Published: January 3rd 2009December 27th 2008
We arrived in Brazil on 'el tren de la muerte' (the death train). The guidebook had warned us to expect a journey from hell, with long delays in mosquito-ridden swampy areas, uncomfortable seats and an aisle crammed with contraband. There are many theories about how the train got its name. A common one is that it was named due to the sheer number of passengers falling from the train’s roof to their death. Passengers were on the roof because the carriage was overflowing with contraband. The long, arduous journey meant that they eventually fell asleep and slipped off, or (more likely) were flung from their precarious perch when the train derailed (which happened quite frequently). After all the negative hype we were tempted by a flight, especially after a month of travel Bolivian-style but we came to our budget-conscious senses (we couldn't afford it) and booked ourselves a couple of tickets on the death train. We were surprised to discover comfortable reclining seats, no mozzies and not even one derailing. It did have a good go at it though, with the train leaping off the tracks and settling back down with loud clatters and collective sighs of relief from passengers.
When we arrived at the train station in Brazil we were approached by a guy who tried to sell us a tour to the Pantanal (the largest wetland in the world - bushloads of animals) and much to our surprise he actually succeeded. We are fairly adept at ignoring anyone who approaches us at train stations, bus stations and border crossings because we it’s the best way to avoid rip-offs. This guy appeared to be different and calmly explained to us that we were better off doing a tour from there and not getting on a bus to Campo Grande (about 7hrs away) to book one because we would end up having to travel back on ourselves. He was talking sense and offered to take us to the office (Indiana Tours) to have a closer look at what we would be doing. His company van seemed to suggest he was reasonably reliable and we agreed that we would go with him to the office. He took us across the border, stopping for us to get our Bolivian exit stamp and helping us get our Brazilian entry stamp. We looked at the information for the tour and decided to go for
it. We then experienced a supreme amount of hand holding with him taking us to a bank to get some cash and then to a supermarket to get some insect repellent. We never did find a catch. We booked a tour with his company and that was enough - nobody felt the need to bleed us dry. In fact, the company went out of their way to help us. They helped us book bus tickets to Rio for after the tour (the woman actually just went and joined the queue at the counter for us and handled the whole thing, we paid the price on the ticket and not a cent more). We later found out we paid less for the tour than people who booked it in Campo Grande, so it turns out that not everyone who hangs around at the border is up to no good.
With not a second wasted off we went to the Pantanal for three nights of sleeping in hammocks and four days of animal trackin', fishin', jeep safari-in' and other fun. Our guide was 'Johnny Indiana - piranha catcher, jeep wrangler and rodeo rider'
. He was to be worshipped throughout our
trip as a Ray Mears, Steve Irwin type character, who we often amused with our clumsy cityslicker ways (everyone is a cityslicker compared to Johnny). Such faux pas would result in him wagging his finger and with a little smile uttering 'this I can not believe'.
He'd lived in the Pantanal all his life, been working as a guide for over 20 years and was fluent in Monkey. He took us out into the wetlands on foot, tracking and finding animals with apparent ease. He found a group of howler monkeys and started talking to them, a conversation which went on for a good ten minutes. We were all suitably impressed by his lack of foreign accent when speaking Howler Monkey. We were even more impressed by the monkeys themselves, with their powerful calls making them the loudest land animals (according to the Guinness Book of Records they can be heard up to two miles away). They seemed to be fully aware of their record-holding status with the lead male being determined to excrete on us mere humans. We alternated between looking up at them in awe and scurrying around to avoid becoming the butt of their joke.
Whilst out driving in the jeep we saw some capivaras crossing the track in front of us. Capivaras are the world's largest rodents, which didn't summon a very pleasant image in my head. Thankfully they don't look like giant rats, as I had feared, but they are pretty big with the adults being the size of a small dog. Their faces are squashed at the front and they look more like a Disney animator's latest cute creation than an actual animal; I could fully imagine them wearing clothes and talking. We also saw countless birds, with graceful storks adorning the wetlands and blue parrots decorating the trees. We were lucky enough to see a solitary tucan with the classic astonishingly large bill. It was in the process of plundering another bird’s nest, eating the eggs - it didn't seem at all bothered to be caught in the act.
Johnny took us fishing for piranhas one morning. First he demonstrated how to use the simple bamboo rod. 'Please do not do tourist fishing'
he announced, showing us how to do 'Johnny fishing' which involved flicking the wrist to fling the hook into the water, bouncing it up and down rapidly,
swinging the rod sharply to one-side and then raising it out of the water with a fish attached. Basically a lot of sploshing and swishing and you will catch a fish. 'Oh and please do not get your feet in the water the piranhas will eat'.
Johnny deadpanned. We were all intrigued to know just how sharp those little piranha teeth were; Johnny showed us on a vine with the fish's reflex kicking in the second the vine touched its mouth. It bit clean through, with a guillotine-like action. We kept our feet out of the water.
The very first time I cast off I felt the nibble of piranhas on the bait, getting them actually on the hook was achieved by swishing the hook though the water as sharply as possible. I caught one pretty quickly but lost it back to the water when I got a little freaked out by the piranha flinging through the air towards me (the rods were reel-less). Johnny came to assist me with not fishing like a tourist and under his watchful eye I managed to land one. The fish-off was on with the boys (our group consisted of 4 boys and
me) getting quietly competitive. Paul caught the most (of course) and was deemed a fisherman by Johnny Indiana; high praise indeed.
