Tag Archives: markets

Learning to cook Vietnamese dishes in Hoi An

In the hope of being able to recreate some of the extraordinary food we’ve eaten in Vietnam when we’re back in Blighty (very soon! – sob!), Mark and I signed up for a cookery class in Hoi An.

The lesson at the Morning Glory Cookery School began early at the market – we were given the traditional conical hats to protect us from the fierce sun, and to help our teacher find us more easily in the hustle and bustle.

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This lady wears hers with far more attitude.

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Morning glory (no tittering at the back please; morning glory is a leafy green vegetable also known as water spinach, delicious stir fried with garlic and popular all over Vietnam) has hollow stems which can be split into fine strands for salads etc with this nifty tool.

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It was great having a local guide to answer all my questions in the market and point out details like the many types of noodle available.

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Bean sprout ladies

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Vegetables & fruit

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Different kinds of rice flour pancakes

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It was all too much for some…

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After an hour or so, before we too felt the need for a nap, it was back to the classroom to watch a master demonstration and then try our hand at some recipes. It felt a little like The Generation Game at times but we managed to keep up (modesty aside, we were star pupils…)

First, canh su (cabbage leaf parcels with shrimp mousse in broth)

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Then banh xeo (crispy pancake with pork, prawns and beansprouts rolled up with rice paper, green banana and herbs)

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And goi xoai (spicy green mango salad)

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I hear that the UK has had a bit of a heatwave so I’ll share the recipe for this refreshing mango salad at the end of the post.

We enjoyed the food at Morning Glory so much that we returned to their restaurant that night for their famous pork “roll it” dish.

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This region is known for its good food. Our teacher joked that men who want beautiful wives look in the North or South of Vietnam; those who want to marry a good cook come to central Vietnam to look in Hoi An. I know which I’d choose – looks fade but hunger persists!

Sure enough, outside of Morning Glory’s doors we continued to eat exceptionally well. Even the little shacks on the nearby An Bang beach served gourmet seafood treats like steamed lemongrass clams and tamarind crab. Cheaper than chips too!

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A Hoi An speciality is cau lao, a noodle dish with slices of roast pork, croutons made from deep fried squares of noodle dough, beansprouts and herbs.

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The components of the dish are assembled in little separate piles, which locals are able to mix together deftly with their chopsticks. Our attemps were a bit messier!

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The distinctive cau lao noodles make the dish special: chewy and rough in texture, a bit like a chunky Japanese soba noodle. Unlike the soupy depths of broth in pho, with cau lao you get just a dribble of cooking juices to wet the noodles.

Apparently, the dish is traditionally made using water from specific Cham-era wells in Hoi An which impart a particular flavour – I doubt all of the street stalls selling it abide by that rule these days! Even so, the ancient wells around town are guarded under lock and key for only a few lucky people to access.

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Hoi An lights up at night. The beautiful lanterns and fairy lights hanging from the trees next to the river give the place a dreamy, festival-like feel.

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Children sell candles which you can float down the river in colourful paper boats for good luck.

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As well as food, the other thing Hoi An is known for is good tailoring. I hope our expanding waistlines didn’t cause too much trouble for the tailor we chose!

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Goi Xoai (Vietnamese spicy green mango salad) from Morning Glory Cookery Class
Serves 4 as a starter

200g green mango, sliced finely
1 onion, sliced finely
1.5 cups Vietnamese mint and mint
2tsp sesame seeds, roasted
1tbsp vegetable oil
2tbsp crispy fried shallots
1tbsp lime juice
1tbsp white sugar
1tsp fish sauce
1tsp red chilli and garlic, pounded

4 rice crackers, to serve

In a bowl put mango and onion slices, 1 cup of mint, 1 tsp sesame seeds, lime juice, sugar, fish sauce, chilli & garlic mix and vegetable oil.
Mix well.
Serve on 4 small plates and garnish with the remaining mint, sesame seeds and fried shallots. Season to taste and serve with rice crackers.

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Santiago, Chile

Often when travelling, you arrive in a new place to be told “it’s a shame you’re here now and not last week/next month for the best festival/parade/show/season”. So it’s rather pleasing when your stay somewhere serendipitously coincides with a special event.

Mark and I happened to be in Santiago during the annual Dia del Patrimonio, a day for Chileans to celebrate their country and show national pride. Here in the capital, many buildings which are usually kept private open their doors to the public for the special occasion, and all of the museums and galleries scrap their entry fees for the day. Score!

The city was festooned with traditional dancers in colourful dress, musicians, balloons and decorations.

