In the most elevated capital city on earth, there’s a good chance that excessive walking will not be high on your agenda. Whether it’s your first time in Bolivia, or you’ve already acclimatised over on the sky-high Altiplano and you’re on the way home, La Paz is one of those bold and bustling towns best eased into slowly.
If there’s one excursion you should make while here, it’s to The Mercado de Hechiceria, or Witches Market (as it’s known to rest of the world). You’ll find it up on a steep hill in La Paz’s Rosario district. Despite gaining traction among tourists in recent years, its local flavour is not lost, and it remains one of Bolivia’s most unique and intriguing places to visit.
On approach, the scene will be familiar enough to travellers who have seen a South American market or two. The lively colours draw you in, the waft of incense beckons, and vendors in traditional garb and black bowler hats greet you calmly and warmly along the cobblestone strip.
Soon, however, things get a little unconventional. Stone totems and wooden omens promise spiritual harmony and good fortune; bottled potions with gaudy labels guarantee virility, romance and fertility; and mysterious herbs in small jars suggest ailments you never knew you had.
The plot thickens with dried frogs and animal bones, and soon it becomes clear that this is no ordinary bazaar. Finally there appears the star of the show, the dried llama foetus. With an almost cartoonish resemblance to dinosaur fossils, these confronting specimens confirm in no uncertain terms that some higher purpose is at work here.
Macabre as they may seem, these llama foetuses play a crucial role in the lives of the Aymara, the indigenous people of the Andes. The llamas are buried in the foundations of new buildings as an offering (cha’lla) to the earth-mother goddess Pachamama. In return, Pachamama provides good fortune and maintains spiritual balance. Those who can afford it are to sacrifice a live llama for this purpose, but these dried foetuses are for poorer folk to use.
Thankfully for us collectors, the weird is balanced with the wonderful. Leather pouches, totem necklaces, and many varieties of incense make for more gringo-friendly mementos. Best of all, perhaps, are the jumpers, ponchos and blankets made by hand from alpaca wool. For many Bolivian people, alpacas are the only source of income, as the barren, frosty slopes of the high Andes are impossible to farm crops on. Which means your purchase counts for much more than just a means of staying warm during those cool Bolivian nights.
Those who are game can take up the challenge of respectfully approaching a yatiri (shaman), who are sometimes found wandering around the market in their black hats. These men read you your fortune, tossing their coca leaves about. It’s a service reserved mainly for locals, so you may well be refused; it will be a good test of your Spanish skills, and your ability to soften your body language. Just remember that if you want to take a photo, it’s important to ask first, as locals here don’t always take kindly to the lens. Tipping afterwards is also advised.
Getting to the Mercado de Hechiceria is easy. From the central city square, Plaza Murillo, walk northwest along Calle Socabaya and Mercado, then head down Calle Calle Sagarnaga. You’ll see the market on Calle Linares, just off Calle Sagarnaga.
Is South America on your horizon? See Peregrine’s range of small group tours there.
Feature image by Rafal Cichawa/Shutterstock