Guayusa: the Sacred Plant of the Kichwa People of the Amazon

There is a Kichwa legend that says that, before becoming a sacred plant, the guayusa was a powerful and divine spirit, it was very robust and strong; in some versions, it was the spirit of the jaguar. This spirit encouraged and motivated people to achieve their most difficult goals; it helped them make intelligent and wise decisions; it bestowed upon them the joy of living and thriving; it invigorated their spirits; and, it stimulated their libido and promoted fertility.


According to the beliefs of the Amazonian Kichwa people, guayusa can sharpen a person’s intelligence and keep one on high alert. Thus, if the community is ever in danger, people can stay awake all night thanks to drinking a guayusa infusion. This plant is considered sacred among the Kichwa, and it’s a central part of their legends and myths.


The guayusa (Ilex Guayusa) is plant a native to the tropical Amazon rainforest. Etymologically, it means good, pleasant, or invigorating leaf. It has been cultivated by Amazonian people for at least 1500 years. Guayusa is related to Paraguayan mate (Ilex paraguayensis), which is widely consumed in the form of 'mate cebado' in Argentina and Uruguay.


Guayusa is a small tree: it grows no more than three or four meters high. It has bright green leaves, which the Amazonian Kichwa people harvest very carefully. Then, they fold the leaves in half and thread them with a needle. These strung leaves are then placed and conserved in a special place in each person’s home.



(Illustration of a guayusa plant: Kohler, Franz Eugen; Medicinal Plants in Nature; illustrations with brief scientific explanations; Gera Untermhaus, Germany: 1887)


'Guayusadas' (Guayusa dream ceremonies)


The guayusa leaf infusion is most commonly sipped during the 'guayusadas': family members wake up at dawn, at 4:00 am or 5:00 am, and they light a fire, on which they boil water for the guayusa infusion. Usually, this ceremony takes place in each family’s home; however, sometimes, the entire community meets to drink guayusa and share their dreams.


Every day, the Kichwa people prepare this infusion. The drink has a pleasant taste, a little bitter, but also slightly sweet and aromatic. For the Kichwas, guayusa is like coffee, it gives them energy, so they drink it at the beginning of each day. They believe it provides them with wisdom and strengthens their dreams.


When they drink this infusion, they talk about the dreams they had the night before. Recently, María José, our founder, had the opportunity to participate in a communal 'guayusada', which was attended by several members of the Mushullkata community.

María José tells us that one of the community members, Juan, had a disturbing dream: he dreamt that a plane crashed next to the river, right on his head. After sharing his dream, everyone gave their opinions about the possible meanings. They concluded that Juan was in danger and needed protection to be able to work that day. Therefore, they decided that someone should be with him throughout the day. In addition, another way to receive protection is to have shared the dream in the 'guayusada'. Finally, José, the oldest member of the community, and the son of a ‘yachak’ (shaman), performed a 'limpia' (cleansing ritual) on Juan, using the guayusa leaves and tobacco smoke.


Only after drinking the infusion of guayusa leaves do the Kichwa people feel prepared to face the day with strength, decision, intelligence, and energy; then, they go out to perform their daily activities on their farms and in the rainforest.

In this picture, you can see Carlos Aldaz, an expert in permaculture, leading a workshop on this topic. Along with the participants in the workshop, he is standing in a guayusa plantation. Carlos is teaching community members how to transform this plantation into an edible forest, with many different plants and trees.


The Science Behind the Myths


From a scientific point of view, the properties attributed by the Amazonian peoples to this sacred plant can be explained by caffeine’s psychoactive effects. Drinking a cup of guayusa infusion provides the same amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee or black tea. However, ingesting too much of this infusion can cause over-excitement and insomnia.

Representatives from a company that sells guayusa products promised the people of Mushullakta that, if they planted the guayusa as a monoculture, they would come back and buy all their production; then, they never came back…


The Benefits of Guayusa


  • The leaves naturally contain caffeine, an alkaloid, so its intake doesn’t produce anxiety

  • In addition, the leaves contain antioxidants, amino acids, chlorogenic acids and L-theanine

  • Guayusa is light in flavor and is free of tannins

  • It provides natural energy for the body and the mind

  • It also has positive effects on the digestive system, and is supposed to help prevent diabetes

Guayusa in Today’s World


Currently, guayusa hoas acquired some 'fame' outside of its natural habitat. Nowadays, it can be found for sale in big city supermarkets in Ecuador, and even in other countries.


It’s marketed in many different presentations: as pure guayusa tea, but also as guayusa tea combined with mint, ginger, lemon, red fruits, roselle, guava, pineapple, among other flavors; it’s bottled as a natural and refreshing drink of pure guayusa, or guayusa with lemon or other flavors; it’s also canned as a natural energizing drink, flavored with an infusion of pure guayusa, or guayusa with Andean roses or ‘mortiños’; it’s also sold as a spice and as smoked sea salt for cooking; and, finally, it’s even produced as an artisan beer flavored with guayusa leaves!


Sources:


Books and magazines:

  • Naranjo, Plutarco; Mitos, tradiciones y plantas alucinantes; Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar; Corporación Editora Nacional; Quito – Ecuador; first edition: April 2012.

  • Unigarro Solarte, Catalina; Cartografía de la Memoria; Number 4; Patrimonio Cultural Alimentario; Ministerio de Cultura del Ecuador - Ediciones La Tierra; Quito – Ecuador; first edition: May 2010.

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