The famous Andes Mountains are home to the country of Bolivia along with other countries such as Peru, Chile, and Argentina. Within the Andes Mountains there is a region called the Altiplano. The vast plains of the Altiplano stretch from the southeast of Peru to the western part of Bolivia. The midpoint of the region is centered in Bolivia which is home to 36 indigenous tribes, including the Aymará who live on the high-altitude plains in the Bolivian Andes, on the Lake Titicaca plateau near the border with Peru.
The Aymará make up about 25% of the indigenous population. This group is native to La Paz, one of the earliest Incan settlements in Bolivia, and today, one of the most important economic and cultural centers in the country with a population estimated around 1,857,797 residents as of 2020.
La Paz is the third-most populous city in Bolivia and is also home to the famous, El Mercado de Las Brujas (the witches’ market), where traditional Aymara healers set up their shops and practice their craft.
The healers follow ancestral belief systems centered in the Andean deity, Pachamama, a spiritual mother that sustains life and can take it away. Pachamana is also known as mother earth. Through offerings and ceremonies, followers of Pachamama pay homage to mother earth in exchange for her blessings and protection.
Belief in Pachamama is found across ethnicities and religions as legends of Pachamana have been syncretized with other religious traditions. The yatiris, men and women believed to be spiritually selected to work as mediums and healers, serve as spiritual channels to Pachamama and other deities.
The yatiris can be found in the mystical Mercado de las Brujas. Their spiritual work is rooted in Aymara customs and beliefs, an Andean cosmo vision that can be traced back to the Incas who were a naturalistic and ritualistic people.
In 1548, Captain Alonso de Mendoza founded the capital of Bolivia known as, Nuestra Señora de La Paz, ( Our Lady of Peace). The city is also known as Chuquiago Marka, or Chuqiyapu by the Aymara. Chuqi means, gold, and yapu means farm.
La Paz is centered in the middle of a canyon carved by the Choqueyapu River and is considered one of the highest capital cities in the world. Nearly a century earlier to Mendoza’s arrival, the region was founded and ruled by the Incan Empire in 1450.
Approximately 11 million people live in Bolivia, today. Out of the total population, 1,857,797 live in La Paz, a popular tourist destination for visitors to Bolivia. A famous stop for locals and travelers is Calle Jimenez, a street filled with street vendors and markets.
El Mercado de las Brujas is one of the most visited attraction sites on this street. While Brujas, means “witch” in Spanish, workers in the market don’t think of themselves a witches, but as spiritual healers.
The spiritualists are the yatiris, a group of select religious members of the Aymará, an indigenous people of the Altiplanos who provide spiritual services in the mercado.
The Aymará are an indigenous group that inhabit the high mountains of Bolivia. About 2 million indigenous people live in the Altiplano. The mountain range covers about 1/3 of Bolivia.
The Aymará people have lived in this area for more than 2000 years and trace their heritage to the decline of the Tiahuanaco civilization in AD 1172.
This area is also home to the ayllu, traditional indigenous communities of the Andes that are clan-based and communal. Other indigenous groups that also occupy the area include the Quechua and Uru, who live along the Andes mountain ranges of Peru and Bolivia.
The Aymará occupy single rectangular homes made of turf, wild grass and pole rafters. Their style of clothing shows influence of the early Spanish colonial fashions. The men wear conical, ear-flapped, knit wool, gorros, and the women wear wool derbies, which keep them warm in the cold weather.
The Aymará were once ruled by the Incas, later by Spaniards, and over the course of time, they combined the cosmologies of the Incas and the Spaniards into something new.
The Inca civilization influenced the Aymara imperial system and introduced religious myths, foods, and artistic styles. Whereas, Spanish influence introduced domestic animals, plants, agriculture, and tools.
The Aymará people maintain a cultural belief system based on a multi-spirit world. Their religious beliefs of Catholicism have combined with the Incan cosmology of spirits believed to inhabit the mountains and the sky through natural force An example of this unified belief system is the belief in Pachamama.
Pachamama is an Inca goddess of the earth also known as Mother Earth, Mama Pacha, or World Mother, in Aymará. Indigenous Bolivians, such as the Aymará, believe Pachamama is one of the strongest and most sacred deities.
The story of Pachamama dates back to the Incan civilization. Incas believed in gods and goddesses connected to certain elements of natural phenomena. In the Incan pantheon, Pachamama is the wife of Pachacamac, a sky god, who is the creator of the sun, moon, and the people.
Her role as a goddess is to plant and harvest, embody the mountains and cause earthquakes. She is also associated with agriculture.
Rituals in her honor are performed during the planting and harvest season.
Pachamama is seen as a spiritual companion to women. She is associated with fertility, women, generosity, abundance and ripe crops. Women who believe in Pachamama’s influence, travel to the fields to talk to Pachamama, and offer a serving of cornmeal as a tribute.
Pachamama’s image reflects the feminine form. It is said that the mountain peaks are seen as her breasts, the flowing rivers as her life-giving milk, and the tilled fields, as her fertile womb.
She is depicted as one with the earth, centered, calm, and content. However, she is also described as the dragon goddess; if angered she can send earthquakes as punishment.
