Palo Santo means “holy wood” in Spanish, and the tree definitely lives up to its name.
It’s native to the dry, high-altitude forests of Peru and Ecuador, and often incorporated into indigenous medicinal recipes and rituals. First documented during the Incan Empire, Palo Santo is now used in Western culture as a “vibe cleanse” in homes and wellness spaces, and that’s great—as long as it’s purchased ethically and used with respect and knowledge.
Enter Sandra Manay, a young entrepreneur from a local family, who saw her Peruvian community being mined for natural resources, and decided to take care of business herself. To that end, Sandra founded Luna Sundara, a “sharing store” to amplify Latin American artisans and agriculturalists. (Their Palo Santo is even certified by Peru’s National Forestry and Wildlife Management System, which is pretty major.)
We called Sandra in Peru (really!) to talk about life in the Andes, cultural appropriation, and what happens when you follow a monkey.
You grew up in Peru. What does Palo Santo mean to you and your family?Palo Santo is a tree found in Peru and some parts of Ecuador. It naturally dries out and falls down by itself. After it’s totally dry—meaning no animals live in it, and no part of the wood is still alive—you can harvest its wood, if you have permission from the Peruvian government. Growing up, we used Palo Santo wood all the time. We would turn it into a natural incense, use it as a bug repellant, and also burn it after we’d cleaned the house on Sundays as a way to reset and cleanse the space and the air.
When did you realize Palo Santo had grown in popularity beyond your own community?When people started coming into our neighborhoods looking for it! [Laughing.] You know, I remember it happened right after “cupping” became a thing. And when you are sick as a kid in Peru, your mom or your grandmother does cupping to help you feel better. Now it’s like a luxury wellness trend. But I think it’s actually good.
How?I come from [indigenous] culture and I hear people asking, “Is it right that I am taking something from another culture?” and that is such an important question. Because there is no shame in borrowing from other cultures for self-growth, as long as you are being respectful of the culture and participating in an informed, ethical way."
How does that work when it comes to Palo Santo?Ask questions! Don’t just buy something. Ask, “What communities are you working with? Can you name the specific region or forest where this comes from? Who is in charge of your operations? And how do the local communities, and the local lands, benefit?
How do you answer that question?
I set up this business to protect the land in Peru and help local communities like mine. I want every community to have the opportunity to make more money and share their artistry if they want to. Everything we do is really personal. Now that we’re getting bigger, my mother and I visit small communities in Peru and Ecuador and explain our work to them. For some communities, like those in the Amazon, we contact them first and ask permission to come speak with them. Others, we just show up and introduce ourselves!
You must be a major extrovert.It’s more that our communities are very connected. We’ve literally had people say, like, “Hey, drive 3 hours that way and ask for this woman at the end of the forest; she makes amazing pottery.” And we’ll do it and be like, “This is crazy, there’s nobody on this land.” And then sure enough, they’re right there in this remote area. And they’re like, “We heard you were coming!”
What’s one big misconception about your work?There have been some posts online saying “Palo Santo is going extinct! People are cutting down the trees too fast!” First, there is a tree in Brazil that is also called Palo Santo—confusing, I know—but our Palo Santo in Peru is very different, and not endangered. And actually, to make Palo Santo incense and smudging sticks, you are not cutting down the tree at all! It’s already fallen down naturally. What you do is, you collect the fallen wood, the dead tree, and then after you’ve cleared that area, you plant another tree in its place to protect the land and the soil. It’s our duty to do the right thing not just for our community, but also for the forests.
What’s your favorite vegan food swap?Oooh, there’s this dessert in Peru called picarones. It’s basically our version of a donut but it’s made from sweet potato. It’s naturally vegan and it’s so good. My American friends ask me for it all the time.
Please tell us an animal fact.
I think monkeys are so interesting. I will follow them and watch them forever. You see them in the Amazon, and they are so cautious of humans and so connected to the trees. Then the same monkeys in a city? They are not scared of people at all. They’ll run right up to you. It’s just like people who grow up in the city or the country—their environment really shapes who they are.
Our motto is “let good grow wild.” What does that mean to you?
It reminds me of the essential oils we sell. We find everything we make in the forest, you know? We forage for wood and for plants in the forest, just as the people before us did, and we don’t try to force things or grow things where they aren’t. We let nature take its way, and we turn that into something really good for our communities.