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 Bolivian food revolution?

South American food goes from strength to strength. Peru leads the way, with Lima fast becoming the continent’s culinary capital and ceviche and pisco sours adorning menus across the world. Superstar chef Ferren Adriá, of Barcelona’s acclaimed El Bulli, has even declared that the “future of gastronomy is being cooked up in Peru”. Argentina produces the world’s finest steaks, as well as top-class wine. Chile has equally good vineyards, plus outstanding seafood. Time magazine, meanwhile, has named Alex Atala, chef at Sao Paulo’s much-lauded D.O.M, one of its 100 most influential people in the world.

(c) Gustu/Luis Fernandez
(c) Gustu/Luis Fernandez

But while its neighbours may be flourishing, Bolivia has remained in the shadows, its cuisine unable to shake off a long-held reputation for being stodgy and rather monotonous. Claus Meyer – co-founder of Noma, the two-Michelin-starred, Copenhagen-based restaurant named best in the world four times in the last five years – plans to change that.

His restaurant Gustu, which opened in La Paz in 2013 in conjunction with Danish NGO IBIS, assumes Noma’s locavore ethos, matching exclusively Bolivian ingredients with avant-garde cooking techniques. Meyer’s modest aim is to position Bolivia “as a leading tourist gastronomic destination”, and staff members – with a few exceptions, like a couple of senior chefs – are all Bolivian.

Recently I dropped into Gustu for lunch with my friend Nick. En route from our hotel just off Sagárnaga street, La Paz’s bustling backpacker hub, we passed some of Bolivia’s more traditional food options: lurid, whipped-cream-topped red and green jellies in plastic cups; baskets piled high with salteñas (similar to Cornish pasties); mounds of gnarled potatoes, a small fraction of Bolivia’s 200-plus varieties; and interchangeable traveller joints offering pancakes, pizzas and llama steaks.

The culinary and geographical landscape changed dramatically in the taxi ride to the swish Zona Sur district, the city growing steadily smarter – bigger homes, more green spaces, fewer people. Gustu is in the vaguely Californian Calacoto neighbourhood, just round the corner from a gleaming EU office, and some 500m lower than precipitously high central La Paz. I’d booked a table the previous week, but needn’t have bothered. The only other people in the light, spacious dining room – with an open kitchen and vast windows – were a French couple and a huddle of wealthy local businessmen.

The surprisingly varied menu takes full advantage of Bolivia’s biodiversity, with ingredients from the Andes to the Amazon: Lake Titicaca trout; exotic fruits like chankaka, copoazu and red bananas; gamey alpaca and llama; coffee and chocolate; and cactus and chuño (freeze-dried potatoes). Given Bolivia’s landlocked status, seafood is the only major absentee.

Gustu’s ingredients may be local, but its prices are decidedly not: a quick glance at the menu shows that the restaurant is way out of reach of most people in Bolivia, one of South America’s poorest countries. The 12-course “Bolivia Menu”, with a drinks pairing, costs 975 bolivianos (around £86/$135), with mains from 85 bolivianos (£7.50/$12). To put this in context, scores of restaurants across La Paz serve hearty (if rather less adventurous) three-course lunches for under two pounds.

(c) Gustu/Luis Fernandez
(c) Gustu/Luis Fernandez

As soon as the food arrived, however, any thoughts about the cost drifted away: it was imaginative, unusual and Michelin-star class. Highlights included: yucca fritters with coca leaf-spiked butter; melt-in-the-mouth duck confit with creamed Andean corn; intenseley-flavoured native potatoes (one of them gloriously purple) on a potato cream sauce scattered with wild flowers; a surprisingly unctuous dish of raw heart of palm “tagliatelle” with strands of alpaca charque (jerky) and an egg yolk; and a tangy, distinctly adult dessert of chirimoya (custard apple) ice cream with tamarind sauce and chirimoya wafers. Even the occasional misses – notably the promising but underpowered dish of bacon smoked with wild cocoa – almost hit the spot.

Drinks were also of a high standard: a gin, burnt mandarin juice and charcoal cocktail that somehow managed to be both refreshing and smoky at the same time; a quinoa beer from a microbrewery barely 50m away from the restaurant; and a fruity red tannat from Aranjuez, one of the highest vineyards in the world.

The service at Gustu was unfailingly charming if occasionally error-prone: the poor lad who brought out our first dishes was visibly shaking, and managed to drop a plate with a clatter; his colleagues in the glass-fronted kitchen were unable to contain their smiles as he hyper-apologetically cleared everything up. The incident highlighted another of the objectives of Meyer’s venture, which is to give around 30 young Bolivians from disadvantaged backgrounds – few of whom had prior restaurant experience – the chance to learn cooking, baking and serving skills in a professional environment at a linked culinary school.

Some twelve courses and four and half hours later, after a final limocello, Nick and I waddled satisfied to our taxi. Gustu has noble aspirations and genuinely ground-breaking food. Whether it’s enough to launch Bolivia as a “leading tourist gastronomic destination”, however, remains to be seen.

A version of this article was first published here.

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