If you mention the town of Bonito in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul to a Brazilian, they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about, having heard tell of its crystalline river water and incredible wildlife. Anyone that’s not Brazilian, on the other hand, will probably look at you blankly, as Bonito is a secret that Brazilians have kept very close to their chests.
Bonito is on the edge of the Pantanal, a mindblowing area of wetlands the size of France, close to the border with Bolivia and Paraguay. Think the Amazon of the south. The nearest big city is the state capital of Campo Grande. Bonito does have an airport but the flights are infrequent, and most people fly into Campo Grande and do the rest of the journey by road. The gentle hills around Bonito hide the most incredible gems. From cathedral-like caverns to crystal-clear rivers brimming with incredibly colourful fish (and an anaconda or two), Bonito is the ecotourist’s idea of paradise and is more than worth the long journey to get there.
Bonito’s ecosystem is fragile, so all of the activities in the area have strict limits and ‘vouchers’ for these trips have to be bought from local travel agents in advance. All tours are on private land, mostly large, still operating farms, so you can’t just turn up. At peak times of the year, the most popular trips fill up quickly, so try to avoid visiting around Christmas or during Carnaval (when, let’s face it, you want to be in Rio anyway!). At any time of year, you may well be the only non-Portuguese speaker on your trips, meaning a trip to Bonito is getting well off the standard backpacking trail and a chance to seeing how the Brazilians holiday.
Having lived and worked in tourism in Bonito for 10 months, I was able to scope out the very best activities that are really worth those hard-earned reais, and having built up such a wealth of knowledge, it’s only fair to share it with you! Read on for the top 10 things to do in Bonito.
1. Rio da Prata
Giving into the ‘River of Silver’ is like diving into an aquarium. The colours of both the plant and fish life are incredibly vivid. You don your wetsuit and mask and let the current carry you gently down the river, marvelling at the clarity of this underwater world. Anacondas make a regular appearance here, but never fear, they mind their own business, gliding gently past you in the water. There are several similar activities like Rio da Prata in the Bonito area, and we’ll look at some of our other favourites, but this is Bonito’s most famous activities and one that you should definitely book in advance for.
2. Abismo Anhumas
The Anhumas ‘abysm’ may be significantly more experience than most of the other activities and day trips in Bonito, but if you have the money then it is 100% worth it. After a training session in the town, you head out into the hills, getting kitted up, and then lower yourself into a slit in the earth’s surface. You emerge into a cathedral-like, cavernous space, hanging above the inky surface of the water below. Arriving on the floating platform you are taken on a boat tour to see the hidden corners of the cave, and then you get into your wetsuit and break the surface of the water. You feel like you’ve entered another world, with majestic cones that look like they belong on another planet rising up from the depths of the cave.
If you have a scuba-diving licence you can get much more up close and personal with these cones, but snorkelling is still a breathtaking experience. The fun doesn’t end there, as you then have to shimmy back up the rope you abseiled down on. It’s easier than it sounds, but you do have to be in fairly good shape to manage it. As you climb, take one last look around at this jewel of a cave, enjoying the incredible sensation of peace.
3. Boca da Onca
I’ll mention a few other waterfall tours below, each of which have their charms, but this was my favourite. The beautifully-designed reception building is perched on top of a slope with beautiful views over the forest. The tour takes you on a walk through the ancient trees, visiting various waterfalls, each one more impressive than the last. The climax is the Boca de Onca waterfall itself, so named because you can see the head of a jaguar in the waterfall. This is the highest waterfall in the state and is impossibly beautiful. You’ll appreciate how high it is when you have to climb the hundreds of stairs that will take you back to the top! Adrenaline junkies can also abseil down this cliff next to the waterfall. The buffet lunch you get afterwards will restore your energies, and then you can recharge your batteries next to the pool.
4. Aquario Natural
The ‘natural aquarium’ isn’t as well known as the Rio da Prata but, in my book, it’s just as good. You don your wetsuit and mask and get into the river just where it wells up out of the rocks. Swimming around you can see the bubbles escaping from the river bed, and gaze at the incredible colours of both the plants and fish. There’s nothing more relaxing than snorkelling down a river, letting the current take you, and watching the reeds sway and fish dart in and out of the plant life. On the walk back there is a boardwalk which takes you over a lake that is home to a few rescued cayman.
5. Ceita Core
Another waterfall tour, Ceita Core stands out for the spring that is only a few hundred metres walk from the original farm house. Step into what seems like a shallow stream which has sprung up out of nowhere, put your mask on and dip your head underwater and you’ll see the mouth of a cave, less than a metre wide. You can duck down and get a better look at this cave, which has been investigated and found to go on for hundreds of metres. Ceita Core’s waterfalls are very impressive, and you can get a great shoulder massage from a few of them.
6. Nascente Azul
Nascente Azul means blue spring, and the highlight of this snorkelling trip is the spot where the river bubbles out of the ground, and the water has an incredible blue sheen to it. Fish flock to the spring for the nutrients it provides and a handy rope helps you to dive down to the spring itself and get a closer look. Then you can let the current carry down another few hundred metres of the river, fringed with luscious tropical undergrowth. Nascente Azul has an artificial lake, once a fish farm, that you can swim around in, with a zip-wire and a diving board.
7. Taboa Tour
Brazil is famous for its cachaca, the key ingredient in the signature Brazilian cocktail, the Caipirinha. Bonito is home to Taboa, a bar right in the town centre which has its own cachaça factory only a few hundred metres away. At the factory, they will explain the cachaça-making progress in full and talk you through the history of Taboa, before letting you sample as many of their two dozen cachaça flavours as you want. Be sure to visit the bar itself for a ‘CapiTaboa’ cocktail and find a space to sign your name somewhere on the yellow walls which have been scrawled all over by locals and tourists alike.
8. Balneario Municipal
This is the closest ‘balneario’, or swimming spot, to Bonito, and can even be reached by bike. This is where the locals come on their days off and on Sundays, when it can get pretty busy. You can get in the river and float down for a few hundred metres, in the company of hordes of fish with golden scales. Enjoy the tranquillity of this beautiful spot.
9. Parque Ecologico Rio Formoso
This one is extra close to my heart as this was where I worked during my time in Bonito. I was a guide on the boia-cross or tubing trip, which takes you down 1.5km of the stunning River Formoso, which includes 5 waterfalls and 3 rapids. The water is so clear that you can see the shadow of your tube on the river bed three metres down as you float along. If tubing isn’t your thing, you can go snorkelling or take a horse ride through the forest with a stop for a swim in the river. Whichever activity you decide on, the park is a full day of fun, as you can spend as long as you like enjoying the lake complete with zip-wire, kayaks and stand-up paddle boards. Whilst I was at the park I saw capybaras, tapirs, macaws, wild boar, monkeys and various snakes, so keep your eyes peeled!
10. Estancia Mimosa
Estancia Mimosa is another waterfall tour, with 8 stunning waterfalls to be looked at or swum in. A delicious lunch is served up in the old farmhouse, which you can eat either before or after your waterfall tour. This trip includes a boat ride along part of the river so you can better admire the vegetation and spot animals in the trees. The guides explain the history of the area and how the waterfalls develop.
If that hasn’t whetted your appetite for a visit to this Brazilian hidden gem, I don’t know what will. A great stop off if you’re heading overland from Brazil to Bolivia, or a destination in its own right, Bonito will not disappoint those with a love for natural beauty.