La Paz Witches’ Market: Bolivia


La Paz is home to rough-around-the-edges attractions like Chola Wrestling (women beating the crap out of each other), Route 36 (a gringo coke den), and a famous Witches’ Market hawking dried llama fetuses and spells for fertility. Surprisingly (or not?), the Witches’ Market is the most Disney-fied of the three. Don’t get me wrong, this market has got some weird, weird shit. But overall, you won’t find the lawless craziness you tend to expect out of Bolivia here. In fact, for Bolivia, you’ll feel quite safe.

This is, after all, the country that offers rides down Death Road (Yungas Road), a treacherous mountainside path with a one mile drop, and tours of mines in which each touring party blows up his or her own dynamite. A tour of the country’s breathtaking salt flats may result in an alcoholic driver or a loss of ones luggage. An overnight bus ride takes you past burnt wreckage of countless buses that could have been yours. But at La Paz’ Witches’ Market, you don’t have to worry about those elements of danger.

The Witches’ Market is basically several blocks of stores with a handful of stands in front. They sell your typical touristy alpaca gear–supposedly handwoven sweaters, hats, blankets and bags, leather purses, trinket-y jewelry, and other various South American novelties. It’s all so cheap that one needs to show restraint to avoid looking like the ultimate SA backpacker cliche, clad in head-to-toe alpaca.

One also needs to listen carefully, as the sneaky saleswomen will often mumble “baby alpaca” when pointing at a sweater or hat, but they’re actually saying “maybe alpaca.” Meaning, it may be alpaca, but it may not be. Lame trick, I say. Either way, don’t pay up for anything.

And while fuzzy wool sweaters and socks are nice for La Paz’s freezing nights, this is the majority of the Witches’ Market’s offerings. Only a small handful of stands sells the crazy shit you’ve come here to see, and admittedly, that small amount of shit is indeed crazy. You can buy the carcass of a llama fetus, dried with fur or without, as a good luck charm. They aren’t exactly good for those of us trying to pack light, and I’m not exactly sure one could safely cross into the States with one’s llama baby, but, you know, its nice to see some genuinely witch-y stuff. Other finds include creepy masks and various spells offering beauty, luck, money, sex, fertility, less jail time, revenge on enemies, etc. Most of the spells are a packet of weird plastic trinkets, glitter, and maybe some pieces of food, with lots of dried herbs, which you throw into a boiling cauldron and stir (seriously).

You also can buy yourself a cheap bag of coca leaves with the alkaline “enhancer” but don’t expect the sales ladies to show you how to chew it. (Read up online, alternatively just stick a wad of the leaves in your mouth with a tiny piece of the alkaline and chew very lightly.) Yes, its what they make cocaine from, yes, its legal, and no, its not much of a drug experience. Yes, it helps with altitude and appetite, and yes, it tastes like soggy crap. Just, you know, don’t try bringing that back to the States, either.

By: Erin Griffith, Photos By: Travis Harwood

Chewing the leaf – Coca in Coroico, Bolivia

I love a lot of things about Bolivia. It is an incredibly beautiful country, first of all, mountains, plains, rivers, valleys, giant freshwater lakes with silly names really high in altitude…Still though, the Andes (and especially Bolivia) is the only place where the coca leaf is chewed as a matter of course. It is of course the raw ingredient behind cocaine, which is of course illegal everywhere since it is a dangerous drug. This has given the coca leaf some undeserved notoriety. By itself, it is harmless—the number of leaves it takes to create a small amount of cocaine is staggering—and in any case, as an old Bolivian man said to me,  shrugging, “One makes wine from grapes”.

No one gets pissed about grapes, was his point. So don’t get all worked up from the coca.

It is said that the best coca is found near a small town called Coroico, which is a mountain town on the way down the scariest highway in the world, an epic, one-track road, collapsed in places, steep, narrow, and teeming not only with reckless drivers but burros and people and rocks and mud. Most of the time is spent veering near the edge of thousand-foot cliffs. In any case, the Coca of Coroico is sweeter, stronger, and more desirable. A large bag will set you back about 15 cents at a market or so, unless you get cheated, which you most certainly will. Don’t sweat it though, because getting cheated means you’ll pay like $2 instead of 15 cents, still no big deal. I spend $2 on dumber shit in NYC.

Coca has been used for centuries by Andean natives, and was valued for its healthful and stimulating properties. Placing a chaw in your cheek for a bit you’ll enjoy the lightly sweet flavor and perceive over a short length of time a sense of energy, power, confidence, and well being. Your breathing is easier, you can hike on forever, even at high altitudes. In fact, the first time I was there, I was helping to lead a group of kids through the country, translating for them and forcing them to chew coca leaves and so on, and I often prescribed coca, or a tea made from it, to combat altitude sickness, malaise, and homesickness.

From Wikipedia: “Besides cocaine, the coca leaf contains a number of other alkaloids, including methylecgonine cinnamate, benzoylecgonine, truxilline, hydroxytropacocaine, tropacocaine, ecgonine, cuscohygrine, dihydrocuscohygrine, nicotine and hygrine. When chewed, coca acts as a mild stimulant and suppresses hunger, thirst, pain, and fatigue.”

None of the euphoria or psychoactive effects which result in the irritating sociopathology of cokeheads are present when chewing coca, though tests have shown that trace amounts of cocaine are present in coca-chewers’ bloodstreams after chewing—but experts agree that the addictive properties of cocaine are not an issue, or very much present, in the unprocessed leaf in its natural state.

Because folks up here tend to shit their pants about everything they can possibly figure out how to judge each other for, even the harmless coca leaf is illegal to buy and sell here in the US, but there are several googleable online stores from which you can buy it in teabags—and I’m sure you can find whole coca leaves as well. Still, it’s nothing like Coroico; the air is thin, mountains surround the area, the sun shines brighter, and the coca tastes like the energy of the intense Andean sun. Go to Bolivia for the myriad cultural and ecoantitourism possibilities, but don’t forget to try the coca.

By: Ben Britz

Belem to Manaus on the Amazon River

The Amazon is a notoriously difficult place to get around in.  There are only a few highly inaccessible roads, and if you want to catch a flight to the jungle’s interior it’s Manaus or bust, an option that’s too pricey for most jungle residents and backpackers alike.  But who cares about these dull and isolating modes of transport when you can catch a ride on the river.
Starting in Belém, one of the easternmost port cities on the Amazon River, my travel partner and I bought our tickets for the trip to Manaus one day in advance, plenty of time to ensure a spot.  Of the many options offered by the “travel agents” who’ve taken up residence at the docks, we went with a boat oh-so salaciously titled “The Clivia,” a vessel of the cheaper, older, and more battle-worn variety.  For about $200 US each the fare included a spot to fling our hammocks (don’t forget to pick one of these up before boarding!), three meals a day, and five of the most awe-inspiring days of my life.
Since traversing the Amazon via the river is really the only practical way to go, and because we’d opted away from the cushier and ludicrously more expensive “tourist” boats, our traveling companions ranged from Peruvian farmers, to families returning to their homes in the jungle, to a bevy of chickens that settled into the lower deck. Continue reading