No stay in La Paz is complete without visiting the cobbled streets of Sagárnaga and Linares leading to the Witches Market. Here you can buy any number of remedies for whatever ails you. My favourite by far was “dog’s tongue” …not real I was assured, it’s a plant powder that you rub on the palm of your hand, and whoever you want to love you will follow you around “like a dog”, apparently! They also had all manner of treatments for everything from aches and pains to, ahem, “stamina” medicine, and more coca leaves than you can shake a stick at.
Many people upon hearing the word coca think of the basic plant from which cocaine is derived, after much chemical processing and whatnot, but put that aside for a moment. Here in the Andes, it holds a cultural significance which has been threatened by western government drug agencies’ plans to wipe out coca production. An excellent book on the history, benefits, and cultural importance of coca is “The Hold Life Has“, by Catherine Allen. The dried leaves are chewed in golf-ball sized wodges in the cheek, or made into a tea. We have tried both and my favourite is the tea, although I have been known to have a good chew! It won’t get you anywhere near a ‘high’ in its natural form; rather, it is a mild stimulant not unlike a cup of coffee or a cigarette. It has multiple uses, helping with such things as altitude sickness, nausea and headaches, and some have argued it is a worthy addition of vitamins to the altiplano diet, where vegetables are not abundant. It also has vital links to the indigenous history of the region, which is why any attempt to eradicate it would be so culturally damaging.
The other thing the market is famous for is dried llama foetuses. I wish I could say I was making this up, but apparently they find them up in the mountains (as it’s so cold the llamas often miscarry) and they are dried and used as offerings, buried under the doorstep when people build new homes. I offered to get one for my sister as she will shortly be moving house, but she wasn’t keen on the idea. Still, powders, potions, lotions and llamas…we’re leaving Bolivia in a few weeks so get your orders in now!
I bought a balm that smells somewhere between vapo rub and tiger balm, called “cat’s nail” (uña de gato). Good for aches and pains, but I ended up using it on my chest at night, because the one souvenir I left La Paz with is the annoying cough I got from the fumes. Oh my lord, the fumes! The place is the smoggiest I have ever been to, which surprised me as it’s up so high, but it was quite cloudy (read: rainy) while we were there, and I guess the exhaust has nowhere to go. That and some of the vehicles they drive in Bolivia are horror stories in themselves. It’s not the best memory I’ll have, but still, we also had the opportunity to experience the Valle de la Luna (Moon Valley) which made a welcome break from the traffic and madness.