Karen MacRae experiences the continuing influence of the ancient arts of the curanderos in Peru’s capital city
The moment a fellow traveller told me she’d read of a modern-day witches’ market in Lima, my plans were decided. The obscure directions whetted my appetite: “Go to Gamarra station, then ask the man with the snakeskins how to get in.”
After convincing a cab driver to take me — it’s an infamously crime-ridden neighbourhood — he dropped me at the regular Gamarra Market, with no brujeria (witches) in sight. He explained that there was no such thing as a witches’ market in Lima these days and that someone must have been pulling my leg.
I explored the trickster- and trafficker-filled area for 15 minutes. Then, suddenly, to my surprise, my ‘map’ finally made sense.
Before me stood a stall manned by a shaman. He had three large boa constrictor skins draped over his small table: a very obliging, real-life, snake oil salesman. He peddled said oil and poisonous huayruro seed bracelets, to keep away bad spirits. After purchasing one of each, I asked Juan how to find the witches’ market.
“Turn right, go down the steps, then inside.”
I did so, marvelling at the increasingly strange wares along the way, such as a man ‘bleeding’ a tree, the sangre de los arbors (red tree sap with properties similar to aloe vera), and a shop with pungent buckets full of frogs, ready to be made into shakes that ‘cure’ numerous chronic issues.
Once inside, the manic hustle and bustle of the street dissipated. A ‘witch’ — actually, one of the vendors, herbalists or folk doctors — later told me that the local vagabonds were too scared to come into the market, fearing retribution for their sins. So, it was calm and safe.
Instead of the usual fruit, vegetables and handicrafts of the other Peruvian markets, I was greeted by intoxicating sights and smells. Four rows of stalls were organised into sections according to the type of cure on offer.
The first row was taken up primarily by dried-out shrunken llama heads (for fertility) and dried bullfrogs (for virility). The second row was devoted to teas and herbal remedies for minor illnesses.
The third row was almost entirely made up of candles for spells. The curandero would give instructions on which incantation to say after lighting the candle, to cast the desired magic. They were shaped for their intended outcomes: babies for conception, men and women to mold together as the wax warmed, or snap apart, for either a love or break-up spell. I spied a chilling black coffin-shaped candle, which I didn’t dare enquire about.
The final row was lotions and potions, where I befriended amicable healer Sarita. She had many herbal remedies, dried leaves and bottles of carefully prepared oils, to assist with issues of the head, heart or body. Sarita prescribes and prepares these for her numerous regular clients, after giving them a ‘soul cleanse’ with leaves.
For those prepared to be spellbound, find Las Brujas on the Avenida Aviacion in La Victoria by Gamarra station. Ask the man with the snakeskins how to get in.