Tupiza was my last proper destination in Bolivia - my sights are now firmly set on the next phase of my adventure, a place which promises to be very, very different. Brazil.
I'm not quite there yet, though.
From Tupiza it's a ten-hour bus ride to the city of Tarija, located in Bolivia's far south and only a hop, skip and a jump away from Argentina. The Tupiza-Tarija journey - which I have to do overnight in the apparent absence of day buses - is reputed to be particularly frightening. Bolivian night buses are not exactly famed for their safety: crazily winding and unsurfaced roads, drivers behind the wheels for hours on end without breaks - and, perhaps, without brakes - and, so I'm told, often turning to the bottle while at the helm, do not a pretty combination make. I have no choice, however, unless I'm willing to head all the way back to La Paz, which I most certainly am not. A quick visit to a pharmacy in Tupiza just before setting off, however, turns what could have been the
Bus Ride From Hell into something altogether more pleasant. Fortunately for me, the concept of a "prescription"
has not yet made it to Bolivia: most pharmacological goodies are freely available over the counter, and I happily make off with half a milligram of alprazolam which I knock back as soon as I've installed myself on the overcrowded, decrepit and rather smelly bus. Hey presto!, I wake up ten hours later in Tarija with not the slightest memory - what more could I ask for? I've definitely found the answer to Bolivian bus travel: pills.
Tarija is famous throughout Bolivia as the home of the country's best domestic wines. Although Tarija's production is not exactly on equal footing with its Argentine and Chilean peers, I've tasted some local reds and they're definitely drinkable - not one but several steps up from cat's pee. Tarija is supposed to be an excellent base for visiting the surrounding wineries and I plan to stay there for a couple of nights. As (bad) luck would have it, however, Tarija has - surprise, surprise - decided to stage an impromptu 48-hour protest against government interference in local utility companies. This being Bolivia, the protest is accompanied by a paro
(wildcat strike) and, of course, a lovely bloqueo
, where locals kindly obstruct all
roads into, out of and inside Tarija. Nothing like messing up everybody's lives to get your point across, eh? So much for visiting Tarija's wineries. Time to make a quick get-away, I think. I'm all for direct action and getting your voice heard, but the current situation in Bolivia really does verge on the absurd.
To get from Tarija to Santa Cruz - Bolivia's largest city and, as a gateway to Brazil, my next destination - flying is definitely the way to go. The miracle that is the jet engine gets me to Santa Cruz in a measly 50 minutes - the bus would have taken 24 hours (although thanks to the bloqueo
I have to walk the four kilometres to the airport). I'm not sure even alprazolam would've made that
It's obvious that my flight to Santa Cruz has taken me from one Bolivia to another: the land here is flat, flat, flat, the countryside not brown and orange but a vivid green. Both the temperature and humidity have shot up. Bolivia has become so closely associated with the Andes in most people's minds that it's easy to forget that a large chunk of the country
- most of it, in fact - is not high altitude altiplano
but sweltering tropical lowland: not the Bolivia most outsiders picture. While Santa Cruz is not in itself a particularly compelling place, it has a nice, tropical feel and a beautiful palm-fringed plaza dotted with fragrant frangipani trees and surrounded by pretty, whitewashed colonial-era buildings. With its warm breeze and ubiquitous fresh orange-juice sellers, it's a perfect place to while away a day with a book. Santa Cruz also happens to be located at the western end of one of Bolivia's last three remaining railway lines, the Ferroviaria Oriental
which leads directly to the Brazilian border at the town of Quijarro - comfortable overnight trains only operate on certain days, hence my slightly extended stay in Santa Cruz. The journey to the border is indeed a comfortable one, aboard a rather comical one-carriage train called a Ferrobus
, which even comes with onboard meal service - hats off to Bolivian trains! I even have the ever-so-slightly surreal experience of watching Top Gun
while trundling through the Bolivian contryside at a couple of miles an hour!
A quick taxi ride from Quijarro station and I'm at the border, passport at
the ready...Except Bolivian immigration appear to not be at work today. Paro?
Surprisingly, no. Just a local public holiday, for which the Bolivians - in their infinite wisdom - have decided to close an international border crossing for an entire day. A hastily-printed paper sign on the door helpfully reads - "this is to inform you that there we will be no service all day on 01/10/12". Another sign right next to it points out: "Saturdays and Public Holidays open 08:00-12:00". Ah, Bolivia, how I will miss you. Unfortunately Brazil's Polícia Federal
, not famed for their friendliness, will not budge: no Brazilian entry stamp without a Bolivian exit stamp. Shit. Fortunately I manage to convince the immigration officer to let me through - together with a couple of equally-bemused young Texans who travelled on the same train - to the Brazilian border city of Corumbá, where we spend the rest of the morning trudging around town vainly trying to get the Bolivian consulate there to issue us with exit stamps. No luck, and there's no choice but to stay in Corumbá and return to the border the next day when, hopefully, the Bolivian immigration authorities will have decided to go
back to work. Lazy buggers.
An afternoon in sweltering, humid Corumbá quickly morphs into two days. There isn't much to do here, where the sauna-like conditions have bred a charmingly slow pace of life. With a wealth of slowly decaying colonial buildings and a gorgeous position on the banks of the Rio Paraguai, Corumbá is an oddly compelling place. I had expected things to change between Bolivia and Brazil - but not quite this much. It feels like I've changed planets, and it's difficult to describe exactly how - it's just different
. Perhaps it's just the weather, but there's something about Corumbá that just screams for you to sit down at a table on the pavement and order an ice-cold beer. If the rest of Brazil is like this, I'll be one very happy bunny.
After a couple of indecently lazy days - and equally indecent quantities of freezing cold beer - in Corumbá, including the lovely and unexpected treat of a boat-trip on the beautiful Rio Paraguai, courtesy of a charming Oregon couple based in Corumbá as charity workers (and who took pity on the three poor gringos
traipsing around town in the forty degree heat with
their rucksacks...), it's time to move on. Awaiting me just beyond Corumbá is the famous Pantanal
, the sprawling area of wetlands which occupies much of southwestern Brazil. Known far and wide for their extraordinary wealth of animal life, the Pantanal wetlands stretch northwards of Corumbá for hundreds of kilometres across the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul. The wetlands - which are in fact not very wet at all at this time of year, just before the rains - are dotted with fazendas
, farms which, in many cases, have been turned into lodges for the thousands of visitors who come to Pantanal every year to experience some of the area's fantastic biodiversity. From giant otters and capybaras to caimans and toucans, the Pantanal is indeed home to a gorgeous array of species - a couple of days at a fazenda
in this unique ecosystem is an absolute must.
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