The Witches' Market in La Paz, Spells are Hot Sellers

May 30, 2003

Barren 12,000-foot (3,650-meter) peaks rise sharply around La Paz, Bolivia, the world's highest capital at 11,200 feet (3,400 meters).

On Cerro Cumbre, a mountain clearing that La Paz residents call holy ground, the wind carries the smoke—and smell—of animal sacrifice.

Margarita Quispe Acho, a self-described witch, is performing a ritual that her grandmother taught her. Through prayer and a burnt offering of llama fetuses, Acho asks Pachamama, a god that many Bolivians call Mother Earth, to bring health, happiness, and especially prosperity.

Acho and other witches, medicine women, folk doctors, astrologers, fortunetellers, and sorcerers live and work on the Calle Linares, a cobblestone street in an old quarter of La Paz known for generations as the Mercado de las Brujas, or Witches' Market.

The spells are working. "There's been a steady increase in business for 10 years," says Acho, the third generation in her family to operate a one-room shop on Calle Linares, La Tienda de Chifleria de Margarita, where she sells hundreds of occult items.

Bolivians and tourists flock to the Witches' Market, which has spilled into the adjoining streets.

Smiling witches in colorful full dresses and bowler hats—a fashion for women in Bolivia—preside over many of the shops with their daughters and heirs.

Reading Coco Leaves

The shop Goya on Calle Jimenez sells toad talismans, owl feathers, stone amulets, candles, gems, and soaps. Old liquor bottles hold potions concocted by boiling medicinal plants and animal parts like boa constrictor heads. Best-selling items include boxed herbs from Brazil and Peru that improve your sex life.

Off Calle Sagarnaga, Pedro Victor Luina Castro divines the future by examining a scattering of coco leaves. Castro is president of a group of 32 soothsayers, men and women, called Kallawayas (medicine-bringers) who cater mainly to a Bolivian clientele.

"Many people come to us with their problems," Castro says. "Last week a man asked me if he would overcome his stomach cancer. The coco leaves said no, so I had to tell him that." Castro's face expresses the difficulty that his job sometimes entails.

At the west end of the Witches' Market, in street booths along Calle Santa Cruz, women sell medicinal plants like retama, for urinary tract disorders, and molle, for fever and flu.

Continued on Next Page >>


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