Advantages A unqiue experience of Andean culture
Disadvantages Very much on the tourist trail
|Is it worth visiting?|
La Cuidad de Nuestra Señora de la Paz (city of our lady of peace) was founded in 1548 by the Spanish as a centre of power in the Andes. Today the sprawling Bolivian unofficial capital, located down the slopes of a steep canyon framed by snow covered peaks, is an unusual city, where modernity and ancient traditions exist side by side. In the streets, Paceñas dressed in the latest fashions pass those proudly wearing the traditional dress of years gone by, of thick pleated knee length skirts, bowler hats and woven shawls. In the valley the flash mansions of drugs barons with Ferraris and tennis courts, are watched over by thousands of tiny mountainside dwellings where people hand weave for a living and care for the family llama. However, one of the most enduring traditions to be found in La Paz is the practice of ancient Andean beliefs, which have bridged the gap between those who look to the Western world and those who look towards the mountains.Long before the Spanish invasion and the forced promotion of Christianity, the Aymara Indians, indigenous to the region, worshipped Pachumama (Mother Earth), the Sun and Moon, and the elements. Despite the best efforts of the Conquistadors, these practices were never entirely eradicated, instead attempts were made to incorporate them into local Catholicism, for example by dressing the Virgin Mary as a sacred mountain. The Andean peoples' religion is now a blend of Catholic ritual and Earth worship - many Paceñas attend mass, and then go home to perform ritual offerings to Pachumama. And to obtain the special items needed to make offerings they visit the daily Mercado de Hechicería - Witches' Market - in the centre of La Paz.
The 'witches' were so called by the Spanish Conquistadors for their traditional non-Catholic practices, such as fortune telling, and their knowledge of the uses of local plants. Their small stalls are jam packed with objects, such as bundles of brightly coloured sweets and coca leaves, to be used as offerings, herbal remedies, talismans and magic charms. Some of the more unusual items for sale include snake skins, dried caimans and dried llama foetuses, which are commonly buried under new buildings to bring luck to the family home or business within. Most of these are displayed pre-packed, or if something special is in order, the witch will knock up a specific concoction or spell potion from a wealth of unusual substances kept under the stall. And I did find some evidence on my travels that these potions work. I met an American, who had selected an unsuspecting Bolivian man to be her husband, visited the witch for a love potion, and seven days later they were married. To the sceptic, this could be judged as coincidence, but they have been married for twenty years, and in this day and age that is something quite special in itself.Despite their scary moniker, the witches are happy to show visitors their wares (especially if you buy something), and many of the items can make unusual souvenirs. There are numerous carved statuettes of the three-headed pachumama, small jars of amulets preserved in a liquid with brightly coloured papers, as gifts for specific occasions such as weddings, and small individual carved stone amulets which can be purchased separately, including entwined couples for healthy romance, llamas for prosperity or suns for energy. I bought a set of nine beautifully detailed amulets resting on a bed of brightly dyed llama wool inside a pottery dish for BOB20 (£2.50).
The witches also stock a large range of traditional herbal remedies for various ailments, derived from their vast knowledge of local flora and fauna, along side the cure-all coca leaves (the origin of the notorious cocaine, and a highly effective herbal medicine in its pure form) and their tea derivative. Many cures in flashy, colourful packets have also infiltrated from Brazil, focussing mainly (unsurprisingly) on problems of the boudoir.GETTING THERE
The Witches' Market is located in Calle Linares, an old cobbled colonial-style street, in the centre of the city, behind San Francisco Church. The easiest way to reach the market is on foot, and the streets of La Paz are relatively pedestrian friendly and well sign-posted. However, it is a hilly place, and at such high altitude (at 3,500m, La Paz is the highest city in the world) physical exertion can take its toll, with many tourists suffering from breathlessness and altitude sickness. The best remedy is to drink coca tea several times per day, which is readily available everywhere, including most hotel receptions. If walking is not on the cards, taxis can be taken to the market from most parts of the city for under £1, and the local minibuses are even cheaper, if a little unsafe.OPINION
After hearing its auspicious title, and reading the rave reviews in travel guide books, I was surprised to find that the witches' market is a collection of just seven or so small tarpaulin covered stalls located at sporadic intervals along a narrow cobbled street - not really what I would term a market. Each stall stocks similar items to the next, but it is still a highly unusual and interesting places to explore. However, what ruined the atmosphere for me was the handicraft shops lining the rest of the street, all aimed at the ever present swarms of gringo tourists. In one sense, this concentration of two popular attractions into a single street is convenient for the visitor wishing to pick up some traditional woven cloths, or fine alpaca jumpers for under £5, whilst combining the experience with some local culture. However, I found the whole atmosphere too mass market - being trampled down by hordes of sweaty backpack wielding Germans rushing to buy Che Guevara T-shirts rather destroys the mysticism of what could potentially be a remarkable place. In spite of that, the Witches' Market is an interesting place to visit to see the Western and Andean cultures functioning side by side. For visitors travelling to rural parts of Bolivia and upper Peru, stalls like these can be found in many small villages, where the tourist may be less welcome to poke around, but the atmosphere would be more authentic. However, for those just coming to La Paz, I would highly recommend the Witches' Market as one of the must-see places of interest, to find ancient traditions are alive and kicking in an increasingly modern city.Although the Market is extremely easily accessible for those who wish to visit independently, unless you are proficient in Spanish, a local guide is needed to get to the nitty-gritty about the witches' potions. All City Tours are pretty similar, taking in the fine public buildings in the main square, one of the many museums, and the Moon Valley, as well as the Witches' Market. I visited the Market as part of a private tour included in my holiday, organised by the superb Peru-based Condor Travel, which provided one-on-one contact with a highly knowledgeable, fluent and reliable guide, for the same price (around £15pp) as an impersonal coach jaunt with blurb repeated in ten languages.
FURTHER INFORMATIONThe witches' seriously frown upon those tourists who quickly snap photos then run away, so to get that all important holiday picture it is best to show an interest and approach them about their wares. If you extend some business their way it is surprising how accommodating they become.
As Bolivia is one of the cheaper South American countries in which to buy high quality souvenirs, I would recommend spending two hours to visit the Witches' Market and to browse in the surrounding shops. To visit the market alone, half an hour would be adequate.There are several small cafés in the streets around the market, and vendors are frequently found wheeling around fresh popcorn and the deliciously juicy local empanadas, called salteñas, both of which can be purchased for a few pence.
Witches' Market, Calle Linares, La Paz
Open daily, in line with shop opening hours.
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