I had just fallen asleep when the night bus from La Paz to Uyuni opened its doors, letting a wave of horrifically cold air in to jolt me awake. The driver calls out “Uyuni!” and I check my phone to find that it is not even 6 o’clock yet. I struggle to put on my shoes, and I can tell the rest of the bus is feeling just as disconcerted as I am, as no one has gotten up from their seat yet. When I finally make it onto the street and pass the dozen or so taxi drivers trying to take me to a hotel room that I don’t have, I realize how empty and desolate the town is. A few blocks from the bus station and I cannot see anyone in any direction. Packs of stray dogs roam the street and dust floats through the below-freezing night air, undulating like tumbleweeds in an old Western. I wonder if the apocalypse happened overnight and, if it did, why the bus driver didn’t let us know. I message my hostel, and the administrator makes it clear that I will have to pay for another night if I show up now, so I duck into an indoor ATM-closet to get cash, hide from the wind, and plan my next move. A quick Google maps search reveals that there are two cafes in town that are open at this hour, and they are a few blocks away by the train station. I shake my limbs and muster up enough warmth under my hoodie to leave the ATM and walk to Noni’s Breakfast.
When I arrive at the cafe, the main room is bright and warm, and I see two German women that I swore I knew from the La Paz walking tour the day prior. I took a seat next to them, and they informed me that they not only had been on the walking tour with me, but they also were two of the Germans I must have overheard talking on the bus from Puno to La Paz. Small world. Or, rather, small continent. The three of us spent the morning drinking tea and chatting, as their tour did not start until 10:30 am and I felt like by that point we shared a common enough set of experiences that we were de facto friends. We happily shared our thoughts on the tour, the buses, the wild ride from Puno to La Paz, which they were annoyed by but happy to take it in stride.
When they asked the time my tour left, they seemed surprised when I responded I did not have one. In Uyuni, well known for being the closest city to Bolivia’s picturesque salt flats, virtually every tourist has come for the sole purpose of seeing this magnificent landscape. I explained, unabashed, that my trek through South America was forcing me to miss much of what people visit the continent for. However, while the salt flats seemed interesting and the photos I saw breathtaking, I only had until the following morning at 4 am, which would mean booking an all-day tour, returning exhausted in the early evening, and making the first purchase over $50 USD on the continent. In truth, I had considered booking a tour that morning to the flats, but after the dramatic debussing that morning into the ghost town of Uyuni, I realized that there had to be something more to Uyuni than the salt flats, and I sure as hell was going to find it. I am a humanities man, and so nature’s course is only as interesting as the human ideas thrust upon them. Towns, cities, and pueblos are where my heart truly lies.
After a two-hour procrastination breakfast with the two young Germans, the sun had risen and I decided to head to my hostel just to drop off my bag. I arrived after a fifteen minute walk, during which I passed a handful of solemn Bolivians, each walking alone and clearly headed to work. The hostel’s receptionist that morning was a woman with soft, pale-looking skin, a rarity in a country with so little atmosphere between it and the sun. She gladly lent me a locker, and we spoke for a few moments about the town’s attractions aside from the flats. I knew I wanted to see the train cemetery, a collection of old, rusting locomotive parts to the south of town, but was unsure of what else there was to see. She informed me there wasn’t much in the way of tourism, except for an old train museum where the displays were supposedly not well taken care of. She also told me about Pulacayo, a near-ghost town that I could likely hitch I ride to by asking one of the bus drivers heading east. This sounded incredibly intriguing, and surely an adventure, but I ultimately decided against going after falling in love with the daily routine of Uyuni.
I started walking south from my hostel, and kept going after the cobblestones turned to gravel, and then finally to desert sand. After each change in terrain, it appeared businesses turned into residences, which then turned into single brick walls that were, one day, supposed to expand into houses. Though “for lease” signs of faded spray paint made that hard to believe. At the end of the avenue, I shuffled through the wind-combed desert sand and virgin mosses until it looked as though I was at the bottom of the sea with no apparent signs of life. Ahead sat the dozens of old freight trains and locomotives, like shipwrecks long-rusted and chipped by passing fish. Looking toward the town of Uyuni, a low cloud had formed which, in addition to the heavy dust of the town, made it seem like more of a ghost town than I’d ever witnessed in the American Southwest. Tourists had not yet begun arriving to the cemetery of trains, and I got the post-apocalyptic chill again, seeing the once-alive town that I came from shrouded in dusty ectoplasm.
