Although as relaxed and friendly as any place we have found in South America, Uyuni in Bolivia is poor with a capital ‘P’. This is reflected in many of the people, the buildings and the infrastructure of a town whose recent, rapid growth has been driven by tourism. A government struggling financially and the severe climate has a great deal to do with how the town looks, and first impressions are not impressive! The roads around town are pot holed, the curbs non existent or broken up and rubbish is piled up and blows around the dusty streets. Many of the buildings are in a very poor state and there are many partly constructed buildings that have not been worked on for a long time.
Much of what’s sold in town is done on the street, from 3 metre square, tarp covered market stalls, or from tiny, street side ‘rooms’, open to customers through a window or narrow door. Given that there are no campgrounds in or around Uyuni, we found a delightful hostel run by a couple who welcomed and looked after us for 4 days. According to our wonderful hosts, the number of tour operators in town has grown from 10 to over 200 in recent years, as the world’s travellers want to see and experience what has been on Uyuni’s doorstep forever. In close proximity is the awesome Salar de Uyuni which we visited, the train cemetery and a local museum. The other attractions are further afield: 3 or 4 day tours in Toyota Landcruisers that carry seven passengers from Uyuni to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile, or do a loop around the South West Circuit, taking in beautiful lakes, volcanoes and amazing geological formations before returning to Uyuni.
We felt that the train cemetery (or graveyard) was a pretty sad affair. Uyuni was a major train transport hub when mining was a very profitable affair in this region. This came to an end in the 1940’s with the depletion of many of the mines and the trains were left to rust away just out of town. Unfortunately they have also become the target for thieves who have all but dismantled many of the carriages, taking away the steel and what remains has been attacked by more than a few with a can of spray paint in hand! How good would it have been if there had been the money and forward thinking available to preserve and protect these old steam engines as has been done in many places around the world – and in fact, just up the road from Uyuni!