Fruit and veggies, juice ... and witchcraft

Shopping on the dark side ... the witchcraft section.
Shopping on the dark side ... the witchcraft section. Photo: Alamy

It's the witchcraft section that gets the most attention. The hallucinogenic cactuses, the strange herbs, the voodoo-type dolls dangling on nooses - that's what draws the looks.

You can have fun wandering through the fruit and vegetable stands, checking out the weird Amazonian fruit and seeing the freshly plucked chickens stacked high, their legs clawing at the air.

But the real fun begins as you make your way into the back of the market, as things get progressively eerier, as the stalls take on a darker tone. Anyone who doubts the existence of the mystic arts in Peru needs only to walk through the central market in the town of Chiclayo.

The scene outside this area is manic. Cars honk as pedestrians dart through the traffic, making their way into the knot of humanity that is el Mercado Modelo. Guys outside peddle snacks and drinks, but most shoppers are making their way straight into the action.

It's a maze of walkways covered with tatty tarpaulins, the concrete floor wet from melting ice trickling from the stalls. Everywhere the rough faces of farmers and stall owners break into grins as they spot the foreigner, asking whether I'm enjoying Peru, gesturing for me to buy a strange fruit, or a bag of nuts, or an entire raw chicken.

A town like Chiclayo doesn't have many of the traditional tourist attractions, which is why you often find yourself here. The city doesn't have theme parks or famous ruins or huge monuments or even an Irish pub.

But it does have a large market with products you've never seen before. It's a theme park for the curious, a wild ride through northern Peruvian culture.

Let's start in the "normal" section. There's a barber, an old man in a tiny little makeshift stall, just a few walls and a chair in front of a mirror. He would be mobbed with hipster clientele in Australia. Here he's just quietly reading his newspaper, waiting for the first punters to arrive.

There's a juice stand nearby with all sorts of fruits hanging from the ceiling. The girls manning the stand smile as people go by, handing over large glasses of fluorescent juice, joking with their customers who sit at the bar on bright-blue wooden stools.

Down an alley is a children's toy store that stocks novelty sequined ties and tri-cornered pirate hats. It's nothing typically Peruvian, but it does keep big kids amused.

Then there's the food section, where large stalls are laid out with a colourful range of fruits and vegetables, of animals living and dead. There are dried fish hanging from lines, chickens stacked in rows, and cactus fruit glowing purple. This market might not be every traveller's idea of a good time but it's heaven for seekers of something alive and authentic.

For those who feel confined by the walls of a museum, who only take passing interest in statues and structures, this is what life in another country is all about: life.

But obviously, you want to hear about the witchcraft section. I couldn't tell you how to get there, because it's all part of the market maze - you wind your way past the juice stand and around a few flower shops, past the hat vendor and the luggage stalls and all of a sudden there you are among the bric-a-brac of the dark arts.

Most stalls sell cuttings of San Pedro, the cactus that, when brewed with water, produces a hallucinogenic tea favoured by witchdoctors and troubled Peruvians and curious Western tourists. There's still a strong belief in shaman healing here, a link to an ancient history.

The stall owners are a little warier in this section, not quite as open to chatting. There's a young guy perched on a stool beneath an array of small dolls, each one hanging by its neck from a cord. Some are red and some are black. All are eerie in the extreme. So is the guy selling them. He looks on silently.

For Chiclayo's shamans, this must be a like a trip to Woolies. There are dried deer legs stacked on the shelves. There's a huge range of herbs and potions and powders with no labels or instructions or explanation. If you're a shaman, you just know what to do with them.

There are small clay figures with little holes for mouths. The idea is that you put a cigarette in the hole, light it and keep the guy happy. In return he will deliver real-life versions of the things he has clipped to his body: money, mostly, and jewels.

However, there don't seem to be any shamans doing their shopping today. It's quiet in witchcraft alley. There's just the occasional shout from a vendor and the click of a tourist's camera.

That's OK, though, because I'm heading back to the juice stand. There's nothing hallucinogenic there, but the girls will always say hello.

The writer travelled as a guest of Prom Peru.

Email: b.groundwater@fairfaxmedia.com.au

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