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Standing in defiance of the desert-like landscape that surrounds it, Uyuni occupies a desolate corner of southwestern Bolivia. Mention Uyuni to a Bolivian and they will whistle and emphasize harto frío (extreme cold). Yet despite the icy conditions, the town has a cheerful buzz about it, with hundreds of travelers passing through every week to kick off their tour of Salar de Uyuni or the Southwest Circuit.

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 smart phones and electric cars the world could build over the next century. While work on building extraction and processing facilities has been proceeding slowly, expect more and more mining activity near Uyuni in the coming years.

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