Brazilian Death Train

Death TrainAt 11:15 am one of the last remaining trains in Brazil pulls out of Luz Station in Sao Paulo. Its destination, which will take over 39 hours to reach, is the small swamp town of Corumba on the Brazil Bolivia border.

I had first read about this train in a newspaper while traveling down the coast. Everything about it captured my imagination and sense of adventure. Going deep inland to the furthermost corners of the Brazilian jungle, experiencing what few had experienced; this is the kind of travel I had yearned for and opportunity was knocking.

The journey spans almost the entire width of Brazil and is known throughout the country as the Death Train.  It was this name that made me veer west in my travel plans. At first I had thought the name had been earned for the fact that by the time the destination is reached you would probably feel, look, and smell like a corpse. Even though this assumption was not far off the mark the real reason was far more sinister. 

It originally earned its nick-name due to its history for transporting victims of yellow fever however in more recent times it had become an artery for drug smuggling between the two countries; both theft and violence on board were common.

Unfortunately my journey held none of the expected excitement apart from an over-curious “cobra” who boarded at one of the village stations and was promptly decapitated by a group of locals wielding machetes.

This occurred directly after the 24th hour.

We had just entered the area known as the Pantanal; a swampland the size of Texas and one of the world’s largest.

It was also at this time that I realized my first order on the day upon arrival would be to purchase “mossie” repellent. The train had become infested and as we were only, for the majority of the time, traveling as fast as the mosquitoes, they stayed and feasted.

This was not about to change.

We traveled so slowly through the jungle that you could get off for a walk and hop back on again if you so desired; I did not have this desire after seeing the size of the snake and knowing he had friends.

Once the train entered the Pantanal it was as if we had begun journeying down a long green tunnel. On either side we were walled in by thick vegetation that grew up and over the engines entourage; rendering my window seat view-less and awesome because of it.

The entire journey was completed either in a wooden chair or standing on my feet to escape its confines. The heat and humidity was intense, suffocating. Compounded by the encroaching jungle allowing not a wisp of cool air or a breeze of any sort to lessen the discomfort.

The Death Train was living up to its name.

Nothing changed for almost 15 hours.  At around 1:00am on the second night of the journey we, at last, pulled into the Corumba station. It was at this point that the annoyance of the feasting mosquitoes turned into a nightmare.

For most of the year the Pantanal is an impenetrable deluge. In that brief window when it is not submerged, an oasis teaming with life springs up and an adventure of the rarest kind makes itself available to you.

Getting in takes a guide, a jeep, and the will to go way off the beaten track.

You will sleep in a hammock, dine with your hands, bathe in the river alongside alligators and piranha, and generally perform most bodily functions out in the open. The alternative being a confrontation with all sorts of creatures that you will ultimately lose to. They will not understand your needs and not be impressed with your presumption that their territory is one that does not require an invitation.

The Pantanal is located in the state of Mato Grosso du Sul in south western Brasil.

After arriving in Corumba in the wee hours, the realization that I am now in the middle of the jungle fully set in. It is pitch dark; silent. The beauty of the sky filled with stars is evident but so is the fact that at ground level I am navigating this new terrain by way of my four remaining senses.

A single light bulb swings about a hundred yards away but there is no breeze. The air is heavy with humidity. I start to imagine the bugs all getting together; planning an attack on the latest arrival trespassing their domain.

The dim light sways; beckoning me towards it. Across the dirt road, over a drain, and into a bog; thick and wet with mud. The weight of my backpack sinking me further down with each step. By the middle I began to consider various outcomes; none were good.

Snakes, spiders, gators…

Flip flops were not meant for this kind of trek. They provide little support, no protection, tend to adhere to mud and discard your foot without a second thought.  At this point I am being served to mosquitoes on a silver platter. Wearing shorts, a t-shirt, sweating like a man already riddled with malaria and on top of it all….shoeless!

Throughout the journey I had managed to remain as clean as I could have expected but this was about to change. My feet slipped on the plank I was using to cross a particularly menacing patch. Down like a lead balloon to get my first taste of the Pantanal I had come so far to see.

I did what we would all do.

I looked around in the darkness to make sure no-one had seen my performance although in retrospect that was more instinctual than practical. I could barely see my feet before and now that they were camouflaged in bog sludge they had become invisible to me.

