for a headache.
Some of these explanations provided amusing insights into Belizean culture. The gumbo-limbo tree, for example, provides an antidote to allergic reactions to poisonwood. The sap of poisonwood creates a reaction similar to that of poison oak and poison ivy.
In addition to reactions to poisonwood, sunburn, rashes, skin sores, and measles can also be relieved by taking a strip of gumbo-tree bark, 2 inches wide by 10 inches long, boiling it for 10 minutes, and bathing the affected area 3 times a day.
The locals refer to the gumbo-limbo as the “tourist tree” because its peeling bark reminds them of the skin of sunburned tourists.
The herbal healing traditions of this area have inspired various natural healers to develop their own herbal repertories rather than practice those of others. Rev. Dr. Bonnie Mamaearth Russell of Bullet Tree in Cayo, for example, came to Belize with her own line of herbal remedies. Nonetheless, spending time in Belize inspired her to develop a new line, using the herbs and plants that grow so abundantly in this fertile country.
Drs. Mandy Tang and Alessandri Mascia, a married couple who are both medical doctors, started Casa Mascia Apothecary after seeing dramatic results in patients who had consulted bush doctors.
Copal, which is plentiful in Central America, worked so well on skin problems like impetigo and dermatitis that the medical doctors were motivated to research it further. They found it also works on rashes, itches, burns, insect bites, skin infections, fungal infections, and muscle aches and pains. They offer a blog and an apothecary online.
In addition to these doctors developing their own remedies, a few shops across Belize stock herbs of recognized American brands. Reimer’s Health Foods in Spanish Lookout also carries literature about using Belizean and other herbs in ways not familiar to me as an American.
Elizabeth Penner, who bills herself a professional herbalist and uses only her first name at her Ultimate Herbal Health Food Stores in Belmopan and Spanish Lookout, stocks an extensive range of herbs in capsules from such familiar American producers such as Nature’s Sunshine. Elizabeth also offers herbal consultations in the Belmopan store.
Unfettered by American health advertising laws, she lists diabetes, malnutrition, hypertension (high blood pressure), osteoporosis, cancer, high cholesterol, and cardiovascular problems as ailments that she can treat. These claims may seem overstated or spurious to the average North American, but bear in mind that a much higher percentage of the world’s population relies on herbal and plant remedies for their health care rather than on what we consider standard pharmaceuticals.
The World Health Organization, a subsidiary of the UN, noted that if basic health care were to be made available to everyone in the world, traditional methods—of which herbs and medicinal plants play a big role—would have to be employed. Some of the drugs that Western doctors rely on originate from plants; For example, digitalis (dried leaves of the foxglove) are used in medicine for heart problems, and commonly administered morphine comes from the white poppy.
Perhaps the Belizeans never forgot something we all would do well to remember.