The witches of La Paz

Lucia didn’t look like a witch: early 20s, puppy fat, bored expression, tiny bowler hat. As I walked into her shop, ducking under a clutch of shrivelled llama foetuses dangling from the ceiling, her cell phone rang to the tune Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie”. She studiously ignored me.

2011_0323Bolivia0104The shelves of her shop, in La Paz’s Witches’ Market, were stacked with a bizarre collection of goods: aphrodisiacs with names like “Come to me, come to me” and “Love Honey”; perfumes promising to improve your mood or attract a partner; potions for everything from upset stomachs to hair loss.

There were rows of incense, soapstone figurines, penis-shaped candles, clumps of feathers, stone llamas, and wads of miniature dollar bills. Small bags contained seeds, herbal teas, coca leaves, vitamins, and “extracts” of snail and shark. Baskets held dead and dried armadillos, birds, turtles, starfish and frogs.

The Spanish brought Catholicism to Bolivia, but it never completely supplanted the indigenous religious beliefs, which continue to find their expression in rituals requiring an exotic array of ingredients.

Drawn, eventually, from her phone call, Lucia began to talk: “People come to me to prepare [“white tables”], small packages, to burn on the last Friday of each month, and more regularly in August, the month of Pachamama, for good luck. Sometimes they come for , black magic, to cause harm to others.” She pointed at the little figurines: “Each one represents something different. The owls mean studying; the entwined couple, love; the puma, protection; the condor, travel.”

And then, because witches need to make a living too: “You need to buy some condors now, to bring good luck on your journey.”

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A stampede in Sucre

The world’s most paleontologically significant cement works is on the outskirts of the Bolivian city of Sucre. Some 5km beyond the colonial centre, with its whitewashed townhouses, churches and leafy plazas, a grey 100m-high cliff rises out of a limestone quarry.

Cal Orko
Cal Orko (c) Peter Collins

As an officious security guard shepherded me into the Parque Cretácico Cal Orko – a grand name for a small fenced-off viewpoint high above the quarry – a stream of heavily-laden trucks chugged past, while looming chimneys belched out plumes of grey smoke.

At first glance the mottled, 1.2km-long cliff-face was nondescript. But as my eyes slowly focused, two indistinct pockmarks gradually formed into a giant pair of dinosaur footprints, each one bigger than my torso. Then I spotted another pair, and then two more, and then more than I could count. In total, there are over 5,000 footprints from around 150 types of dinosaur. It is easily the largest and most diverse such collection in the world.

Palaeontologists believe the footsteps are a snapshot of a 65-million-year-old “chase and kill” stampede in which a horde of scavengers followed predators – including a baby tyrannosaurus rex dubbed “Johnny Walker” by researchers – in pursuit of a menagerie of cretaceous prey. Beneficial climatic conditions preserved them, and the flat earth was pushed up over millennia of tectonic activity until it formed a cliff.

Despite the site’s significance, and local attempts to secure UNESCO World Heritage status, conservation attempts are notable by their absence. From the confines of the Parque Cretácico, I could only get within 150m of the cliff. Meanwhile, in the quarry below, explosions sounded and burly tractor drivers passed within touching distance of the footsteps.

Shopping at the Witches’ Market, La Paz

At first glance, the bustling market on a cobbled street a few blocks back from Plaza San Francisco seems much like any other in Bolivia: there are neat piles of fruit and vegetables, baskets of empanadas, and alpaca wool hats, jumpers, ponchos and socks for sale.

But take a closer look at the stalls and a strange – and slightly unsettling – picture emerges. Among the everyday items, are shrivelled llama foetuses, dried frogs, birds, armadillos and turtles, boxes of herbs, remedies and potions, multicoloured candles, smouldering sticks of incense, soapstone figures, and collections of amulets, charms and talismans.

This is the Witches’ Market (“El Mercado de Hechiceria” or “Mercado de las Brujas”) in La Paz, the world’s highest capital city at more than 3,800m above sea level. Although the Spanish conquistadores and missionaries brought Catholicism to Bolivia, it failed to completely supplant the indigenous population’s traditional religious practices, such as the worship of Pachamama (Mother Earth). Instead the two sets of beliefs blended together and today continue to find their expression in rituals that require an evocative array of ingredients.

The stallholders or “witches”, generally Aymara women clad in traditional Andean dress, which often includes tiny bowler hats, claim to cure almost any malady – and the methods they use have barely changed in hundreds of years. The llama foetuses, for example, are buried under the foundations of most Bolivian homes – they are an offering to Pachamama, an apology for digging into her.

Armadillos, meanwhile, are believed to dissuade burglars, while frogs are thought to bring about wealth. There are amulets and potions for those hoping for a happy marriage, to conceive or reinvigorate their sex life. Others promise good luck in business or protection against illness. For those with more complicated problems, or just a healthy sense of curiosity, there are even yatiris (spiritual healers) to be consulted – a memorable experience, whatever your beliefs.

The Rough Guide to Bolivia