I collected myself and headed towards the light; the mud drying almost instantly in the heat.

At this point you may be inwardly screaming. Why not just take the road?

I could not see it.

It was so black that my only beacon was the single dull bulb. My option was to head directly towards it or grope around the dirt until dawn. I completely understood the psychology of insects that fly headlong towards the zappers blue light.

When me and my mud cloaked feet emerged from the quagmire the reward made it all worthwhile. The bulb that had swung for no apparent reason dimly lit the sign for Hostel Corumba.

My adventure in the Pantanal was about to begin.

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67 thoughts on “Brazilian Death Train

  1. Beautifully written! The Pantanal is a dream, and we almost made it happen this year, but didn’t quite work out. Maybe next year… The train sounds…incredibly
    awful, but I still want to go!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I just LOVE trains and train journeys, I think it is also great way to immerse into local culture and way of life! Sounds like a great adventure! I would be more than pleased to join!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It must feel amazing to be able to say you rode the Death Train and came out alive to tell the tale. Not for the faint-hearted. I think I would have been praying for a teleport.

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  4. Whoa. You, dear sir, have been through some really crazy situations! Haha! I hope you get to make a book out of this 😛 nevertheless, you have a way with words! I absolutely loved reading this entry!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much Aileen. The crazy situations are the ones that make the best stories; glad you liked it and all the best to you on your travels as well.

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  5. Tim, I am not an adventurer or traveler but am so glad you are. I was off for week so had to read this first to get to today’s post but am so glad I did. Your writing really captures the reader. I couldn’t wait to read the next sentence. Thanks Tim, now on to today’s post (Aug.4th)
    Lenie

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Tim this one is more like an except out of an adventure movie. What an epic trip. Your sense of adventure never ceases to amaze me. But I can just imagine the immense satisfaction you derive from what you do. Priceless.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. You must have no fear. I would be having a serious meltdown on the death train in the Pantanal. It seems scary and exciting at the same time. Glad you made it through to share your amazing story!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. If you ever write a post on Brazilian music, let me know. How could you resist something called the Death Train? It sounds like one of those “gotta try it once” scenarios.

    “I completely understood the psychology of insects that fly headlong towards the zappers blue light.” You know, I always wondered about that. Thanks for the advice about the flip-flops. Your descriptions truly took me on your visit to the Pantanal. The photos are beautiful.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I have to wait until next week for the rest of the story? You had me hooked at ‘cobra’! Seriously though, what fabulous writing and such a story to tell. I will look forward to your explicit descriptions of the Patanal adventure. And those lily pads! Wow! What a memory for you!

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  10. It’s so cool that you made it to Brazil and took this ride. It’s crazy just how much of that country is so hard to reach. Unfortunately that seems to be changing. I’ve only seen those lily pads in botanical gardens in the States. Really awesome shots you have there.

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  11. Wow, what an adventure! I’m not sure you could ever get my on something called a Death Train, but I find the history very intriguing. I had to laugh when you described the mosquito population. You just have to give in to it when you are the object of a mosquito feast when you are past the point of being able to just swat one or two. I loved the pictures. It looks like the sites hopefully made it worth it.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I do love your writing Tim. I know I’m repeating what other’s have said but the Death Train sounds astonishing except for the mozzies and the heat of course. Having the opportunity of seeing Brazil must have been quite an experience and then with a jungle adventure to top it all off. Very cool indeed. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Tim, I’m so impressed by your adventurous spirit. Truth be told, I’d rather read about travels in the Brazilian jungles than live them. That being said, this article is the next best thing, considering how well you tell it (I almost feel as though I am actually experiencing this journey)! And good for you for getting your feet in the mud of it – figuratively and literally. I can’t imagine that you are not profoundly impacted by all these wild adventures (that the rest of us enjoy reading while we sit so comfortably in our cozy, mosquito and alligator free homes)!
    Michele

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  14. The Death Train sounds very nice and scary at the same time. I’m not a big fan of mosquitoes so I probably would have had a bad attitude at some point. The pictures look amazing though and that would make it all worth it.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I think I would be running away from anything called a death train, not heading towards it. Can’t wait to hear the rest of the story! Are those circular things in the water lily pads? I’ve never seen anything like them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, lily pads known as Victoria in honor of Queen Victoria. All the plant life comes in giant version in the Amazon and these were no exception. Some up to nine feet across.

