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Searching for a sunset: Uyuni’s railway cemetery


The truth is that travelers rely far too much on their preferred brand of guidebook.  It’s not a crime; anyone with a short period of time to travel knows that guidebooks will lead them to the top destinations without having to waste time scouring for local advice.  But there are some things that guidebooks can teach or explain.  Guidebooks often leave readers feeling in a rush to check out each and every site located within their respective “sights and activities” section.  And all too often travelers forget to take the classic route of travel and simply wander off and get lost in this world.

The guidebooks describe the rough and tumble military town of Uyuni, Bolivia as a jumping off point for the impressive Salar de Uyuni.  The town has very little to offer they often note.  However, the guidebooks generally miss the fact that only a 20 minute walk outside of Uyuni is one of the most photogenic sunset spots on earth: The Train Cemetery.  This location, although requiring an artistic eye and a weak sense of smell, is sure to leave the many tourists who comb the world for the perfect facebook profile picture, more than happy with the results.  Although it takes about a 20 minute walk along a wretched garbage lined train track, travelers who brave the journey are rewarded with one of the best sunsets in all of South America.  After a visit to the Railroad Cemetery outside of Uyuni all other sunsets are put to shame.

This metallic graveyard is not an unknown location.  Nearly all the tours that depart the baron town of Uyuni make a stop here, however, during the day.  Under the day’s sun the rusted out old passenger cars and oil tankers that are scattered along the flat arid ground look to be just that, busted up rail equipment.  However, at dusk the rust red colours of the strewn out pieces of unsalvageable steel and iron blush the dark glowing reds of the early evening sun.  The colourful yet uncreative graffiti that tags almost all the workable metal surfaces pops under the shine of the hot yellow sun reflecting off the dusty and grassless soil.  The mechanical wreckage provides shades, shadows, and colours that will leave any avid photographer salivating embarrassingly.

The sky in itself is also a great treat to all photographers, avid or recreational.  Uyuni sits at about 3600 meters above sea level and because of its dizzying placement within the earth’s atmosphere the sky seems to glow iridescently in shades of almost any colour imaginable.  The clouds billow into thick cotton shaped hills that reflect each of the many colours of the light’s spectrum.  The colours within the clouds draw themselves in layers in a way that only nature can create and then radiate and reflect themselves off the rusted red of the train wreck’s rubble seemingly pressing energy into each one and, in return, bringing them back to life.

It is often easy to dismiss places on earth as merely jumping off points for excursion and adventure.  But often, we find that the adventure itself is finding those unexpected places that take our breath away.  Those places are the true jewels of this world.  Although most will agree the Uyuni Salar (the Bolivian Salt Flats) will leave you in awe, it is these unexpected moments that truly make travel worth the struggle.  Far too many people spend their time in travel, and in life really, overly focused on the end destination when really it is the journey in itself that we will remember most.  And it is in this voyage, not the destination from which we grow.

More by this author on his own website, The World is my Jungle Gym. Also Brendan Van Son now produces photobooks and calendars that he sells on his own website.

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