From Santa Cruz, the railway line runs some 680km east to the Brazilian border across a seemingly endless expanse of forest and tangled scrub, gradually giving way to the vast swamplands of the Pantanal as the border draws near. Settlements along the line remain few and far between, and the region’s main towns are both close to the Brazilian border: Puerto Suárez, a half-forgotten lakeside outpost that was once the focus of Bolivian dreams of access to the Atlantic via the Río Paraguay, and the dismal border trading settlement of Quijarro, the train’s last stop before the frontier.
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Much of Bolivia’s far east along the Brazilian border is covered by the Pantanal, the vast flood plain on either side of the Río Paraguay that forms the world’s biggest freshwater wetland system. Stretching over two hundred thousend square kilometres is a mosaic of ecosystems, including swamps, lakes, seasonally flooded grasslands and different kinds of forest, most of which is turned into an immense inland freshwater sea during the rainy season (Nov–March). This largely pristine wilderness supports possibly the densest concentration of wildlife in the Americas, including a vast array of birds, reptiles like anacondas and caymans, and mammals including swamp deer, giant otters, jaguars, capybaras and tapirs, all of which can be seen with greater frequency here than anywhere in the Amazon.
About eighty percent of the Pantanal lies in Brazil, but the fifteen or so percent within Bolivia’s borders (the rest is in Paraguay) is arguably more pristine and virtually uninhabited. In theory it is also better protected – north and south of Puerto Suárez, huge areas of the Pantanal are covered by the Area Natural San Matías and the Parque Nacional Otuquis, which together cover almost forty thousand square kilometres. The flipside is that it can be difficult to visit: facilities few and far between, and it’s generally cheaper to organize expeditions into the Pantanal from Corumbá in Brazil.
Several Bolivian tour operators offer a Pantanal package, however, including Ruta Verde in Santa Cruz and Michael Bledinger in Samaipata. Hotels in Puerto Suárez and Quijarro also arrange excursions. Alternatively, more simply, you can hire a fisherman in Puerto Suárez to take you out across Lago Cáceres.