South of the Santa Cruz–Quijarro railway line, the tropical dry forest gradually gives way to the Chaco, a vast and arid landscape of dense scrub and virtually impenetrable thornbrush stretching south to the Paraguayan border and far beyond. Inhabited only by isolated cattle ranchers and occasional communities of Guaraní and semi-nomadic Ayoreo, the Chaco is one of South America’s last great wildernesses and supports plenty of wildlife – much of it now protected by the Parque Nacional Kaa-Iya del Gran Chaco, which covers over 34,000 square kilometres southeast of Santa Cruz adjacent to the Paraguayan border. However, there are few organized tourist facilities in the Chaco, and unless you hire your own 4WD, your view of the region will be limited to what you can see from the window of a bus or train. The region’s main towns are Villamontes, the Bolivian Chaco’s biggest settlement, and Yacuiba, on the Argentine border. Adventurous travellers can also take the strenuous trans-Chaco road, which heads east to the Paraguayan border at Fortin Villazón, and then onto the Paraguayan capital, Asunción.
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The Guaraní people
The Guaraní people
The western Bolivian Chaco is home to the Guaraní people – known historically as the Chiriguanos – the largest indigenous group in the Bolivian lowlands, with a population of about 75, 000. The Guaraní originally migrated across the Chaco from east of the Río Paraguay in search of a mythical “Land Without Evil”, occupying the southwestern fringes of the Andes in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries just as the Inca empire was expanding into the same region. Despite this, the Guaraní successfully resisted conquest by the Incas, and subsequently proved among the fiercest and most tenacious indigenous opponents of the Spanish. Not until well into the Republican era were they completely subjugated, when the last great Guaraní uprising was brutally crushed in 1892, after which their remaining lands were seized by the Bolivian state and divided into large private ranches defended by army forts. In recent decades, the Guaraní have been struggling to regain control of their ancestral territories using land reform and indigenous rights legislation, and in spite of obstructive bureaucracy have now recovered large areas, where they farm maize, cotton, peanuts and other crops. Despite this, hundreds if not thousands of Guaraní still work on large cattle ranches under conditions of debt servitude that are little different from slavery.