Peruvian Connection: Celebrating 30 Years A Newsletter Celebrating Andean Art & Culture. 877-520-PERU
Witches' Market - La Paz, Bolivia Witches' Market in La Paz, Bolivia
 

Halloween approaches, and as our thoughts turn to magic, spells and candy corn, this is the perfect time to describe La Paz's exotic Witches' Market, found in the northern part of the city center, in the narrow cobbled streets behind the church of San Francisco.

Here you can find an endless number of strange and, to Western eyes, inexplicable objects, from erotic amulets to dried toads to a myriad of herbs and animal parts… everything you might require for your spell-casting needs. You can have your fortune told, or purchase a packet of magical objects put together for especially your own purposes, whether your goal is to advance your career, win over your true love or treat a chronic illness.

Although the Witches’ Market thrives on a brisk tourist trade, many locals also go there to do their magical shopping, usually for one of three purposes: spell-casting, traditional Andean medicine, and most importantly, for challas (pronounced “chay-yas”). The challa is an important and ubiquitous ceremony in Bolivian life, performed to obtain the blessings of the ancient deities, especially that of Pacha Mama, the earth mother. The objects used at a challa vary depending upon the purpose of the ceremony, but are usually selected and manipulated by the presiding yatiri, who is the shaman or, for want of a better name, witch doctor, who leads the participants through the ceremony. A yatiri can be either a man or a woman, and is recognized as having special supernatural powers to heal or conciliate the spirits.

 

Challas are performed at the start of a new business enterprise and with any new building construction. A properly superstitious business owner will always hire the best yatiri he can find to perform a special challa in the month of August to ward off envy and ensure prosperity in the coming year. This ceremony can last for hours at times, and is performed on a night specially selected by the yatiri.

The most frequently practiced challa is performed by every household on the Tuesday of Carnaval (or “Fat Tuesday”, as it is known in New Orleans). To bless the house during the upcoming year, family members decorate all the rooms with small balloons and sprinkles of colored confetti, then pass through the house sprinkling a little bit of alcohol in the corners of each room. Sometimes special sweets and other magical objects are burned on a small brazier, which is carried throughout the house to purify each room. The Carnaval challa is often followed by a party with lots of dancing. With this challa safely performed, everyone is ready for Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent.

The popularity of the Witches’ Market and the pervasiveness of the challa ceremony is an indication of the uneasy truce that exists in Bolivia between the old pagan beliefs and the generally practiced Christian faith… rather like our own Halloween!

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