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The Presidential Palace drew the biggest crowds but the queue of thousands of people snaking down several blocks scared us off. Rather than spend the whole day shuffling forward in the world’s longest line, we popped into the Museo Historico Nacional on the city’s main square for a dose of Chile’s history, the art gallery Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and finally the excellent Museum of Memory and Human Rights (Museo de La Memoria y Los Derechos Humanos) which examines the brutal events during Pinochet’s military regime, 1973-1990.

All this sightseeing and culture made us hungry, so we popped into the Mercado Central for a traditional lunch of paila marina, a tasty soup of super fresh mussels and fish in broth.

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This was actually our second time in Santiago; some weeks before we had just 24 hours in the city on the way from Patagonia to Mendoza. That time we discovered a couple of gems which we made sure to revisit, such as Bar Nacional.

If I lived in Santiago I would be a regular; it’s an honest, no frills place which feels like a proper “caff” of the kind which is becoming increasingly rare in London. Bar Nacional is a sound choice at any time of day – as well as fresh juices, coffee and hearty set menus, they have a fully stocked bar. This is a perfect place to enjoy Chilean classics like pastel de choclo and was our choice of venue to watch the Champions League final along with locals.

Emporio La Rosa has very good ice cream indeed, in many tempting flavours like raspberry & mint or bitter chocolate & orange or local honey.

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Mark and I almost fell out after he thought it would be funny to snatch my ice cream and run away down the street with it. He knows that a surefire way to push my buttons is to get between me and food. This stunt still makes him chuckle; I am not amused. As revenge, I am posting a picture of Mark’s attempt to grow a “travelling beard”:

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It was hot and sunny on our first visit to Santiago, so the views from the top of Cerro Santa Lucia were pretty good. Apparently the best time to climb up there is just after it has rained, as Santiago’s thick smog gets washed away and the Andes are more visible in the distance.

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For us, the peaks were just about visible. I was keen to return to ground level so I could forget about how much pollution we were breathing in!

A drink enjoyed all over Santiago and throughout Chile is mote con huesillos, a combination of cracked wheat or maize kern and dried peaches cooked in sugared, spiced water until plump and rehydrated. Quite a pleasant thing for a light breakfast or quick snack.

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Another stroke of luck was that our second visit to Santiago happened to coincide with the birthday of a new friend we had met months earlier in Buenos Aires. Toby is an Aussie living in Santiago and fittingly, he chose a proper pub serving fish & chips for his party. Many happy returns again Toby and thank you for showing us what a great, liveable city Santiago is!

Food in Ecuador

I’ve said before how much I love checking out food markets in new places. Aside from the eye-catching displays of fruit & veg, in South American countries like Ecuador there are often stalls hawking hot food and cheap set meals made from the market’s best produce. Generally, the prices are astonishingly low because the ingredients are so readily available – and I imagine long standing deals with the produce stall keepers are arranged.

It can work out cheaper to buy a three or four course market almuerzo at $2.50 (typically consisting of a hearty soup, fresh salad, some sort of chicken or meat stew with rice, potatoes and a spicy salsa, with a fresh fruit smoothie or fruit salad to finish) than to make a picnic back at your hostel.

Like the increasingly popular street food scene in London, hot food stalls in Ecuadorian markets are strictly no frills operations: you are given just a single spoon to eat with (forget being shy about using hands and teeth to do what a spoon cannot) and kiddie sized plastic furniture to sit on. The food is always hearty, simple and rustic – nothing fancy.

Some examples of typical almuerzo fare: a plate brimming with sausage, chicken, meat stew, rice, fried egg, salad and lapingachos (fried potato and cheese cakes)…

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Or yagauarlocro (potato soup with toppings of fried black pudding/blood sausage, crunchy onion and avocado). Love all the textures in one bowl…

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But friendly service costs nothing and is often provided with abundance – the stall holders are all jokes and smiles as they motion you to sit down, or invite you to stick your nose into their saucepans to see what they’ve got cooking. Condiments are always interesting – aji (homemade hot salsa) is often on the tables along with freshly cut lime wedges and diced onion.

As well as being a great way to stay within tight backpacking budgets, eating in markets lets you get away from the gringo joints and sample what locals really eat. It’s not unusual to be squashed in at a table where a toothless octogenarian cholita, a suited business professional and a gaggle of uniformed schoolkids are all slurping away at identical set meals.

It was a setting like this where we had one of the most enjoyable and visually memorable meals of our time in Ecuador, on the top floor of a grubby market in Cuenca.

