Previously: The Cincinnati Subway.
Uyuni, Bolivia is home to the largest salt flat in the world. Or at least, it’s the gateway to it; the salt flat itself, called the Salar de Uyuni (which means exactly what you think it does), occupies about 3,900 square miles just to the east of the town. But the salt flat isn’t all there is near Uyuni; a few kilometers out from the town’s southern edge lies something else that’s just as worth seeing as the Salar is: The Great Train Cemetery, or Cemeterio de Trenes, of Uyuni, Bolivia. If you’ve ever wondered where trains go to die… well, this magnificent and arresting place should give you a pretty good idea.
To be fair, though, the Cemeterio de Trenes is less a place to which trains were brought to be put to rest and more a once-bustling transportation hub that eventually collapsed — or, as the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia put it in 2019, una estación fantasma de trenes: A ghost train station. It’s closely tied up with history of Uyuni itself, as well as the histories of the mining and railway industries. And it’s proof that, even when something is technically no longer “useful,” that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s useless.
Although silver made up the bulk of Bolivia’s mining activities from the 16th century onward, a combination of the discovery of rich deposits of cassiterite — the ore used to produce tin — and the increase in demand for tin shifted the industry’s focus in the mid-19th century. At the same time, Great Britain’s smelting operations depended largely on Bolivian ore production — so, perhaps unsurprisingly, British engineers had a big hand in the development of railways intended to transport minerals between La Paz and the ports along the Pacific coast.
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Uyuni sprung up around 1890 while all of this was going on. It was, as World Abandoned points out, a “convenient crossing point” between the countries of Chile, Bolivia, and Argentina, and would become the point at which four different railway lines — including the route from La Paz via Oruro — met. Aniceto Arce, then the President of Bolivia, was a supporter of the railway, believing that a strong transportation system throughout the country was essential to its development — but indigenous communities living in the area were, understandably, not terribly happy with the whole thing, leading to many years of strife.
Still, though, the railway continued on — until mining in the area began to dry up around 1940. Once the mines were no longer producing, the trains, too, became unnecessary; no longer in use, they were simply left where they were, baking in the sun and, occasionally, rusting in the rain.
As the decades went on, though, the train cemetery became not an eyesore, but a sight to behold — and soon, crowds began to arrive to catch a glimpse of the hulking hunks of iron still standing near Uyuni and the Salar.
It started in the early 1990s, when the decision was made to build a hotel on the salt flat entirely out of salt blocks. This particular hotel is no longer around — it closed in 2002 — but it did prove to be so popular during its years of operations that other hotels and accommodations began popping up in Uyuni, as well. What’s more, there is still a salt hotel near Uyuni; called the Palacio de Sal — in English, the Salt Palace — it opened in 2007 and offers quite a unique experience. These days, you’ve got your pick of places to stay, from the affordable to the luxurious.
But the trains? The trains are truly one-of-a-kind — as long as you don’t mind making a short trek outside of town to take them in.
First, you’ll see the train tracks; they’re still there, embedded in the ground, leading to nowhere. Then, you’ll see the trains themselves — or their remains, at least. According to Forbes travel contributor Rana Good, the trains are largely British imports that date back to the early 20th century. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 cars fill the space, scattered across the sand and salt and, often, covered in graffiti.
Many are too decayed to venture inside, but some retain enough structural integrity to allow for some exploration. Insider reports that visitors “can step inside and climb on top of anything” within the abandoned trainyard; heck, as Culture Trip highlights, there’s even a swing hung from one of the empty shells which visitors can use if they’re feeling adventurous. Still, though — if you do choose to clamber on top of anything while you’re there, know that you do so at your own risk; just because you’re allowed to do it doesn’t necessarily mean that you should do it. Or that it’s safe to do in the first place.
But by all means, do visit, if you can (when visiting other places is a thing we’re all able to do safely again); Culture Trip notes that most tours of the salt flat itself also include a stop at the train cemetery — but you don’t have to go on an organized tour in order to see the trains. You can just arrange your own transportation to make the three-kilometer trip outside of Uyuni on your own, which gives you the freedom to choose a specific time of day to go.
Because, of course, there are better times to go than others. As Rana Good notes, you’re likely to encounter crowds during the daytime; as such, you’ll almost certainly have a more peaceful experience if you go very early in the day, or very late. The light, too, will be more interesting if you go closer to sunrise or sunset, which can make for some truly beautiful photo ops.
But there’s plenty to see no matter what time of day you visit.
Bring your camera.
Mind your step.
And don’t lick the salt.
[All photos available via Flickr or Wikimedia Commons under a CC BY-SA 2.0, CC BY-SA 4.0, CC BY-ND 2.0, or CC BY 2.0 Creative Commons license, or via Pixabay; for credits and source links, see captions of each individual photo.]