Tales of Bolivia: Calle de las Brujas


Sitting on my desk as I type is a small glass vial.  It is sealed with a metal cap and is filled with a clear liquid I presume to be water.  What appears to be a small gold chain runs around the bottom.   Filling the vial are tightly packed objects, perhaps bits of cloth, of various sizes and shapes and bright colors.  These in turn press several gold-colored objects up against the glass.

One is in the shape of a truck, one a horseshoe, another a hand.  There is a man & woman holding hands.  A key, a frog and maybe an angel.  Plus a couple I can’t make out.  Each looks very much like the sort of charms young girls collected on their charm bracelets in the America of the 1950s and 60s when I was growing up.  Maybe they still do.  I’ve lost track.

Anyway, what these are is something much more potent.  These are powerful talismans.  Each represents a different aspect of life and each is designed to bring good luck in their assigned area to their possessor.  The whole thing is one big, universal lucky charm.  I know this because the 8-year-old witch who sold it to me  (20 Bolivianos, about $2.87) told me so.  Not a bad deal.

None of the witches I met looked like this.

Now if you happen to be in the market for the services of a witch, and these days who isn’t, it helps to find yourself in La Paz, Bolivia.  In many parts of the world, over the past few centuries, witches have been driven out, driven into hiding or simply burned at the stake.  In other words, in short supply.  But in La Paz…..well there you can just mosey on down to the Calle de Las Brujas (Street of the Witches) and take your pick.

Calle de las Brujas

Lining this street for two or three blocks you’ll find stall after stall, each with its own witch or two, their goods spilling out onto the cobble stones.  Jar upon jar of potions, herbs, spices and charms for every occasion.  Oh, and dried llama fetuses.  Lots and lots of dried llama fetuses.  They come in all sizes.  Small enough to fit in your pocket right on up to about four feet tall.  I have no idea where such a range comes from.  They all appeared to my uneducated eye to be around the same stage of development.  Maybe different size llamas?

Llama fetuses, your choice.

From what I gather if you hang one in your home it will bring blessings and good luck.  Of course, then along with good luck you’ll have something pretty creepy hanging in your house.  Which is why I didn’t bring one home.  Well, that and not immediately figuring out how I might explain it to a curious customs agent.

But llama fetuses are only one of the many talismans available.  Unlucky in love?  Embarking on a journey? Looking for a job?  Seeking wealth? Feeling ill?  No sling nor arrow of misfortune or opportunity sent your way is without a remedy or assistance to be found here.  At a great Boliviano v dollar exchange rate to boot.

We’re also told there is…

…Black Magic…

…to be had, magic to curse and destroy your enemies, if you ask in the right witches in the right places.  We didn’t.

No, my little 8-year-old witch could not have been purer of heart or more charming.  Not to say she didn’t know her stuff.  Closely watched for accuracy and with pride by her grandmother, she took us thru their shop carefully explaining each item.  She even explained the good fortune each charm in the little glass vial I bought from her would bring. There must not have been one to improve my memory, however, as I can now only vaguely guess at their powers.

I do know that shortly thereafter I found and bought the baby alpaca wool sweater that was to save my life during the frigid nights on Salar de Uyuni.  No small feat when you’re my size and shopping in a land of petite people.

Later that evening we ventured up a dark and creaky flight of ancient wooden stairs.  The walls were lined with dusty old objects randomly hung seemingly hundreds of years before.  A narrow hallway led to a dim room set with tables and chairs as old as the building itself.  On the menu I found and ordered Lemon Trout.  Went back for it again the next night.  And the next.  It was truly magic.

My companions mocked me for buying the silly little glass bottle good luck charm.  But I was really buying the charms of the 8-year-old little witch who sold it to me.  Or so I told them and, as far as it goes, it’s true.  But clearly, the magic is already working.

This is what the real witches we met looked like.

Of course, neither the girl or the old lady pictured above is an actual witch.  As our little witch patiently explained to our photo-happy traveling companion, she could not allow her picture to be taken.   She knows that should her image be captured on film a little bit of her soul and a little bit of her power is taken as well.  Silly superstition?  Maybe.  But before you scoff too long and hard think for a moment on the sordid lives of our nation’s over exposed child pop stars.

I rest my case.  And hers.  No pictures were taken.

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  1. Mr. Risky Startup says

    Some days I think that English is a fairly poor language. Back where I come from, we have a language that is written in two alphabets, with 5 times more words than English. For example, we have a single word that means “she who is like sky full of stars”… I used to write beautifully – my regular grade-school essays were read to the schools and printed in the papers. Then I moved to Canada, without ever taking any official language training. I took the job within days of arrival and never had a chance to actually learn English. With my limited language skills, I some days get so frustrated – looking for the word to describe something, so easily describable in my language.

