You would think that since Bolivia is one of the most affordable countries in South America, that foreign travelers choose to do their shopping at the markets of La Paz simply because they’re cheap. While you can’t argue with some of the bargain deals to be found on the streets, the reason for digging out the Bolivianos while in the markets of La Paz is because they frequently offer items which simply can’t be found anywhere else on the continent.
Take for example the “witches market” which occupies a narrow alleyway set just off of the downtown tourist district. Legendary among South American travelers, traditionally dressed Aymara women sling everything from spices, to potions, to dried snakes and frogs. The most disturbing, however, are undoubtedly the hanging, dried llama fetuses which are still used in Aymara rituals and comprise the main reason why many travelers even venture down this alleyway. While the brujas (witches) aren’t fond of travelers photographing their wares, simply window shopping in the witches market provides enough mental photographs to fill an entire album of stories.
Witches market aside, since La Paz is home to millions of inhabitants it also features every conceivable type of outdoor market available. What makes the markets of La Paz so energetic and enjoyable, however, are the throngs of colorfully-dressed indigenous peoples hawking everything from handwoven textiles to underground, black market electronics. Bargaining is the name of the game in the markets of La Paz, and if you appear to be a foreign traveler, or don’t speak much Spanish, you can be assured that the price you’re initially quoted is sky-high compared to what a local person might pay. Nevertheless, with a little haggling both parties usually walk away from the alpaca wool hat or multicolored shawl with a sense of accomplishment and victory.
While the actual economy of exchanging money for goods is the beating heart of the La Paz markets, a La Paz traveler could spend an entire day enjoying the markets without actually purchasing anything at all. Sit back and watch as old men haggle with tourists while pushing overladen carts up a 45-degree street. Gaze at groups of colorfully-dressed women with babies on their backs as they carve wood or spin wool in a festering street-side stall. The markets of La Paz not only have astounding deals and unique souvenirs, but also simply pulse with an energy and an authenticity unlike any other market on the South American continent.