In 1981, Dr. Rosita Arvigo, an American doctor of Naturopathic Medicine, moved with her husband and family to Belize, where they were determined to start a farm in the jungles of Western Belize and establish a natural healing clinic. “Dr. Rosita” (as she is fondly known here) had studied herbal medicine in Mexico, and she began to hear stories of an old Maya traditional healer who was famous for his ability to cure hopelessly ill patients. Two years after her arrival, Dr. Rosita finally met 86 year old Don Elijio Panti, who eventually became her teacher. For ten years, Dr. Rosita studied and learned from Don Elijio the art of traditional Maya natural healing. She also studied and learned the Maya spiritual traditions that are an integral part of Don Elijio’s teachings.
The 35 acre farm on which the family grew their food, as well as the healing herbs Arvigo learned about from Don Elijio, is named Ix Chel Farms, in honour of the Maya Goddess of Healing. She was determined to preserve the knowledge of Don Elijio so that it will not die out when the last traditional shamans are gone. Don Elijio passed away in February of 1996.
In 1987, Arvigo wrote to Michael Balick, the Director of the the Institute of Economic Botany of the New York Botanical Garden about Ix Chel Farms and the work she was doing with Don Elijio Panti. Balick, who had just received a contract from the National Cancer Institute to collect tropical plants for study and testing for possible cures for AIDS and cancer, went to Belize to see for himself. From that visit sprang the Belize Ethnobotany Project, which to date has sent over 2,000 plants to the NCI.
The Ix Chel Tropical Research foundation began to hold conferences for local practitioners of; from those conferences grew the Belize Association of Traditional Healers. Dr. Rosita teaches herbal medicine at the Belize College of Agriculture and holds seminars for community health care volunteers and for nursing and pharmacology at the University of Belize. She has written a children’s book about medicinal plants. She is dedicated to the preservation of the science and art of traditional Mayan herbal healing for the benefit of Belizeans.
In 1993, the Belizean government established the world’s first medicinal plant reserve. This 6,000 acre reserve, dedicated to the preservation of potential lifesaving herbs, is called the Terra Nova Medicinal Plant Reserve. Seedling plants “rescued” from rainforest areas in danger of destruction from development are sent to Terra Nova for transplanting. The reserve is run by the Belize Association of Traditional Healers.
The Panti Medicinal Trail
During one of their walks in the forest to gather herbs, Don Elijio Panti showed Dr. Rosita the medicinal plants that were growing along the path. That path has been preserved, and it has become one of the major attractions for tourists who visit the Cayo District. Visitors to the Ix Chel Tropical Research Center can walk along the trail, which has signs in front of each medicinal tree and plant describing its history and uses. Near the end of the walk, visitors can view a recreation of Don Panti’s home. A fee of $5 US is charged for a self guided walk. A guided walk and presentation costs $30, or $50 if given by Dr. Rosita herself.
Dr. Rosita has also established Rainforest Remedies, a cooperative enterprise that makes and markets herbal remedies in liquid form, as well as dried herbs to be used to make medicinal teas; the company shares its profits with its employees and the traditional healing cooperative. These remedies are derived from the plants that are “rescued” before the bulldozers can get to them. They have colorful names, such as “Traveler’s Tonic” and “Belly Be Good.” These remedies are sold in most gift shops in Belize (the “Jungle Salve” is especially useful for quick healing of mosquito bites); and are also marketed overseas in the Caribbean and in Europe.
Also available at Ix Chel (as well as in many gift shops in Belize and most bookstores in the U.S.) is Dr. Rosita’s recently published book: “Sastun – My Apprenticeship with a Mayan Healer;” published by Harper, San Francisco (ISBN 0-06-250255-7); and a paperback edition of “Rainforest Remedies – One Hundred Healing Herbs of Belize,” by Rosita Arvigo and Michael Balick (ISBN 0-914955-13-6).
Ix Chel Farms and the Panti Trail is right next door to Chaa Creek Resort. Many tourists get there and back by canoeing along the river. Most Cayo resorts and hotels can arrange a canoe rental and will arrange to pick you up when you dock.
Dr. Arvigo On Her Dreams and Work
Dr. Arvigo today continues with her work here. She has been quoted as saying “My goals right now are to touch the lives of as many young children as possible, particularly in Belize and Central America. I feel that if we can affect the lives of children, to get them to understand the value of the plants in their environment and the value of the cultural backgrounds that they come from. If you teach them the plants and they learn about their own cultures they will learn about the importance of the earth.”
Along with traditional Maya healers and shaman, Dr. Arvigo chairs the annual Day Of Maya Medicine Traditional Healers Forum. This forums brings together traditional healers from throughout Belize for a day of presentations and lectures on alternative medicine.
Dr. Arvigo can be reached at rositaarvigo at yahoo.com