August 12, 2015

Steff’s Incan Adventure – Part 2: Witches Market, La Paz, Bolivia

Grymm and Frostbitten Lands

witches market bolivia

witches market bolivia

Last week I posted the first entry about my recent South American adventure. Today, I pick up the story in La Paz, the administrative capital of Bolivia, where we spent two nights before travelling by bus/boat to Puno and Lake Titicaca..

After a five-hour flight, during which I had some remarkable Chilean wine, we landed in Bolivia. La Paz is situated at 3,650m above sea level, so a serious altitude adjustment is required as soon as you step off the plane. I was taking altitude tablets, but even then there’s no way to predict how the altitude will affect you. It was strange for me, as a relatively fit person, to start puffing after walking up a couple of steps, but that’s 3000m above sea level for you. I also experienced a weird, pins-and-needles feeling in my feet, hands and face.

After a shambolic taxi-ride through the exciting Bolivian traffic (it’s not quite as bad as the Middle East, but this is a country where the road rules and traffic signs are really more “guidelines”), we found our hotel. The place we booked was, aside from being cheap, right in the central market district, and only a couple of blocks from the famous San Pedro Square and the Witches Market. After dumping our bags, we hit the streets to find some dinner. We ended up in a little park located in the centre of a roundabout where Cholitas sold delicious meats and stuffed potatoes from carts. We stuffed ourselves full of spicy chicken, beef and potatoes, and puffed corn for about NZ$5 combined (yet another reason to love Bolivia!)

dinner bolivia


Then it was time to turn in for the night, and I discovered another side-effect of altitude tablets. Insomnia. Oh my, how fun.

Three hours of sleep later, we got up ready for a day of exploring, only to be met with some disgusting, dreary, drizzly weather. Nevertheless, I had a witches market to find, and we needed to locate sensible things like a money machine, so we set out toward San Pedro square.

san pedro square

From the square you can see what looks like a grand pink building. This is the infamous San Pedro prison, the same prison in Rusty Brown’s 2003 book, Marching Powder. Inside, inmates are not confined to cells. There are very few guards. Instead, when you enter San Pedro, the first thing you are expected to do is purchase your cell from the other inmates. Some cells are cheap and are only a single room, whereas others are suites with their own bathrooms and kitchens. Cells are organised into blocks, and each block has an inmate-appointed section community, which perform maintenance tasks and keep order. The prison runs like a city-within-a-city – the inmates all have jobs running grocery stores, gambling houses, bars, barbershops, laundromats and, of course, cocaine production. Most of the inmates are in San Pedro awaiting trial for drug offences, which may take up to ten years. Their wives and families live in the prison alongside them, and may move freely between the prison and the outside world.

Up until a few years ago, one of the prime industries inside the prison (besides cocaine production/trade) was actually tourism. If you hung around out front you could find a “guide” (read, inmate, friend of an inmate, or a guard) who would take you inside and show you around. Despite the fact that it’s illegal and clearly dangerous, the prison once hosted around 50 tours a day! Now, the Bolivian authorities have cracked down on this practice, as some tourists were injured or killed, but it is still possible to get a tour inside.

la paz cathedral

In San Pedro square we joined up with a Red Caps Walking Tour. These city tours are famous in La Paz – they used to be free, but other tour operators complained that was unfair, and so they had to start charging $3US for their midday tour. The basic tour takes you around the central city, through the bustling street market, to the Witches Market, and into a ramshackle concrete building that might’ve once been a parking garage but is now some kind of strange hangout place. From here we had a remarkable view over the city.


It’s snowing!

Halfway through our tour, it started snowing! It was so cold and wet we made an emergancy stop to buy rain ponchos. Because of the weather, I didn’t get many photos on the tour.


The market continues in whatever weather.

We wound our way through one of the city’s busiest street markets, where cholitas – women of the Aymara culture – sold a variety of strange and wonderful vegetables, fruits and goods. The Aymara are a fascinating culture – their ancestors lived on the Altiplano (the highlands area of Bolivia and Southern Peru) for at least 800 years, before becoming a subject people of the Inca, and then the Spanish. They speak their ancient Aymara language, as well as Quechua – the most common language among the indigenous peoples of the Americas (with some 8-10 million speakers).

The cholitas are a sight to behold. Each woman dressed in her best outfit (the chola style that developed in the urban neighbourhood of El Alto and is now a cultural identifier for Aymara women), they shuffle through the streets carrying impossibly heavy loads. The cholitas come to the market to meet their friends, gossip, and make business arrangements. One of the Aymara tenets is “Don’t Be Lazy” and the cholitas are the embodiment of this code.

