Uyuni, Bolivia is home to one of the world’s largest antique train cemeteries. There are a number of trains abandoned in the middle of the desert, the final resting place of locomotives and carriages which are no longer in use. Today, it has become a tourist attraction with travellers keen to see the remains of the trains.
The city of Uyuni is located in southwestern Bolivia, 350 km (220 mi) south of the capital La Paz. It is situated on a mountainous plain 3,700 m (12,139 ft) above sea level. It is the main gateway to the Uyuni Salt Flats or Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat at over 10,000 square kilometres (3,900 sq mi) in area.
Uyuni was founded in 1890 as a trading post. Its position within the Andes made it a convenient crossing point between Chile, Bolivia and Argentina. It was the meeting points of 4 railway lines – from La Paz via Oruro, Calama in Chile, Potosí to the north east and Villazón on the Argentinian border.
The railway system was originally built by a British mining company between 1888 and 1892 and encouraged by Bolivian authorities who believed that the country would flourish with a good transport system and connections to Pacific ports. The Antofagasta and Bolivia Railway Companies was created to operate the railway. The company is still carrying freight to the Pacific today under the name Ferrocarril de Antofagasta a Bolivia. Bolivian President Aniceto Arce was instrumental to the development of the railways and he used it to the increase the country’s mining exports. Tin was a particularly profitable material and Bolivia became one of the world’s largest producers.
The railway carried minerals from the mines to the Pacific ports and Uyuni became an important transport hub. Distribution depots were built in the town close to the railway lines. From here it could be taken into Chile to be exported. Uyuni grew in importance as the demand for tin and other materials grew during the World War period. After World War II, the mining industry in Bolivia in collapsed and many of the mines closed or had simply been exhausted. The trains that had been used to carry the materials were left abandoned in the salt flats 3 km (1.8 miles) outside Uyuni.
The economy of Uyuni never fully recovered following the collapse of the mining industry. In the early 1990s, local authorities took the bold decision to build a hotel on the salt flats. Made entirely out of salt blocks, it had 12 double bedrooms, a bathroom and an outdoor shower. It soon became a popular tourist destination with hotels and hostels opening up in the city too. Unfortunately, sanitary problems and waste management at the hotel forced its closure in 2002 and it was dismantled.
In 2007, a new hotel was built called the Palacio de Sal (Salt Palace). This new hotel was located 25 km (15 miles) from Uyuni and was designed to overcome the problems the previous hotel faced. The building uses 1 million salt blocks in its construction with everything from the walls and floors to beds and chairs made from salt. There is even a sauna, steam room and swimming pool. The hotel forbids people from licking the walls in order to prevent their degradation.
Uyuni continues to grow as a tourist destination with the Salar de Uyuni and the train cemetery attracting visitors from around the world. Plans are in place to construct a railway museum at the site of the abandoned trains.