The La Paz Witches’ Market

By Katlyn Maas

I woman that I greatly admire told me once that to understand a culture different from mine, I needed to visit one of their markets. La Paz was no exception to this piece of advice. Before visiting the Witches Market, my friends and I had been warned about the oddities that would await us, but we took the warning lightly. We had no idea as to what we were getting ourselves into.

When we began our journey up the hill, shops and street vendors filled both sides of the road. Alpaca sweater shops, jewelry stores, adventure trip tickets, and modern restaurants were some of the places that we observed as we walked up the hill, and we stopped in a sweater shop to see some of the handiwork of the Andes Mountains. The products were absolutely beautiful, with different colored wools woven into each other to create blocky patterns that danced across the textile. It was expensive, though; one sweater was about 300 bolivianos, with each size being a different price. We left the shop, keeping the price in mind for comparison, and made our way up the second half of the hill.

When we finally got to the street that held the Witches’ Market, we were initially greeted by a large display of color. Booths held tapestries, t-shirts, necklaces, little llamas, keychains, and other little items that were typical of an economy with tourism as its center. It drew us farther into the street, where we taught Rachel how to barter and bonded over McKenzie’s search for bolivianite, the national gemstone of the country. After a few of the typical shops, we separated; Rachel and I went our separate way while McKenzie and Elisabeth went deeper into a jewelry store to look for the gem. We realized, however, that as we got farther into the market, the more we understood how it got its name.

There were the typical shops; we found a shop that sold alpaca sweaters much cheaper than the first store that we visited, and purchased some. But there were also shops that a typical Bolivian would visit to conjure a spell for good luck. Dried llama fetuses hung from the ceilings and doorways, to be used for good luck charms and new beginnings. Coca leaves were sold as a medicinal herb, ready for chewing, brewing, or stewing. Amulets and mini charms were displayed like guardians over the store owners, representing protection, intelligence, fertility, and strength. There were things that we had never even imagined being sold for the Aymara and Quechua people, all with historical and societal references that we couldn’t even begin to understand. It was terrifying and awe-inspiring all at the same time.

We found McKenzie and Elisabeth across the street about four shops later, and they seemed weirded out by some of the things that they had seen. We were, as well, but I also found it interesting. The cultural significance of the market opened my eyes to what the Bolivian people believe, and it showed me how American culture differs from the culture of the Andes. As we walked down the street together, we talked about this, and about how we felt observing our surroundings. The consensus was that we all enjoyed ourselves, and we did so much that we went back a second time later in the week.