(September 13 – written by Dave)
I’ll start this post by saying that I am not a “train guy”. Don’t get me wrong, I like trains. Both Nancy and I rode the train daily to get work when we lived in Sydney. I’m just not one of those guys who goes out of his way to find trains or train things. I have no idea which trains are special and which ones are ordinary.
Having said that, Uyuni is a train town and it is hard to come here and not get a little into trains. Uyuni was founded by President Aniceto Arce in 1889 with the aim of creating a train station that served as a connection with Antofagasta, Chile, a northern port city. The trains enabled Bolivian minerals to be exported globally more easily. The trains created a lot of wealth and ultimately a pseudo mafia ran them. Eventually the government stepped in and nationalized the trains, creating the National Railway Company.
In the 1940s the minerals that created the train boom started to run out and not nearly as many trains were needed. Around that time, they started to park excess stock out in the desert near the town of Uyuni. There was always hope that these trains would eventually be recommissioned but more than not, they were simply left to decay. Most of the engines and train stock were made in the early 1900s in Britain.
As global tourists’ attention came to the Salar de Uyuni, the train stockpile got renamed to the train cemetery and the site was added as another place to take the punters who came down for a look at the Salar. There is no formal cemetery, it’s just a bunch of old trains parked out in the desert. There are no fences, no guards, no admission, no “do not touch” or “no entry” signs and ultimately no real structure. A lot of the trains have been stripped of valuable parts and there is good deal of graffiti, but it is a visually interesting place to visit.
Uyuni continues to be a train transportation hub. It is probably more connected with the outside world by train than it is by airplane. You wouldn’t call the train station here a big station, but there are hundreds of trains and train cars parked there as well. I’m not sure which ones are still in service.
Our road south tomorrow is supposed to be sealed to the Argentina border – 3 days ride. It may have remained unsealed for a long as it did in part because the route is also served by a direct train from Uyuni. The train covering that route today is small, two cars and I’m not sure if it still runs daily or not. We know cyclists who’ve taken the train and in fact, so many have, it’s made it difficult to get a reading on the road surface. In the last 5 years, the current president of Bolivia has put a big emphasis on paving the main transport routes in Bolivia. This is great news for us, perhaps not so great of news for the trains and train people.
Having read all we could on the cemetery, we decided to head out there in the late afternoon. Rumours have it that the tourist 4x4s and buses finish up there by 3PM as they need to get to the Salar for sunset after that. Well, the rumours were correct, there was no one at the cemetery when we arrived, except numerous stray dogs.
The cemetery is interesting. It is not a big as I thought it would be but the visual created by the rusting engines, the desert sand and the blue sky was nice. We wandered around for a while taking photos and trying not to violate the site’s OSHA rules (there are none). It is about a 20 minute walk out from town through rough looking single story adobe buildings. Add to this a strong afternoon wind whipping dust everywhere and yesterday’s “wild west” feel of Uyuni is complete. Train cemetery photo overdose follows:
We hope to leave town tomorrow. Nancy is feeling a little iffy in the stomach so that may mean another day here – no big deal, we don’t really have a schedule and our apartment is more than comfortable. We’ll see how we feel in the morning and make a game day decision.