Seemingly built in defiance of the desert-like landscape, Uyuni stands desolate yet undaunted in Bolivia’s southwestern corner. Mention Uyuni to a Bolivian and they will whistle and emphasize harto frío (extreme cold). Yet despite the icy conditions, Uyuni’s got a cheerful buzz about it with hundreds of travelers passing through every week to kick off their tour of the Salar de Uyuni or the Southwest Circuit.
Although there’s not much to see here, and the wind chill can strip your soul bare as you pace the wide streets, Uyuni’s isolated position and outlook elicit an affectionate respect from both Bolivians and foreign travelers.
Founded in 1889 by Bolivian president Aniceto Arce, Uyuni remains an important military base. Tourism and mining are the other major sources of employment in the town. The world’s largest lithium reserve – about 100 million tons – lies beneath the neighboring salt flat, and could potentially fuel all the iPods and electric cars the world could build over the next century. While work on building extraction and processing facilities has been slow going, expect more and more mining activity near Uyuni in coming years.