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Indigenous women selling medicinal plants at San Pedro marke

Cusco Witches Market: From Charms to Chicha

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Local Peruvian women selling medicinal plants
Local Peruvian women selling medicinal plants

Traveler, M.J. Holliday, shares her experiences at the bustling and sometimes bizarre witches' market, in Cusco, Peru.

By M.J. Holliday
Five hundred years ago, the Inca empire flourished in South America. At its center was the Sacred Valley of the Incas, and the capital city of Cusco, Peru. The Inca were farmers, scientists, engineers and astronomers. When Fransisco Pizarro arrived with the Spanish armies in the sixteenth century, Inca medicine was so advanced that he sent his doctors home and used local methods instead.

On a trek through the Andes, we stayed in Cusco for two days. The modern name Cusco, or Cuzco, derives from the original Qosqo, meaning "navel." Historically, Cusco is the birthplace of the Inca. Nomadic shepherds cultivated the land around the Urubamba River and settled the Sacred Valley around AD 1100.

Today the Sacred Valley provides maize, fruit, potatoes and vegetables, and medicinal plants. We found plenty of local produce and wares at the San Pedro market in Cusco, but the most striking attraction was the adjacent witches' market, or Mercado de las Brujas.

We were fortunate to experience the witches' market on a weekend. Vendors come from the hills and villages to sell their wares, and trade is lively.

If you're looking for odd and unusual items, you will find them at the witches' market. In the shadow of modern amenities, outdoor stalls fill the streets. Clay pots, baskets and makeshift shelves are crammed with herbs, medicines, animal carcasses, dried bats and toads, woven items, handmade charms and amulets, strange foods and potions..

Before going to the market, it's a good idea to convert some of your money to the local currency. The nuevosol, or sol, is the basic monetary unit of Peru. Three soles equal about one American dollar.

Sixty percent of the population is Catholic, but the spirituality of Peru has strong ties to the earth. Rituals of magic and mysticism pass down by oral tradition, along with a deep understanding of the natural forces that shape the world. In the witches' market, the vendors are shamans, witch doctors, herbalists and astrologers, all skilled in magical lore.

You can buy a potion or charm for almost anything, from curing a queasy stomach, to attracting money or spicing up your sex life. Dried llama fetuses bring good luck to homes and businesses and are often walled into the corners of buildings. A drink of liquidized frog will improve the memory, and dried armadillo will keep thieves away.

You can even pay a sorcerer to cast a spell on someone. Don't be tempted to lay a curse on your annoying neighbor, though. Practitioners of ancient magic will use their craft only for good. They warn that magic, used for evil, will turn against the user.

The air is pungent with the aroma of herbs, live and dead animals, and home cooking. Some vendors brew potions on the spot, and others serve up local cuisine. A must-try delicacy is roast guinea pig, or cuy, usually served with a pepper in its mouth. Guinea pig is a traditional dish in South America. In the Cusco Cathedral hangs a painting of the Last Supper, with guinea pig as the main meal. Other local treats include alpaca steak; charqui, a naturally freeze-dried type of jerky; and yellow potato dishes of all kinds.

Fresh-squeezed juice is plentiful, and includes papaya, strawberry, kiwi, mango and cherimoya. Cherimoya is an evergreen, growing in the highlands of Ecuador and Peru. The fruit is oval, grapefruit-sized, with sweet white flesh. Mark Twain called it "the most delicious fruit known to men." The cherimoya juice was truly refreshing and cost only a sol.

Another local delight is chicha, a brew similar to beer. Chicha can be sweet or strongly fermented, depending on the brewer. It's made from corn or quinoa, a grain-like plant. If you're not feeling adventurous, you can just get a coffee and sandwich, for about three soles.

The market is noisy with the shouts of haggling. No one expects to pay the asking price for an item. If you do, the vendor will have a good laugh at your expense. Always offer a much lower price, haggle and barter for every item, and you will walk away with a deal.

Most vendors speak Spanish, or the local Quechuan dialects. It helps to know basic phrases in Spanish. When taking photos, ask permission. Vendors and local farmers usually don't mind, but it's bad manners to take a picture without giving at least a sol.

Be prepared for the altitude. The mountain air has less oxygen than that of lower altitudes, so you might feel short of breath. If you develop a taste for chicha, don't drink too much! High altitudes can cause the worst hangovers imaginable.

The witches' market is a reminder of the age-old spirituality that pervades even the most modern lifestyle. In the Sacred Valley of the Incas, new technology arrives, but ancient magic and traditions still prevail.

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