Weird, crazy, and unexpected things are bound to happen if you travel enough. One thing leads to another and all of a sudden you are sitting at an ancient Inka sacrifice table making offerings to Pachamama. What? That hasn’t happened to you? Well, head to the La Paz witch market and it might!
The minute you step into La Paz, the capitol of Bolivia, you will realize that this is a city of contrasts. The downtown high-rise office buildings, the Bolivian women in their traditional skirts and top hats, the new, modern cars speeding past donkey-drawn carts… La Paz is a mix of modern capitalism, Spanish colonialism, and ancient Inka traditions. Somehow all these elements mix perfectly in this hectic city, providing a unique experience for visitors.
The Witch Market
There are plenty of interesting sites to see in La Paz but if you are looking for a true Bolivia travel experience, you have to stop by the Witch Market. Located near the Iglesia de San Francisco, the La Paz Witch Market is a lot smaller than most people expect. Running down a few narrow streets, the market has been mostly taken over by tourist shops selling alpaca blankets and warm Andes sweaters. It’s a great place to pick up a few souvenirs for your family back home but this is not what you’re here to see.
Squished into a few remaining shops, the witches of La Paz have brought traditional native ceremonies and customs to the urban masses. In small town Bolivia, witches are often a normal part of every day life. They are right around the corner offering their cures and spells the sick and elderly, childless couples, love struck teens, or anyone else who needing there help. In modern La Paz though, the city folk need their spells and potions packaged for their hectic, urban lifestyles. Rather than seeking out a village witch, the residents of La Paz need only head over to the witch market to buy their cures – packaged up in bright colored, easy to grab and go, boxes.
The witches of La Paz are not there as a tourist attraction, even though a majority of their customers are now tourists. They still serve out their spells, cures, and even read fortunes for Bolivian customers. Travelers visiting the market are welcome to ask questions, pick up a herbal cure or two, but in general you get the feeling that they save the really good stuff for the “real” customers. In fact, many fortune tellers in the Witch Market will flat out refuse to read the fortunes of foreigners.
La Paz With Market Tips
If you want to get the most out of your visit to the La Paz Witch Market, here are a few tips.
1. Respect their shops
This is not a Walmart. Don’t go in and start grabbing things off the shelves here and there. The witches of the market see this as both their job and their religion. They put time and effort into helping their customers, finding the right spell or potion, and giving their spiritual advice. Even if you don’t believe in their ways, you should respect their space and their shops as you would any other religious space.
2. Ask before you take a picture
With the above being said, make it a habit to ask before you snap a picture. Everyone wants great photos from their trip and in most of the shops in the Witch Market they have no problem with you taking pictures. It is always better to ask though. The witches of La Paz are practicing ancient traditions and some of these practices are highly secretive. Many of the witches in the market are also uncomfortable with photos so be very sure you ask before photographing any of the women working there.
3. If you speak Spanish, don’t be afraid to ask questions
In general, the women working in the Witch Market are more than happy to answer you questions about their spells and potions. When I visited, I was shocked by how few foreigners spoke to the witches. These women are some of the last witches in South America and know more about traditional healing methods and the uses for local Andes plants and herbs than anyone. If anyone is going to be able to cure your upset stomach or altitude sickness, these are the women.
What about the dead Llamas?
One of the first things you will no doubt notice when visiting the La Paz Witch Market are all the dead, dried up baby llamas. They are actually llama fetuses that are usually the result of natural miscarriages. The llamas dry out and partially mummifies in the high Andes desert and are then gathered by the witches. Bolivians use the llamas in a traditional ceremony when they buy or build a new home. The llama is buried under the home as a sacrifice to the Mother Earth or Pachamama asking for good luck, health, and happiness in the new home. Surprisingly these are one of the best sellers in the Witch Market with countless tourists buying them every year… the chances that any of the llamas make it through international customs though is pretty slim.