A Travellerspoint blog

The death train

Brazil to Bolivia – a 3 ½ day journey

sunny 30 °C

Blog 42: The death train.
Brazil to Bolivia – a 3 ½ day journey.

So after doing some research on the various border entries from Brazil to Bolivia, we had established that Corumba (Br) to Quijarro (Bl) was the most convenient in terms of location from Rio. When I say the most convenient, I mean it was ONLY a 29 hour bus trip from Rio to Corumba. This was definitely better than heading back down south through Brazil, underneath Paraguay and back up to Bolivia through northern Argentina. Our research also highlighted the fact that this particular border crossing can be a nightmare at times, due to the strange opening hours kept by the Bolivian immigration office. Other people have been stuck for days in Corumba, so we decided to book ourselves a night in Corumba to hopefully ease & de-stress the process.

The actual bus journey wasn’t too bad, even though the standard of buses in Brazil is lacking a little when compared with their Argentinean counterparts. We managed to get some sleep, but only in fits & starts, due mostly to the sniffing, sneezing, and farting Bolivians we were surrounded by. Keely wanted to make special mention of the little girl that amused herself by repeatedly kicking the back of her seat, or poking her hand in-between the seats to touch Keely or say “hoy”, or pull her hair over the top of the seat. Unfortunately her parents had decided she didn’t require a seat of her own, so she either had to sit on her parents lap or stand up in the aisle. And I’m sure it was only one person doing the farting (silently it must be said), but we never established who it was – they were very good at keeping their guilt hidden! The driver made stops every 3 – 5 hours which helped, and it must be said the standard of the highway services in Brazil is very impressive. One we visited was extensively decorated with Easter theming, and even had a fenced off section with real life bunnies!

Upon arriving in Corumba in the mid-afternoon, we walked to our hostel but got lost and almost walked into the bad part of town – whoops! We were stopped by a guy who told us we were definitely heading somewhere we shouldn’t be going and thankfully gave us the correct directions. Big thanks go out to that guy! The plan was then to go to the border, or frontera as the locals call it, to get our Brazilian exit stamp for the next day, and then head across the border proper in the morning. Unfortunately we didn’t have quite enough time to make that happen, so instead went grocery shopping in preparation for the next long journey from Quijarro to Santa Cruz…

Corumba is a strange little town – most travellers stay just one night either before or after touring the Pantanal. Locals who aren’t involved in organising or selling tours of the Pantanal either sell alcohol or fix cars judging by the various stores we saw in the town centre. Either way this close to the border we were finally able to speak Spanish and be understood with more regularity.

The main route from Quijarro to Santa Cruz is via the infamous “Death Train”. It must be said though that as dramatic as it sounds, the name doesn’t actually relate to modern times. Instead, it was dubbed the death train for a couple of reasons. The first being from when the line was used to move the numerous dead during a yellow fever plague, and secondly due to the number of men that allegedly died during construction of the line. The term “death train” actually relates to the route, rather than the train itself, and there are various different classes of train you can take, depending entirely of course on your budget. Unfortunately the day we travelled only offered the worst and best options, and given the various accounts of how awful the worst option was, we decided to treat ourselves and plump for the first class option which was basically double the price, but still only cost about £25 for a 14 hour overnight journey. We must have changed our minds about 10 times before eventually deciding on the first class option, as this did give us more time to cross the border the following day.

Now any of you imagining flutes of champagne upon arrival and totally lay-flat beds a la airline travel are sadly mistaken – we are talking first class “Bolivian” style. In truth the chairs were comfy enough and the air conditioning worked, but that was as good as it got. In another random act of kindness towards us a fellow passenger/stranger paid a tip to the luggage man on our behalf, as we didn’t have any small change. People often said the train “shunts and rolls around on the track” but we had assumed this related to the cheaper trains, and that our first class train would be much better. Ummmm not really! For 15 hours it bucked left and right and if we had been on a plane, the fasten seat belt sign would have been turned on due to bad turbulence for the entire trip! We did get food however: a thin processed slab of meat, rice and what probably started out as a potato. Hardly first class mind, but strangely edible. We somehow managed to get some sleep, and arrived in Santa Cruz in the early morning exited and ready to start our Bolivian adventure! We had survived the death train.

