Leave the shopping list behind. The Mercado de las Brujas (Witches’ Market) isn’t where you go to pick up milk and eggs.
In the center of La Paz, after passing through streets of touristy souvenirs shops, suddenly street vendors’ wares begin changing.
Instead of cutesy wool sweaters with Bolivia sprawled across the chest, stalls included llama fetuses of varying sizes hanging from their necks.
Of course, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Why on earth would someone want to buy a dead baby llama?
My host mom explained to me that they were for Aymara rituals of providing offerings to Pachamama, an Andean goddess who could be thought of as Mother Nature. One example is when constructing a new building, some people will bury llamas along with other items under the foundation as an offering for good luck.
However, the llamas weren’t the only item for sale at the market. Some stands were filled with packets of herbal remedies for every ailment or problem imaginable. For instance, I saw everything from remedies for cancer to packets to help you fall in love. Other vendors had stacks of various totems, charms and fetishes as well as baskets full of different weeds and herbs. I even spotted Christian crosses and candles amongst the other objects.
While I myself am not very superstitious or spiritual, I had to take a step back not to discredit or disrespect the beliefs of those around me.
I reminded myself that there are people who follow similar practices and beliefs in the United States. I remember visiting different voodoo and hoodoo shops in New Orleans, where there were potions and powders for everything, including love serums and health elixirs. From voodoo dolls to gris-gris talismans, superstition and calling upon the supernatural to influence fate is not limited to Bolivia.
Even if the New Orleans shops and the Mercado de las Brujas may be large tourist destinations, both represent culture syncretism, with the fusion of Catholic, Francophone and African spirituality for Lousiana voodoo and Catholic and pre-colonial Andean traditions for the Aymara rituals. While these are only two examples, it is interesting to see such blends of culture still practiced and displayed today.
And don’t worry, I will not be bringing back any llama fetuses as anyone’s souvenir.