Night train in the altiplano

I was kind of bummed when, while booking my train ticket to Uyuni, jump-off to the famous (& perhaps world’s largest) Salt Flat, my only options were night trains. The scenery, though perhaps a bit stark, barren, flat, and dusty, is supposedly pretty spectacular.

Upon boarding, I immediately know why passenger trains only run at night: with no A/C, it would simply be too hot during the day, stuffy already in the fleeting light of dusk.

As we roll out of Tupiza, I ask the guy behind me if he minds my opening the window, and he says fine. The breeze is nice, and I’m watching the sunset on the orange mud-brick buildings that match the hills beyond. It soon gets dusty, I look back at him, and we simultaneously say Now as I close it.

I watch a film starring Queen Latifah. For a romantic drama infused with NBA sports action, it’s not my usual cup of tea, but despite its cheesy and predictable storyline, and being dubbed-over with Spanish voices, my eyes are glued for the next 90 minutes. I’m likely just ‘tv deprived’, for lack of a better term, but my enjoyment probably comes from seeing good ol’ New York, New Jersey (and even Brooklyn), a taste of home. Hi America, how ya doin?

I barely notice the view out the window as it slips into darkness. Temporarily opening the window, I stuck my head out and immediately lose my breath. My heart jumps into my throat, and the unfamiliar feeling is closest to fear; but why? How lucky am I to feel my rarest, purest, and most favorite emotion right now?!

Looking out into the alien landscape, it’s all moonlight white. The infinitely high ceiling of stars weighs down on the horizon. Far out in the distance is a twinkling little orange town. Unusually dry air gushes over me, along with a dusty taste. It’s hard to look ahead – but what is that? It’s the front of the train, beaming a guiding light ahead in-between the crevasses carved out for it, billowing dust as it cuts through the night.

The expanse of the altiplano is so hard to describe because there’s nothing else like it (except maybe the ocean floor?) It’s beautifully carved and endlessly diverse: hilly, lumpy, jagged, soft. The train leaks some light out to the sides so I can better see the details of the gigantic canyon walls, and I feel tiny, like a passenger in a toy train of someone’s fantastic imagination. I can’t believe I’m here.

Even though I’ve been up in the high desert for weeks, my first impression is officially trumped. This is other-worldy. Yeah Bolivia! Here we are, where the roads don’t dare go… what roads? That’s why I’m on a train in the first place. There are maybe three paved road sections in the whole country, and I already rode the length of one if them (the first 100km over the border from Argentina.) But it’s all good. Dare I say it? This is better. This is insane. For the next three days I’ll be touring around the Uyuni Salt Flats and nearby National Park in a 4×4, the only way to get around this lunar landscape.

After that, I’ve booked a short-ish bus to Potosi, the world’s highest city – I considered biking it for bragging rights – but I heard there’s another paved road from there to Sucre, my next destination, so maybe I’ll bike out of there (sounds more fun ya?) Needless to say, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Over and over the rainbow and out!


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