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Intercultural Medicine in the Andes | CSUSM Steps Magazine

Located high in the majestic Andes Mountains, Quito is a vibrant, diverse city with roots in the Incan Empire and Colonial Spain. Over the summer 29 CSUSM students traveled there to study intercultural medicine, a growing approach to healthcare in Ecuador that blends together traditional, indigenous philosophies and techniques with clinical methods. 

“Indigenous people of Ecuador have been identifying and treating illness for thousands of years and have developed a sophisticated medical system based on concepts of equilibrium, nutrition, social and mental health and medicinal plants,” said Professor Bonnie Bade. “But over the last 500 years, the ways of indigenous Ecuadorians have been rejected and marginalized through colonization. Community health suffered as traditional foods like potatoes and quinoa were stigmatized to signify poverty and ignorance, and indigenous medical and religious practices were said to be in league with the devil and unsanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church.” 

Cultural Immersion and an Awareness of Other World Views

Over the course of the four-week class, students lived with indigenous families, studied at the prestigious CIMAS Academy and took a variety of field trips that led them to consider how traditional healing can inform modern medical, economic and educational practices.

For the students the trip was life and worldview changing. Bobby Rivera, a sociology major, said he was impressed with the concepts of pachamama — a Quichua word that means Mother Nature or, more literally, the cosmos and universe — and buen vivir, a way of doing things that is community-centric, ecologically-balanced and culturally-sensitive.

“Two other students and I stayed with an Andean family and we saw how the principle concepts of respect for nature and community, pachamama and buen vivir, are woven into their entire lives and reflected in their relationships with the earth, their families and their communities,” said Rivera. “Living with them, I felt a strong connection to Mother Earth. Everything we ate came from their property. And they cultivated their own medicinal herb garden to treat all sorts of ailments and illnesses. They are very connected to the earth and soil.”

On the trip students learned about traditional birthing practices from indigenous midwives, met with Quichua farmers, and visited hospitals and clinics practicing intercultural medicine. Karina Valenzuela, now in her senior year, said that she was struck by the richness of culture in Ecuador without the materialism and consumerism of Western economies. In a blog entry — students were required to maintain online reflection journals as part of the class — she wrote about participating in an indigenous welcoming ceremony:

“Being able to participate and witness this ceremony was very special to me because I have never been able to find a connection with my spiritual self. One of the terms that I learned was caypacha, which means I am you and you are me. This was so important to me because I was able to self-reflect and look at my life in other lenses to realize that we all need Mother Earth.”

"It’s very exciting to see students realize that there is a whole big world out there and that there are so many ways of doing things and thinking about things,” said Professor Bade. “Going into an environment where they don’t know all the rules, the language or customs forces students to adapt and change. That kind of experience really opens up a student later down the line in the professional world to be flexible, adaptable, more understanding and more respectful. It teaches cultural tolerance and it teaches humility.” 

Valenzuela says she was inspired by her journey to Ecuador and knows that she will apply what she learned in her future career — she hopes to work with youth in the criminal justice system.  Ramirez graduated in summer 2013 and is preparing to attend graduate school. He says that he will never forget his time in Ecuador and looks forward to infusing his future research with what he learned.

“We all came to Ecuador as individual CSUSM students but we left as a bonded unit with the knowledge that the Ecuadorians gave us.” For more information on CSUSM study abroad courses and programs, visit