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Pork is a big deal in Cuenca. I don’t know the exact recipe but it probably goes something like this:

  1. Get a bloody great big pig
  2. Blast it with heat until every inch of skin turns into thick, crisp crackling
  3. Plonk the whole thing out on a counter top – the head or a few of the legs will inevitably flop over the edges
  4. The serving lady must always be elbow deep inside the carcass to pull out the juiciest shreds of meat with her fingers
  5. The serving lady must also snap off samples of that insane crackling to lure people to sit at her tables
  6. Serve with potato cakes, maize, salad and a spoon

Markets are also a great place for breakfasts in the morning. In Ecuador, empanadas are not the Cornish pasty-like baked meaty treats you get elsewhere. Here they are more like donuts: fried until puffy, filled with mild creamy cheese and dusted with sugar.

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Great with a coffee, or a cup of morocho, a thick hot drink made of maize simmered in milk with cinnamon, cloves, sugar and raisins – a bit like rice pudding.

Another uniquely Ecuadorian take on the empanada is empanadas verde, made with mashed green plantain. These are uncooked, waiting for a quick flash in a frying pan…

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We kept seeing malta con huevo for sale at various drinks stalls in markets. After confirming that this does in fact mean “malt beer with egg” and is sometimes translated into the English “scrambled beer”, our curiosity was piqued enough to order a couple to try for oursleves. We watched in astonishment as the drinks stall lady filled a blender with an unlikely combination of ingredients. In went a bottle of pilsner, a slurp of alfalfa juice, a bit of borojo pulp from a packet (a sour fruit, pic below) and finally a raw egg to be whizzed together.

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The end result was peculiar but surprisingly drinkable – the earthy taste of beer somehow works with the grassy alfalfa. We both finished our glasses, albeit with looks of confusion on our faces. I think malta con huevo would be a great hangover cure – a filling meal in a glass, gentle on the tummy, with a bit of hair of the dog, vitamins from the fruit and alfalfa and protein from the egg. Only a drunkard could have invented it!

A less challenging drink commonly served in Ecuador’s markets is jugo or thick juices: fresh fruit blended with water or milk and sugar. Ecuador’s diverse ecosystems yield a wealth of native fruit and even the smallest stalls have dozens of options. Mark has developed a taste for tangy tamarino (tamarind) and my favourite is tomate d’arbol (tomatillo), a beautiful fruit with a taste which is hard to pin down – the seeds, internal structure and sharpness are reminiscent of an unripe tomato but there is also a delicate, fruity flavour a bit like melon.

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It seems to grow everywhere in Ecuador but I haven’t come across it before in the UK; I read that you can source the frozen pulp which would work in a blended juice but not sure if you can get the fresh fruits. Tomate d’arbol is also awesome in aji de tomate d’arbol – a punchy salsa made with the fruit and hot chillies. I have bookmarked this recipe to play with later.

Although Quito is miles from the coast, one of the specialities of the capital city’s food market is corvina (sea bass). This meal at Quito’s Mercado Central consisted of a huge slab of the fish served with ceviche (in Ecuador, ceviche is quite soupy, with lots of lime juice), potatoes and popcorn – all for $4!

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After the epic pork at Cuenca’s market, we ate another kind of pig; guinea pig or cuy is a delicacy in Ecuador as well as Peru. The friendly man who made us our Panama hats in Cuenca recommended a local place which specialised in cuy, Tres Estrellas.

It takes at least an hour to cook so you have to call in advance to avoid a long wait; although they are little creatures they are quite fatty so time is needed to get a really crispy skin.

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Ecuadorians think the best bit is the feet so we tried them – they taste like pub pork scratchings. We were slightly more squeamish about the head, which still had teeth intact…

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Ecuador grows some of the best cacao in the world and if you avoid the ubiquitous Nestlé bars, you can find really fine chocolate. We stocked up on some sublime bars at Quito’s Kallari cafe, which is linked to a small artisan producer in the countryside.

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The cafe also makes gorgeous tarts, cakes and brownies – we couldn’t resist sharing this gooey pud.

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Before I came to Ecuador I read this Guardian article which indicated that Ecuador’s food scene was behind Peru’s and eagerly snapping at its neighbour’s heels. Some of the country’s top chefs and foodies seem to be envious and indignant about Peru’s global culinary success and can’t help but compare the two cuisines.

But after a couple of weeks of happy, stimulating eating around Ecuador, I see no need for this anxious “keeping up with the Joneses” attitude – Ecuadorean food deserves to be more than just second fiddle to the popular Peruvian trend. It is hugely underrated and should be recognised in its own right.

Peru bites

Keep your cathedrals, plazas, museums and statues – the first place I want to visit when I arrive somewhere new is the local food market.