    Then, I read your stories, and realize that English is just fine and as beautiful as almost any other language (except German, lol). Are you sure that you are not a Nobel winning poet or something?

    Thank you for taking us on a free trip to Bolivia.

    I used to listen to their (Bolivian, Peruvian) music many years ago, and dreamed about going there at one point. Hopefully I make it some day.

    • jlcollinsnh says

      Holy crap! (he said using his best language prowess) Mr. RS….

      ….what a breathtaking compliment. Well written, too. I just called my wife over to read it to her.

      thank you. you made my day.

      Glad you are warming to English and reading yours I’d not guess it to be a second language for you. What is your first?

      • Mr. Risky Startup says

        It is complicated… When I was born, language was called Serbo-Croatian (and country Yugoslavia). Then, country fell apart, and now we have Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian. They are all slightly different (think UK English vs. USA English vs. Australian English). To complicate matters more, Serbs use Cyrillic alphabet, while Croats use Latin alphabet – so in school, we wrote one alphabet one week, then switch. (And this was just in the central part of Yugoslavia. We also had Slovenian, Macedonian, Albanian and then each one has its own dialects, then minorities used Slovak, Hungarian, Italian… all in the area smaller than Colorado… 🙂

        My 2 year old son just learned the alphabet, and my sincere hope is that by helping him through the school, I may finally learn English properly. I make sure to read to him at least 4-5 books every night, and I get as much benefit from Dr. Seuss as he does 🙂

        At this time, I still speak and write English by phonetically memorizing words and phrases. I have the hardest time with the definite and indefinite articles (I actually tried to study it and have learned the rules, but I still have hard time applying the rules in the real time). However, for a person who loves the language, reading and writing, I now live in hell. I am slowly forgetting nuances of my first language, and I will never know English well enough. In many ways, I am more sad about losing my language than about losing my old country (Canada did a great job making me welcome, and I feel like I was born here, but it is almost impossible to learn the entire language at the native level when you start well into your 20’s).

        My first language was a phonetic language – write as you speak, speak as you read, read as you write… Each letter has a sound, and that never changes – you make words by sounding string of letters. So, kids learn to read and write much faster (and apparently, dyslexia is almost non-existent in phonetic language countries). However, our grammar is much tougher – for example, we have 7 cases so each word may have 7 slight variations that defines it.

        So, thank you again! I read your stories 3 times – like a tired Buddhist monk drinking tea. First time is fast to quench my thirst, second time a bit slower to enjoy the content, and then third time is the slowest – to analyse and learn from it. 🙂

        • jlcollinsnh says

          My hat’s off to you, sir.

          I can’t imagine writing a blog in Serbo-Croatian, or any language other than English.

          very interesting that Bosnian, Serbian and Croatian are as similar to each other as the variations of English.

          That is a part of the world we are planning to visit, maybe as soon as next summer. although I’m hearing that it is already over-run with tourists…..

          • Mr. Risky Startup says

            It has been discovered by the Hollywood types, but there are still good times to go and avoid rush. If you have a month or more, start in late May by visiting Slovenia (Bled, Ljubljana), Zagreb, Istra (Rovinj), then hit Adriatic Sea (my favorite place) in the second half of June (city of Split, stay around Makarska, visit islands like Krk and Hvar, of course city of Dubrovnik)… Then get away from the coast when Axis forces (Italians and Germans) invade (check out Montenegro, Tara river canyon), then Belgrade, Novi Sad… Lake Ohrid in Macedonia if you have time…

            If you go and have questions or looking for recommendations, let me know. Best part, I can probably give you names of restaurants and what to order 🙂

          • jlcollinsnh says

            that’s a bit too much running about for our tastes. we prefer to pick a place and rent an apartment for a month or two, making side trips from there. where would you suggest for that?

            we’d be looking late June and into August.

          • Mr. Risky Startup says

            Tough question. Entire former Yugoslavia was smaller than Colorado (and you are visiting only half of it), but while you can drive across Colorado within in a few hours (I did it twice so far on my way to Utah), road conditions along Adriatic and geography makes it for slow driving.

            I guess that would depend on your budget. If money is not an issue, then you would want to pick a nice, beach-side “pansion” (B&B in local speak) somewhere around Makarska. That way you can walk to the beach, chill at the cafes on the “riva” (promenade) and then take multi-day trips or overnight trips to places like Dubrovnik (2 hour drive from Makarska), Split (maybe an hour from Makarska), islands of Hvar (day trip), Korcula (2-3 day stay is needed) etc. However, those months are high season, so prices are at their peak. I wish my family was not selling our family holiday home, you could have stayed for free (in fact, if my wife is not 9 months pregnant by the next summer, we may be over there too).

