The Witches Market and Outsiders’ Gaze

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On Tuesday, I got a glimpse of the famous Witches Market of La Paz.

Beyond the selection of sea shells (in the Andes!), powders, dried herbs, plants, and baby llamas, what immediately jumped out to me was the people attending the market. There were locals, of course, but the majority were the vendors themselves. Attendees were foreign and far outnumbered local people I saw at the market.

Although I was expecting to see tourists, as the Witches Market makes tourism lists of interesting La Paz activities consistently, it was still unsettling to see so many tourists in one space. I couldn’t help but wonder what the tourists’ perceptions of the Witches Market and products were. When I saw the dried llama fetuses, I didn’t think much of it. Based on my upbringing, I have no qualms about killing animals for food or cultural practices, and as I understand it, the llama fetuses are used for cultural practices.

Seeing dried llama fetuses might make some uncomfortable, but why would it? I was curious to know what the tourists’ opinions were. I heard many different languages being spoken and just felt curious about foreigner perception of the Witches Market and “Bolivian culture.” I write quotes around it because it is easy to confuse something that may be a part of an Indigenous culture or part of a specific subculture within Bolivia as being “mainstream” Bolivian culture. For me, the Witches Market raised questions of cultures within Bolivia, whose cultures are they, how do outsiders perceive them on a day-to-day basis and on a transaction basis. I say transaction since so much mass-produced, mixed llama-synthetic sweaters with Andean design are sold every day. The Witches Market takes consumer demand for Indigenous-inspired or authentic designs and products to a new level with llama fetuses and powders galore. I can’t help but wonder what attracts tourists to a place called the Witches Market- is it to ogle at the “strange” products and people there? Are tourists really shopping for llama fetuses, powders, and seashells?

So what was my motivation? Anything associated with witchcraft and the occult interests me, so my motivation was based on personal curiosity and interest. I’m sure plenty of others go there for that reason as well. After all, curiosity shops always draw customers. But at the same time, my mind wandered about what attracts tourists to Bolivia, what are they looking for and what do they want to see?It brought me back to my hometown in Alaska that had Peruvian vendors every summer for a festival. They sold colorful Andean style bags that were very popular because they were “trendy” at the time. Of course, the Peruvian vendors made a killing, but the eager consumption of colorful textiles from Mexico, Central, and South America has always perplexed me, as many consumers don’t care about what they are wearing and where it came from, and then there are others that reject what isn’t “authentic” to them.

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