The city of La Paz, Bolivia sits at the heart of a deep valley with its streets and buildings extending up the craggy mountain walls. At the lip of that wall sits El Alto, La Paz’s vibrant and sprawling sister city. As La Paz slowly gentrifies to become like many other large South American cities, El Alto is holding on tightly to the native traditions of Bolivia’s past.
Witchcraft and shamanism have a special place in Bolivian beliefs. Shamans are revered in the country and their craft is -respected and considered a distinguished cultural tradition. In La Paz many tourists visit the Mercado de Brujas, or Witches Market in an attempt to catch a glimpse of this secretive underworld. Over the years, however, the Witches Market has evolved from a sacred place of healing to that more of a tourist attraction wrought with souvenirs for foreigners to take home. There are a few shamans left at the Witches Market in La Paz, but for those looking for some serious spiritual guidance the answer lies in El Alto.
Not too many tourists venture to El Alto- in fact many of the guide books advise against it. If visitors do make the trip to the top of La Paz and into El Alto, it is usually to visit the city’s infamous rambling market which is said to be the largest in the world. When I visited El Alto, however, I went to witness another sort of market place and one that, as far as I can tell, is unique to the city. Along the narrow streets radiating out from the Corozon de Jesus statue and peering down onto the city of La Paz is a collection of shamans ready to read the souls of their inquisitive clientele. From the early morning hours Bolivians from across the nation and even customers from neighboring countries make their way to this spiritual perch.
In and around the Heart of Jesus Statue, dozens of small stalls are tucked into the chaotic fabric of El Alto’s unpaved streets. The air is heavy with the smoke of innumerable sacrifices being made to Mother Earth at any given time. The lingering density brings on a feeling of apprehension and the whispers of secret histories past and present seem to idle in the air. The entire neighborhood is a mix of the awesomely creepy to downright unsettling, but regardless if you want to immerse yourself it in or run for the hills, the market manages to keep those who visit entranced and firmly planted on the revered ground.
Once inside a shamans stall, one can chose to have their futures read in a number of ways- the services offered are displayed on the walls outside stall doors. On my visit I decided to try my luck three times with three different practices- one each of coca leaf, palm and tarot card readings. I normally pretty skeptical about fortune telling would typically chalk up what happened next to my receiving the “gringo special.” But El Alto is not heavily trafficked by tourists and from what I was told I was one of the few gringos who came to the shaman market at all. Each of my readings done by three different shamans were exactly the same down to the very last detail. Somehow the traditional healers were able to look into the depths of my soul and read my history and future using the skills passed onto them by past generations.
Legend has it these spiritual guides can even do more than simply read one’s fortune; they have the ability to change it. Stories of the both white and black magic run carried out in El Alto are common and revered by those who visit the shamans as well as by those who don’t.
After my experience in El Alto, I believe it. There’s just something there in the air.
For those who want their fortune read at the shamans market in El Alto, Grupo Rosario can help you book a guided tour. This is also the best bet in quelling any safety concerns.