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

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

Ghost towns of the Atacama: Santa Laura and Humberstone

Its almost impossible to imagine today, but hidden under the scorched, post-apocalyptic landscape of the Atacama Desert were deposits of nitrates so valuable for agricultural fertiliser and munitions that whole towns with factories, processing plants, hospitals, hotels, theatres and schools were be built in one of the planet’s most inhospitable environments.

From the mid-nineteenth century onwards the Atacama Desert was industrialised with Chilean manpower and European finance. Where there had been nothing but harsh desert, population centres sprung up and a huge network of railways linked the far flung nitrate oficinas with port cities on the coast from where Chilean nitrates were shipped around the world.

Desolate landscape of the Atacama Desert near to Humberstone nitrate complex, Chile

Desolate landscape of the Atacama Desert at the Humberstone nitrate complex, Chile

Working conditions were harsh and dangerous for the labourers. Try to imagine the most hellish working conditions imaginable and you may come close to visualising the conditions for many labouring in places like the Santa Laura and Humberstone nitrate processing factories, located in the middle of northern Chile’s Atacama Desert.

Of course, factory managers and nitrate magnets made fortunes from the industry, building grand mansions in the coastal cities and dining on imported delicacies. For a brief time the region became world famous and the nearby coastal city of Iquique grew rich from nitrates, it was famed for having the highest consumption of champagne per head of any city in the world. Such was the value of nitrates in the second half of the nineteenth-century that the War of the Pacific (1879-1883) was fought to control them.

Leaching plant at Santa Laura, Atacama Desert, Chile

Leaching plant at Santa Laura, Atacama Desert, Chile

Machinery made in Glasgow, Santa Laura, Atacama Desert, Chile

Machinery made in Glasgow, Santa Laura, Atacama Desert, Chile

Giant compressor, Santa Laura, Atacama Desert, Chile

Giant compressor, Santa Laura, Atacama Desert, Chile

Today Santa Laura and Humberstone are two haunting and atmospheric relics of the nitrate boom of the nineteenth-century. Ghost towns that are preserved in the arid climate of the Atacama Desert as if frozen in time. Both are now World Heritage sites. Walking around these man-made monstrosities in the desert is a fascinating and humbling experience, particularly at Humberstone where the artefacts of daily life are still on display in homes or scattered around the site.

Street of workers' cottages at Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Street of workers’ cottages at Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Bedroom in cottage, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Bedroom in cottage, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Kitchen in workers' cottage, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Kitchen in workers’ cottage, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Photo on the wall of a cottage, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Photo on the wall of a cottage, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Tin of lard from New York, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Tin of lard from New York, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Fairly upmarket bathroom, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Fairly upmarket bathroom, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Tennis court, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Tennis court, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Santa Laura was founded in 1858 while Humberstone was founded in 1872. Humberstone is a massive site that at its peak housed 3700 inhabitants. It changed hands several times during the War of the Pacific (1879-1883), but finally ended in the control of the London Nitrate Company between 1888 – 1921. British capital and engineers were central to the development of the industry and the evidence of their involvement is seen everywhere in northern Chile – including the name Humberstone, for the British chemical engineer who adapted the Shanks extraction process in 1870.

Main nitrate processing area, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Main nitrate processing area, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Proceso de Yodo, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Proceso de Yodo, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Big pipes used as part of a process with iodine, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Big pipes used as part of a process with iodine, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Furnace, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Furnace, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Abandoned spring, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Abandoned spring, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

The end of the First World War, the development of synthetic nitrates and the Great Depression doomed the nitrate industry in Chile, tens-of-thousands of labourers were made redundant and Chile suffered a terrible economic crisis. Humberstone and Santa Laura continued to operate with vastly reduced profits until 1959 when they finally closed for good before becoming industrial heritage sites.

Abandoned train, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Abandoned train, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Crane, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

Crane, Humberstone, Atacama Desert, Chile

The Atacama Desert still hides huge deposits of valuable minerals and metals and dotted throughout this landscape are mines, big and small, where humans continue to work in one of the most difficult environments imaginable. Today ‘natural’ nitrates are still extracted in small amounts, but gold, silver, iron and, especially, copper are the mainstay of the Atacama’s mining industry these days.