For the daring adventurer, Huancabamba, deep in the eastern mountains, is well worth the rough 10-hour journey from Piura. This region is famed in Peru for the powerful brujos and curanderos (healers) who live and work at the nearby lakes of Huaringas. Peruvians from all over the country flock to partake in these ancient healing techniques. Many locals (but few gringos) visit the area, so finding information and guides is not difficult.
The mystical town of Huancabamba is surrounded by mountains shrouded in mist, and lies at the head of the long, narrow Río Huancabamba. The banks of the Huancabamba are unstable and constantly eroding and the town is subject to frequent subsidence and slippage. It has earned itself the nickname La Ciudad que Camina (the Town that Walks). Spooky.
When people from the West think of witchcraft, visions of pointed hats, broomsticks and bubbling brews are rarely far away. In Peru, consulting brujos (witch doctors) and curanderos (healers) is widely accepted and has a long tradition predating Spanish colonization.
Peruvians from all walks of life visit brujos and curanderos and often pay sizable amounts of money for their services. These shamans are used to cure an endless list of ailments, from headaches to cancer to chronic bad luck, and are particularly popular in matters of love – whether it’s love lost, love found, love desired or love scorned.
The Huaringas lake area near Huancabamba, almost 4000m above sea level, is said to have potent curative powers and attracts a steady stream of visitors from all corners of the continent. The most famous lake in the area is Laguna Shimbe, though the nearby Laguna Negra is the one most frequently used by the curanderos.
Ceremonies can last all night and entail hallucinogenic plants (such as the San Pedro cactus), singing, chanting, dancing and a dip in the lakes’ painfully freezing waters. The curanderos will also use ícaros, which are mystical songs and chants used to direct and influence the spiritual experience. Serious curanderos will spend many years studying the art, striving for the hard-earned title of maestro curandero. Some ceremonies involve more powerful substances like ayahuasca (Quechua for ‘vine of the soul’), a potent and vile mix of jungle vines used to induce strong hallucinations. Vomiting is a common side effect. Many reports of dangerous ayahuasca practices (especially around Iquitos in the Amazon) are surfacing, and it pays to think once, twice and three times before ingesting the substance. Bringing a friend is also recommended, especially for single female travelers. Lonely Planet does not recommend taking ayahuasca and those who do so do it at their own risk.
If you are interested in visiting a curandero while in Huancabamba, be warned that this tradition is taken very seriously and gawkers or skeptics will get a hostile reception. Curanderos with the best reputation are found closer to the lake district. The small tourist information office at the bus station has an elementary map of the area and a list of accredited brujos and curanderos. In Salala, closer to the lakes, you will be approached by curanderos or their ‘agents,’ but be wary of scam artists – try to get a reference before you arrive. Know also that there are some brujos who are said to work en el lado oscuro (on the dark side). Expect to pay around S200 for a visit.
If you go, hotels are rudimentary and most share cold-water bathrooms. Hostal-El Dorado is on the Plaza de Armas and has a helpful owner.
At the Huancabamba bus terminal, Civa, Turismo Express and Transportes San Pedro y San Pablo each have a morning service between 7:30am and 8am to Piura (S20, eight hours). Three afternoon buses also depart for Piura between 5pm and 7pm. To visit the lakes, catch the 5am combi from this terminal to the town of Salala (S5 to S7, two hours), from where you can arrange treks to the lakes on horseback (S20 to S25).
These days, busy Peruvian professionals can get online and consult savvy, business-minded shamans via instant messenger. Not quite the same thing as midnight chants and icy dunks in the remote lakes of the Andes.