Weird potions at witches market in Lima, Peru

2013-10-03 08:30

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Lima — Question: What's red and green and goes 280km/h?

Answer: A frog in a blender.

That gross-out kids' riddle takes on new meaning at the massive, indoor witches market in Lima, Peru. Here, ingredients for one of the proffered potions include a live frog plucked from a fish tank, plus pollen, coca, quail egg, honey, a fruit called noni and agorrobina, a syrup made from the black carob tree.

The slimy brown mixture, promises drink-maker Mario Lopez, will cure respiratory ailments, impotence and anemia, and also work as an aphrodisiac.

Lopez whips up the elixir for a woman suffering from asthma. He tosses the frog into a skillet for a quick sear before it is liquefied in the mixer.

I'm here on a tour with a local guide, and Lopez offers me a sip. I have tried many strange foods worthy of Anthony Bourdain, including grasshopper, pig penis and snake bile wine, but even I couldn't summon the courage to try this amphibious smoothie.

Whatever it may be that ails you, though, the witches market in Lima is bound to have a folk remedy that claims to cure it. Located in a dingy area of Central Lima underneath the Gamarra metro station, from the outside, the market looks like any other crowded building in an urban commercial district of wholesale stores, selling cheap goods and black-market brands.

The only indication that this dark, cavernous warehouse might be a little different is the table on the street outside wrapped with a gargantuan boa constrictor carcass, where Mario Gonzales sells jars of snake fat as an arthritic cure.

My guide to the maze of stalls in the witches market was a local artist and musician, Fernando Naveda. He was shopping for his brother, who is a shaman — someone who claims to have powers that include communicating with the spiritual world and using magic to cure sickness, divine spirits and control events.

As we made our way through the cramped aisles, we passed an other-worldly assortment of ingredients: dried llama fetuses, animal skins, monkey skulls and trinkets that looked like Halloween decorations. The scene from Shakespeare's "Macbeth" came to mind, where the witch recites a recipe over a boiling caldron: "Eye of newt, and toe of frog, Wool of bat, and tongue of dog, Adder's fork, and blind-worm's sting, Lizard's leg, and owlet's wing."

Magic and mystics

Peruvian culture is known for its shamans, witches, natural healers and practitioners of folk medicine. Before the Spanish conquest, mystics were an important intermediary between humans and gods. Many tourist towns, including Cuzco, Chiclayo and Arrequipa have witches markets tucked away in corners, but none of them rival the size of Lima's behemoth market.

At one overflowing stand, Naveda sorted through a display of brightly colored candles. Some looked like ordinary candles, while others were molded into pornographic wax sculptures of couples locked into amorous poses. He chose several, along with black candles covered with chili seeds showing couples with a stake between them. His brother uses these in black magic rituals to end relationships — perfect for that annoying ex-boyfriend who continues to text you.

The stand's owner, Maria Rios, who hails from Iquitos in Peru's Amazon jungle, also sells a variety of homemade perfumes, with all types of mystical uses. These potions, all in recycled clear bottles, are stuffed with seeds, plants, leaves and secret ingredients. Rios has been formulating the colognes based on recipes she says have been handed down for generations. She has been selling them for 25 years.

Some are purported to attract money, some will bring you luck, and others are supposed to keep you in good health. She opened one bottle that she promised would attract true love; it smelled good.

Naveda continued through the market picking up odds and ends: coca leaves, which are used for fortune telling; San Pedro, a sacred cactus used to purify the earth; and hatun hampi, a jumble of various elements of the Peruvian terrain including seeds, vegetables, dirt, minerals and spices. It is used in ceremonies as an offering to Pachamama or Mother Earth. He also explained the significance of some of the animal parts: the snake represents the underworld, the llama fetuses are buried underneath a person's house as an offering for good luck and protection from evil.

Outside, a woman on the street, Beatrice Torre, was selling beads made from huayruro hembra and el macho, which are bright red and black Amazonian seeds believed to attract good luck and positive energy. She offered me a bracelet, saying I'd need it for protection to safeguard me on my coming journey.

She asked where I was going, and before I could realize that I'd never told her I was going anywhere, I said I was heading back to the States for my birthday.

Maybe she smartly guessed that I was likely to be traveling because I was the only fair-haired person in the area and obviously not a local. But a week later as my plane arrived safely in Miami, I wondered if maybe there was something to those beads.


If You Go...

LIMA WITCHES MARKET: Located in central Lima underneath the Gamarra station on Lima's elevated metro. You can direct a taxi driver to the metro stop and ask for the mercado de brujas. Look for men selling python skins outside.

TOURS: Fernando Naveda offers personalized tours of the market (in Spanish) combined with a visit to Casa Duende, a local artists' gallery and performance space; reachable at or . He can also arrange for a visit to a shaman or a "despacho" ceremony, where prayers are offered in gratitude or to make a request.

Read more on:    adventure  |  travel  |  lifestyle  |  travel international

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