One of the more interesting sites to see when visiting La Paz, Bolivia is the Mercado de las Brujas, or Witches Market. Located up the hill from Plaza San Francisco, stretching from Calle Sangárnaga to Santa Cruz via Jiménez and Linares, this small stretch of street stalls keeps alive the pagan and indigenous religious traditions that continue in Bolivia.
Bolivia’s Witches and Shamans
However bizarre this part of town may seem to the unfamiliar tourist, the market’s purpose transcends the profane through the sacred beliefs deeply rooted in Bolivian culture. To understand La Paz’s Witches Market, you’ve got to understand the people that continue to practice indigenous religious traditions. These practices belong to the Aymara, a catch-all for a number of similar-but-distinct indigenous groups from the Bolivian altiplano. The majority of the Aymara today are Roman Catholic, yet in practice their beliefs derive from a hybrid of both Catholicism and traditional, indigenous traditions.
Spiritual mediums are thought to be able to communicate between the natural and supernatural realms. Spirits are believed to inhabit not the heavens, but the surrounding landscapes (i.e. rivers, mountains, lakes etc.). Another way to think of it is by viewing a particular natural feature such as a mountain or valley as embodying an individual spirit. The most revered of these is the Mother Goddess, Pachamama, Mother Earth. These mediums have names like yatiri (diviner), or laiqa and paqu (practitioners of black and white magic). They hold the power to not only contact these divine spirits, but change the course of one’s future, both for better or worse.
With llamas fetuses strung from ropes and effigies of various spiritual beings, the Witches Market offers one of the oddest cultural experiences in Bolivia.
The afterlife is also an important concept behind the Aymara’s practices. The souls of the deceased are believed to remain in on earth and so the spirit of the deceased must be treated properly to ensure no vengeance or ill against the living. Shamans are able to appease the spirits, allowing them to use their powers to shape the world around us. At the Witches Market, people can find the sacred items used in rituals. Medicinal herbs, spices, plants, roots, flowers, and the all-important coca leaves are used in cases of illness, both preventing and healing sickness. In some cases, rituals require animal parts: In the Witches Market, you’ll find dried toads, starfish, and, most notably, dried llama fetuses.
The Llama Fetus
What’s the story with the llama fetuses dangling in the secluded street stalls of the Mercado de lad Brujas?
The use of the fetuses in ritual practices are meant to produce good luck and fortune. Llamas are considered the most important offering made to Pachamama. Llama pregnancies often result in miscarriages and stillbirths, resulting in the large, dried llamas seen hanging in the stalls. The slaughter of a pregnant llama – sadly – is also a source for these sacred items. These fetuses will be buried under the foundation of a new house to bring its inhabitants good luck and fortune.
There is also the ceremonial cleansing brought about through the burning of a fetus, to done only by a yatiri. A mesa, or ceremonial cloth, will first be laid on a table. A bed of flowers and herbs will then be made on top of the mesa, followed by decorations around the ceremonial bed, including the effigies and totems seen in the market. A fetus decorated in colorful ribbons and flowers is placed directly in the middle, and burned on a bed of coca leaves. This sacred ritual is thought to bring good fortune for participants by appeasing Pachamama.
The llama is one of the most important elements of traditional life in the Andes for the Aymara people. Their uses are numerous and varied. Their wool is used for clothing, their meat for food, their strength for labor. Their spirits are crucial in the realm of the supernatural.
The Shamans Market of El Alto
While many visitors wander the Witches Market of central La Paz, but few make it to the other, more eerie supernatural market. In El Alto, high above the Witches’ Market of La Paz, is the Shamans Market. Here reside the true witch doctors, fortune tellers and shamans of these traditional practices and beliefs.
In a city becoming more and more crowded with migrants from the countryside, the Shamans Market retains the indigenous faith and magic of the Bolivian countryside. Though you might find a yatiri in La Paz to give you a reading or spiritual cleansing, it is here in El Alto that the bulk of the practitioners reside, practicing their craft and appeasing the Spirit world. If you’re looking for an authentic, once-in-a-lifetime experience, head to the heart of indigenous spiritualism at the Shamans Market in El Alto.