Pachamama Statues For Sale at the La Paz Witches Market. (Photo: John Coletti/JAI/Corbis)
It was the dried llama fetuses that caught my attention. Arranged like playful stuffed animals you might win at a county fair, the puppy-sized corpses hung at extreme angles along a row of kiosks that lined the street.
These weren’t prizes for some morbid edition of milk bottle toss, however.
The bizarre display is just one of a thousand odd talismans for sale in La Paz’s wickedly beloved Witches’ Market – a collection of narrow shops and makeshift stalls that might just be the most supernatural shopping district in all of South America.
“I am a curandera,” a woman inside one of the market’s two-dozen or so shops told me. She reclined in a salvaged sedan seat, long detached from whatever car it originally belonged to. “I’m like a doctor…but in a different way.”
A dried llama fetus, decorated with festive pink yarn. (Photo: Micah Spangler)
The curanderas are equal parts herbalists and mystics, infusing all-natural remedies with a healthy dose of spiritualism.
In a country that is overwhelmingly Catholic, they are a vivid reminder of the indigenous Aymara people’s long-held beliefs.
“We believe in God but we also believe in Pachamama,” the curandera told me, using the local term for Mother Nature. “Each has their role to play.”
Bolivians come to the Witches’ Market (or El Mercado de las Brujas as it is commonly known), to seek a curandera’s advice on how to treat an assortment of disorders – from common stomach or joint pains to life’s slightly more complicated troubles.
A curandera explains how to use a love potion. (Photo: Micah Spangler)
“People come to me with many different types of problems. Health problems, yes, but also social problems.”
Standing in front of a row of shelves overloaded with powders, pills, and potions another curandera (all of which politely declined to tell me their names), detailed remedies for the most universal of all ailments.
“When a couple, maybe they no longer want to be together, we give them something to help them separate. Or if they want to stay together, want to have a happy family, we can help with that too. We can change the bad luck into good luck.”
The Witches’ Market is overloaded with powders, pills, potions to treat every ailment - also, a bust of el diablo, for some reason. (Micah Spangler)
The curandera brought out a few select items – her best sellers. Multiple tiny bottles of red liquid all lined up on the counter.
“This is temporary, just for the moment. You put it behind your ears or on your elbows and say the name of the person you want.”
“It’s a love potion?” I asked.
“What happens when it wears out?”
She pointed to another glass bottle, as if perfectly prepared for this question. The capsule was just as small as the first, only the liquid a slightly darker shade of red. This one, she explained, was for longer use.
“Once you have the person you want, you use this to keep them.”
“And if that works, what about marriage?” I asked. “Is there any potion or spell that can help someone have a good marriage?”
She thought about the question longer.
“There is no perfect potion to get a good marriage,” she said after a few seconds of deliberation. “There are options but nothing is 100 percent.”
The Witches’ Market at night. (Photo: Micah Spangler)
She pointed to a package of large angel-shaped candles. The wax figures were brightly colored, with blue dresses and golden hair.
In a display of insight into the diverse definition of happiness and family, she explained that the candles were to create harmony between two different families – the families of the bride and groom.
“This is not specifically for one couple…but for everyone involved.”
As I thanked the curandera, she asked me if I wanted to get a llama fetus to bring back home. The fetuses – all of which are stillborn and thus not specifically killed for their supposed magical qualities – are buried in the foundations of new homes, a sacred offering to Pachamama.
“No thank you,” I said. “It might be hard to get through customs. Plus, I rent.”
Check out our original adventure travel series A Broad Abroad.