My bus arrives in Tupiza, Bolivia at 3:15am, possibly the worst time to arrive in a new town as it is neither day nor night, almost too late to seek a bed and definitely too early to wait it out in a cafe. It completely defeats the purpose of taking a night bus. Reluctantly (I thought briefly about hanging out on the curb until something opened up) I ring the bell of the nearest hostel. The scratchy voice of a man who had obviously been sleeping addresses me in Spanish over the intercom. After a confusing exchange, he comes out and opens the locked gate for me, his shoes only pulled on half way, much like his attitude.
Tupiza is a small, dusty little town which would have reminded me of something out of the Wild West if it wasn't for the explosion of pizzerias, all of which are named some variant of "Italiana." But I'm not here to sample pies, I'm here to do a four day trip to the Salar de Uyuni. I book a tour for the very next day. There are eight people total in our group - four to each jeep. The first two days are spent driving through mostly barren landscapes - scenery that makes me think of words like 'desperado' and 'non-potable.' Minerals seep out of the ground like Hephaestus' cauldron, changing the color and quality of the soil itself. Every now and then we pass a weathered homestead or some ruins, the only reminders that we are still on planet Earth. It amazes me that people still eke out a living in this unforgiving landscape - a demonstration of our adaptability and our stubbornness, I suppose.
During this journey I am constantly on the lookout for a big rock, some bushes, a small mound, anything to give a girl a little privacy. Maddeningly, frustratingly, there is absolutely nothing. Nothing, I tell you. On the second day, I learn to drink a little less coffee at breakfast.
On day three we visit a red lake called Laguna Colorado, whose color is due to the minerals naturally occurring in the water. The lake has a sickly, sinister appearance, yet is strangely beautiful against the blue silhouette of the far off mountains. As dusk sets in, I can almost imagine Charon himself driving his boat across the water, scooping up another batch of souls to take to the other side.
All of these monuments and sights lead up to the main event - the Salar de Uyuni - the edge which we reach late in the afternoon. We stay in a hotel made of the salt - everything from the bricks to the floor, the latter of which crunches under my feet like week old snow. In the morning we awake at 5:30am to see the sunrise - a fairly standard "thing" that is included on almost any tour in South America. I always figure it's a way to tack on a lil' sumpin' extra so that you feel like you are getting "the most" out of your experience (and at very little cost to the tour company). Despite my cynicism, I must say that this sunrise was pretty spectacular. To start, it seemed to take ages, like a member of royalty taking their time to wake up in the morning. It began with the smallest illumination, a ball point pen's worth of light forming a crack between land and sky, then crept upward, growing ever more confident until it exploded into the most brilliant orange I have ever seen - neon orange - like a fist to the eye socket.
The salt flats are even more impressive up close. To say that they are vast is a gross understatement. They dominate the landscape. And yet 'dominate' implies that there is something there - something with mass - when in fact it is the absence of mass, the lack of "something," that renders it so impressive, so profound. I suppose a more accurate description would be that of a wasteland or a void. It's how I imagine a blank canvas to look to an artist the nanosecond before his paintbrush makes first contact.
Putting a big check mark next to the Salar de Uyuni, I made my way to Argentina yesterday. This is the last country on my list, and a reminder that I now have days left as opposed to weeks. This is where I intend to live out my gaucho fantasies and drink wine till I drop before hitting the continent's most happening city - Buenos Aires.
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