Mike (yay!) and Keely (only a little bit)

Posted by Mike.Keely 12:31 Archived in Brazil Comments (1)

Rio de Janeiro: the name says it all!

Celso, Copacabana, Christ and Caipirinahs

all seasons in one day 28 °C

Rio doesn’t really need any explanations – a city with a little bit of everything: miles of pristine white sandy beaches, lush rainforest just moments away, a vibrant party scene, great all year round warm weather and several incredible viewpoints to take it all in from. And let’s not forget Christ himself watching from on high, arms outstretched, inviting everybody in to all of Rio’s charms.

Our plans for Rio were a bit vague from the start; there were a few things we wanted to do (Rio has quite a few ‘must do’ sights anyway) but no real sense of how long to stay. We knew that the next step (getting to Bolivia) would take some researching and neither of us wanted to think too hard (yet) about the potentially difficult border crossing that loomed ahead. Hence the uncertainty and/or flexibility we had for Rio on arrival; the longer we put off that 30 hour bus + 17 hour train trip the better me thinks. Plus the torrential downpour that greeted us at the bus station gave us pause to consider how much time to spend in Rio; almost all of our planned activities requiring good weather. So we were just going to take it easy and see what happened.

Now let me introduce Celso to you: a friend of a friend who lives in Rio and very kindly offered to host us for a few nights. Not only is it remarkable that someone who is essentially a stranger to us (Mike’s best friend’s fiancés high school friend) agreed to invite us into his (plush) home, but also offered to show us around. Awesome. Thank you Celso; it was great to meet you, and a true treat for us to escape the ‘joys’ of dorm room accommodation for a few days.

One of the first things we did in Rio was check out the beaches, strolling along Le Blon, Ipenama and Copacabana beaches stopping about half way for lunch at a place with arguably one of the best views of Copacabana in all of Rio. A perfect first approach to Rio, according to Celso and we couldn’t’ agree more. After lunch we set our sights on the Sugar Loaf Mountain; having been able to see it from our lunch spot. Armed with directions and bus numbers we headed off on our own intending to get a bus, but found ourselves unable to break away from the beach. There were too many things going on: dozens of beach volleyball games, coconut sellers, sun worshipers, dog walkers and surfers. And of course not a cloud in the sky.

a. Perfect lunch spot

a. Perfect lunch spot

However by the time we finally arrived at the base of the Sugar Loaf Mountain the sun/cloud situation was far from ideal. Where the clouds had come from is anyone’s guess but we decided to plough on up anyway, walking to the first viewing platform. The 20 minutes or so that it took us was all the time a huge grey rain threatening cloud needed to position itself right over the second viewing platform, where it stayed for the remainder of the afternoon. We stayed to watch the sunset then made a hasty retreat in the now semi-darkness back down the mountain.

b. Not much point going to the top

b. Not much point going to the top

c. Sugarloaf sunset

c. Sugarloaf sunset

The next day we had great plans for tackling ‘Christ’ but as the morning dawned pretty cloudy we were forced to postpone that idea for a while. Instead we checked out the Escadaria de Selaron – steps that have been paved with thousands and thousands of tiles (by a crazy Chilean apparently) which creates a very bright and colourful mosaic in the heart of Santa Teresa district. According to our guide book (the less than trust-worthy lonely planet), every country is represented somewhere, somehow. Sure enough just as we were about to leave I spotted what could only be the New Zealand tile.

d. Count the tiles

d. Count the tiles

f. One of many tiles to catch my eye

f. One of many tiles to catch my eye

e. Which continent are we on...

