Worth a Trip: Huancabamba

For the daring adventurer Huancabamba, deep in the eastern mountains, is well worth the rough seven-hour journey from Piura. This region is famed in Peru for the powerful brujos (witch doctors) and curanderos (healers) who live and work at the nearby lakes of Huaringas. Peruvians from all over the country flock to partake in their ancient healing techniques.

When people from the West think of witchcraft, visions of pointed hats, broomsticks and bubbling brews are rarely far away, but in Peru consulting brujos and curanderos is widely accepted.

Peruvians from all walks of life visit brujos and curanderos and often pay sizable amounts of money for their services. These shamans are employed 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 around the continent. The most famous lake is Laguna El Shimbe, though nearby Laguna Negra is also frequently used by 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. Serious curanderos will spend many years studying the art, striving for the hard-earned title of maestro curandero. Some ceremonies involve more powerful substances such as 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're 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. 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 S300 for a basic visit and up to S1500 for a master curandero.

Note that hotels in Huancabamba are rudimentary and many share cold-water bathrooms.

From Piura, Transportes San Pedro y San Pablo and Civa have a morning and evening service to Huancabamba (S20 to S25, seven hours). Note that the road is mountainous and in poor condition and during heavy rains it's often closed by landslides.

To visit the lakes catch an early colectivo from the Huancabamba terminal to Salala (S10, 1½ hours), from where you can arrange treks to Laguna El Shimbe on foot or horseback (S30, 2½ hours). For Laguna Negra take a colectivo to El Porvenir (S15, three hours), from where it's a one-hour hike or horseback ride.

These days busy Peruvian professionals can get online and consult savvy, business-minded shamans via WhatsApp – not quite the same thing as midnight chants and icy dunks in remote Andean lakes.