Set on the bleak southern Altiplano 212km southwest of Potosí, the town of UYUNI has little to recommend except its usefulness as a jumping-off point for journeys into the beautiful and remote landscapes of the surrounding region. Founded in 1889 at the junction of the railways that enter Bolivia from Chile and Argentina, in its heyday Uyuni was Bolivia’s main gateway to the outside world, a symbol of modernity and industrial progress. Today, by contrast, its streets are lined with a collection of shabby houses and semi-abandoned railway yards.
At 3668m above sea level and with no shelter from the wind, Uyuni is a bitterly cold town that has little to distract you for more than an hour or two. The effective centre of town is the nineteenth-century clocktower at the intersection of Arce and Potosí. On Avenida Ferroviaria in front of the station are several monuments to the golden age of steam: keep an eye out for the statue of a railway worker, spanner in hand, and the well-maintained steam locomotive, made in West Yorkshire in the early twentieth century.
Given the decline in the fortunes of Bolivia’s railways, it is surprising Uyuni hasn’t become a ghost town like many of the mining settlements whose ore exports once passed through it. That it hasn’t is due to the ever-growing number of travellers who come here to visit the spectacular scenery of the Salar de Uyuni and the Reserva de Fauna Andina Eduardo Avaroa.