On Guayusa

Carrie Hamilton - Ecuador

April 7, 2013

Guayusa is a native plant to Ecuador that the Kichwas drink as a traditional tea. My past six months have been positively filled with guayusa, both through my homestay and through my work, and, given my proximity to and close work with the stuff, I cannot believe it’s taken me this long to write about it.

Guayusa is undoubtedly a treasured part of the Kichwa culture here in the rainforest. Some might even call it the blood of the Ecuadorian Amazon. As tradition goes, the Kichwas get up around 3 or 4 in the morning. They allow guayusa to gently wake them with the sunrise as they sit around a fire, discussing their dreams from the night before or telling stories that have been passed down for generations. It really is a calming way to start the morning, and many Kichwa families in the communities of the Napo province have preserved this custom.

My first encounter with guayusa arose from my homestay in Alto Tena. Every morning, at around 5 or 6, my family would give me what felt like a bucket full of guayusa to drink before heading off to work. The resulting pleasant energy buzz was always welcomed, and I eventually found that I was disappointed on mornings when I was given coffee instead. I also work for Fundación Runa, the non-profit branch of Runa, a company that buys guayusa fair-trade from local farmers in Napo and exports it to the US to be sold at stores like Whole Foods. The organization is dedicated to preserving traditional Kichwa agricultural techniques, and therefore assures that the guayusa they buy is both organic and grown in the traditional ‘chakra’ (in other words, not grown as a monoculture).

Guayusa in unique in that there has not been a whole lot of research surrounding the plant. That is one of the interesting things that Fundación Runa has committed itself to: searching for guayusa in other countries, investigating the best agricultural practices surrounding guayusa, and searching for evidence that indicates whether guayusa is originally a wild or cultivated plant in Ecuador. Many Kichwas do not know where their guayusa plants came from; generally their plants have been on their ‘fincas’ for generations. To add to the obscurity, it is very rare and practically unheard of to come across a guayusa tree with seeds. Instead, new guayusa plants are planted by cutting off a branch, or an ‘estaca,’ from the mother tree and simply sticking it into the ground. From that branch sprouts a small baby guayusa plant that will eventually produce the precious leaves for a delicious beverage.

Guayusa also has many health benefits compared to more customary wake-ups. While having the same amount of caffeine as coffee, it also contains two other stimulants: theophylline and theobromine. Theophylline, also found in green tea, clarifies and uplifts. Theobromine, also found in dark chocolate, creates a pleasant, whole-body feeling. The result is that of a balanced energy effect without the jitters and crash often associated with coffee. Drink guayusa!

As I’ve spent more and more time here, guayusa has become increasingly more and more important to me. When you walk into a restaurant in Tena or Archidona, you will probably be served guayusa. When you visit one of the surrounding indigenous communities, you will likely see a basket full of guayusa leaves hanging from the ceiling of the kitchen. It’s not just a healthy alternative to coffee, but a treasure and a symbol of a culture and a place that I have come to love.

As the legend goes, foreigners that come to Ecuador and drink guayusa always find their way back; many of them stay for good. After spending six months here and having my fill of guayusa, that is certainly something I can believe. It creates some sort of unworldly connection to this place and these people. I am sure I will be back.

Carrie Hamilton