Slowly, the fellow tourists started appearing by the truckload, and I came across the train cemetery gift shop, to kill the vibe even more. As the vehicles pulled in, my quiet ocean bottom began teeming with life, spraying sand into the wind and into my ears and nose. Fearing I would be buried in this train cemetery, I decided to follow the actual road back into town, as opposed to freestyling it like I did on the walk in. The dry desert air was taking a toll on my lips, which had been dry since Puno and now felt as if they were going to shed like snakes. I stopped at a pharmacy to get chapstick, and was forced to choose between M&M flavored lip balm and grownup Nivea mint. I chose the mint, though the amount I have had to use it has made me constantly rethink my decision as much as my diet has made me rethink my age.
I had about an hour until was allowed to check into the hostel, and I had come to the end of tourist board-approved sightseeing activities. The weather was incredibly sunny and cool, so I decided to sit on one of the many benches in the center of town and watch Uyuni resume its daily routine. By the park, a sort of street festival was going on where men were dancing, boys were playing soccer, and girls were singing in a choir, all at once. Parents watched their kids from the street corners, smiling and enjoying the festivities. At one point, a crying boy and two women, perhaps his mother and aunt, sat down on the bench next to me. The two women were engaged in talking, but one of them would reach over with a cloth to wipe the boy’s tears every now and then. Eventually he stopped crying and began climbing all over the bench, then started watching the street go by with me. Eventually they left, and I had taken enough sun. I began walking the streets to my hostel, where I checked in. The afternoon I spent napping and reading, trying to catch up on the now countless hours of sleep I had missed so far on this trip. I planned on going to bed early as well, as I had to be awake at 3 am to catch my bus to Chile. But more on that story later.
Around 5 pm, I had read my fill of Don Quixote and started browsing the web for where to eat my last Bolivian supper. There were many fondas, or small, casual restaurants, but the restaurant that kept appearing in the most recommended was a curious restaurant called “Minuteman Pizza.”
The reviews seemed rather cryptic. A few of the people who reviewed the restaurant had never eaten there, saying that they couldn’t find it but heard good things. The second, more conspicuous, detail that sparked intrigue was the name of the restaurant. “Minuteman Pizza.” There had to be a story behind why a pizza restaurant in the middle of Bolivia would have that name. Before reading too far, I decided to just go check it out, and satisfy both my hunger and curiosity, and then come back to my bed by 7 pm and fall asleep.
Like some of those ill-fated reviewers, I had trouble finding the place. I walked to where I thought it should be, and ended up at the front gate of a Bolivian military base with signs all around telling me not to take pictures and not to walk past the armed guards. To the left of the base was a closed general store called Mercantil Santa Cruz. No pizza there. To the right of the based was an Old Western-style hotel that looked like it could have a wooden sign with “Saloon” burnt into it, instead of “Toñito Hotel”. One of the armed military men noticed my confusion and glared with military stoicism into my eyes, like he was trying to gauge if I was a threat.
“Is there a pizzeria here?” I asked in Spanish. He smiled then pointed to the hotel.
“It’s in there,” he said, putting his pointer hand back on the barrel of his rifle, and turning back to face the entrance to the base. I thanked him.
The doors of the Toñito Hotel were large, oaken things that were locked from the inside. I knocked, and almost immediately a short, cheery Boliviano opened it up and welcomed me in. The hotel had two lobbies. The first was strictly for check in and almost seemed like it had been built as a front to hide what was inside. I asked the guy if there was a pizza restaurant there, and he happily pointed me to the back of the second lobby, which had comfortable chairs, a fire, and absolutely no guests enjoying it. In the back of the lobby, where the clerk had indicated, large metal letters denoted that this was, in fact, Minuteman Pizza. Signs next to the door explained the complicated instructions for ordering. Customers are to look at the menus, placed at the bar, and order there. They are to pay cash, and they are not to make special requests. Next, they take the playing card that the person at the bar gives them, and sit down wherever they like, first stopping by the self-service station to acquire plates, knives or whatever they need. When guests are done, they are simply supposed to leave their plates and things on the table and leave without a word to the management. I tried to take in all of this information, but naturally left my playing card at the bar, and tried to bring my plate to the front at the end. This was not a big deal, as I was the only person there, and so the chef/ cashier was able to keep track of me despite my shortcomings in the following orders department. I may have wandered in from the military base, but I certainly did not belong there.
