Sunsets, a train cemetery and history in the town of Uyuni

The windswept, dusty, dirty, little town of #Uyuni lies on the south-west Bolivian altiplano, to the west of the Cordillera Oriental (small mountain range), on a large flat plain. It’s great for sunsets, and some history, such as the train cemetery, but not a lot else! To get there we took a 4 hour bus journey from Potosi, possibly the most stunning journey yet – the range of earth colours & the geology of the Cordillera our bus drove through was truly beautiful. A stark contrast to the town of Uyuni.

It’s a small town of maybe 18,000 people, with a clearly defined tourist centre. So we found our hostal pretty fast and went for a wander. The main tourist eateries are centred on a few streets close to the watchtower, offering almost identical over-priced menus, in amongst the many, many tour agencies offering trips to the Salar de Uyuni (the world’s largest & highest salt flat), and onto Chile if you wished. There’s a fairly dishevelled local museum, a quiet historic train station, a train cemetery 4km out of town, an army base & memorial to the ‘Chaco War‘ (1932-5 against Paraguay, Bolivia lost & 65,000 of its soldiers died), a few street markets, and not much else. A harsh place to live at some 3600m in the wind & sun.

Uyuni has a love/hate relationship with the many gringo tourists passing through. Apart from the local salt industry there’s not a lot else to sustain it these days. So the local people need the tourists, but at the same time it’s clear they don’t really like them. So here prices are higher for everything than anywhere else in Bolivia we visited, and the service is generally slow, uninterested and unfriendly. The tourists in return seem generally uninterested in Uyuni, it’s history & people. So tend to be rude, loud and culturally insensitive – nothing new there! Here as in Potosi you can’t avoid hearing young gringos mouthing off about their adventures whilst complaining about the services they receive. In Potosi we’d had to put up with one European snob gobbing on to his friends about how you haven’t lived if you haven’t slept a night higher than 5000m, at the same time boasting about how many adventure sports he’d do here as its so cheap (compared to Europe) whilst slagging off the Peruvian & Bolivian tour operators/guides for ripping him off in small ways – all within earshot of locals. Back at our hostel the nights were disturbed by similarly insensitive & unthoughtful idiots, who left their rooms in a right state. Best place for such types is the bottom of a crevasse, helped on their way by a Bolivian boot.

Whilst Uyuni train station still runs half a dozen weekly passenger & freight services to places like Oruro & Tupiza, it’s lost most of its old glory. The most interesting aspect of it’s train history is 4km out of town, called the ‘train cemetery’ – a bunch of disused lines and rusting steam engines & freight carriages, lying unused since the 1950’s. Uyuni became important back in the 1870-80’s, first as an army base in the War of the Pacific (against Chile, when Bolivia lost its coastal areas), and then as the point at which train lines from Argentina & Chile met, as they came to take away Bolivia’s mineral deposits and refine/process them. The rails, engines & carriages came from the UK, USA & Germany, steam-powered first by burning a local dried plant, then by coal. But the arrival of diesel engines led to the cemetery of out-of-date equipment, whilst international disputes & corporations killed off the freight transport.

The cemetery is worth a look – most tours to the Salar stop for half an hour, but its better to take the time to walk the 4km out there and wander at your leisure. We spent one & a half days/two nights at Uyuni, and wandered through most of the town, whilst many gringos arrive at 7am by bus/plane and leave at 10am on a Salar tour or are there for just one night. As ever, if you take the time you do learn a bit more and can interact a bit better with the local people. And remember – they are people too, not subhuman slaves anymore.




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