Witches' Market Bolivia
With a recent boom in spiritual retreats sweeping the tourism industry, more people are journeying to the Amazon in search of natural healing. Some travel for ayahuasca, a hallucinogenic brew that’s said to have powerfully transformative effects on the mind and body. But in Bolivia, few realize that ayahuasca merely scratches the surface of an ancient mysticism that’s been flowing through the country for thousands of years.
Bolivia is home to brujas (witches), the Kallawaya (medicine men) from the altiplano, and curanderos (local healers or shamans). For some, magical intuition comes to them after near-fatal encounters with lightning strikes, snake bites, and harsh conditions in the rain forest. For others, spiritual prowess is gifted at birth when they are delivered from the womb in a standing-up position, or born with six fingers or toes. While their work differs in scope, their beliefs are centered around Pachamama, or Mother Earth, who is appeased through ceremonial payments.
La Paz’s Mercado de las Brujas, or the Witches’ Market, is a hot spot for spiritual workers, who read fortunes and facilitate cha’llas (“offerings”) to Pachamama. Vendors sell items like colorful sugar tablets, cigarettes, dried starfish, lacquered frogs, coca leaves, and even llama fetuses that can be assembled into custom-made payments. In exchange, locals believe they will be blessed with better health, prosperous business, safe travel, and good luck.
In the Bolivian highlands, Kallawayas—known for their strong spiritual connection to the mountains and Earth—are generally called into a client’s home to prepare a cha’lla. The offering is placed within a brasero, a simple metal structure heated by sacred wood. After an assortment of medicinal herbs, candies, and mystical trinkets are carefully layered together, a dried llama fetus is placed on top before the package is wrapped up in white paper—a kind of “soup” for Pachamama to feast on. 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.
One of the most popular cha’llas requested in Bolivia is for the safe construction of a building or home. Workers will ask a wealthy home-owner, for example, to hire a Kallawaya to sacrifice a live llama to Pachamama. The llama’s throat is cut and its blood spilled over the construction site to keep the workers safe from accidents. If the owner can’t afford a live llama, a preserved one will suffice.
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, ornamental skulls, and handfuls of soil dug up from cemeteries to make a more sinister type of payment.
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In the lowland, rain forest-laden areas of Bolivia, however, local healers' practices vary. Here, shamans speak to the trees and believe in powerful spirits of the jungle, who can cause illness and death in nearby communities. Some use smooth black stones from nearby rivers to heal the sick. They place them face-down in a heated cup on an ailing section of the body to draw out bad energies. Others use the smoking embers of a sacred resin to cleanse the minds of their clients and drive evil spirits away.
Ayahuasca is another powerful healing tool used by shamans, who harvest the plants from the nearby rain forest and prepare the psychedelic brew. It is believed to connect the drinker to the spiritual world. Bolivia has a structured ayahuasca tourism industry that makes it simple for visitors to participate in these shaman-led ceremonies, which range from private, monthlong retreats to low-cost, one-night outings. [Read about the world's most mind-bending drug cultures.]
Liz Unger is a National Geographic Young Explorer, photojournalist, and filmmaker from New York. Follow her on Twitter @ewu5191 and Instagram @ewu5191, and explore her work at www.lizunger.com.