Though I ordered in Spanish, it became clear that the language barrier was the reason for the complex system of ordering. As people began to trickle in, it was obvious that they were all just coming back from the salt flats, and many of them did not speak Spanish. While I waited for my pizza, I read the history of the restaurant on the back of one of the menus. The restaurant was started by an American couple who met at UMass Amherst, home of the minutemen. As an homage to their school, they started this restaurant in Uyuni, where they enjoyed visiting to see the salt flats. My pizza arrived, and with it the same red sauce (I now knew was called ‘llajwa’) and garlicky cream I had gotten in Puno. This pizza, however, was a million times better than Machu Pizza. Many of the reviews praised this as the best pizza in South America. However, I think this pizza could go head to head with anything in New England as well. The ingredients were clearly fresh, and the spices were unlike anything I had eaten on pizza before. Not to mention, the strange experience of the clandestine restaurant made it a truly fascinating experience, as I tracked down the elusive pizza through military bases and hotel lobbies.
I part ways with the young Swiss woman after walking from the bus station to downtown La Paz. The walk to my hostel, according to Google Maps, is meant to take 32 minutes. It takes half that, but I feel as though I have died twice on the way. La Paz is built inside a large bowl atop a mountain, making it the highest capital in the world. This combination means that you cannot go more than a couple of blocks without coming across a steep incline, and thinness of the air makes walking up these inclines a unique hell in which you can inhale as much cool, refreshing air as you want, but that air has just barely enough oxygen to sustain you. The two of us walked together for hardly eight blocks, but after climbing the first couple I felt I was hyperventilating and one step in any direction would lead me to faint. I noted to budget in extra travel time to go slow whenever walking in this city, even though bowler-hat-clad octogenarian cholitas would be outpacing me at every incline. After all, they had not spent their entire lives at sea level like I had.
I arrived at the hostel, the first true “party hostel” I have stayed at, just after dark. I have said before that there are three types of hostels: your Marriotts, your hippie communes, and your guesthouses. I now know there is a fourth type: the ‘Hostel California.’ As the famous Eagles’ song “Hotel California” goes: “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” Where I was staying, it seemed that more people worked at the hostel than were staying there, and when the woman at the front desk saw I was only staying for a night, she seemed confused. I later learned why the atmosphere was so popular among the late-twenties backpacker crowd.
After a dinner of pork chop, which I bought on the street, I returned to the hostel which was now shaking with loud dance music. In the bar area down the hall from my room, cheers would go up at the end of every round of some drinking game, and the atmosphere was lively to say the least. Officially, I had only been able to drink legally in the U.S. for three weeks, and the rowdiness of the bar at 7 pm was unlike anything I had ever seen. I had to stay and see just what would happen when it actually got late.
As the night wore on, fun and games grew more outrageous and it was not uncommon to see someone standing or dancing on the bar. In some simple dice game, where a round lasted all of 10 minutes, I won several free shots of Bailey’s and coffee liqueur and even dancing atop the bar myself for bonus points in the night’s trivia contest. Drinks flowed freely, by which I mean one hardly had to pay to get a drink. Between two-for-ones, drinking games where the house seemed to lose more than it won, and the free shot that everyone at the bar received at the conclusion of the trivia round, I think I paid for about a third of the drinks I got. In the morning, when I had to face the dreaded tab, I discovered it came out to barely over 15 dollars. In Manhattan, one would be hard pressed to find a cocktail anywhere for this price, let alone a night’s worth of high-altitude drunkery and shenanigans. I did, however, pay the price when I tried to go to sleep that night, as I discovered that Bailey’s and coffee liqueur have caffeine just like real coffee. By the time I fell asleep, the early risers had the lights turned on and were packing their bags to leave the hostel. My bus was not until 8 pm, so I spent the day taking the La Paz walking tour, relaxing in the courtyard, and reading. I checked out at 8 in the morning, but the staff was happy to let me use all the hostel facilities until I left for my bus. Plenty of room at the Hostel California.
