fter photographer Sebastián Castañeda was offered San Pedro, a hallucinogenic cactus used by shamans to open a pathway between the conscious and the subconscious, he was startled when a pack of dogs nearby suddenly began to bark. “They see and feel the spirits,” healer Luis Zurita reassured him. “That’s why they bark.”
This was the first of several nights Castañeda spent with Zurita, a thirty-year-old healer from Piura, a small city in northwestern Peru. Castañeda, a photojournalist from Lima, Peru’s capital, had traveled to meet Zurita and document his practice as a healer. He was drawn to the subject partly because of his ongoing desire to explore diverse traditions of faith across cultures, but also out of personal curiosity, having heard stories about the shamans’ healing powers. He hoped that a journey into the mountains might help him forget about the girlfriend he had recently broken up with (although he did not initially share this with the healer).
Zurita is one of the curanderos, or healers, who practice traditions of shamanistic healing, passed down through generations ever since Incan times. Healing powers run in Zurita’s family—his father and uncle are also shamans. These healings use the secrets of the cordillera, or mountains, to harness the power of natural medicine and spiritual rituals. They live and practice in the Huancabamba province, a mountainous region in northwest Peru widely known for its network of lagoons known as “Las Huaringas,” which are said to have sacred healing properties. At nearly thirteen thousand feet above sea level, the lagoons attract thousands of tourists and travelers from all over the world, many of whom also seek out the services of the healers for everything from chronic back pain to a broken heart.
Zurita invited Castañeda to photograph him and his patients, on one condition: that he participate in the rituals as well. Castañeda participated in and photographed several ceremonies meant to expel evil spirits and free patients of negative energies. The patients prayed, drank a concoction made with San Pedro, inhaled tobacco, and were cleansed using ancient stones carved by the Incas. “The room was dark, lit only by candles,” Castañeda recalls. “I was a little concerned about the effects of San Pedro, but my curiosity overcame my worries, and it was a very intriguing experience. The night flowed heavy, and we prayed.”
The final phase of these rituals was a pilgrimage into the mountains to bathe in the icy water of the Laguna Negra – the Black Lagoon – which hovers at temperatures between forty and 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Although it is more difficult to access than many of the other lagoons in the area, local shamans believe its healing powers to be the strongest of all the lagoons, and therefore consider it to be the most sacred.
After they had swallowed the San Pedro concoction, amid the dogs’ barking on that first night, Zurita suddenly paused and turned his gaze on Castañeda. “I see a blond woman at your side,” he said, shocking Castañeda by referring to his ex-girlfriend, whom Castañeda had still not mentioned. “You will not return to her,” he declared.
Castañeda, although discouraged, accepted these words. “I have changed since I experienced the faith people have in the healers of Huaringas,” he says. “I came to see that as long as someone has faith in something, that faith will give you powerful hope, which can heal a physical evil, or an evil of the heart or the soul. Faith in voodoo, or in the mountains, is not so different from, for example, the Catholic religion. It is all the same faith, a question of believing in something.”