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