/Decay Porn: Uyuni’s Rusting Train Cemetery
rusting train in bolivia

Decay Porn: Uyuni’s Rusting Train Cemetery

The abandoned hunks of twisted, rusting steel frozen in time just 3 kilometers outside the city of Uyuni have become somewhat of a bonus attraction for the hundreds of thousands of travelers enticed by the vastly beautiful Salar de Uyuni. However, the city and its economic success – and arguably the tourism boom the region has seen in recent years – owes much to these huge locomotive skeletons scattered across the outskirts of town. Though many visit the graveyard while in Uyuni, not many know the historical importance once carried within their cargo beds, screeching across the now dilapidated tracks.

Founded in 1890 as an English trading post, Uyuni now serves as a distribution hub for trains carrying minerals from Bolivian mines to Pacific Ocean ports for overseas export into the global market – as well as passenger trains delivering tourists seeking a glimpse of Salar de Uyuni.

A dozen steam powered locomotives rusting away where they stand are all that remain of a once mighty mining empire on the Bolivian altiplano.

The rail’s construction (beginning in 1888 and ending in 1892) was encouraged by Bolivian President Aniceto Arce, believing that a transportation system would bring prosperity to the country. Yet, the railroad was mostly used by the mines rather than the people of Bolivia, and was constantly incapacitated by local indigenous people who saw the railroad as a mere intrusion in their daily lives. In the 1940s, the mining industry collapsed – primarily due to mineral depletion but also supplemented by social unrest – leaving behind the decaying train cemetery we know today. Another factor involves the technology of the trains themselves, as oil became a more feasible option to run the colossal locomotives opposed to the outdated steam engines.

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It is said that the amount of wealth extracted from Bolivian mines since the industry’s inception could theoretically fund the construction of a transatlantic bridge spanning from Buenos Aires, Argentina to London, England. None would have known this reality more than Simón Iturri Patiño, who built an empire owning the majority of the tin industry in Bolivia. Dubbed the “Andean Rockefeller” and “Lord of Tin,” Patiño was considered one of the top five richest men in the world at the time of his death in 1947.

Living in New York City – but with houses all over the world – Patiño decided to move his family and belongings into one of his houses in Cochabamba, Bolivia. This massive estate had been constructed years prior to Patiño’s decision to return to Cochabamba. Having never seen the mansion personally, he and his family set off by train from New York – taking with them their entire lives – bound for the source of their wealth. During the trip, however, Patiño became sick and died at the age of 85 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, having never seen his masterpiece of a house.

As for today, the train cemetery remains as it has since the dissolution of the mining industry in the 1940s: Aside from the graffiti that has slowly crept its way across the rusty, exterior steel shells of the massive frames. Talks of constructing a kind of museum are being discussed, as are plans to scrap the metal. One issue with the latter proposal – other than the permanent removal of these historical relics – is the sheer size of these 19th century behemoths and the difficulty involved with transporting such weight of pure, solid steel. For now, the remnants serve as a reminder of the once booming industry and the massive profits made from the country’s interior mineral deposits.