By Carolina Aliaga
Chileans are rediscovering the ancient herbal remedies of the Mapuche indigenous tribe, including a sexual energizer touted as a natural Viagra and other inexpensive alternative medicines.
Chile's largest native ethnic group, the Mapuche, who live mainly in the Temuco area of southern Chile, have long used a wide variety of herbal remedies for everything from arthritis and acne to a lack of libido.
One of the most popular remedies, palwen, known as "Mapuche Viagra," was snatched up earlier this year by enthusiastic tourists attending a local song festival, who exhausted supplies of the aphrodisiac in the port town of Valparaiso.
The Mapuche, whose name means people of the earth, are famous for their fierce resistance to the Spanish conquest. Their modern-day population is relatively small, and indigenous culture is not as influential in Chile as in other Latin American countries.
The herbal medicine trend has made many Chileans reclaim a part of their Indian heritage.
"A year ago I discovered Mapuche medicine and it's worked. I'm now being treated for arthritis. I use it to complement the medications my doctor prescribes," Aurora Navarrete, a 59-year-old housewife, told Reuters.
The natural remedies got a boost four years ago when the Mapuche community took over the administration of the Maquehue Hospital in Temuco and set up a pharmacy project using regular doctors and Mapuche healers called machis.
The machis set up traditional Mapuche wooden huts called rucas on the hospital grounds so that patients could opt for Mapuche remedies as well as modern medical treatments, with many taking advantage of both.
The herbalist pharmacy venture, called Makelawen and owned by Herbolaria de Chile (Herbalists of Chile) and a Mapuche trade organization, has spread across the country, growing from one pharmacy with 50 clients to seven pharmacies, including four in the capital, Santiago.
Oclida Millallanca, a 28-year-old Mapuche woman in traditional dress wearing the signature crown of silver coins draped across her forehead, tends the Makelawen pharmacy in downtown Santiago.
"I'm like a psychologist. People tell me about their problems, their physical and spiritual complaints. People trust Mapuche wisdom," said Millallanca as Mapuche music played in the background.
The Makelawen pharmacy does not look like an immediate threat to Chile's retail pharmacies, which are dominated by three major chains, but it is gaining followers.
"My children and I use this type of alternative because it's more natural," said housewife Liliana Dorival, 56. "I have different varieties of these medications, they're good."
Makelawen now offers nearly 50 products, which are sold as liquid tinctures based on plant extracts. At $3.80 a bottle, they are cheaper than most conventional medicines.