Where trains go to rust, Uyuni’s train cemetery

The one man-made must-see in Uyuni is an extraordinary collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century steam trains slowly (very slowly in the arid climate of this region) rusting on the outskirts of the town. A train version of those elephant graveyards that I once saw on a BBC documentary.

These monsters of the steam age make this a poignant and atmospheric place, or it would be were it not a compulsory stop for the hundreds of 4×4 tours doing the Bolivian South West Circuit – these once proud locomotives have now become a playground for snap-happy tourists. Large numbers of people can be seen clambering all over the trains posing for identikit photos – as if some strange force compels people to sheepishly copy what they have seen others do in photos.

I know I’m being a killjoy, kids just want to have fun after all, but the sight that greeted us at Uyuni’s great train cemetery made me rather melancholy. Perhaps in future this once legendary industrial heritage will be properly preserved and treated with more dignity.

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train cemetery, Uyuni, Bolivia

Red rain over the Salar de Uyuni

Driving into the middle of the world’s largest salt flat is like entering a hostile alien world – the Salar de Uyuni really does beggar belief. There is little that can rival it for sheer visual impact as the brilliant white of the salt reflects the intense Andean sun like a giant salty mirror – sun glasses and sun block are vital.

My visit to the Salar de Uyuni in 2012 was made under perfect blue skies, coming back early in 2013 for a day trip was to experience a very different salar. Summer rains had left patches of water on the surface, clouds created endlessly fascinating skies, while all around the the edge of the salar thunderstorms formed a dramatic backdrop to the luminous white of the salar…and that was before the red rain swept in.

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

At the edge of the salar, near to the salt mining and processing village of Colchani, people mine the salt much as they have done for centuries. The great llama trains that used to leave the Salar de Uyuni taking salt across the Inca empire may have been replaced by the combustion engine, but mining techniques haven’t changed much.

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Children walk through a salt mining area, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Children walk through a salt mining area, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Mining salt, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Also close to the edge of the salar are strange looking pools of water that bubble away thanks to volcanic activity. They create an intense colour contrast with the white of the salar.

Volcanic pools in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Volcanic pools in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Volcanic pools in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Volcanic pools in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Driving further into the Salar de Uyuni, with the final destination of lunch at the bizarre, cactus-covered Isla Incahuasi, we passed several small holes in the salt crust until finally our driver, Milton, stopped by a much larger hole (big enough for one of the wheels of the 4×4 to go fully into).

The holes become very dangerous when the salar is covered in water later in the rainy season, drivers can’t see them and there is a very real risk of wheels plunging into the holes. Vehicles often can’t venture too far into the salar as a consequence. We also passed a now defunct salt hotel which sports a large collection of international flags.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Large hole in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Large hole in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Flags in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Flags in the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Salt crust, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Salt crust, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

As we approached the Isla Incahausi we saw a bus speeding across the salt flats, it looked utterly insignificant against the vastness of the salar. An odd sight in this strange place but a lifeline for the communities that survive around the edge of the salar.

A bus speeds across the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

A bus speeds across the Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Cactus covered Isla Incahausi, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Cactus covered Isla Incahausi, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Cactus covered Isla Incahausi, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Cactus covered Isla Incahausi, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Cactus covered Isla Incahausi, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Cactus covered Isla Incahausi, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Our return back to Uyuni involved a 100km drive across the salt flat, but it looked like we would have to drive through an oncoming storm. The storm clouds looked a strange colour, a sort of rusty red, which Milton called ‘Red Rain’.

This was no normal storm, there was no actual rain, and we found ourselves driving for 20km through an immense dust storm with limited visibility and the windows firmly rolled up. When we emerged out the other side the whole car was covered in a fine red dust.

Red rain, the approaching storm, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Red rain, the approaching storm, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Red rain, the approaching storm, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Red rain, the approaching storm, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Red rain, the approaching storm, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Red rain, the approaching storm, Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

Uyuni: tourists, trains and trash

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.

The immense Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

The immense Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia

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.

Uyuni railway station with old carriage, Uyuni, Bolivia

Uyuni railway station with old carriage, Uyuni, Bolivia

Typical street, Uyuni, Bolivia

Typical street, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train made in Yorkshire, Uyuni, Bolivia

Train made in Yorkshire, Uyuni, Bolivia

Statue to Uyuni's industrial past, Bolivia

Statue to Uyuni’s industrial past, Bolivia

Typical Street, Uyuni, Bolivia

Typical Street, Uyuni, Bolivia

Sculpture, Unyuni, Bolivia

Sculpture, Unyuni, Bolivia

Wall art, Uyuni, Bolivia

Wall art, Uyuni, Bolivia

Railway relic of Uyuni's golden age, Uyuni, Bolivia

Railway relic of Uyuni’s golden age, Uyuni, Bolivia

Monument to the Chaco War, Uyuni, Bolivia

Monument to the Chaco War, Uyuni, Bolivia

Sunset over Uyuni, Bolivia

Sunset over Uyuni, Bolivia

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.

Hotel Petite Porte, Uyuni, Bolivia

Hotel Petite Porte, Uyuni, Bolivia