To this day, Pachamama is believed to have her own creative powers that sustain life on earth. Many Aymarans and Bolivians, worship and honor her through religious rituals known as challas, believed to bless life and restore reciprocity. To receive bendiciones from the Pachamama, one must first give.
During the challas, participants give food to Mother Earth, pour drinks, toss flowers and spread coca leaves as an offering. Legend tells that before the Incas entered the city of Cuzco, their capital, they sacrificed a llama and other animals for protection and prosperity, a practice that continues in sacrificial rituals to the Earth Goddess.
These rituals are usually guided and performed by a yatiri.
Yatiris are members of the Aymara indigenous group and are especially selected for their spiritual role as shamans. A few select Aymarans can become a yatiri.
This special role is considered a birthright. Yatiris are spiritually called to work for their communities and their calling is evidenced by certain unusual factors.
They may have been born a twin, or born with six toes, or struck by lighting and survived. These are common reasons for selection into the role which are confirmed by strange visions and dreams believed to be cosmically sent by Pachamama.
According to a yatiri named, Angela, the life of a yatiri is inevitable and the one who is called to it, has no choice but to dedicate their life to this work. In Aymara culture, yatiris are considered wise people who can use their visions and talents as guides to heal others. Many people seek their spiritual knowledge to heal their lives.
Yatiris read fortunes and tune into a person’s health through the use of a coca leaf. The role of the Yatiri is to improve health, prosperity, fertility, luck, and love. To heal negative energies believed to be caught in the soul and heart, they use perfumes and magical powders to remove unwanted influences and attract the desired wish.
Yatiris wear a distinctive hat and carry a pouch of coca with them. They can be found around churches and in the Mercado de Las Brujas waiting for clients. In the month of August believers make offerings to the Pachamama. The month is known as the moment when the Earth (or the mouth) is opened.
In this season, harvesting is at its peak making this an opportune time to make offerings. The yatiris set up a mesa, also known as a table with offerings, drinks, flowers, and coca leaves. Some offer llama fetuses which are seen as “candies” or “treats” for Pachamama. The significance of the llama offering is to ask for love and prosperity.
Some Bolivians bury a dried llama fetus under the foundations of their new homes for protection, health, happiness and good luck. The rituals and offerings are considered sacred.
Clients, visitors and tourists visit the market year round to seek services from the wise healers. People come to the yatiris in times of need, in search of spiritual awakenings, for special life events, and for consultation in new life journeys. Each ritual’s practice depends on people’s longings. However, most include the same elements of llama fetuses, plants and minerals. In rural areas, indigenous people travel to the highest places known as apachetas to show their gratitude to Mother Nature.
This tradition is believed to start a new prosperous agricultural cycle. In the cities, suburban people celebrate coachadas, which are requests to Mother Earth to bless vehicles, homes, businesses, health, money, and goods. The services offered by the yatiris attract visitors to the city of La Paz. Their practices are an important component of local culture.
El Mercado de Las Brujas
El Mercado de Las Brujas, located in Calle Jimenez, is characterized by rows of colorful assortment of shops displaying objects believed to be infused with faith and mysticism. In appreciation of the historical, cultural and social value of the mercado where ancestral knowledge is alive, the site has been declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage space of La Paz.
Customers stop by the market for creative souvenirs, such as colorful sugar tablets, dried starfish, lacquered frogs, coca leaves, and dried llama fetuses. Also on display are dried snakes, turtles and armadillos and native herbal remedies including the mystical ayahuasca, a powerful healing tool used to harvest plants and prepare a psychedelic brew for the drinker to connect with the spiritual world.
The works of the yatiri attract attention because of the varied types of rituals and ceremonies the community practices. Each shaman is different. The stores provide a wide range of elements to be used for the ceremonial offerings to Pachamama. Customers can purchase prepackaged spells and potions wrapped in colorful little boxes. The market is a lively place to discover unique souvenirs and cultural artifacts.
Bolivia is a rich, multi-ethnic country with a strong indigenous heritage that dates back to the Incas. Many believe in Pachamama and pay homage to mother earth to restore imbalances in their lives. In return, Pachamama is believed to prosper and protect them. The men and women working as yatiris, in El Mercado de Brujas, serve as mediums that help connect every day people with Pachamama. Legend has it she is an ever-present deity who presides over the harvest, health and well-being. The rituals and offerings to the Pachamama have been celebrated in Bolivia for centuries.
My name is Vianna Villacorta, I am currently a senior at Mount Saint Mary’s University Los Angeles. I am majoring in Spanish Studies with an emphasis in translation and plan to pursue a business degree. I am American, but I come from a Mexican and Salvadoran background. I am interested in writing about the social issues Latin American countries are facing in the world today such as, education and health. I have traveled to many different countries and regions in Latin America such as Puerto Rico, Mexico, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua. The common factor these countries have are the lack of support and funding from the government. I believe the voices of the habitants of these countries need to be projected to the world to raise awareness. As a Latin American Correspondent, I plan to expand my knowledge, language, and culture of my Latin Heritage. I am thankful to be a part of this experience, in hopes of addressing and helping raise social issues in parts of Latin America. I know this opportunity will help me be a more well-rounded and professional person because of the different connections I will be making with other professionals.