The Pantanal to Santa Cruz

Trip Start Apr 08, 2012
Trip End Sep 25, 2012

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Flag of Brazil  , State of Mato Grosso do Sul,
Monday, June 4, 2012

I arrived early this morning in Santa Cruz, Bolivia on a bus from Puerto Quijarro on the border with Brazil.
I have a day - possibly more - to waste because of a problem I had at the border.
Well, it's not a problem now, but when I try to leave Bolivia it will be.
It is the easiest thing to cross borders unheeded in this part of the world. I took a bus to the border where I found the line for Brazilian immigration, which almost everyone else passed by (I assume Bolivian/Brazilian residents don't need stamps).
After I got my exit stamp I walked about 300 metres to Bolivia only to find that the office had closed for the day at noon.
Well then.
I had already booked and paid for the bus to Santa Cruz so I wasn't about to spend the night in this minuscule border town. 
On a side note, many tour operators will wait at bus stations for tourists and offer trips and places to stay and bus/plane tickets. The great thing about this is that they will always speak English. The bad is that they will hide commission fees and not bother to tell you necessary things. For example the border times, it would have been great to know that. I also ended up paying double the price for my bus ticket but luckily it's Bolivia and everything is cheap so it wasn't crazy expensive.
But still really irritating.
Anyway, I figured I could just go to the immigration office in Santa Cruz to get my entry stamp. But of course it's the weekend. And while the border will be open for a couple of hours on a Sunday, an office in a city definitely will not be. 
So while I'm not officially in any country I shall write.
My tour into the Pantanal was not quite what I was expecting. 
This place is known as being one of the largest protected wetlands in the world but I think the term "protected" is a little strong.
To get to the lodge we had to drive about 6 hours from Campo Grande, 1-2 hours of that in the actual wetland on muddy roads.
I've always wanted to visit the Okavango Delta in Botswana and this place is supposedly comparable but I really hope not.
Along those muddy roads are countless farms with cows, sheep, and goats which are of course bordered by wire fences. If the people here have managed to find peace between farming and wildlife then good for them.
But I don't see how it's possible. The Pantanal is known for its high population of jaguars and pumas are not uncommon.
No predator will choose a sprinting deer to chase over tapping a lazy cow for a meal.
And what farmer doesn't want revenge on those that kill his means of living? 
Protection needs to mean more than just no legal hunting. 
There is no sense of wildness here, no feeling of being out in the bush where the animals are in their home. This is just a place where the animals are free to roam (assuming, of course, that they can jump the many fences), guests on borrowed land.
But perhaps this is just in the southern Pantanal where the majority of the tourism seems to be.
Maybe there are less people in the north, but probably not.

I don't mean to make it sound like my tour was a waste of time. I saw a lot of animals and so many species of birds - I have yet to brave my bird book to identify all of them.
On the way to the lodge we saw blue-and-yellow macaws, giant river otters, capybara, caiman, and marsh deer.
The capybara is the largest rodent in the world and will retreat to the water if threatened. They look just like giant guinea pigs and they can gather in groups of more than 50. 
The next day I did a boat ride where we found black howler monkeys and yet more birds. The most impressive bird here is the Jabiru stork, the symbol of the Pantanal, with an 8 foot wingspan. 
The caimans are very numerous and while they look like small crocodiles, they pose little to no threat to humans. We stopped the boat at a small island where several caimans were sunning themselves but they slithered into the water immediately when we got out of the boat. 
That afternoon we went out again in the boat and fished for piranhas. 
I've never liked fishing, I don't have the patience and I just get really bored.
But piranha fishing is completely different. The bait were pieces of an eel that we just slid onto a hook. You throw the hook in the water and wait maybe half a minute before there's a tug. 
The piranhas were usually about 6 inches long but one guy managed to catch one about 10 inches.
We had them for dinner that night and they taste pretty good but you have to fight to get any meat off of them, they seem to be 90% bone.
On a walk the next morning we were able to get a little closer to the howler monkeys and see some peccaries. We were also able to sneak up under a tree two red-and-green macaws were sitting in. Once they saw us they didn't flee but rather started screeching at us. It seems to be a common standard in nature that the more beautiful birds tend to have the worst calls and macaws don't let you down in that respect. It is a wince-inducing squawk that was repeated over and over until they eventually flew away. It's a wonder they aren't all deaf.
That afternoon I finally found a bit of the feeling I was looking for when I went horseback riding.
It is the dry season right now and they didn't have as much flooding as usual during the wet season. So the rivers are flowing but there is a lot of dry land interspersed with small ponds and marshes. 
We were galloping over one open grassland with black howler monkeys doing what they do best in the small patches of surrounding forest with hyacinth macaws flying overhead. 
I'm sure the galloping had something to do with it - my horse must have been a racehorse in a previous life - but I finally felt like I was in the wild instead of on farmland.
Unfortunately I didn't manage to find any cats, although the other group saw a glimpse of a puma running across the road. All I saw was a couple of puma tracks.
As I said before, it's the dry season. But there must have been a communication error because it rained the whole time I was there as well as being freezing cold with bitter winds. 
At the end of my tour I was talking with a guide from a different lodge who said, "It's always summer in the Pantanal, except for maybe 15 days when it is like this."
So I had 350 days to choose from but I managed to choose 4 of 15.
He also said the best time to come is at the end of the dry season, around September/October. The weather is better and the animals tend to be more concentrated around what water remains.
I caught a bus to Corumba where I spent the night before crossing the border and ending up in Santa Cruz, legally and officially nowhere.
There's not much to do in Santa Cruz, it's not very touristy and apparently pretty dodgy at night. But until tomorrow morning when I can get my stamp I need to shop because Bolivia is really cold and it's only going to get colder.
Most of the country is on the altiplano which is very high elevation. Santa Cruz seems to be one of the lower parts at about 1200 feet but the place I am volunteering at is at about 9000 feet.
And it's midwinter so while the days are pleasant the nights will be painfully cold.


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