            If budget is an issue, then presumably best option would be to stay in Split. You will have to drive a bit to beaches, but you will get a best Adriatic city experience (and being a city, there could be a chance of renting a condo or at least /relatively/ less expensive hotels). History, markets, food, things to do… And, from there you can still make it to Dubrovnik (although you must give it more than a day or two – you will not want to leave).

            Your best bet may be flying to Dubrovnik in early June (don’t look out of the window when you land at the airport, you will be scared for life, especially if it is windy – mountain on one side, water on the other :), stay just outside of it for a couple of weeks and do day trips to Montenegro, Sveti Stefan, Korcula… Then, rent the car (one way rental) and try to visit Mostar, Sarajevo, island of Hvar and make your second base in Split, Rovinj or near Opatija. Again, day trips to amazing islands, wineries, Kornati… If you don’t mind water, rent a sailboat and claim your own island for a day or two (there are thousands to pick from)… Finally, when you are done with it, if you find strength to leave my gorgeous Jadran (Adriatic – one of the only two places for which I reserve my favourite English word – MAJESTIC – other being Yellowstone), do a quick swing through Slovenia (Bled, Ljubljana) and end up in Zagreb for a bit (by August, Zagreb should be hot but cheap). Zagreb is your best airport choice to fly out. If you have time, Vienna in Austria, Trieste in Italy, Budapest in Hungary are all pretty close too and fun to visit.

            If even this is too much moving around, then I guess Split or somewhere around Rovinj would be your best choices. However, it would be sad if you miss places like Dubrovnik, Pula, Rovinj, Zagreb, Bled and all the islands I mentioned. It is like going to Italy and not seeing Rome.

            Remember that on August 1st, millions of Italians invade (their side of Adriatic is not as pretty as ours), so by July 25th try to be somewhere inland. As kids we used to sit by the road around first of August and laugh at the miles long lines of Fiats 🙂

            Also, probably do not have to tell you this, but Europe in general, and touristy areas in particular are insanely expensive. Finding markets and restaurants away from the main tourist traps is going to pay off big time.

            Anyway, if you decide to go, I am at your service when it comes to questions you may have. Do not hesitate to ask.

          • jlcollinsnh says

            thanks! as we get closer, and if this becomes a go, I’ll reach out to you via email.

            meanwhile, if you are ever in NH, coffee is on me.

            Loved your Robinson Crusoe/Friday line below!

        • The Keichi One says

          Hi there Risky,

          As an English Language teacher I have to say you are doing very well for yourself. I only hope some of my students follow in your foot steps and decide to live abroad. It’s been one of the rewarding experiences of my life to embrace another countries culture.

          All the best.

          • Mr. Risky Startup says

            Thank you for your kind words. I agree about experiencing life outside of your native country/language/culture. If everyone would take time to host and visit people of other cultures, there would by much less strife in this world. If I live long enough to see my son go to college, my condition for paying for it will be that he takes at least 1 year following high school to travel the world. I bet that this experience alone may bring as much value as actual education.

            Now, this reminded me of my first true English lesson. My family and I moved to Canada in May of 2006 and within one week I realized that I cannot just sit there and let our sponsor (local Italian church) pay our bills while we learn the language and “adjust”. So, I basically begged my way into a job – minimum wage hot water tank installation helper (essentially, hauling heavy tanks in and out of basements and fetching tools)… That was Friday, and I was to show up for work the following Monday which I did with an hour to spare (you do not want to be late for your first day of work :).

            Anyway, Ray, my new lead guy, and I went to our first job of the day and within minutes he realized that he was given not so helpful helper. So, he dragged me back upstairs, into the back of the truck and started my first lesson by taking tools out of his toolbox and naming them: Hammer! Drill! Screwdriver! It was hilarious – all I could think of was Robinson Crusoe and Friday, trying to communicate for the first time… But it took me months before I could communicate that picture to Ray… :).

  2. Shilpan says

    You’ve beautifully depicted the fact that despite our differences — both socially and economically — people are inherently good and loving. Life is not a complete voyage unless we take time to disappear in the unknown parts of the world with equally unknown yet amazing people.

  3. RW says

    Some of the greatest things in life are the unexpected experiences along the way, I am sure the vial will provide many great memories for years to come. I think your companions missed the point. Are you sure you did not sneak in a dried fetus or two? Imagine the look on the face of the customs agent!

  4. ael says

    Brings back many memories of “trip of a lifetime” with Peace Corps daughter and grad school friends (also Peace Corps) through Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Our friend’s wife from Philippines refused to walk on the sidewalk, only center of the road away from the shops of Calle de Las Brujas. She said “I know what these people can do.” Quito, Machu Pichu, Cuenca–all still vivid after 16 years. We need to go back. Oh and our consuegros (inlaw parents) are from east of Quito over the cordiera and 4000 feet above the jungle.

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