Southern Cross – Brazil & The Pantanal

Trip Start Jul 30, 2010
Trip End May 29, 2011

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Flag of Brazil  , State of Mato Grosso do Sul,
Saturday, April 30, 2011

"Experience is not a matter of having actually swum the Hellespont, or danced with the dervishes, or slept in a doss-house. It is a matter of sensibility and intuition, of seeing and hearing the significant things, of paying attention at the right moments, of understanding and coordinating. Experience is not what happens to a man; it is what a man does with what happens to him."

Aldous Huxley, Texts and Pretexts, introduction (1932)

We left Santa Cruz in the evening to catch the over-night train to the border with Brazil. This was the 3rd overnight train we'd taken on this train and all 3 have been different approaches. In Thailand you sleep lengthwise along the carriage in ingeniously designed bunk beds that fold out with a flick of a couple of switches. The toilets may be foul but the journey is pleasant enough. In Vietnam the loos were spotless but the beds were at 90° to the direction of train so whenever the train shudders to a halt you're almost hurled out of your bunk onto the floor. In Bolivia things are done differently. Instead of beds you get reclining seats that don’t really recline that much and a carriage that sways from side to side making taking a drink from a cup a bit of an acquired skill. Part of reason for the swaying might be because the train was only 2 carriages long.

Nonetheless I managed to get some sleep because when I woke up in the early morning – not shades or curtains of this train – the sun as rising over the swamps west of Puerto Suárez. We were a long way from the Andes and the dusty parts of Bolivia from the previous week.

After getting off the train in Puerto Suárez in Bolivia we crossed the border into Corumbá (Brazil). Aside from the miserable immigration staff on both sides of the border (a job requirement perhaps?) we passed thru' quickly enough and almost immediately the place had a different feel to it. The people looked different and the town wealthier than most places we’d seen in Bolivia – Sucre and Santa Cruz excepted. We then had a minibus drive to our hotel/lodge in the Pantanal (Campo Grande, Mato Grosso do Sul to be precise)

On a GAP Adventures 'Standard’ tour the nightly budget it estimated at around $25 per room, per person. Either GAP was being screwed by the lodge or they were screwing us but it was difficult to believe that the dorm of 6 bunk beds we were all billeted in cost more than $25. Aside from it being unusually cold the place was a dump run by unsmiling management who wanted us out of the common room as quickly as possible, irrespective of that fact that people might have wanted to buy beers or snacks (to supplement the dreadful dinner) or watch bit of TV.  

The attitude of the management was shame as it rather took the shine off the place – the accommodation being a dump aside. After we had arrived we were taken on a boat trip thru’ the part of the Pantanal we were staying on – the whole area is about half the size of France. 'Pantanal’ is Portuguese for swamp, so we basically went on a boat trip around a swamp. In some respects it wasn’t that much different to the tours on the Amazon or Rio Tambopata, we saw the same birds (Egrets, Caracaras, herons, vultures and so on) and a family of capybaras but what was different was the previously elusive Caiman were lurking both in the rivers and the swamp the hotel was built upon and finally we were able to see them. Thankfully Caiman haven’t yet evolved to a point where they can clamber up steps or ladders otherwise sleeping there might have been a nervous affair given the number of the Caiman floating menacingly in the waters around our dorm with just their beady yellow eyes poking out of the dark swamp waters. 

Our local/wildlife guide, unlike the hotel management, was a pretty good guy and managed a few smiles as he pointed out the wildlife and he knew his stuff. The same couldn't be said for our new Tour Leader however. A new, relatively inexperienced guide from Belgium, he unfortunately seemed to lack the confidence (perhaps understandably so) that our previous guides thru’ Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia had in spades. Not being Latin American with that first language fluency in Spanish or Portuguese probably didn’t help but at least he had enthusiasm if not yet the organisational skills.

The following morning in the Pantanal was ‘Safari’ morning, belying that the place is a swamp. Our safari consisted on jumping into the back of a huge pick-up truck with rows of seats in the back and driving along a dirt-track road (much of which had been washed away by the recent rains) and nervously negotiating rickety wooden bridges placed over streams. As mentioned above there are Caimans in the Pantanal and if they were hiding in the Amazon here they are on full view, basking in the sun on the bank of every stream or swamp just soaking up the sun.  We also saw the rear-end of a Giant Anteater as it scurried into the bushes when it heard our truck draw-up. As seems traditional whenever you’re near water in S. America we did a spot of Piranha fishing. Same technique as normal; bit of beef on a hook tied to a branch. This time, however, there were no Piranha, or least none that where interested in being caught so we ended up with nothing. 

After a woeful lunch consisting mainly of beans and rice we went for a hike around the lodge on the wooden boardwalks over the swamp. This was pretty good fun and altho’ we didn’t spot anything we hadn’t seen before it was good to stretch our legs. That evening, after a grim dinner, we decided to re-do the walk, hoping to see the Caiman in action, in all this took about an hour and a bit but it was all the time the management needed to shut-up shop and lock us out of the common room so by a little after 9pm we had no option but to head back to our dorm cursing the miserable scrots that run the hotel, Parque Passo da Lontra.

The next day we left the Pantanal. A relatively quick – 4hrs; Brazil is a big country – minibus drive took us to Bonito. After leaving the swamps of the Pantanal we drove along pretty good roads – certainly better than most in Bolivia – thru’ what looked for large parts of the trips like the rolling hills and pastures on England, only bigger and warmer.

And it was the cows from the pastures than impeded our progress a couple of times as large herds of Brahma cattle were moved from one ranch to another, blocking the road in both directions as vehicles gingerly inched their way thru’ the cattle, beeping horns to encourage to cattle to move aside, which surprisingly they did with a little encouragement from the cowboys (gauchos) who were managing the flow of beef.
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