The Mercado de Hechicería, or Witches’ Market, provides a fascinating window on the usually secretive world of Aymara mysticism and herbal medicine. The stalls here are heavily laden with a colourful cornucopia of ritual and medicinal items, ranging from herbal cures for minor ailments like rheumatism or stomach pain, to incense, coloured sweets, protective talismans and dried llama foetuses. These items are combined in packages known as mesas or pagos and burned or buried as offerings to placate the various tutelary spirits and magical beings that are believed to hold sway over all aspects of daily life. There’s no clear border between the medicinal and magical here: the Yatiris and Kallawayas – indigenous traditional healers – who are the market’s main customers adopt a holistic approach in which a herbal cure for a specific symptom is usually combined with magical efforts to address the imbalances in the supernatural world that may be responsible for the ailment.
To get some insight into the uses and meaning of it all, it’s worth chatting with the stallholders and perhaps making a purchase or two. Spending a few bolivianos on, say, a magic charm to protect you during your travels will certainly make the stallholders more talkative and amenable to having their photos taken, and could even prove to be a wise investment.