Our fishing attracted the attention of the alligators in the area who were moving ever closer. Johnny chuckled as I started to get nervous and move away from them. 'alligator no problem!'
he said ignoring one that was eyeballing him from a few feet away. We saw so many of them over the next few days we got used to their presence (at times they were very close). They even lived in the river right by the camp and didn't seem to be interested in one of the guides jumping in to swim across.
The tribes who lived in the Pantanal used horses to hunt and they are still used today. Johnny had his trademark sheathed knives shoved down the back of his jeans and rode much like he tracked animals and fished: as if he was born doing it. At times he used his machete to cut a path, at others he would gallop, calling out 'you can follow if you want'
. The horses were all big, strong and happy to be moving at a pace.
Paul had his fastest most eager horse yet. With the slightest encouragement it would be galloping and leading the way. Mine was sleepy until its first gallop, after which it was bouncing around and ready for more. At one point, when we had been walking for a while I asked Johnny if we would be able to gallop again, to which he replied 'no, no galloping' 'not safe, we don't gallop, never gallop'
and then moments later 'ok you can gallop now'
. He clearly wasn't the health and safety guy the tour company told him to be. This was most apparent in the back of the jeep. He threw the vehicle around, swerving on the thick sand and deep ruts. He left the tracks quite regularly and took to the bush, somehow managing to find a way through the trees. Puddles and black sand were handled with terrifying speed, but he still managed to spot birds and deer in between the periods of maniac driving.
One of the other highlights of the trip was the sleeping arrangement. We slept in a long hut on stilts in wide hammocks. We slept really well and seemed to get more accustomed to
them each night. I looked forward to getting into my hammock at night and knew I would miss being able to sleep in a giant sling when we left. The dawn orchestra waked us each morning: the songs and calls of what seemed like hundreds of birds, and the chatter of howler monkeys. Nights were spent drinking by the little hut that served as a bar and eating the copious amounts of food the cook made over a log-stove. It was a very hard place to leave and as a starting point in Brazil it was unbeatable.
We left for Rio on a blissfully uneventful bus ride (Brazilian buses are very expensive but very plush). The guidebook said that the journey takes 20 hours. It actually took 27. So I guess you could say we got our money's worth but it's hard to be that positive when you gain 7 hours of bus time and arrive into one of South America's most dangerous cities at midnight. We got a cab straight to the hostel (the bus station has counters for the regulated cab companies; you pay at the counter, get your receipt and then get taken to
the cab by the driver - a very good set-up to avoid wandering into the street and straight into a mugging situation). We stayed at the fantastic Ipanema Beach House (complete with pool) and slept in our first real beds for five nights.
I'd been excited about Rio for quite some time, I wanted to watch the sunset at Ipanema, drink Caipirinhas on Copacabana beach, visit Christ Redeemer (Jumbo Jesus) and see the iconic Sugarloaf mountain and the city stretching out before me. It hadn't occurred to me that bronzed bodies and buzzing city beaches are not a guarantee. Who'd have thought that the 'Marvelous City' gets rain too. And we're talking about the drizzly, depressing kind of rain commonly associated with England. The beaches were deserted, not an oiled pec or miniscule thong in sight; not quite the wild people-parade we'd been expecting. Despite the rain it was still a cool city and Christ Redeemer was an impressive sight. We also took the tram to Santa Teresa. It was worth it just for the tram-ride (which was lucky because we couldn't quite figure out what was so good about the area itself). The tram was open-sided and crammed
with both tourists and locals, the locals hung off the sides and the kids were jumping off to run alongside for a while, jumping back on when they got tired.
Rio didn't quite work out the way I hoped and we certainly didn't see it at its best. I hope to go back one day with crossed fingers for the kind of weather you need for a city of views and beaches.
We were back on a bus for our final stop in Brazil - Iguazu falls. It was another Brazilian epic of a bus journey (24hrs) but it was worth every second to see one of the most impressive sights in the world. We visited both the Brazilian and the Argentinian side, but this is a Brazilian blog so Argentina will just have to wait! The Brazilian side gives you the grand overview of the falls and, seeing as there are around 275 of them spread along over one-and-a-half miles, an overview is a good thing. The 'Garganta do Diabo' (Devil's throat) marks the border between the two countries and it's an obvious place to split them. It's a U-shape so there's water cascading down
on three sides stretching along 700m with an 82m drop. It's immense and it seems impossible that so much water could continuously course down. There are walkways, which allow you to get amazing views of the falls and to feel the spray (which at times is more like a shower). There are rainbows all around and such a range of waterfalls, from slender, gentle falls to angry torrents with the spray causing a mist high above them. It was stunning but we were to be really wowed the following day in Argentina.
Our trip though Brazil was so quick due to necessity. It's an expensive country at the best of times and now is a bad time to be travelling with the pound - we always seemed to be at the cash machine. I hope to go back one day - it would be possible to spend months there travelling around and seeing all the stunning places it has to offer. For us, the Pantanal was really only tacked on to the trip because we were travelling overland from Bolivia and it was in our way, but I'm so glad we stopped; it really stole the show and was
one of my favourite things of the whole trip.
Iguazu falls photos to be continued...!
There are more photos below