Ok, so I am actually cheating. Have been meaning to post this for the last three days while I was actually still in Santa Cruz, but in fact right now I´m sitting in my hostel in Campo Grande, Brazil...
I´ve actually been through three other countries since my last post - Peru, Chile and Bolivia to get here, but hey, my route through south america was never logical to start with, so why start now? Although think I may be cursed when it comes to leaving countries - not a single of those border crossings went to plan: starting with a cancelled bus from Lima (Peru) and a long reroute via Arequipa again to Tacna into northern Chile to see the Lauca National Park; from there I had planned to head down to San Pedro de Atacama, a town by the Bolivian coast that everyone has been raving about - which proved impossible as the buses were full for the next three days due to a national holiday! So I decided to wait four hours for a bus to La Paz, which turned up an hour late at 00.30 am and then drove only three hours, where we slept another five hours (it was freezing!) until immigration opened at 8am. Why do they do that?? Leaving Bolivia, I thought I would treat myself to a nice overnight bus cama journey to the Brasilian border. Only to find out at first light that the bus had broken down and the driver was sitting out on the grass with bits of tools around him, pulling his hair out. By 5.30 (am of course) we were all bundled into an open back cattle truck, alternately freezing then roasting to death while the wind blew road dirt into our grimy faces.
But I should rewind a bit and tell you about Bolivia - which is an amazing, diverse country, with jungles and deserts and lakes, history and wildlife, fantastic, friendly people - to mention just a few of the draws. The only thing missing was the sea - which every Bolivian I met kept griping about; its a big political issue at the moment as the country lost their bit of coast (Arica, where I visited in northern Chile) to the Chileans in a war about a hundred years ago, and they want it back to use as a trade route. But I loved the country and would have stayed longer if I´d had time.
Spent a few days in La Paz, saw the witches´market (complete with dead baby llama - eugh!) and the San Pedro prison which is the subject of a book called Marching Powder, about the drugs trade in the prison; apparently it was so infamous that tourists used to visit the prison on guided tours by the inmates (tour wasn´t on offer when I was there). Then headed to Copacobana and Lake Titicaca - can confirm it´s much nicer than on the Peruvian side, and Isla del Sol was stunning.
From there I went south to Potosi and the Cerro Ricco, which back in the 17th century was the biggest silver mine in all of south america and the Spanish empire, leading to the town being one of the richest and most decadent on the continent. Now local men still mine the mountain, which is over 4000m above sea level and has so many tunnels (500+) that its at risk of collapsing.
Did a four day tour in a jeep to Salar Uyuni from Tupiza. Along the way we passed stunning scenery - with mountains and volcanoes, deserts and coloured lagoons, surreal rock formations and thousands of flamingos; we reached the salt flats - the biggest in the world - on the last day. Amazing, with dozens of islands brimming with cacti, scattered everywhere on this pure white landscape as far as your eye can see. Incredible to think it was one big lake once upon a time. Now part of it is actually being exploited for its minerals - nowhere the tourists might see, of course. Its sad to see, but is happening in many of the other mineral rich lakes in the area already, and a necessary part of the Bolivian export economy.
After that I moved on to Sucre, the official capital of Bolivia (although the government now sit in La Paz) and where the country was born in 1825. Its also known as the ´white city´(the third one I´ve come across in South America) due to the buildings all being white. Its a very beautiful colonial town, with pretty plazas (complete with minature replica Eiffel tower in the park opposite my hostel), lovely bars and cafes (how I´ve missed them) and generally very chilled. So chilled I stayed here for a week! The surrounding area is also the biggest paleontological site in the world, with real dinosaur footprints! Unfortunately I didn´t see any (although I´m told they´re just a big hole, so cant say I´m too disappointed), but did manage to rouse myself on the last day to visit Maragua, a giant crater caused by a meteorite hitting the earth (not the same one that killed the dinosaurs though!). Its visble in the surrounding land, which all looks like they´ve been kind of flattened in a strange ripple-y effect.
Finally, I moved on to Santa Cruz, the country´s biggest city. Not much to report here; it was a lot less touristy. Most travellers I met here were doing long-term travelling - a couple for two years - and were travelling to/from the eastern borders towards Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina.
Now I´ve been in Brazil two full days and missing Bolivia. A few initial differences I have noticed so far:
1. It´s hot, hot, hot! Thought Santa Cruz was warm but I can´t leave my room without looking a hot sweaty mess. Locals do not need to carry three extra layers and a scarf everywhere and somehow manage to look all cool and unbothered. The mosquitoes are returning too, and think it will be worse in the Pantanal...
2. It´s noticeably more affluent here. There are big, well paved roads, lots of cars, lots of shops - esp clothes and shoes! Not a woman-in-traditional-dress-selling-peanuts-on-the-street to be seen (that´s just struck me why the streets look so strange!) In fact the only things I´ve dicovered missing in this town are internet cafes (found 1 only) and public phones (0)!
3. The population is very mixed, a lot more white. Its much harder to spot the tourists. I myself have been stopped for directions twice (although saying that, I´ve also been mistaken as Peruvian and Bolivian in the past, so maybe I´m just going native. Glad I´m finishing in Argentina though :-))
4. Portuguese is NOT like Spanish in the slightest. And if it should be, someone forgot to tell the good people of Campo Grande. No entiendo nada, y no me entenden tampoco. Help! On the plus side, I have managed to avoid imminent starvation when the banks decided to give me some money after all, and even managed to buy a flight, although am reduced back to being an all-pointing-all gesturing simpleton who can´t speak the local lengua again!
Not that I want to base all my opinions on Brazil on a small town next to the Bolivian border of course. Very much looking forward to investigating further.
First stop: Pantanal, then Salvador. Can´t wait :-)