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.
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.