Stricken iron giants are the stars of Bolivia’s Cementerio de Trenes, where desert winds are transforming vintage steam trains into dust
Bolivia is a land of extremes.
Although it has the world’s largest deposits of lithium – essential in the production of smartphones – 60% of Bolivians live below the poverty line.
While the lowlands are home to luscious rainforests, the Altiplano plateau in the southwestern mountains has a polar-desert climate, and is buffeted by harsh winds and ground frosts.
And even though the nation’s capital, La Paz, boasts world-class museums and restaurants, in the countryside people are fiercely protective of their traditions and still worship ancient gods.
Bolivia’s contradictions make it a thrilling place to explore, and I was fortunate to experience the highs and lows of life in this landlocked nation.
My four-week adventure featured flamingos, carnivals, monkeys, charangos, and a terrifying trip into a crumbling tin mine.
But the thing that struck me most was a cemetery.
Typically for Bolivia, it was a graveyard unlike any other.
Trains in vain
The Cementerio de Trenes (Train Graveyard) is 3km outside the city of Uyuni.
Today, Uyuni is best-known as the starting point for trips across the Salar de Uyuni, the world’s largest salt flat.
Every day 4×4 trucks packed with tourists begin an epic tour that passes snow-capped volcanoes, steaming geysers and eerie rock formations.
The Cementerio de Trenes is the first stop on this expedition, where dozens of steel giants have been left to rot in the desert sun.
All the locomotives are rusted, fractured and brittle, and have been battered by decades of salt winds.
From a distance they look like skeletons of fallen mechanical beasts, or a convoy crossing a post-apocalyptic wasteland that lost an explosive battle with mutant raiders.
The Cementerio de Trenes is strange, surreal and serene, and perfectly sets the tone for the Bolivian adventure ahead.
Where trains go when they die
Uyuni is an important transport hub, with railway lines that connect to La Paz and Potosí, Calama in Chile, and Villazón on the border with Argentina.
In the 19th century, the Bolivian government – under orders from president Aniceto Arce – planned to expand the network of trains from Uyuni.
British engineers were invited by the Antofagasta and Bolivia Railway companies – now Ferrocarril de Antofagasta a Bolivia – to oversee the project.
For a while British expats formed a sizeable community in Uyuni, and rail expansion work was most active from 1888 to 1892.
But the project didn’t run smoothly.
As well as technical problems caused by the extreme weather, rail works were regularly sabotaged by the communities across whose land the new lines cut.
People in remote regions were convinced that the trains were a threat to their way of life, and took illicit measures to try and stop the iron horses in their tracks.
The lines that survived were used extensively by mining companies in subsequent decades to ship valuable minerals to ports on the Pacific Ocean.
But in the 1940s the Bolivian mining industry collapsed. The high-grade ores the industry relied on at the time were depleted, and the earth offered no more treasures for miners to discover.
Cargo trains that were once in daily use were abandoned and left to decompose in the desert sun.
Steam engines sunk into the sand and never moved again.
As the mining industry died, so did the monster machines that kept it moving.
The Cementerio de Trenes is eerily beautiful.
It’s fascinating to see how nature has taken control and made these manmade behemoths look wounded and frail.
The vivid colours of the forsaken trains are amplified under the intense desert sun, and the glow of rust is easy to spot from the nearby city.
Up close the retina-sizzling glare of corrosion is punctuated by graffiti from bored Uyuni teenagers, who’ve brought splashes of blue, yellow and green to the decay.
Our stop in the train boneyard lasted around 30 minutes. But I could have spent hours there – taking photos, peering inside shadowy husks, and marvelling at how these manmade beasts are slowly crumbling to oblivion.
There are ongoing discussions about turning the Cementerio de Trenes into a museum, but I think this would spoil the sense of isolation that makes the graveyard so haunting.
Don’t miss your opportunity to see the cemetery before it changes forever.
Check out the full Train Cemetery photo gallery.