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  16. The Death Train sounds amazing! Well, except for the mozzies and the heat, but seeing so much of Brazil must have been brilliant, and to end it with a jungle adventure must have topped it off. Great writing Tim! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Hi Tim,
    I really admire your hunger for adventure. Your story took me back six years ago when we flew to Sao Paulo to help at three orphanages. As I read your very vivid story, I was comparing the comfort of being around Sao Paulo, Campinas, and Atabaia by car, compared to that death train. I also thought of how we seek things to bring us joy that sometimes cause us to suffer. All the best, Bill

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Hey Tim, I have traveled a lot in trains.But never been on a journey as adventurous as this! Man, you narrate your experiences so nicely that it gives a feel as if I am experiencing the incidents from the spot of journey…

    Liked by 1 person

  19. I enjoy reading your blogs, every time I do I think of “Oh brave new world with such people in it” from the Tempest. I realized that phrase is right, when we visit a new place, it is a new world to us, the people there are amazing when we view them. Maybe our amazement with each other can help us find a common bond between us.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Don’t leave me…. hanging like that. While I know this adventure is not at all for me – I mean “Death Train” isn’t a name that inspires me – I love your storytelling of your adventure. Great pics too. Not that it was ever on my list of things yet to do, but it is still not there. Hahaha.

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  21. Oh my gosh, Tim. What a brave man! I don’t know how you do all the things you do and manage to write about them so beautifully and descriptively. What a journey and those pictures you took are just beautiful. You are leading a life few others dare to – and I say kudos, but please, be safe!

    Liked by 1 person

  22. I usually want to replicate your journeys but this time, I thank you for your very colorful description, and feel that I have gotten enough. I will be interested in the next episode, however. Thanks for the vicarious adventure.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. What a superb example of descriptive writing! I knew that when I started to scratch and heard the mozzies flying past my ear!! I can’t explain what happened when I read of the cobra and the ensuing machetes… it’s not lady like language, even though it would be descriptive as hell:) What an adventure…though for me it, who equates adventure with joy, this doesn’t meet my personal description! LOL But I have to say that I can’t wait to read part deux!! Simply loved this Tim. I so admire your courage!

    Liked by 1 person

  24. I think you had quite the adventure just getting to the Pantanal. I react badly to mosquito bites, although they are common in the summer in my Manitoba home. I don’t think I would have lasted on the train and in the jungle.

    Liked by 1 person

  25. Tim, through your story, I can feel the suffocation, the stifling heat, the people, the agonizing snail’s pace, and the jungle that swallows everybody and everything. Fantastic piece! By the way, I think I might’ve stopped at the point where my fellow passengers have machetes, except you or me … but fortunately to dispatch the cobra, of course. Yeaaaaaah. I don’t know what’s worse, actually: mozzies leaving little pock-sized bites that are itchy as hell, or sandflies leaving wae coin-sized welts that are itchy as hell ….

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      1. OK, perhaps the mozzies get the edge for least annoying; at least you can hear `em with the high-pitch whine (as truly annoying as that is). But sandflies? Can never hear `em because they’re always flying low. Aaaaand now, I feel … “itchy”. 🙂

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  26. Wow Tim, you were on that train for 39 hours? I’m so not the adventurer and I was sitting here reading this thinking of that snake and then the mosquitoes. Man, I would have bailed immediately but sounds like you definitely wanted to reach that destination only to get there and can’t see a thing. I’ve been there before after a hurricane that knocked out the entire city’s electricity. Creepy dark…

    Great writing, thank you for taking us along on your adventure.

    ~Adrienne

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  27. This is an excellent example of drawing out the scene to fully immerse the reader with you. The swampiest place I’ve ever spent a great deal of time would be the Everglades. It was quite the culture shock to get used to all the bugs and the occasional alligator lying in road, but I definitely don’t have any stories that come close to this one.

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    1. This is only part one of a two part story Jeri. Hopefully you will like the second as much. I bet the Everglades was exactly like the Pantanal about 50 years ago…maybe more.

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