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Bolivia's not-so-wicked witches

Llama fetuses to please a god? Powdered dog’s tongue to make men loyal? Find it all at the witches market.

LA PAZ, Bolivia — At first sight, Calle de las Brujas doesn’t look so witchy — there are no steaming cauldrons or pointy hats. It’s just a one-lane, cobblestone colonial street.

Tourists amble up and down the road, buying woven bags, hammocks and alpaca sweaters. But look closely and you'll find something more than the usual tourist fare: shops selling statues, herbs and llama fetuses.

The witches here, in this market located uphill from the historic San Francisco Church, make offerings for luck, love and health. But if you know the right people you can also find black magic — the kind that aims to destroy a person’s health, or hurt a business, said Luz Pacheco, a professor of Aymara culture at the Universidad Catolica Boliviana.

In pre-Catholic Andean cultures, a shaman was an important intermediary between humans and the gods — good and evil, Pacheco says. Only with the rise of the Catholic Church were shamans associated strongly with the devil and witchcraft.

Religion, white magic, dark magic or superstition? Whatever it is to you, Calle de las Brujas is a visceral delight, and, just below the surface, a fascinating look into Bolivia’s history, and its soul.

It straddles Bolivia's Catholic and pre-colonial traditions. Charms, herbs and powders designed to influence the gods, and sometimes other people, sit next to religious objects. Many items relate directly to pre-Catholic religious traditions, both those of the Aymara people, who make up 25 percent of Bolivia’s population, and of the Quechua, who make up 30 percent.

Alicia Garcia Fernandez is 20 years old. Her family moved to La Paz from the mining city of Potosi decades ago, and brought the family business of selling herbs, statues and whatever else a person might need to appeal to the gods or influence fate.

She sells small figures of condors, which bring good trips, amulets of the Inca sun, which bring energy, and desiccated frogs, which bring good luck. Garcia Fernandez doesn’t call herself a witch. Instead, she thinks of herself as a helper.

Piles of small charms rest under larger statues. Garcia Fernandez says the charms are a recent addition, made with the ever-increasing number of passing tourists in mind. Indeed, they seem more likely to appeal than the canisters of herbs, large statues of Aymara gods and dried llama fetuses that hang overhead.

The llama fetuses aren't here to lend a macabre air to the street. They are one of the most important parts of an offering to Pachamama, the goddess Mother Earth, who has a tremendous following in Bolivia. Even the president, Evo Morales, makes offerings to her.