On a whim, without any hint of a travel itinerary, three friends and I decided explore northwestern Argentina during its winter season. With only a light backpack apiece, we had just checked into our tiny hotel in Tilcara and were looking to find transportation to the magnificent Salinas Grandes, the isolated salt flats an hour and a half away. Pre-arranged bus tours would stretch our already slim budgets, and cab drivers offered us outrageous prices for the whole day. Dejected, I remembered what my mom – a world traveler herself – told me she did when she was low on cash during her extensive trips: bargain. I decided to give it a go. As the only traveler that spoke fluent Spanish, I asked the receptionist at our hotel if she knew of any drivers that would be willing to bargain for a flat rate to drive us to, around, and from the flats. She connected us with José, a cheerful and pleasant man with indigenous Argentine roots. He picked us up at our hotel in a sun-bleached cruiser older than I was and whisked us off to the Salinas Grandes.
We sang along to classic old cassette tapes that he stashed in his glove compartment and shared life stories. Better than any tour guide, José pointed out significant landforms otherwise indistinguishable from our barren surroundings, relaying their historical significance in a time when Argentina was uncolonized and indigenous Argentine cultures enriched the Jujuy Province. We squealed as José navigated the precarious dirt roads edged along the cliffs that sprouted higher and higher into the mountains until we were gasping from the altitude. When we arrived at the Salinas, we grabbed our sunscreen and sunglasses and padded onto the never-ending flats. We licked the salt and tried to take cheesy perspective photos, the ones that made it seem as though my friends were tiny humans standing on my hand. However, the snapshot that comes to mind when I recall that day is the selfie my friends, José, and I took with the Salinas in the background, all of us squinting into the camera with arms around one another, flushed and chapped from the cold, smiling like maniacs.