e. Which continent are we on...

g. For all the Kiwi's in Rio

g. For all the Kiwi's in Rio

By the time we were finished with the steps we were fairly confident the clouds would stay away long enough for us to go see ‘Christ’. Unfortunately we hadn’t even considered pre-booking tickets for the train to the top; so the next available train was a few hours later. We booked our tickets anyway very conscious that 2 hours is a long time for the weather to turn against us (just like at the Sugar Loaf) but decided it was worth the risk. The ‘train’ was awesome (although very touristy) lumbering up very steep tracks surrounded by jungle on both sides; the occasional glimpse through the trees a prelude to what was to come at the top. We were subjected to a song and dance number on the way up, the tambourine man taking up position next to us! One can see ‘Christ’ from all over the city, he can keep a watchful eye on almost everything and everybody (despite not having any eyeballs but Mike tells me he doesn’t need any – he sees all anyway). We knew the views were going to be pretty special. Nothing quite compares to being there in person, even the hundreds of other tourists couldn’t detract from the place, even those tourists with their arms outstretched like Christ himself creating an obstacle course of limbs for everybody else around. Once we had taken our own photos (well several hundred let’s be honest from every angle, but none in cheesy poses thank you) we made a hasty retreat back down on the cute little train again (minus the show this time). Don’t know why we were so worried about the clouds coming in – our hasty retreat had more to do with seeking shade and a sit down than anything else; Christ himself only provides a small section of shade up there and of course EVERYBODY tries to squeeze into that space.

h. Christ

h. Christ

i. On top of the world....

i. On top of the world....

j.

j.

What else did we do in Rio: we had a few drinks in the Lapa district – where all the serious drinking and clubbing happens! Unfortunately no photos of that because we didn’t want to risk taking the camera with us after dark and on the buses. There was a lot drinking and dancing going on in the streets: gotta love it when traffic is diverted for the sake of a good time. We spent a few hours chilling in the botanical garden walking in the shade of massive palm and other trees before having lunch at the café there. And we spent hours just walking around the city soaking up the atmosphere and taking it all in. We did eventually look into how to cross the border at Corumba and booked tickets for the 29 hour non-stop bus trip.

k.

k.

l.

l.

Rio is an awesome city; anyone who has been will agree whole-heartedly I am sure. We probably could have stayed for weeks; we would have liked to do a favela tour, spend a few days on the beach and I saw a street food tour that looked interesting. We could have gone clubbing, or at least drinking till dawn, we could have taken some Portuguese lessons or tried our balancing skills with stand boarding (kinda like kayaking but you stand on the board and use a really long paddle). The bits of Rio we did see weren’t nearly as dangerous as expected; at no point did we feel unsafe or on guard. Two travellers had told us appalling stories of knife robbery but we didn’t see anything even remotely dodgy. Maybe because we don’t take risks, or because our instincts are rather good after travelling for this long. Maybe we’re really lucky or ‘would be’ robbers mistake Mike for a tough guy. Rio though gets a very bit tick, and a huge nod of approval. I suspect we will be back in the future for sure.

Keely

Up next: Rio (Brazil) to Santa Cruz (Bolivia). A journey that pretty much takes 3 ½ days to do.

Posted by Mike.Keely 15:39 Archived in Brazil Comments (1)

Paradise. One day only.

Beautiful Ilha Grande Island, Brazil.

all seasons in one day

It wouldn’t be paradise if it was easy to get to: Florianopolis to Ilha Grande in 5 easy steps:
1. 1 ¼ hour bus ride from Floripa back to mainland, what should have taken 25 minutes taking well over an hour (stupid traffic). Speedy transfer across to main terminal to buy next bus tickets and breakfast, suffering ever so slightly from the home made caipirinahs the night before.
2. 11 hour bus journey to Sao Paulo + 2 ½ hours at Sao Paulo bus station to buy more tickets and have dinner at Bob’s (like MacDonald’s only better).
3. 7 ½ hour overnight bus journey to Angra los Reis, arriving at 5.30 in the morning.
4. 10 hours in Angra los Reis – mostly sitting under a tree in the harbour area reading, but also some time spent taking photos, scoping out the deal with the ferry and buying groceries for the next couple of days.
5. 1 ½ hour ferry ride to island + short walk around Abraao looking for hostel (that last bit not as easy as it sounds).

