Witches' Market in Bolivia Sees Brisk Sales in Spells

Zoltan Istvan
National Geographic Today
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 ten 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.

"My plants help in many ways," says Angelica Duran Murillia, a medicine women with a booth at the Witches' Market. "But they can only do so much. A serious problem also requires offerings and prayers to the great Mother Earth to be free from bad spirits."

Bewitched Tourists

Black and white magic apply. For the right price, a sorcerer will cast a spell to avenge an oppressive boss's behavior—or to grant a child good marks in school.

Shop shelves display shriveled llama fetuses with bulging black eyeballs. "I've made ceremonies and burnt llama fetuses to help out a troubled marriage within my family before," says Ancelma Gongora Viuda de Morales, who casts spells in the Witches' Market.

Another presence on Calle Linares is the honking taxis that unload tourists from throughout the Americas and then speed off.

Tourists now are the Witches' Market vendors' largest source of revenue, according to Acho. Tourists have another impact, too.

"It used to be only regular Bolivian customers coming to me for cures to health and spiritual problems," Acho says. "Now much of the money I make is from selling my goods to tourists who take them home as souvenirs. I feel something is lost in being a witch."

But nobody is complaining too loudly about the tourist influx, another result, perhaps, of the llama fetus offerings at Cerro Cumbre.

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