LA PAZ, Bolivia — At first sight, Calle de las Brujas doesn’t look so witchy — there are no steaming cauldrons or pointy hats. It’s just a one-lane, cobblestone colonial street.
Tourists amble up and down the road, buying woven bags, hammocks and alpaca sweaters. But look closely and you'll find something more than the usual tourist fare: shops selling statues, herbs and llama fetuses.
The witches here, in this market located uphill from the historic San Francisco Church, make offerings for luck, love and health. But if you know the right people you can also find black magic — the kind that aims to destroy a person’s health, or hurt a business, said Luz Pacheco, a professor of Aymara culture at the Universidad Catolica Boliviana.
In pre-Catholic Andean cultures, a shaman was an important intermediary between humans and the gods — good and evil, Pacheco says. Only with the rise of the Catholic Church were shamans associated strongly with the devil and witchcraft.
Religion, white magic, dark magic or superstition? Whatever it is to you, Calle de las Brujas is a visceral delight, and, just below the surface, a fascinating look into Bolivia’s history, and its soul.
It straddles Bolivia's Catholic and pre-colonial traditions. Charms, herbs and powders designed to influence the gods, and sometimes other people, sit next to religious objects. Many items relate directly to pre-Catholic religious traditions, both those of the Aymara people, who make up 25 percent of Bolivia’s population, and of the Quechua, who make up 30 percent.
Alicia Garcia Fernandez is 20 years old. Her family moved to La Paz from the mining city of Potosi decades ago, and brought the family business of selling herbs, statues and whatever else a person might need to appeal to the gods or influence fate.
She sells small figures of condors, which bring good trips, amulets of the Inca sun, which bring energy, and desiccated frogs, which bring good luck. Garcia Fernandez doesn’t call herself a witch. Instead, she thinks of herself as a helper.
Piles of small charms rest under larger statues. Garcia Fernandez says the charms are a recent addition, made with the ever-increasing number of passing tourists in mind. Indeed, they seem more likely to appeal than the canisters of herbs, large statues of Aymara gods and dried llama fetuses that hang overhead.
The llama fetuses aren't here to lend a macabre air to the street. They are one of the most important parts of an offering to Pachamama, the goddess Mother Earth, who has a tremendous following in Bolivia. Even the president, Evo Morales, makes offerings to her.
Garcia Fernandez says that most of the fetuses are the results of miscarriages, and the larger ones of still births. Some are obtained if slaughtered llamas happen to be pregnant.
Claudia Lopez stops at Garcia Fernandez’ shop. Looking at a piece of white paper covered with herbs, figures, colored yarn and topped with a llama fetus, she explains that an offering to Pachamama should be made in August, on the first Friday of every month and whenever a new building is constructed or important endeavor undertaken.
On the paper, people place things that will please Pachamama, as well as figures of things they desire. The packet is then burned. Lopez describes the figures in the pile as "los misterios," the mysteries. Los misterios are sweets in the shape of money, hearts, families and even images of Catholic saints whose powers of protection are invoked by the person making the offering.
“We believe a lot in Pachamama,” Lopez said. “And the Earth is hungry.” But most people in Bolivia also believe in the Catholic Church. Many combine their Catholic beliefs with belief in Pachamama, as in these burnt offerings.
Lopez buys a small bottle of essence of posanga. It is a sweet-smelling herb, and because it is sweet it attracts luck and love. Lopez says she’ll wear the essence like a perfume, to bring good fortune at work. This is just one of dozens of herbs and powders sold on Calle de las Brujas.
Also for sale is powdered dog’s tongue, which can be secretly added to a man’s food to make him loyal to his lover like a dog is to its master. Lopez and Garcia Fernandez both say that it's very effective, though it seems to have yet to catch on with tourists.
Getting there: Calle de Las Brujas is located uphill from historic San Francisco Church. Climb Calle Sagarnaga for two blocks until you see the sign for Calle de las Brujas/Calle Jose M Linares on your right. Most of the shops selling herbs and amulets are located toward the end of the street. Make a left at the end of Calle de las Brujas onto Calle Santa Cruz for more witches’ shops.