The Trip to Bolivia that I Never Took and Never Came Back from
Story and photos by Luke Maguire Armstrong

Looking back on a failed excursion to Bolivia from San Pedro de Atacama while studying abroad in Chile, a budding traveler finds the spark that changes his whole life going forward.

Atacama travel

On my first trip to Bolivia, I never made it to Bolivia.

In the desperately dry Chilean border town of San Pedro de Atacama, I pleaded with an official to grant me an exit stamp. I was mere meters from Bolivia, could see ochre Bolivian dust blowing freely across the frontier that to me was barred. "What can I do?" the official asked me, "You don't have a carnet. I can let you out, but you will not be let back into Chile."

There is a time and place for negotiations. When you are with border police, it is not the place. I knew it was hopeless, but I asked one more time, "What can I do?" because that was easier than turning to face my travel companion. We had just taken a twenty-hour bus ride from Valparaíso, Chile during our independence week holiday from classes. For her, this was not just a trip—it was a tribute. One of her best friends had made it his goal to visit Bolivia. He had died in an avalanche in Montana before ever realizing it. His name was written in the Lonely Planet Bolivia book she carried, and this trip was not about the two of us, but what had been the two of them.

town computer

"How didn't you know that you needed to get a carnet?" She asked in the muted conversation that followed our retreat from the adobe border station. Unlike all the other exchange students, I'd failed to learn the importance of getting a Cedula de Identidad Extranjeros. I had lied on my student application about my ability to speak more than high school Spanish. So when they told us months ago in our orientation about why we needed to get a Cedula de Identidad Extranjeros, I was still months away from understanding most of what anyone was saying to me. While I'd managed to pass my classes, this was a test that no last minute cramming was going to help me with. The next day she would go to Bolivia because she had to, and I would stay in San Pedro because I had to. The night before, I'd written in my journal, "There is no one in Chile I would rather travel with than [her], our personalities seem to meld into that perfect mixture."

Heaven in Atacama

But this desert day that started blighted ended up becoming a day so complete that nothing could have been added to it. We rented bikes and pedaled through mountain trails and roads in La Valle de la Luna that resembled our conception of Martian terrain more than anything we had ever seen on Earth. The Atacama is a desert that speaks to you in devastating colors. It is in these sere lands that the Incas came to worship the sun. Four volcanoes—Lacancabur, Sairecabur, Sascar and Putana—dominate the horizon. Volcán Lacancabur—the Castilianization of the Kunza words for "mountain of the people"—rises recklessly above the rest.


Now imagine that you are an exchange student, and this is the first time you have seen much of anything international on your own. Imagine that after 30 kilometers of biking through landscape paintings, you return—boy and girl—to a sleepy desert town and a Chilean couple at least a decade your seniors connects with you and takes you out for a night on the town. Imagine that at various moments, you're pretty sure you're in love with your travel companion. Imagine that your group grows to six, and the locals lead you into the desert where the stars are not just shining, but singing. Imagine laying on your back, next to the one you suppose you may just love, a joint procured by someone passing between each other's lips. Here you have no further to go. New dreams will soon come, but for now, there is nothing more to want, because everything that you hoped might happen in your life is occurring.

When our group finally left the night and trekked back to town, we drank pisco sours around open fires in an adobe style villa. In the Spanish I was just beginning to sound like an adult in, we spoke of politics. The Chileans laughed at the notion that the United States would ever have a black president (it was a full 14 months before the 2008 election). If moments of nights like this cemented into formative bones don't alter something irrevocable inside of you, then you are a lost cause and nothing real will ever course through you.

older Chileans

The next day I wrote in my journal, "I will guard this night carefully and examine it much in the years to come."

As I was penning those words, my companion was on a bus, bound for Bolivia. Legally barred from joining her, as north as I could go, I stayed in San Pedro for the Independence Day festivities. I drank pisco and danced the Cueca with the locals celebrating a frenzy of Independence Day traditions. I met other students, travelers, locals, and hiked alone along the Martian landscape, reading Hemingway in the shade of sandstone.

After the Parting

In a book exchange I had traded Dave Egger's book A Heartbreaking Tale of Staggering Genius for Hemingway's A Moveable Feast, and there could not have been a better book for me to find in that dusty desert town. The previous semester, I'd done an independent study course on Hemingway, and this was one of his few books I still had yet to read. "Never go on trips with anyone you do not love," Hemingway told me, and I thought about what might have transpired if I had been able to continue to Bolivia with her. She was someone I respected deeply. That she thought I was someone worth traveling with fostered in me a general desire to be better. Since knowing her, I have kept this sentiment as centrally important when answering the question of whom to love—does she make me want to be better than I am?

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