Seeking Comfort in the Bizarre Witches' Market of La Paz | Nat Geo Traveller India

Seeking Comfort in the Bizarre Witches’ Market of La Paz

Surviving altitude sickness in the world's highest capital.  
La Paz Bolivia
Aymara women with black hats and coca pouches, sell souvenirs and traditional medicine at El Mercado de las Brujas or Witches’ Market on Melchor Jimenez street in La Paz. They are known as yatiri or witch doctors and believed to have the power to connect to the other world. Photo: Van Der Meer Marica/Arterra Picture Library/Dinodia Photo Library

I don’t think I needed a reason to visit the tantalisingly named Witches’ Market in La Paz. But right now, I’m not at this quirky place just for fun. I am desperately looking for something in a market that is known to sell love potions, dry toucan beaks, and dead llama foetuses.

I landed in the Bolivian city of La Paz the previous day and it took my breath away. Literally! At 11,800 feet above sea level, La Paz is the world’s highest capital. That’s just the average elevation of a city that disregards gravity and sprawls vertically for almost a kilometre upto its highest point, the airport in neighbouring El Alto, at 13,450 feet. Altitude sickness hit me so decisively that I stumbled from immigration straight into the sala de oxígeno, the airport’s oxygen room. The nurse strapped the oxygen mask around my face and I took a deep breath. The sweet, soothing dose of oxygen massaged my headache away.

I feel the exact opposite sensation as I approach the first few stalls of the Witches’ Market. My head is pounding from the altitude and the market has a peculiar odour that I immediately associate with the dead llama foetuses huddled in baskets in front of me.

My mind flashes back to the airport where the nurse had cruelly stripped away my oxygen mask after a mere ten minutes. Apparently, it was just delaying the inevitable: training my body to acclimatize. I managed to find a cab to the city and checked in to a backpackers’ hostel where the hypochondriac in me immediately logged into their Wi Fi to Google all the ways in which I could die of altitude sickness.

Seeing my discomfort, a fellow backpacker had suggested I get myself some coca to alleviate the discomfort.

“Is it safe?” I’d asked, not because I’m sceptical about indigenous folk remedies but because the coca leaf is banned in most countries as it is processed to produce cocaine.

“Yes, absolutely!”

A soft voice breaks my flashback. “Do you want one?”

“Oh no!” I hastily distance myself from the hollowed eyes of the llama foetuses. “I am looking for some coca,” I say as I notice the speaker’s traditional Aymara clothing: a long layered skirt and a full-sleeved blouse. But it’s her black hat that hints that she may be one of the yatiri, a word that means witch doctors.

“What kind of coca are you looking for?

“I thought there was only one kind.”

She laughs, flaunting her selection of coca leaves, teas, balms, candy, even toothpaste! I grab a green plastic pouch of coca leaves. Baby steps.

Fast forward a few days and I have fallen in love with La Paz’s laid-back style, its colonial architecture, and delicious empanadas. Most of all, I have fallen in love with the view at Mirador Killi Killi where the four-peaked Mount Illimani quietly watches over the cascade of La Paz’s buildings.

I don’t know whether it was time or the coca leaves that fixed my headache. What I do know is that for me La Paz was an adventure that began with oxygen masks, witch doctors, and forbidden leaves.

Appeared in the February 2017 issue as “The Dizzy Delights of La Paz, Bolivia”.

  • Aanchal Anand is a travel addict who has been to over 50 countries across 5 continents. When she isn't travelling, she is typically coaxing her two cats off the laptop keyboard so she can get some writing done.

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