Uyuni & Colchani, Bolivia

Having left La Paz we boarded the bus which was going to take about 12 hours (!). Luckily it was an overnight bus, and we all pretty much slept the entire journey! The bush surprisingly was actually super comfortable with reclining seats and plenty of legroom. The food was however, slightly interesting…

We arrived into the town of Uyuni at about 6 AM and in a bit of a tired daze loaded up the bags onto 4×4 to be taken into the town centre. We were all pretty knackered and definitely in need of a shower. We were therefore with extremely pleased to be taken to the Hotel Sarah Wasi where we had rooms ready for us for the next couple of hours where we could shower change and have breakfast. In all honesty, I was more interested in the coffee….

A little later, and all feeling 1 million times better, we met in the reception of the hotel where Laura explained to us on the the map where we will be visiting over the course the next three days. We couldn’t wait to get started!

Obviously, seeing as we were headed for the desert, there would hardly any shops or anywhere to buy provisions. Before setting off therefore, we all wandered into the main area of uni to visit a few of the local shops and buy some snacks in the local supermarket.

Uyuni is a really interesting little town which nowadays functions mainly for tourist and as the gateway to the desert. Founded in 1890 the trading post the city has a population of around about 11,000 people. We wandered around the wide Avenue and took in the atmosphere that was so obviously much less hectic than what we have become used to in La Paz. Women wondered around undertaking chores and picking up shopping whilst the men sat outside playing card games and dining on street food. There is definitely a relaxed small town vibe to the city which was really cool. One thing to note – the roads are very uneven and I for one took an epic tumble landing on my front covered in cuts and grazes. Embarrassing, yes, but definitely a good way to break the ice with the rest of the group!

Shopping completed, we headed back to the hotel where we met our driver for the next few days, [x]. We loaded up the 4×4 and hit the roads ready to make our way to the desert!

Just a couple of miles out of the centre of Uyuni is a bit of an odd (yet fascinating) attraction  – the Uyuni Train Cemetery!

In the 19th century the British sponsored the construction of railway between the Port of Antofagasta (a town in current day Chile on the Pacific coast) and Uyuni. The latter was the transportation junction for the trains carrying minerals such as silver from the mines, to the ports where they were exported.

Until 1879 Bolivia boarded on the pacific ocean but the Pacific war with Chile resulted in Bolivia becoming a landlocked country. Exporting minerals quickly became a problem, the mining industry collapsed, and there were technical problems in maintaining the railroad. As a result, the ambitious project of transforming Uyuni into a prosperous transportation hub fell to pieces. The trains were therefore abandoned and fell into disrepair right were they were left, next to the tracks.

Despite all intentions of turning this place into a museum of some sort, the steam engines and wagons are still wasting away without anybody caring for them except for travellers who are attracted to this bizarre wasteland. The train cemetery was never fenced and never had guards; instead the trains have served as a free source of metal for many and as the surface for graffiti for others.

They corrosive effect of the area’s salty winds has of course had its effect, together with the unforgiving sun and thick dust levels. The train really never stood a chance against the elements – however their current state of disrepair doesn’t half make it an incredible place to visit and have a wander.

One super interesting part of this railway’s history is that it was the last scene in the real life drama of the notorious train robbers Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s crime spree.

Having fled America this notorious pair travelled to South America and settled on Bolivia as a place to hide from the US authorities. Being in a new setting however,didn’t dampen their appetite for the life of crime and this particular railway in remote Bolivia was to them, too good an opportunity to pass up.

On November 3, 1908 a courier for the railway was conveying the company‘s payroll worth about 15,000 Bolivian pesos when he was attacked and robbed by the pair. Three days later the two settled in the small mining town of Saint Vincente just a few miles away from Uyuni, down the railway tracks. The authorities were tipped off by the suspicious boarding house owner. The approached the house and the bandits opened fire killing one of the soldiers and wounding another – the gunfight ensued. The Bolivian authorities cautiously entered the house the next morning whereupon they found two bodies both with numerous bullet wounds. Both of the bandits were buried in unmarked graves near the St Vincent cemetery which nowadays has turned the area into a tourist hotspots for people wishing to track the final days of the notorious pair.

We had a great time in the cemetery crawling all across the trains jumping from carriages to carriages and trying your best not to be caught in any of the jagged metal stairs. It was great fun!

Having enjoyed the trains we hopped back into the cars and carried on the road until we arrived at our next stop of the day, a little salt mining town of called Colchani.

Colchani is a tiny little town situated on the edge of the salt desert and about 50 miles away from Uyuni. Colchani only has one street and has a population of only 600 people. As small as the town may be, however, it really shouldn’t be underestimated; the only salt making facilities using the salt from the incredible desert is here in Colchani. There is an estimated 10 billion tons of salt in the salt flats, with around 25,000 tons excavated and processed at Colchani annually. Amazing!!

Having arrived, Laura took us on a tour of one of the salt factories and explained how the salt was mined, processed and packaged ready for exportation around the world.

Laura explained the salt is scraped from the salt planes into pyramid shaped piles where it is left to dry in the sun. After about four days this salt is shovelled into trucks and transported to Colchani to be processed. The salt is cooked in an oven to dry even further and iodine is added to the mixture before it is milled and packaged – all by hand.

The salt is not just used to make table salt it is used it is also used in construction. We didn’t even notice that the very factory with standing in was built up of bricks made completely of salt. Crazy

It was so interesting to learn about how to sort was processed. I’m not sure how good a thoughtful, I would make however.

Having left the factory we walked across to the street which was full of vendors selling everything from little trinkets bags of salt to the most incredible knitted goods.

The lure of the handmade knitted goods with obviously too much for me to pass up and I became the proud owner of the most gorgeous handknitted llama jumper and an amazing teal green poncho, both of which cost me a little over 5 pounds! Bargain – I just wish I had bought more.

Next stop – the salt planes!

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