And why did we want to come here? Well it’s a little slice of heaven, right here in earth.

Most people catch water taxi’s to visit the various beaches around the island, but Mike and I are not most people. Continually choosing to test ourselves with gruelling long hikes in unbearably hot temperatures and too close humidity’s – these walks always seem like such a great idea at the start but let’s just say we were both drenched in sweat and sticky from run off sunscreen and mossie repellent way before we reached our destination of Lopes Mendes Beach. The temperature of the ocean had been a wee bit on the chilly side in Floripa but that first swim moments after reaching the beach will go down in history as ‘the best swim’ of my life. So refreshing was the water that we decided to walk back over the island at the end of the day but not before a few more swims, a small snooze and some book time. Yes – we both know that life can be tough sometimes, just not for us at the moment. : - ) And before you start to really hate us – it poured and poured with rain all the next day forcing us to mostly stay indoors, so sadly we only ended up with one day in paradise. Until next time perhaps………

I’ll let the photos tell the rest………

Keely

1.  Killing time in Angra dos Reis waiting for ferry

1. Killing time in Angra dos Reis waiting for ferry

2. Abraao town, Ilha Grande

2. Abraao town, Ilha Grande

3. On the way to Lopes Mendes beach 1

3. On the way to Lopes Mendes beach 1

4. On the way to Lopes Mendes beach 2

4. On the way to Lopes Mendes beach 2

5. On the way to Lopes Mendes beach 3

5. On the way to Lopes Mendes beach 3

6. Lopes Mendes beach - looks like paradise to me

6. Lopes Mendes beach - looks like paradise to me

Posted by Mike.Keely 15:00 Archived in Brazil Comments (2)

Beaches, butterflies and Brazilian babes

A few days to explore Florianopolis, and a side trip to Wurung beach

sunny 28 °C

I think every traveller underestimates the sheer size of Florianopolis. An island that’s easily accessible, being connected to the mainland by bridges I had visions (and I think every other traveller to the place shares these) of being able to stroll around from place to place. 42 beaches certainly equals ‘a lot’ of beach time, but the place is massive, requiring hours and hours of bus time to traverse the island. We always knew 2-3 days wouldn’t be enough but armed with the best recommendations (from a Brazilian friend no less) we sat down on arrival at our hostel to plan. We had 4 main objectives: a day at the beach doing nothing (the last beach being in Africa what seemed like a very long time ago), a bit of walking/hiking (nothing too strenuous as it’s hotter than fire here), a nice lunch/dinner (there’s only so much pasta one can eat) and a night out at a famous nightclub!

By the time we had decided which of the 42 beaches to visit the sun had not only disappeared but the clouds rolling in were looking very malicious. A quick scan of the upcoming forecast confirmed our worst fears: thunderstorms. Shit balls – this was bad. We made a mad dash to the nearest beach to catch the fast disappearing sun but only managed about 45 minutes before we got too cold. Back to the hostel where we stayed for the remainder of the day, and all the next day waiting for the rain to stop. Grrrr! One day it’s scorching hot, the next pouring with rain. The only consolation was a cool lightning storm, although I wasn’t at all unhappy to curl up in a hammock with my book for a few days.