Of all the free walking tours I have taken, the La Paz walking tour was neither the most fun nor the most free. The guides explained that a guide had been punched in prior years by another city tour guide for offering the same service for free. As a result, the fee for the tour was 20 Bolivianos ($3) and a strongly suggested tip of 50 Bolivianos ($8). In the typical European free walking tour, the suggested tip tends to be a little lower, around 5 Euro, so a lot of my fellow tourists felt a little bit scammed, considering the cost of living in La Paz was way lower than anywhere in Europe, and the sheer number of people on the tour made it so that a tip of $5 per person would easily allow for the tour guides to rent a condo in south Florida, provided they gave tours a few times a week. Regardless, the tour was enjoyable. We stopped at a the city’s most ornate mestizo-style cathedral, the presidential residence, and a witches market where llama fetuses were hanging from each vendor’s tent. The tour gave thorough insight into contemporary Bolivian culture and history. The Plurinational State of Bolivia, as it has been called since 2009, changed their name in order to promote and give recognition to their more than 100 indigenous communities. While there are several indigenous groups in Bolivia, the Aymara are the largest in number in La Paz, and signs in the Aymara language are not hard to find. Among the Bolivians I talked to, indigenous culture is invaluable for practically all Bolivians because it makes them rather unique compared to most nations in the western hemisphere that have largely persecuted Native Americans from colonial days. Throughout my time in Bolivia and southern Peru, I couldn’t help but think how life in the United States would be incredibly different if European settlers hadn’t committed so many atrocities which led to the decimation of the Native American population. In Bolivia, the “mestizo,” or “mixed,” culture pervades society and demonstrates that Bolivian culture could not be without both Spanish and indigenous influences.
The guides concluded the tour with a discussion about some of the shortcomings of Bolivian government. Historically, Bolivia has not always been accepting of the indigenous community, and prior to 2009 native groups were extremely vocal about their lack of rights. Corruption remains an issue in Bolivia, something I discovered first hand whenever the bus I was on got stopped and a man entered to collect a “road tax” or “bus terminal tax” that I clearly wasn’t required by law to pay. While every nation has their struggles, I think the United States would be smart to write plurinationalism, or the coexistence of different ethnic groups, or nations, into the country’s name. The United States exists only because of diverse thought, diverse belief, and diverse experience. The Bolivian model acknowledges that diversity builds resilience, whereas the words “one nation, under God” have the potential for divisiveness. If it was not your nation who wrote those words, and your God is a different one from any of the founding fathers, is it not possible that you may not feel quite so at home in your home country?
The Peruvian-Bolivian border crossing goes without a hitch, and my visa is accepted. The sun feels nice, and it is too soon when the bus attendant calls for us to board. Before entering Copacabana, a man with a vest hops on the bus, and asks for a 2-Boliviano tax for the city of Copacabana. The more wary travelers on the bus tell him no, and I reach into my pocket and give him a couple Bolivianos. After all, the man had a vest with the city’s name on it. Who am I to question his credentials?
We had the luxury of making it a mile into Bolivia before the Peru Tours bus stopped at a building marked with its name, and the attendant told us to get off. As we stepped out, the attendant explained that we would have to change buses to get to La Paz, which left an hour later from another tour company on the corner. A young German-Swiss woman, who was given a ticket to the same bus, suggested we go find lunch and I agreed. It is almost inconceivable how many German speakers I came across in South America, but I digress. She was rather upset at the bus change, but after bus breakdowns and 24-hour sentences in a single seat, I was happy to get into the sun, grab a bite of real food, and have a cold drink.
We ordered a “Spring Pizza,” since she was vegetarian and I hadn’t eaten a vegetable in almost a week. I noticed many vegetarian restaurants in my travels across South America thus far, and she told these were seemingly ubiquitous because of the tourists; apparently, the small towns did not have too many vegetarian restaurants. I didn’t ask her motivations behind being vegetarian, but it seemed to me that humani-vegetarians need not worry about the treatment of South American cows. On the drive from Copacabana to La Paz, it seemed each cow had its own acre of land to graze in freely. Not that I ever took extra care in making sure my food was ethically sourced, but I made certain to focus on the difference in flavor in the meat I had thereafter in South America. It seemed so much of the meat I had in Peru and Bolivia tasted fresher than the frozen ground beef it seems I mostly eat back at home.
