Llama fetuses, dead cats on sale at Bolivian market

LA PAZ (Reuters Life!) - Tucked away in the steep, cobbled streets of La Paz, stalls are piled high with dried llama fetuses, shriveled cats and sacks of herbs that Bolivians buy to ensure the goodwill of mother earth.

In the Andean city’s famous Witches’ Market, tourists mingle with local women wearing the traditional indigenous dress of bowler hats and wide skirts while men spread cloths out on the ground to read people’s fortunes with coca leaves.

Bolivians come to this market and others like it in the South American country to stock up on offerings for mother earth. And no job is apparently too small for the Pachamama, as she is known in the Andes.

“I’m trying to sell my car. I’m hoping this will help me find a buyer,” said Ana, 37, from the city of Cochabamba as she watched a white-haired stall holder prepare an offering of llama wool, sweets, tinsel and incense to burn on the first Tuesday or Friday of the month.

Pre-Christian culture remains strong in Bolivia, which has an indigenous majority, and vendors say there has been a resurgence of interest in traditional beliefs in recent years.

“Young people are starting to believe again. Now they teach them more about our cultures in school,” said Jacqueline Calderon, who inherited her business in Linares street from her mother and grandmother, like many of the stall holders.

The more exotic offerings, such as the dried corpses of wild cats and the feet of vicunas, are no longer sold due to a crackdown by authorities to conserve protected species. The vendors say they just keep them on show to attract tourists.

But llama fetuses are one of the most common purchases. Before building a house, many workmen make sure there is a llama fetus on site to ward off accidents and rid the building of malevolent spirits.

Miners make frequent offerings of sweets, alcohol and coca to the Pachamama and Tio, the devilish owner of the mines, to make up for the riches they take from the earth and to keep them safe from the dangers of working in the pit.

But there is something for everyone at the market. Shopkeepers who want to drum up business should pick frog symbols. The ultimate in charms for a successful business would be a real, dried frog with a cigarette stuck in its mouth.

Students wanting a little help to pass exams traditionally buy carved stone charms representing owls for wisdom or suns for energy. Amulets depicting an entwined couple represent love, tortoises health, while condors make for safe journeys.

Next month is a big month for the Witches’ Market. According to Aymara tradition, offerings are especially well-received by the Pachamama in August, which is an important month for harvesting and sowing crops in the Andean highlands.

“My mother used to say that the devil is walking about in August,” Calderon said. “The Pachamama has her mouth open because she wants to be fed.”