Deep in the historic center of La Paz, Bolivia’s bustling and thriving capital, the Mercado de Brujas, or the Witchcraft Market, clings to centuries-old traditions. Its herbal tea infusions, coca leaves and colorful alpaca sweaters place it on par with most any other Andean marketplace. But closer inspection reveals the more peculiar items that have helped to give this unusual emporium its name. Dried toucan beaks and snake skins might help the buyer cast spells. And sullus, dried llama fetuses, can be purchased as traditional offerings to the earth goddess Pachamama. There’s a reason this most unusual of markets still thrives after centuries of calming the spirits. Bolivia, though moving ever-forward into the 21st century, holds fast to the history and traditions that have helped shape its cultural identity.
People of the Gods
Though Bolivia has been inhabited for at least 5,000 years, the first society emerged here with the arrival of the Aymara people in 1500 BC. By 300 AD, these settlers had grown into a regional powerhouse as the Tiwanaku Empire. Because they had a corner on the llama market and controlled the flow of food trade, they were able to bring dozens of indigenous cultures under their rule. Its capital city, also named Tiwanaku, was home to 30,000 people at its peak.
You may still see evidence of that era’s grandeur in La Paz, where an open-air museum reveals some of the highlights of the Tiwanaku. Chief among these is the 10-ton Gate of the Sun, an impressive arch carved from a single slab of stone and etched with condor heads and the mythic Lord of the Walking Sticks. Here, it’s easy to sense one of the earliest expressions of Bolivia’s belief in the spirit world. But even as Tiwanaku fell, otherwordly beings maintained their influence.
In the late 14th century, the Incas wrested control of the region away from the Aymara and Bolivia became part of the Incan Empire. Copacabana on the shore of Lake Titicaca is perhaps the most memorable place to soak up the spell of that time. Crossing the shimmering water by boat to the Isla del Sol (the Island of the Sun), you can discover the spot where, according to Inca legend, the creator of the universe rose from the lake and threw the sun into the heavens. The island, unpaved and wild, remains dotted with mysterious pre-Columbian ruins to this day.
Colonial Highs & Lows
The Inca period didn’t last long. The arrival of the Spanish in the 16th century led to a European-style building boom, as salt and silver mining yielded great wealth. The epicenter of the Spanish heyday was Potosi, perched at 13,400 feet above sea level. At one point, Potosi produced 60% of the world’s silver, had its own mint, and boasted 200,000 residents. A saying that spread across South America spoke to the growing city’s prosperity: “to be worth a Potosí” meant to really be worth something. Seeing its grand churches and ornate colonial architecture now, it’s easy to imagine the era. The same may be said of elegant Sucre, Bolivia’s original capital city. Here, all buildings are whitewashed by government decree and stone patios call to mind the architecture of Catalan.
Sadly, the wealth of Potosi and Sucre flowed only into the coffers of Spain and Spanish descendants. Indigenous people reaped no wealth from the fruits of their land. You might think the brujas from the Witchcraft Market would have cast an evil spell on the colonialists. Instead, the indigenous people turned to Simon Bolivar, the h American revolutionary who led the battle for independence in 1825. Their sovereignty won, the people named the country for their national hero. In Sucre, the 17th-century Liberty House preserves the signed independence documents which you can still view today. As for Bolivar, he didn’t stay—the newly free people offered him the presidency, but he was already president of Colombia.
Bolivian Tradition Lives On
Today, Bolivia is a democratic republic, ruled by its first-ever indigenous President, Evo Morales. As you can tell from its Witchcraft Market, the nation continues to embrace its many cultures. Thirty-six languages are officially spoken here. Other traditional goods are on display in the village markets of Candelaria and Tarabuco. In a Discovery Tours small group, we can fully experience the singular story of Bolivia, from remote ruins and witches’ stalls to colonial-flavored towns and modern cities.
Explore the cultural and historic wonders of Bolivia during our Bolivia & Peru: Andean & Amazonian Culture trip.