Nowhere is better for getting under the skin of a place and gaining insight into how people shop, eat and live. I could (and often do) spend hours browsing; marvelling at the colours of unfamiliar fruits, asking questions and accepting samples, checking out how prices compare from place to place, practising my haggling skills and generally absorbing the energy of the hustle and bustle.

It is impossible to leave empty handed and I think the best travel souvenirs are from markets; I have a growing collection of wooden spoons from all over South America waiting to be taken back home to London.

True to form, we visited a main market on our first day in Lima. At first glance this market wasn’t anything fancy or high end (unlike São Paulo where perfect specimens of fruit were constructed in architectural wonders for display).

But with such vivid colours and variety, there is no need to add frills.

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Black or purple corn, used to make the classic fruity Peruvian drink chicha morada (it’s a bit like a grown up ribena!)

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Fresh cacao, which people take home to grind and make their own chocolate.

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Reptilian looking cherimoya aka custard apples – the biggest I’ve ever seen!

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When we looked closer we saw that although this market seemed a bit rough and ready, like a regular busy market in any country, a tremendous amount of care went into preparing the produce for sale.

It was beautiful to watch: men and women crouched near their stalls meticulously trimming lettuces, picking over soft fruits, even finely chopping onions, herbs and vegetables to bag up separately to relieve their customers of a tedious prep job.

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Even humble garlic was given this treatment, with the papery husks discarded to show off plump cloves.

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There seemed to be a real sense of pride among the stallholders, not only in their work but in the produce itself. It’s clearly a culture which values and loves food. I wish we could find more of this attention to detail and level of service in the UK.

There is plenty of good eating outside of the markets too.

This is a snack called “causa” sold at many cafes. It’s layers of potato, chicken or seafood, mayonnaise, avocado, topped with hard boiled eggs and black olives. The story goes that the name originates from the War of the Pacific, when women would make these to sell “por la causa” (for the cause) to raise money for the troops. It’s tasty and filling, a bit like Russian salad (salad olivieh to Persians).

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There was no way I was visiting Peru without trying their delicacy of cuy, guinea pig. Especially after I learnt that it was a main part of The Last Supper…

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It’s decent; the “tastes like chicken” cliche is apt. The meat is quite fatty for such a little beast but they carry a lot of chub around their haunches.

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After getting bitten by the ceviche bug, we ate as much as possible while we were in Lima.

The ceviche apaltado from La Canta Rana has set a new benchmark for me. I can’t get enough of the large, buttery avocados in South America and this combination of a perfectly ripe specimen with fresh fish and a skilfully balanced marinade is something I will crave, even years from now.

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Mark’s ceviche mixto (fish chunks mixed with octopus, clams, prawns and other seafood) was memorable too.

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Even Sir Paul McCartney is a fan – his autograph is among the many wall decorations!

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Another highlight was Panchita, a restaurant which is part of Gaston Acurio’s empire in Lima. We couldn’t get a reservation at his most famous place Astrid y Gaston (recently named #14 in the World’s 50 Best list for 2013) but a visit to Panchita, which showcases the best of typical Peruvian street food, helped to make up for this.

Four of us enjoyed sharing hearty portions. Clockwise from top left: aji de gallinas (chicken in a creamy sauce), arroz con pato (stir fried rice with duck), tallarines (stir fried beef, veggies and noodles) and lomo saltado tacu tacu (flash fried marinated steak with vegetables).

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Lima recently had another of its restaurants recognised by the World’s 50 Best list, a new addition at #50. Central is run by Virgilio Martinez who also owns the restaurant Lima in London and used to be head chef at Astrid y Gaston. We booked a table here and looked forward to a real treat before we left the city.

And what a treat it was. After nosing around the upstairs library which is crammed with reference books, maps, photographs and obscure ingredients Virgilio and his team are researching, we were shown to our seats.

We were given a platter of excellent artisan bread, dried seaweed, flavoured butters and dips to nibble on while we read the menu.

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(Sorry for the quality of the photos – we had only a phone camera in the dimly lit room.)

Central’s menu is like a map of Peru: there is arapaima fish from the Amazon jungle, shrimp and grouper from the rivers and seas, suckling piglet from high altitude grasslands and chuno (a frozen dehydrated potato) from the Andes mountains. Native ingredients are combined with Virgilio’s international favourites – he has trained and worked around the world.

It was such a good menu that we had to ask the waiter to help us choose. Following his advice, I ordered “charred purple-corn scented octopus” to start, which was served with sauces of black olive and tree tomato (aka tomate d’arbol which I am rapidly becoming obsessed with, particularly in freshly juiced form).

