Forget shopping for alpaca sweaters, handicrafts or foodie delights—visitors to the Mercado de la Brujas (Witches’ Market) in La Paz, Bolivia, can browse for everything from prosperity-boosting dried llama fetuses to aphrodisiac formulas and stomach-settling coca leaves.
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Located in the hilly heart of La Paz—the world’s highest capital city—the traditional market reflects the deeply-held beliefs and traditions that remain central to Bolivian culture.
While the market today attracts large numbers of curious tourists, it caters to locals too, with black-hatted witch doctors and fortune tellers offering to end a run of bad luck, protect customers from the evil eye, or boost performance in bed.
Women dressed in the traditional Andean fashion of colorful, multi-layered ankle-length dresses and bowler hats shop for herbal remedies, good luck charms, and unusual items like dried snakes and frogs, many of which are to be used in religious rituals honoring the spirits of the Aymara religion.
The dried llama fetuses that are on display in many of the shops and stalls are not just there to grab tourists’ attention, they’re used by locals as offerings to the Aymara goddess Pachamama, who is a Mother Earth figure.
While squeamish visitors may cringe at the sight at some of the animal offerings, a visit to the market is key to understanding the culture of the Bolivian capital, which sits in a natural canyon surrounded by high mountains. The three snow-capped peaks of Illimani are revered as the queen of all Mountain Gods in Aymara culture.
Even though Bolivia is a mostly Catholic country, locals still respect ancient traditions. It’s not unusual for a Bolivian to attend church in the morning, visit a fortune teller in the afternoon, and then go back to church for evening mass.
While tourists are welcomed at the market, it’s important to respect local customs: Don’t snap photos without asking, and don’t show obvious disgust at the dried animals. And although many visitors may leave without making a purchase, it is a wise move to follow local tradition and sip a cup of coca tea at a nearby café—there’s nothing illegal involved, and the leaves won’t give you any kind of chemical high. Rather, they are infused to make a digestion-boosting tea that can also combat the dizzying effects of altitude sickness, something that many new arrivals to the city will be feeling as they attempt to navigate the steep streets of the 3,650-meter high city.
PLAN YOUR TRIP: Visit Fodors’ Bolivia Guide