No one, not even wearing the rosiest of rose tinted spectacles, could describe Uyuni as an attractive town. Sitting on a windswept plain at over 3600m, Uyuni seems solely composed of low unattractive buildings, dusty streets and piles of rubbish. To the untrained eye the main feature of parts of the town is the inordinate number of plastic bags that are scattered everywhere, as if Uyuni is a giant plastic bag graveyard.
Visitors from another planet, arriving in Uyuni for the first time, would be well within their rights to question the sanity of the thousands of human tourists from the four corners of planet earth who are packed into the town. The answer, of course, lies not in Uyuni itself but in the region surrounding the city. Not 30km outside the city limits is one of the natural wonders of the world, the Salar de Uyuni, and beyond that the other-worldly landscapes of the Bolivian South West.
At over 1000km sq, the Salar de Uyuni is the world’s largest salt flat. To describe it as vast is to understate reality – it can be seen from the moon. It is the biggest draw in Bolivia’s tourist pack of cards and Uyuni is the main gateway to access the Salar and the South West. The town is full of travel agencies, 4×4 vehicles, restaurants serving dubious ‘international’ cuisine, dozens of hostals and one of the highest concentrations of souvenir shops anywhere in Bolivia.
Yet for its lack of charm, Uyuni is a frontier town full of history – a pioneering history that is proudly displayed in the centre of town. Founded in 1889, Uyuni was perhaps the most important mining and railway centre in Bolivia, and evidence of this is everywhere. Even today trains rumble through Uyuni on their narrow-gauge tracks carrying ore to the coast in Chile or south to Argentina, twice a week there are even rarer passenger trains – one of the last remnants of Bolivia’s once extensive railway network.
In one of those twists of fate, tourism may yet prove that Uyuni’s golden-age is still to come and did not end with the decline of mining in the area or the destruction of Bolivia’s railways. So far the tourist infrastructure is geared towards backpackers looking for cheap deals and cheap places to stay, but the hotel we stayed in points towards a possible different future for Uyuni – a more demanding set of tourists seeking more from their day or two in Uyuni.
The Hotel Petite Porte is an oasis of calm and relaxation in the Uyuni desert, and if you want a more comfortable stay this is definitely the place to head. English, French and Spanish are spoken, the hospitality is great and the rooms are very cosy – perfect for relaxing after a few days in a 4×4 on rough dirt tracks.