1. Lagoa do Conceicao

1. Lagoa do Conceicao

The day after that was more beach appropriate whether; only a few clouds in the sky with lots of sunshine. Time to go exploring! Two buses later we were at Pantano do Sol in the south of the island where promises of a ‘secret beach’ and ‘hidden lagoon’ were too good to pass up. Any beach that requires a 1 hour trek to get to over rocks and through jungle, a place not accessible by any other means (except boat), where there are no restaurants or shops of any kind……….this is my kind of beach. Lagoina do Leste was picture perfect. For some Brazil might mean beaches or beautiful women but we’re going to add butterflies to the list – both on Florianopolis and at Iguaçu – they are everywhere!

2. Lagoina do Leste, aka hidden beach

2. Lagoina do Leste, aka hidden beach

3. Pretty butterflies everywhere

3. Pretty butterflies everywhere

Before bussing back to our hostel we decided to check out the next village south, so after hiking back to civilisation found ourselves in Pantano do Sol – another great looking beach. Some friends had recommended a restaurant to us, and our (sometimes) trusty lonely planet guide book labelled it “their pick” in the area, so why not? My first caipirinha and quite possibly the strongest drink I’ve ever ordered was the perfect companion to a ton of delicious fresh food. Our first meal ‘out’ for a while was a welcome treat, not only for a break from cheap pasta meals, but also a break from dodgy, ill equipped hostel kitchens. And the date was ever so slightly significant also – a year to our wedding! Never too early to ensure Mike remembers our anniversary is it? Lol!

4. Pantano do Sul

4. Pantano do Sul

5. We might need some more food....

5. We might need some more food....

6. My first caipirinha

6. My first caipirinha

Back in our London flat I can distinctly remember showing Mike a map of South America and asking “where do you want to go”? His answer was simple: a nightclub on the east coast of Brazil. Well that’s as good a place as any to start the planning from, and although back then we didn’t really know how we would get to this place, at least we had an objective in Brazil to base the rest around. Reality turned out to be rather more complicated than expected. This nightclub literally being in the middle of no-where, definitely not on the main tourist route, and in short a total bitch to get to. So the question was: just how much did we (well Mike) want to go to this place? It took us 4 hours to get to this nightclub – so that should give you a fairly good answer. 2 buses, 1 taxi and 1 walk later we had arrived at Wurung Beach Club, Praia Brava, Brazil. Mike gave the club 8 out of 10. I was more inclined to give it a 9 but either way we had an awesome night. To say I was slightly underdressed would be the understatement of the century; perhaps only slightly behind Brazilian women get super dressed up to go out. Brazil certainly has more than its fair share of beautiful women, all of whom wear next to nothing to go clubbing! And before you all go scrolling down – there are definitely no pictures of said beauties. Sorry – you’ll all just have to come to Brazil and see for yourselves.

The night provided two events of enormous hilarity for the two of us. First of all to buy a drink you needed a token/card with your preferred drink printed on it which you then took to the bar. No problem, we were drinking Smirnoff ice (in cans!) so we handed over our money for some tokens. But any major club, indeed any establishment where money is involved/exchanged will have some sort of system to organise the money – most often a till, cash register, even a money belt. Any kind of tray would have been better than literally throwing all the money into a huge silver suitcase. I can’t believe we had to wait for the girl to ruffle around in this enormous suitcase full of money looking for the correct change for us. Just how many suitcases do they fill on a big event night anyway? The mind boggles.

That was the first thing, the second….. Well how many nightclubs have you been to with a sushi bar in them? Picture this: 6.30 in the morning, packed club, DJ going large with the tunes, beautiful people everywhere, sun about to rise over the horizon ………. and one guy devouring a tray of sushi right in the middle of the dance floor. Chop-sticks in the air, dancing the whole time. Hilarious! Me? – I prefer MacaD’s after a night out or maybe a kebab but never sushi; and it’s always a ‘on the way home’ kinda thing, right? I reckon that was the best sushi he’s ever had though.

