El Alto is the second largest city in Bolivia and is about a 30 minute drive away from La Paz up a steep mountain track.
Whilst El Alto is a great place to explore and absorb local Bolivian life, we had come here for one purpose and one purpose only – visiting ‘Mercado de las Brujas’ – the real witches market. Yesssss.
However bizarre this part of town may seem to the unfamiliar tourist, the market’s purpose transcends the profane through the sacred beliefs deeply rooted in Bolivian culture. To understand the Witches Market, you’ve got to understand the people that continue to practice indigenous religious traditions; the Aymara.
The majority of the Aymara today are Roman Catholic, yet in practice their beliefs derive from a hybrid of both Catholicism and traditional, indigenous traditions.
Spiritual mediums are thought to be able to communicate between the natural and supernatural realms. Spirits are believed to inhabit not the heavens, but the surrounding landscapes (i.e. rivers, mountains, lakes etc.). Another way to think of it is by viewing a particular natural feature such as a mountain or valley as embodying an individual spirit. The most revered of these is the Mother Goddess, Pachamama, Mother Earth. These mediums have names like yatiri (diviner), or laiqa and paqu (practitioners of black and white magic). They hold the power to not only contact these divine spirits, but change the course of one’s future, both for better or worse.
The afterlife is also an important concept behind the Aymara’s practices. The souls of the deceased are believed to remain in on earth and so spirits must be treated properly to ensure no vengeance against the living. Shamans are able to appease the spirits, allowing them to use their powers to shape the world around us.
At the Witches Market, you can find the sacred items used in these rituals. Medicinal herbs, spices, plants, roots, flowers, and the all-important coca leaves are used in cases of illness, both preventing and healing sickness. In some cases, rituals require animal parts; in the Witches Market, you’ll find dried toads, starfish, and, most notably, dried llama foetuses.
What’s the story with the llama foetuses dangling in the secluded street stalls of the witches market?
The use of the foetuses in ritual practices are meant to produce good luck and fortune. Llamas are considered the most important offering which can be made to Pachamama. Llama pregnancies often result in miscarriages and stillbirths, resulting in the large, dried llamas seen hanging in the stalls. The slaughter of a pregnant llama – sadly – is also a source for these sacred items.
There is also the ceremonial cleansing brought about through the burning of a foetus, to done only by a yatiri. A mesa, or ceremonial cloth, will first be laid on a table. A bed of flowers and herbs will then be made on top of the mesa, followed by decorations around the ceremonial bed, including the effigies and totems seen in the market. A foetus decorated in colorful ribbons and flowers is placed directly in the middle, and burned on a bed of coca leaves. This sacred ritual is thought to bring good fortune for participants by appeasing Pachamama.
As the cha’lla burns, the ceremony’s participants smoke cigarettes and chew coca leaves so they can feast alongside the great Mother. Once the package has burned to ash, the client buries the remains near their home to complete the process.
These types of offerings—for good health and safety—are classified as white magic. Black magic, by contrast, can be used to curse others, like an ex-lover or enemy. Practitioners of black magic often use dark candles and handfuls of soil dug up from cemeteries to make a more sinister type of payment. Scarily, Stephanie explained to us that many witch practitioners will have a real human skull as part of their armoury…
It was pretty difficult to take good photos up here at El Alto’s witch market (this time around I wasn’t scared of someone throwing water over me, I was more scared of someone cursing me!)… we were however lucky enough to witness a few examples of cha’lla’s taking place right in front of us which was, of course, super interesting to witness.
Having left the confides of the witches market we continued walking though El Alto, to a brilliant little look out spot which have us the most amazing views back out over La Paz, with the imposing mountains looming behind. It was beautiful!
Its totally possible to visit El Alto whilst you explore La Paz and I would absolutely recommend that if you have an interest in the Bolivian witches, you come here to explore!