These were served in fun purple and yellow dots which stirred memories of Mr Blobby – first time I’ve thought of that 90s pop chart horror in a decade!

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Mark went for lamb cannelloni with Urubamba cheese (we had crossed the Urubamba river on our trek to Machu Picchu).

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For the main course, I had suckling pig which was beautifully tender, sticky and gelatinous – it didn’t need all of the slightly gloopy, sweet “pear custard” served alongside. Mark chose the arapaima, a meaty white fish which complemented another Amazonian ingredient, hearts of palm.

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Central has its own chocolate cellar downstairs, which holds some of the best chocolate in Peru. Obviously I had to choose the chocolate dessert! Mark ordered the goats cheesecake which came with a fragrant, steaming pine concoction for extra theatre.

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We just about found room for the playful petit fours of marshmallows and other goodies served on a “lava rock” made of sugar.

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I grabbed Virgilio himself for a cheesy photo and to thank him for a delicious meal, congratulate him on his restaurant’s recent success and wish him well for his forthcoming wedding.

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Great news – he and Gaston have teamed up to open another restaurant in London early next year, spitting distance from where I work in Shoreditch.

I dare say I will be a regular!

La Paz, Bolivia

Mark and I were ready to hate La Paz.

Often, after we have spent time in the wilderness soaking up stunning natural landscapes, cities can feel tiresome and unwelcome, even to this diehard Londoner.

But La Paz was a pleasant surprise which made us realise once again how much Bolivia has to offer. It’s such an underrated country with so many misconceptions – their tourism industry needs better PR!

Pub quiz fans know La Paz to be the highest capital city in the world: a nosebleed inducing 3660m. What we weren’t expecting was the way the city’s buildings seem to climb the sides of the canyon with Mt Illamani in the background. Or how varied the different neighbourhoods are. Or just how sweltering it gets in the daytime, especially in contrast to the freezing nights.

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On the map, distances within La Paz don’t look far but the combination of altitude and steep hills is a killer. Wads of coca leaves stayed firmly in our cheeks as we found our way around the city.

One of the first places we visited was Calle Jaén, the oldest street in La Paz which today is a charming collection of higgledy piggledy museums, galleries, shops and cafes on either side of a cobbled road.

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A favourite was the Mamani Mamani gallery, where you could see some of the huge, colourful works of Bolivia’s most famous artist. Our travel budget didn’t allow us to invest in any paintings, but luckily he has also painted murals around the city which can be enjoyed for free.

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La Paz is also a paradise for shoppers, with quality items like baby alpaca jumpers at laughably cheap prices. More unusual goods are also available, particularly in the Witches Market.

For example you can find llama foetuses, which are traditionally buried under the front step of a new house, as an offering to Pachamama (Mother Earth, a venerated spirit in Andean cultures) to ensure prosperity.

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You can also buy all sorts of lotions and potions for a multitude of purposes, from career success to sexual prowess.

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These little chaps are used during the Bolivian tradition of Alasitas, or the “Festival of Abundance” every January. Miniature versions of items such as money, food, cars, houses, diplomas are offered to be blessed, as a prayer that the real, life sized thing will be obtained in the coming year.

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La Paz also has many fresh produce markets, with literally thousands of stalls displaying virtually identical stock, each looked after by a cholita (the Bolivian ladies who wear the ubiquitous style of bowler hats, two long plaits, full skirts and many layers of cardigans and blankets).

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We didn’t understand this initially – surely in such a busy, competitive marketplace it would be best to differentiate yourself and your stall with specialist items or price points? Then we learnt that Bolivians are fiercely loyal to their fruit & veg cholita: generations of the same family will only buy their food from the same lady’s stall. Apparently it is not uncommon to be refused service if you are obviously carrying a bag of produce bought from another stall.

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We also learnt a bit about the etiquette of these markets. For example, haggling over the price of fresh produce is not welcome, but you can get a good deal by asking for a yapa (a free gift of a few extra items to add to your shopping).

Also it is important to ask permission before taking photos as many cholitas don’t like it. Sure enough we spotted a few with bags of rotten tomatoes by their feet, ready to hurl at disrespectful, snap happy gringos.

Some other sights from our wanderings around the city, including politically significant buildings. We learnt a bit about Bolivia’s tumultuous, dramatic history: around 200 changes of government in around 180 years as a republic. The streets and squares of La Paz have seen many protests, marches and riots; some landmarks have visible bullet holes.

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Unbelievably, traffic in La Paz is controlled by people in zebra outfits!

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