Old Market, New Medicine

26 Sep, 2016 | Toby Clyde


Photo: Toby Clyde

The changing products of the Witches Market

The name, El Mercado de las Brujas or the Witches Market, does little to accurately describe the bustling medicine and ritual trade just off Plaza San Francisco. In reality, the market is constantly changing to meet the demands of modern life and tourism as well honouring ancient practice. Here are a few products that embody this diversity – some new this year, some older than the streets on which they are sold.

Feto de Ilama

If tourists remember anything from their time in La Paz, it is the dessicated and blackened llama fetuses, or feto de llama, whose brooding gaze gives the stalls much of their unearthly aura. An ancient and important offering to Pachamama, these fetuses usually come from accidental miscarriages. But the increased demand, suppliers have been known to use sheep instead, elongating their necks to pass them off as the bona fide product.


Brightly coloured sugar tablets called dulces are household offerings that cover just about any need. Older designs meet elemental human demands. The sun opens the way for new projects, so it is often packaged with other sweets. Pachamama doesn’t begrudge specificity, it seems, and new sweets like the dollar reflect how these offerings continue to be an important feature of daily life.


In the market, special polvos, or powders (often from Venezuela) come in all sorts of packages promising to do everything from improving your sex life to building muscle. A ‘new and improved formula’, Polvo Del Dominio, guarantees dominion over your lover if applied daily to ‘intimate areas’. Although it is a popular and established product, the shopkeeper confesses to having no idea what the powder actually contains.


Known as Viagra from the Andes, maca is a root vegetable that is a new addition to the market. Natural, energising and rich in protein, maca is boiled for a useful boost, particularly to the older gentleman. It also reflects the extensive trade circuit throughout Bolivia that keeps urban markets busy with new products and plants.


A natural sweetener from the Yungas, stevia has become very popular, not just with locals but often with tourists. It has become a trendy, calorie-free alternative to sugar and together with hojas de coca sells well to the health-conscious visitor.


The sale of herbs to treat everyday ailments has always been central to the market, and packaged versions are now readily available. Billed as ‘from the age of the Incas’, hercampuri provides a complete body cleanse to treat conditions like diabetes and obesity. It even comes with a number to call in order to satisfy your hercampuri needs.

Thanks to Professor Lynn L. Sikkink at the University of Colorado; Milton Eyzaguirre at the Museo Nacional de Etnografía y Folklore; and Natalia Mamau Castuo, a local shop keeper for their help and expertise.


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