Cristina was right – a lengthy border crossing into Paraguay. A one hour wait in a line at the Bolivian Border office and then an hour and a half wait at the Brazilian border office. While it was a long time standing we all got through without problems (although I think all of our nerves had been tested after limited sleep on our overnight train) – some of the locals were less lucky with many a woman emerging from the office in tears.
We the had a two hour drive from Corumbà to our lodge accommodation in the Pantanal. We were staying in the south west part of Mato Grosso do Sul.
En route we had an interesting police check with an officer (complete with moustache, black leathers, knuckle gloves and slouchy leather cap – yes think biker from the village people) deciding to strike up a conversation – very smooth. You could see his younger colleagues were in awe of the ease with which he struck up the jovial conversation with someone who couldn’t speak his native tongue.
The trip was enjoyable with us passing cows, buffaloes, donkeys and birds along the way until the torrential rain set in! We were on dirt roads so we were a little concerned about the ability of our minibus to make it through but it powered on without a problem.
Our lodge was lovely – the entire place was a series of pavilions perched above the wetlands, which were full of caymans, capybaras (like a large water wombat) and piranhas! We saw lovely birds (caracaras, cardinals, parakeets and ibises) as we wandered around the lodge grounds and it was then onto trying our hand at piranha fishing – with the promise our catch would be cooked up for dinner. I managed to hook a small fish (not a piranha) but it fell off as I was about to grab him. My technique may have faltered by the distraction of seeing giant otters frolicking on the other side of the river!
The next day we were off in the back of a truck for a visit to a local farm – giving us a great vantage for spotting the wildlife on the way (the toucans are quite a sight in flight with their long beaks). We were amused at the farm by a walk and then horse ride through the marshy land spotting red and greens macaws, blue and yellow and hyacinth macaws, savannah hawks, falcons, hawks, flycatchers, jabirus (the symbol of the Pantanal), jacanas and egrets and listening to the odd howler and capuchin monkey.
Before leaving the Pantanal we took a boat ride up the river, spotting caymans and capybaras along the riverbanks and a great range of birds (particularly kingfishers) darting across the rivers – the ever present vultures soaring above.
It had been unseasonably cold (and wet) while we had been in the Pantanal, which had made the wildlife a little less abundant for spotting than is usual. It also meant the colours of the birds were not as bright against the grey skies. Nonetheless, it had been wonderful to visit – the vast savannahs providing a larger array of birds and animals than what we had seen in the jungles of the Amazon. Although we hadn’t seen an anaconda (thankyou Pachamama), anteater or jaguar – perhaps an excuse to come back one day??
Our next destination was Bonito and we were all hoping we would arrive to fine weather as it’s the place we had heard that there was some great snorkelling to be done. Alas it was 15 degrees when we arrived.
Bonito is a relatively young town, having grown when the locals discovered the bounty of Rio de Prata (Prata River). I was undecided about the snorkelling even after asking a group of fellow travellers how the water had been that day (I ferreted out the aussie in the group but being a male I wasn’t sure he had the same cold thresholds as me). When I found out that Isabella was sitting back waiting to hear if I would do the snorkelling before she would commit I decided to harden up and sign up!
By the next morning Rosie had also decided to come snorkelling as the swelling of her hand from a Pantanal wasp sting had finally come down. Off went, the three musketeers.
I was certainly glad I had decided to go. We squeezed into our wetsuits with the warning that peeing in them while in the water would attract anacondas – might have been a warning more suited to kindergarden age kids but it worked on me! The water was around 24 degrees while the ambient air temperature was 15 so the trick was to stay underwater, which wasn’t hard to do given how gorgeous the schools of fish were. You got the bonus of an exfoliation from the little fish whenever you stopped – others managed to get a kiss from fish as there were that many and they were that close! Some of the fish were quite large even discounting the magnification from the masks.
The other bonus was the lovely bird and monkey sounds as you snorkelled. The truck ride back was another opportunity for wildlife spotting this time it was rheas, secretary birds and an anteater (right at the moment I told the guide I was disappointed I hadn’t yet seen one – I thought he was joking when he replied with a pointing finger and said “there’s one”)!
On our arrival back to town the square was starting to fill with locals who were joining the nationwide protests about living costs rising to pay for the infrastructure costs associated with next year’s World Cup. It was a peaceful protest with the town returning to its relaxed and safe state by the following morning.
Back onto a bus – this time bound for the Paraguay/Brazil border town of Ponta Pora. I was looking forward to our trip to Paraguay as I was missing Spanish – putting aside the numbers and general greetings, Portuguese was just too hard! It was just a stopover town for us to sort out immigration but rather funny having the countries separated only by a road and everyone wandering between the countries at their leisure! Accordingly it was a very relaxed and quick border crossing with us staying in Paraguay territory for a number of hours after we had, according to the paperwork, left Paraguay and entered Brazil!
The rain wasn’t leaving us – it poured most of our bus trip to Asunción, capital of Paraguay. They say Asunción looks fine on a sunny day and positively sombre on an overcast day – I would fully support that view. Asunción is only a small city with its 1.2 million population and survives through its commerce with Brazil and Argentina. It borders with Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina and has a sad past with it having lost a good part of its male population during the 19th century War of the Triple Alliance (a war against the combined might of Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay).
The city of Asunción has quite a lot of potential with its location on the lovely Rio Paraguay but unfortunately the slums are sandwiched between the river and Plaza Indendencia. A walk around Plaza had us seeing the cathedral with its brick construction reminiscent of the one in Santa Cruz and the rather plain legislative palace. The presidential palace had a bit of work being done on it but you could certainly see its grandeur and why it had earned the reputation of being a mini (very mini) Versailles.
After some unsuccessful shopping I headed out to Jardin Botanico with Isabella and Rosie. A nice respite from the hustle and bustle of the city. It was here that we stumbled upon the park’s zoo, with its very non-native animals of Bengal tigers, lions and elephant. We were too late to get entry into the bird display so only got to peek through the fences to see the owls. It was a rather bizarre way to end our couple of days in Paraguay!
The mighty Foz do Iguaçu awaits. Again we depart on a bus back into Brazil with high hopes of the weather clearing! I’m sure I’ll spend a bit of the journey pondering how Australian politics will develop over coming months following the news this morning of the change in leadership.