We turned a corner, and suddenly found ourselves in the middle of the Witches Market. The market covers two city blocks, each shop stocking spell kits, potions, herbs, idols and other ritual objects for the working of traditional Aymara magic. Cholitas bustle between shops and stalls with their heavy loads, buying up what objects they need, their bright-coloured bowler hats perched proudly upon their heads.

witches market1

Some of the idols for sale.

The story of why the cholitas wear bowler hats is an interesting one.  Back in the 1920s, a shipment of men’s bowler hats was delivered to the city, to be sold on to the men working on the railroad. Unfortunately, the hats shipped over were much too small. The hat importer decided to market the hats to the Aymara people, selling them as the “latest fashion from Europe.” A cholita’s bowler is one of her prised possessions, and many will spend upwards of $1000 on particularly elaborate styles!

As we wandered through the stalls, we also passed many yatiri – recognisable by their black bowler hats and purses of coca leaves. The Yatiri are the witch doctors, and if you want your fortune told or need to know what offering to give for a safe birth or fortunate harvest, it is these women who have the answers. The Aymara have used coca leaves – the raw ingredient for cocaine – in their rituals for generations.

witches market2

Dried llama foetus.

We ventured into a shop and our guide and the resident Yatiri explained the use and purpose of many of the different objects. One wall held shelves of pre-made spell kits in bright boxes. These kits contained all the herbs, offerings, stones and other items you would need to appeal to the earth-goddess Pachamama, an ancient deity worshipped by the Aymara (and the Inca), for hundreds of years. There are spells for love, money, prosperity, and even curses. Many of the spells contain bright coloured candies and bottles of pisco, because Pachamama loves sweets and booze. Now that is my kind of goddess!

On the other wall were sculpted idols and offerings. The appropriate idol is offered up to Pachamama to help bring its likeness into your life. For example, if you want to buy a new house in the next year, you offer up a house sculpture. If you want a new baby, a baby idol, and so on.

Next, I was shown one of the most curious items in the Witches Market – the dried llama foetuses hanging beside the door of the shop. In order for the spell to get the Pachamama seal of approval, the foetuses must be naturally aborted from their mother – no cruelty here. When a family has a new house constructed, or a village erects a new town structure, they place a llama foetus beneath the building before construction begins. This ensures that Pachamama blesses the building and there are no problems during construction. Aymara builders are so superstitious about this ritual that they will often refuse to work on a site until they see evidence of the foetus’ burial. It’s a little bit like an Aymara health and safety regulation.

Later, I was told a story that gave this ritual a rather sinister spin. With the Aymara population largely centred in the urban neighbourhood of El Alto, and more and more indigenous people moving to La Paz to take jobs in construction and labour, what happens when these people live and work in large, multi-storey buildings? Is a small llama foetus enough to ensure the safety of high-rise apartments, or large bridges or motorways? The answer is no. So what is an appropriate offering to Pachamama for these large-scale construction projects? A human sacrifice.

According to urban legend, construction crews hire a Yatiri to hang around districts where homeless people live. The Yatiri will ply her intended victim with alcohol and food until he passes out (but is still alive), then drag him back to the construction site where the hole has already been dug and all the implements for the rite laid out. The sacrifice will then take place, with the victim being buried beneath the foundations to ensure the safety of the build. Of course, there are no documented accounts of this happening, but everyone in La Paz I talked to knows someone who knows someone who has seen one of these rituals, or who was approached by a Yatiri and offered free alcohol. A little internet sleuthing revealed that human remains have been found underneath the foundations of large demolition sites, adding validity to the claim.

True or not, these human sacrifices are going to make their way into one of my stories one day, I guarantee it!


The Pope was visiting the city in a couple of days, so many of the streets were shut for practicing crowd control.

That night, after an afternoon of drama trying to find out what was going on with our tour, we finally met up with our guide, Lorensa, and our two travel companions, Mike & Ginny. After a quick run down of what to expect for the next couple of days, Mum and I went down the road for dinner. Mike & Ginny found a fantastic restaurant (who always seemed to find the best food haunts – no wonder they’ve decided to open their own bar when they return) that served delicious alpaca steaks smothered in hot aji sauce, and a “salad bar” that was really just a buffet of unusual potatoes. (there are more than 300 varieties of potato in South America. You will get told this a lot.)

I adored what little I saw of Bolivia, and am gutted that we didn’t book a few extra days to go out to the salt flats or the train graveyard or to head down the country to see the dinosaur paths. I will definitely be going back one day.

Next week I’ll write about one of my favourite days on the whole trip – our excursion to Amantani island on Lake Titicaca, where we stayed with a host family and got the whole village drunk.

If you haven’t read it yet, you can pick up The Sunken, my dark fantasy novel, on Amazon now!

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