The city of La Paz is a shock to the senses. At 3,660 meters above sea level, a simple flight of stairs takes a marathon effort, and the thick pollution that spews from the micros that scurry through the city leave you gasping for air.

Despite the smoke, dirt and cold, La Paz still manages to charm. Open air markets blanket the city, and anything your heart desires is at your finger tips (that is, if your heart desires belts, cheap electronics, teddy bears, flowers or pirated DVDs). The Witch’s Market provides a healthy dose of culture shock, just be sure to duck as you enter the shops, so you don’t bump your head on the dried llama carcasses hanging from the ceiling (bought as offerings to Pachamama). The street food is unique and superb; salchipapas, a sauteed mix of french fries and hot dogs can be found at every corner. If you are of the non-vegetarian persuasion and care to try them, be sure to slather them with a mound of mayonnaise and ketchup, but perhaps consult your physician first.

Calina and Jill explored an enormous playground located in the heights of the city. They climbed through slides and jungle gyms, snapping awesome photos along the way. When Calina came back from her hike to the park, she collapsed into bed, completely exhausted. The location of the park must mean that only the fittest kids in the city ever bother to venture up there. When I saw Calina’s photos, I thought there must be no fit kids in La Paz; the park looked completely abandoned. Too many baskets of salchipapas, perhaps?

The Adventure Brew hostel in La Paz has become one of my favorites. The hostel brews its own beer and offers a free glass with each night’s accommodation coupled with a pancake breakfast. Our three night stay was not long enough for me to tire of this deal. In a massive oversight in planning, the hostel placed its bar on the rooftop patio, four stories up, while the brewery was located in the basement. This meant that each time a keg ran dry some unlucky soul had to haul a new one up four flights of stairs. If one flight of stairs in La Paz feels like a marathon, four flights, with a keg of beer is a triathlon. Fortunately for the staff, there are plenty of strapping young lads ‘n lasses who are more than willing to perform this grueling task in exchange for a free pint. There is even a poster recording the best times. John and I took up the challenge and carried a keg up the stairs in a little over a minute. While this was more than twice the record time, we figured it must be a record within the “vegetarian, web-designer” classification.

Aside from the hostel and the markets we thoroughly enjoyed the restaurants of La Paz. In particular, The Star of India, which claims to be the world’s highest curry house. The intense vindaloo they serve comes with a free t-shirt if you can finish the whole thing. The t-shirts were unbelievably bad-ass, but I couldn’t bring myself to sacrifice my taste buds and digestive system for a shot at them. Maybe next time.

Coca culture is alive and well in La Paz. Our visit to the Coca Museum further deprogrammed our Northern preconceptions about coca. The coca leaf has a number of beneficial properties; it increases energy, helps with altitude sickness, decreases appetite, is an anesthetic and also plays an important role in indigenous rituals. This plant, that was so integral to the indigenous way of life, was usurped by white people and transformed into the harmful drug, cocaine. This transformation was prophesied by an 800 year-old legend, “If your oppressor arrives from the north, the white conqueror, the gold seeker, when he touches it he will find only poison for his body and madness for the mind”. In the 1960’s, as part of the War on Drugs, the US went into Bolivia and pressured the government into taking an anti-coca stance. Eliminating the raw source of coca was much easier than tackling the country’s addiction. This strategy was devastating for Bolivian coca farmers, and did not prove successful in solving the cocaine problem in the United States. The cultivation of coca for traditional use is no longer prohibited in Bolivia, which is great because coca cookies taste delicious.

La Paz was a stark contrast from both Uyuni and Sucre. We left confident that our next destinations, Cocacabana and Lake Titicaca, would continue this trend and further prove the immense diversity of Bolivian landscapes.