8. The morning after the night before, sunrise from beach club

8. The morning after the night before, sunrise from beach club

We thought about sleeping on the beach for a few hours, but decided to begin the painfully long trip back to our hostel – which again took just over 4 hours. We couldn’t arrive much before 2pm as we had checked out the day before so had to wait to check back in – why pay for beds for the night when we weren’t planning on using them? A much needed shower and a huge fry-up at the local Irish pub (it was the day after St Paddy’s day after all) was pretty much all we achieved for the rest of that day.

There were two other places to visit on Florianopolis before we could leave: Santo Antonio do Lisboa, and Praia Brava – both in the northern part of the island. San Antonio we visited the day before the nightclub mission, a nice easy day before pulling the all-nighter. So our last day was spent at the beach – Praia Brava in the company of two Canadians who we had met in Buenos Aires.

7. Santo Antonio de Lisboa

7. Santo Antonio de Lisboa

9. On the bus ride north to Praia Brava

9. On the bus ride north to Praia Brava

10. Shopping anyone......

10. Shopping anyone......

If you thought 4 hours of travelling to get to a nightclub was pretty extreme, you may be shocked to learn that we then spent almost 34 hours getting to the next destination. But again – totally worth the effort involved: up next the beautiful island of Ilha Grande.

Keely

Posted by Mike.Keely 14:46 Archived in Brazil Comments (2)

Hotter than fire! Iguaçu: round 2

Another stamp for the passport – we’re in Brazil!

sunny 37 °C

The ‘prize’ for the hottest/most humid place I’ve ever been too (and therefore by default the most uncomfortable place I’ve endured) goes to Dar Es Salam in Tanzania. Second place is a tie between ‘bush camp location unknown’ somewhere in Mozambique and Chitimba in Malawi. The next place without doubt goes to Foz do Iguazu in Brazil. I don’t deal well with extreme humidity and 34 degrees C temperatures: my hair frizzles, and my brain fries. Putting sunscreen on is absolutely pointless as you sweat it all off within seconds (no exaggeration), and no-one else ever seems to be struggling quite so much as you are (exactly what is their secret…?).

But all this must be endured for Iguazu falls, the Brazilian side. Several people we had spoken to had told us that the Brazilian side wasn’t as good as the Argentinian, but we wanted to make up our own minds. To all those people we spoke to: you’re all wrong – they are equally as good, both sides need to be visited, and you’re all seriously deluded. True a visit to the Brazilian side is a lot shorter, with fewer platforms to walk over, but and this is a pretty big but, you literally walk to the edge. The views both back and down are incredible, as is the amount of spray flinging at you from all sides – a welcome way to cool down. We loved it.

And aside from the falls being “absolutely amazing”, we saw a Tucan! In the wild. Just chilling on a branch. The photo isn’t nearly as awesome as I would have liked but wildlife photographer I am not. We ended up chatting to an Aussie couple whom we hope to meet up with again in Bolivia next month so all in all a wonderful day.

One more night bus (a medium length one at 17 hours) followed by a local bus to get to the isle of Florianopolis. Which means one thing: beach time baby!

Keely

1. It s a Tucan.  Foz do Iguazu, Brazil

1. It s a Tucan. Foz do Iguazu, Brazil

2. Foz do Iguazu, Brazil

2. Foz do Iguazu, Brazil

3. Hope that thing is safe.  Foz do Iguazu, Brazil

3. Hope that thing is safe. Foz do Iguazu, Brazil

4. Walkway literally over the edge.  Foz do Iguazu, Brazil

4. Walkway literally over the edge. Foz do Iguazu, Brazil

5. Foz do Iguazu, Brazil

5. Foz do Iguazu, Brazil

6. Close enough to touch it.... Foz do Iguazu, Brazil

6. Close enough to touch it.... Foz do Iguazu, Brazil

7. An immense amount of water. Foz do Iguazu, Brazil

7. An immense amount of water. Foz do Iguazu, Brazil

Posted by Mike.Keely 18:46 Archived in Brazil Comments (1)

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