When I left my hotel yesterday morning to go investigate La Paz’s famous Mercado de Herchería (also know as the Mercado las Brujas, or Witch’s Market), I didn’t know what to expect. Would it be covered, dank and creepy, like the one in Quito? Would it sell freaky and endangered animal parts (please, god, no)? Would anyone kick my ass if I took stealth photos?
As it turns out, the Mercado de Herchería consists of a couple of gloriously decrepit cobblestone streets (Calle Linares and Jimenez). They’re lined with stalls selling folk remedies and objects designed to bring good luck; wealth; love; health; long life; or, in the case of one shop, a lasting erection. It’s fascinating, but not repellent. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed employing my crappy Spanish to ask shopkeepers what various objets are used for. I’m also fascinated by the cholitas (indigenous women from the highlands who live and work in the city); their elaborate costumes of tall bowler hats, voluminous skirts and alpaca shawls, embellished by waist-length twin braids, are stunning.
I’m also pleased to report that I saw no nearly extinct critters, just sea urchins and starfish in need of some reconstitution. I’ve also read that various creatures – probably very low on the evolutionary scale – are sometimes used in potions prescribed by the local yatiris, or witch doctors. The dried llama fetuses, however, are probably single-handedly responsible for putting the market on the map. As ghoulish as they appear to us, they’re used by the indigenous Aymara and other cultures as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth). You’re supposed to bury one beneath a cornerstone of a new house to ensure good fortune.
There’s nothing scary about the market, but it’s one of the most lively spots in the city, due to the number of hostels, budget hotels (mine, Hotel Fuentes, is adorable, cheap, and, it turns out, in the heart of the market), cafes, boutiques and souvenir shops. It’s a tourist spectacle, true, but tourism in Bolivia is of the most mellow kind. The mercado is also a true slice of daily life in La Paz. Who knows what you’ll end up lugging home?
Stay tuned for an account of my forthcoming visit to a local yatiri; I’ll be having my fortune told and my soul cleansed. I hope she has a sturdy scrub brush.
[Photo Credits: Laurel Miller]