Love potions, fortune-telling shamans and sacrificial offerings... this is one fascinating destination you don't want to miss.
La Paz, Bolivia. A city we added to our trip around Peru, simply because it was so close, and we had some extra time to spend. A city that took my heart in a whirlwind with its charm, culture and urban legends. A city like no other; unusual, chaotic, vibrating with life and stories. It's a feast for your eyes, ears and nose, with bright colours, dusty mountain air and busy streets. As a traveller, La Paz was confusing in the most incredible, life-affirming way imaginable.
Sitting at around 3,650 meters of altitude, one of the first things you notice upon arrival is slight nausea associated with the lack of oxygen in the air. The city is laid out like a massive bowl, where the rich live at the bottom of the main city hub and the poor up high in “El Alto”. Walking up and down the mountains, I was soon huffing and puffing – no amount of training had prepared me for that.
But what surprised me most were the tales of local culture and legends I learned by taking a couple of tours with an organisation called “Red Caps Walking Tours”, which I highly recommend. Their tour guides are locals from a variety of backgrounds who will give you great insight and enable you to enjoy your La Paz experience on a much deeper level. Most of the information to come I learned from these guides - incredible things I could have never “figured out on my own”.
Markets, legends and potions
Something unique you should know about La Paz is that you can buy everything there. And I mean literally everything. From bikes to USB-drives, to love potions. The last of which you can purchase at the famous “Witch Market”, which is less of a market, and more of a street with a bunch of shops selling llama fetuses and a variety of other offerings to the gods.
Llama fetuses are used for a variety of things, but most importantly when you're building a house. Locals bury one of them underneath their home as an offer to Pachamama (Mother Earth). However, apparently this only works for dwellings with three stories or less. The urban legend claims that for higher houses, you need to make a more significant offering. No, it's not two fetuses. It's also not a grown llama. Brace yourselves; it's a human.
According to the legend, if you're building a house, you have to go to one of the Shamans who will find you someone who “won't be missed by anyone”. This someone will then (purportedly) be drugged and buried underneath the house-to-be. Rumours say this still happens and that years later bodies of people have resurfaced under modern buildings, but this, of course, is all speculation.
A far grander version of these markets, “the one that's for the locals and not for the tourists”, (as our guide told us) is up in El Alto. It's (one of) the biggest open-air markets in Latin America and is utterly fascinating. There's no better word for it.
From love potions to sacrifices, from a cure for alcohol addiction to remedies and spells for or against everything imaginable under the sun - you can get it here.
Another wacky story I heard during my trip was about a new, natural impotence treatment. Evidently, it’s mostly bought by men “who aren’t very lucky with women and frequently engage with prostitutes”. Soon after this remedy had appeared on the market, the prostitutes of La Paz came together to speak out about their experiences on TV. Apparently, their customers were “dying while climaxing”. They asked the police to investigate, and the investigation brought to light that the dose of this specific impotence cure was meant to be for horses and therefore way too strong for humans.
Again - this is all local legend. Is it true? You be the judge!
Do you believe in fortune-tellers?
Now, next to the market, there is this street dedicated to Aymara shamans who live in little wooden huts lined up one by one. Each hut has a bonfire right outside where the shaman can make offerings for Pachamama with his customers. According to Aymara beliefs, not just anyone can become a shaman - you have to either get struck by lightning and survive or inherit the powers from an ancestor.
We went into one of these huts (do not do this without someone who knows what they are doing!) and had our future read from coca leaves by a shaman. “Our” shaman had inherited his powers from his great-grandfather, whose skull was proudly displayed by the entrance of the hut (almost giving me a heart attack as I had never seen an actual human skull before.) Before our reading, we got to go out the back of the little hut where we had the most beautiful view over the city. The huts are right on the “rim of the bowl”, and you get to see the entire city from up there.
However, back to the coca leaf reading. While I'm not generally one to believe in such things, the atmosphere of this place was something extraordinary. I guess we'll know whether the shaman was right by the time I'm done having kids - according to him I'll have two girls ;)
From what our guide told us, some people come to the shamans daily to have their fates read. Some go there to find out whether their spouse is cheating on them, others to find direction in regard to their profession or guidance when making a big decision.
A city that stays with you
As we went back down into the city centre in one of the cable cars, enjoying the sunset over this beautiful, crazy, intriguing city, I truly fell in love with the spirit of it. All the legends and stories I had heard, all the kind and warm people I had met and all the places I had seen, La Paz was undoubtedly like no other.
A lot of these traditions may seem wild and crazy and weird to a westerner like me, but they’ve all originated from indigenous beliefs, local customs and Catholicism. When the Spanish conquered these areas, they wanted to relate to the indigenous people with something they knew in order to convert them to Catholicism more easily. Hence why Pachamama – or Mother Earth, an indigenous goddess – was merged with the Virgin Mary. It is in this way that traditions like offerings to the gods, which were common in both belief systems, were part of the Catholic “reprogramming”.
If this story inspired you to visit La Paz yourself at some point (which I highly recommend!), be sure to combine exploring on your own with a walking tour like the one offered by the Red Caps to get the full experience. They take great care of you!
Author - Viktoria Undesser
Viktoria Undesser is from Austria. She's lived in five different countries and is a passionate writer, wanderluster, photography enthusiast, outdoorswoman, theatre geek and bookworm. If you'd like to read more from her, check out her blog or follow her on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/femaletravelcollective/.
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