We spent 3 days in the Pantanal. It's an area of savannah grassland about the same size as France. We went hiking through the grasslands, did some horse riding, went on a boat trip, fished for pirhana ( and used them as bait to fish for alligators), and went on a jeep safari looking for snakes.
We got to see lots of wildlife. Loads of different type of birds including toucans, storks and blue macaws. Right in front of our lodge was a lake with hundreds of alligators, caipivara (giant guinea pig like things) and the occasional flamingo. We spotted the odd armadilo, deer, stag and monkey too.
The highlight was probably the 4 metre anaconda. Our guide nearly danced a jig when he saw it stretched across the road. It was unbelievably long and a lot heavier than it looked.
After the Pantanal we left Brazil and headed across the border to Bolivia, on a day that happened to be a fiesta. We ended up waiting about 2 hours for the border guards to leave the party and grace us with their presence. When they did decide toshow their faces they demanded that we pay them a bribe for showing up to their jobs and stamping our passports.
Then it was on to the Death Train. It wasn't quite as bad as it's name, well we're still alive anyway, and we got some sleep too, which was a bonus we weren't expecting.
We spent a day in wandering around Santa Cruz before hopping on a night bus to Sucre. It was posssibly the worst journey we've had so far. 16 hours in a rickety old bus, on unpaved dirt roads winding up and around through the mountains.Sleeping wasn't a possibility.
Sucre was a really pretty little town, but we were really struck by the level of poverty there, especially when we went to a local market in Tarabuco nearby. Most of the locals there barter for goods rather than buying with cash.
Santa Cruz and the Eastern part of the country is very prosperous. This is in total contrast to the standard of living for the campesinos (indigenous country people/peasants) who try to eke a living in the harsh conditions of the altiplano in the west. The President at the moment is an indigenous campesino called Evo Morales. Morales' priority is to improve the standard of living for the campesinos, which is a very noble goal. However, he has rubbed quite a lot of people up the wrong way due to his policies and opinions. He is very racist against Bolivians of European descent and constantly refers back to the Spanish enslavement of the indigenous population. He is also anti- American (he has kicked out all American aid agencies, and some others as well) and is said to be in the pocket of the Venezuelan President, who is supposedly supplying him with arms. He has a very liberal attitude to the coca (cocaine) industry. He has increased permitted coca growth from 1 hectare to 8 hectares per farmer, he has asked for campaign donations in the form of coca leaves (to be sold on to the cocaine industry presumably) and he has banished the American Drug Enforcement Agency. In addition to all of that, he is underminig the Judicial system by placing his own cronies in positions of power and changing the procedure for becoming a lawyer and how the system is regulated. He has also changed election procedures to make it easier to hold onto his position of power. It seems like he is paving the path to a dictatorship. He dislikes private industry, which is booming in the east, hence the prosperity there. Last year civil war nearly errupted when some of the provinces in the east tried to declare indepence from his rule. There is going to be an election in December, and it's expected that he will be re-elected because the campesinos who make up almost 70% of the population are suppostive of his plans to improve their rural lifestyle. His opponents are apparently of the opinion that what's needed in the country is a military dictatorship. Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the rest of our lot don't seem quite so bad now!!!
After Sucre we headed to Potosi. The altitude there hit us a bit harder than in Sucre. At 4060 metres above sea level, we found ourselves breathless walking up the slightest bit of an incline. The main reason for visiting Potosi was to see the mines there. In the 16th century Potosi was the richest city in the world due to the silver mines there. Now most of the silver has dried up and it's mainly zinc there . Even at that it's totally hit and miss. The miners work as a co-operative and basically they only get paid for what they get out of the mine, which isn't very much anymore. The conditions in there are terrible, basic tools, manual methods and no safety precautions. In order to prepare themselves for such a hard workday the workers spend the morning chewing coca leaves and sipping 96% alchol until they're sufficiently anaethisised to enter the mines.
From Potosi we got a bus to Uyuni and took a trip out to the Salar de Uyuni (the salt plains). The landscape there is absolutely amazing, so different to anything else we've ever seen. Millions of years ago there was some tectonic movement that forced the land up and trapped some of the Pacific Sea high in the mountains forming a lake. Eventually the water in the lake evaporated and left this huge salt desert. Like all good deserts there's an oasis in the middle of it. It's called Fish Island. At one time is was part of a coral reef, but since the sea dried up so did the coral and now it's home to some of the tallest/oldest cacti in the world.
The people in the villages bordering the salar have different rights to use the salt there. We visited one village where they are allowed to take the salt and refine it down to salt grains. Then there is another village that can take blocks of salt that are used for building. On our first night of the trip we stayed in a 'hotel' (that's a very loose term) that was made from these salt bricks.
Now we're in La Paz, the highest capital city in the world and we're hoping to go to Rurrenabaque today to visit the Amazon. Fingers crossed though as the flights this morning were cancelled because the grass landing strip was wet.
Ok so there's thunderstorms in Rurrenabaque today, and they're forecast for the next week. Our flight was still going ahead apparently but we weren't too comfortable with the idea of landing flying a toy plane through a thunderstorm to land on a grass strip. But more importantly we were afraid that even if we did land safely we'd be stuck in Rurrenabaque because if the flights get cancelled due to rain, then there's a good chance the road would be impassable too and timewise we just can't afford to get stuck there for a week. We'll just have to suss out if we can squeeze in a trip to the Amazon from somewhere in Peru instead.
Jan and Paul