Miles of pastureland ultimately gave way to an open town square and the expansive Lake Titicaca. Our bus was to drive onto a flimsy looking barge to the other side, while the rest of us boarded a passenger ferry. As we crossed, our vessel rocked furiously, bringing nervous looks to many of the other tourists’ faces. I, on the other hand, was having the time of my life. This trip was finally starting to feel like the rugged, dangerous, backpacking expedition I hoped it would be. When we disembarked, I was certain that the ferry fare had been the best 32-cents I had spent this trip. The young Swiss lady was not as amused as I was.
Wanting to prolong the adventure, and perhaps get a nice tan, I asked the 14-year-old ferry captain how much I’d have to pay him to take me the rest of the way to La Paz. thinking that if he’d take me across the lake for 32 cents, I could probably pay him five bucks and go direct to La Paz. He said he couldn’t do it. It was not until were reached La Paz that I realized the city is not only landlocked, but also located up a very tall mountain. The more you know.
Thankfully, the adventure does not end there. Since the bus we boarded in Copacabana was not the company we booked with, it seemed they were free to drive with the reckless abandon that, frankly, I would have if I were driving alone or, for example, playing Need for Speed on the Playstation. I wanted front-row seats, so I assumed my position in the ‘bubble’ on the second floor, located above the driver’s seat. From there, I was able to look out to the rolling hills of Bolivia, and witness the small villages as they appeared from the driver’s seat.
Ten minutes into our post-ferry drive, La Suiza tapped me on the shoulder to notify me that the side door to the bus had been open the entire time. I alerted the top-floor bus attendant, who was sitting next to me. We both laughed at the idea that we had been driving 60+ and didn’t even notice the door was still open. He walked down the stairs, tapped on the glass, and let te driver know to close the door, which he did automatically from the front without even slowing down.
As we climbed into the hills, the driver started making increasingly sharp turns, many of which would have resulted in us plunging hundreds of feet into the lake if not executed properly. At one turn, I felt my stomach lurch as we grazed one of the white-and-red pylons placed in the 3-foot shoulder between the road and watery death. I had the most powerful sense of deja-vu I had ever had, but could not put a finger on where I had experienced this moment before. Nowhere I had ever been, as far as I could tell, would install only small, plastic cylinders between a road and a steep cliffside, and yet I knew I had seen this image before. The pylons, the cliff, and even the royal blue lake water. I had seen it all. “Perhaps it was in my nightmares,” I thought. Tumbling over a cliff is definitely the type of stress-dream I would have, but that couldn’t be it. It was too familiar.
The only rational explanation, and I use the word “rational” lightly, that I thought of was, perhaps, when one’s life flashes before their eyes they see the past present and, if they should have one, future. Maybe the last time I was close to death I saw all the moments stretched out before me wherein I would almost meet death. Then, like waking from a dream that you promptly forget, I dropped the memory of the pylons and the the lake and all that remained was a photo negative printed in my subconscious, waiting to be developed permanently by the memory itself.
Maybe I shouldn’t have read Slaughterhouse Five on this trip. So it goes.
As we continued, the two lanes became four distinct strips of asphalt, meeting and separating at random intervals to be connected at a later date by a Bolivian construction crew. Many of the strips were dotted with potholes, so the driver, with impressive deftness, would hop between the four lanes regularly, getting out of the path of oncoming traffic often with seconds to spare. I could tell he knew when the strips of pavement would conjoin, as he would use these opportunities to change lanes to not only avoid the potholes, but also the stretches of unpaved gutter between the paved roads. It was as if he thought “I’m going to give this group the smoothest ride possible, even if it means swerving across 4 lanes.” By the end of the roads outside La Paz, I found myself agreeing that lines were social constructs meant to prevent perfectly ingenious and creative drivers from challenging the chains of conformity and reaching their full potential. “This man was a visionary,” I thought, “and I don’t even know what company he works for.” The thought also crossed my mind that maybe he doesn’t work for a company at all and we are being kidnapped.
At regular intervals, I would turn around to make amused glances at the Swiss chick behind me, but each time she would be napping, or texting, or blowing her nose, either unaware or unamused at the wild trip we had made through the Bolivian highlands. I like to think this was a calm Sunday drive for her. Why shouldn’t it be? In her country, the hills are alive.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.