Witches’ Street, La Paz, Bolivia. El Calle de las Brujas

Bolivia is exotic and mysteriously beautiful. How can a country bordered by Peru, Brazil, Paraguay, Argentina and Chile be anything less with mountains, rivers, valleys, trees. But it reminds me of India in the sense that in order to see the magnificent and subtle beauty, one must overlook the glaring poverty. The capital of La Paz, along with the high-altitude varying from of 10,000 to 13,450 feet, has a compelling blend of indigenous and modern cultures. You can buy a llama fetus or batteries for your computer on the same block.

Coca leaf is chewed everywhere. Nothing is more emblematic of Bolivia than coca. I’d like to bring this controversial little leaf home but it’s illegal. Which of course, makes it more tempting. I love to break silly rules but I’ll pass on breaking this one. I drink the tea nightly to help with my stomach and altitude sickness. The people who chew the leaf say it provides a sense of energy, power, confidence and well-being. It’s a mild stimulant to combat hunger and tiredness. You can chew coca leaf or do Kundalini Yoga; same result. You don’t get the euphoria or psychoactive effects that cocaine users experience from chewing coca. At one time, Bolivia was the single biggest importer of coca but the Bolivian government has eradicated a lot of the crop. That has not made the indigenous farmers happy who relied on it as a source of livelihood.

One of the best parts of my first walk in La Paz, Bolivia was the several blocks of the Witches’ Market or El Calle de las Brujas. It’s rough around the edges and filled with the smell of various incense burning, people bargaining in broken spanish, indigenous women in layers of clothing to protect them from the cold in their makeshift stalls. They sit whether it’s cold or raining, selling their various gels, soaps, oils, herbs for fever and flu, potions, amulets, candy, owl feathers, dried snakes, dried turtles, candles, wooden statues. Dried frogs are for prosperity. Of course they are! The Bolivian armadillos are meant to be a Chubb alarm. If one is put above the entrance to the house, thieves won’t enter. There are ceramic couples embracing to help get yourself married and naked ceramic couples to improve the sex life. They’ve got it all plus more.

I bought another simple bracelet of saints similar to one I had bought in Guatemala. I love the feeling of protection of various saints around my wrist along with the pendants I wear hanging off my neck like St. Francis of Assisi and La Bocca della Veritá. (The Mouth of Truth from Rome, Italy).I love the scene in Roman Holiday with Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn at the mouth. But I digress.

The magnificence of ancient churches take my breath away. Walking ten minutes from the Calle de las Brujas is the Church of San Francisco (Iglesia de San Francisco)  Construction began in 1549. The facade has stone carvings of chirimoya, pinecones and tropical birds. This church represents all three of Bolivia’s great cultures: Tiahuanaco, Inca and modern.

The chirimoya is a yummy tropical fruit grown in Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador. It’s juicy white inside with big, bean-like seeds. It’s like eating a banana, strawberry and pineapple in one luscious bite. They can also be found in the south of Spain. I kept the seeds in hopes of being able to start a seedling at home.

I bought pieces of the Palo Santo wood which comes from the ancient sacred trees that grow in the Amazon of Peru. Palo Santo wood been used since ancient times by the Incas and the indigenous people of the Andes for purifying and cleansing. It is believed to cleanse a space of negative energies. Shamans use it in sacred plant spirit ceremonies. It has a piney, citrusy smell when it burns, leaving a nice aroma in the air for hours.

What struck me hard was the plethora of llama and sheep fetus which I saw at nearly each stand. That was disturbing. So disturbing I couldn’t stop taking photos of them.  Before anyone goes into judgement, let me say these are not pulled from the mother. Because for some reason or another the baby animals came out dead. Perhaps it was too cold, the altitude being too high, not enough food, many reasons. The Ayumara believe before you build any building there must be a sacrifice into the ground of one of these fetus and that way the building will be good and healthy. It is estimated that 99% of Bolivians have a dried llama fetus that is under the foundation of their house for luck. If the llama fetus is burned this will ensure luck for a new business venture. Llama fetus plus plenty of cement = strong foundation.

Next stop will be Isla Del Sol off Lake Titicaca. More to come.

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