Bella Vista was one of the most lonely places I have ever spent a night. Only about ten people lived there, but it was apparent that it had not always been that way. Several small houses stood abandoned around what had once been the main square (which was right about the size of half a basketball court). Behind the town were the ruins of what may have been the original Bella Vista, the crumbling remains of several rows of tiny houses.
As we walked among these houses, the day was approaching twilight and the light was creeping away from the tops of the mountains that rose up on either side of us. On the left mountain, I saw a cactus with about five arms on one side, which gave it the look of the Quasimodo of cactuses. It didn’t look all that far away, and I bet one of the other students that I could climb to that cactus before the light of the setting sun left it. He shrugged and said “Go for it.”
With that, (being of little brain) I set off up the side of the mountain, dodging the occasional ground cactus and watching out for snakes as I clambered up the dusty red rock. It didn’t take long for me to realize, like so many other things in my life, that this was not going to be nearly as easy as I thought. The piles of rock and dirt shifted under my feet, and, with every few meters of ascent, the thinness of the air left my lungs burning like I had run three miles. As I looked up during one of my (embarrassingly frequent) breaks, chest heaving as my lungs looked for oxygen that wasn’t there, I could see Quasi-cactus leering at me from on top of the mountain, never seeming to get any closer.
I guess I came pretty close to quitting, but, as I was already about halfway, I figured that the physical discomfort involved in getting to the cactus would be less than the shame of having given up, so I kept on keeping on. After a few more minutes, I looked down to see my friends in the valley below, little more than colored specks among the ruins of the Andean town below.
The last few meters were decidedly rough, but, after a good thirty minutes of climbing, I reached out and triumphantly pulled one of the three-inch spines (and a sizable quantity of self-respect) from Quasi-cactus. The view from there was magnificent, but I was only a few steps from the top, and I figured why not go all out.
At the top of the mountain, a group of rocks stood clustered, basking in the dying Andean sunlight. I stood on the foremost one and took in one of the most staggering sights I had ever seen. With one chain of the Andes at my back, I looked across the valley, traced with rivers and dusty roads, and bigger than anything I had ever seen before, to the soaring chain of snow-capped mountains on the other side. To the left, far off in the hazy distance, I could see the blinding whiteness of the Salar. And all of this under the biggest, deepest, bluest sky I had ever seen.
And the single most amazing thing about that sight, I thought, was that even though I could see this immeasurably immense piece of creation, I could not see a single human being in all of it. I was, as far as I could see, completely alone in this vast corner of the world.