In Portuguese, bonito means “beautiful,” and the name is certainly an apt one for this patch of paradise on the southern fringe of the Pantanal. One of Brazil’s hippest ecotourist destinations, the small town and surrounding area of Bonito offer visitors a stunning range of natural attractions, including caverns, waterfalls, and crystalline blue rivers that are ideal for snorkeling, along with hiking trails that wind through the verdant forests of the Serra da Bodoquena.
Until a few years ago, off-the-beaten-track Bonito was completely unknown. Then, along came TV Manchete, which featured the region in one of its lushly shot series, and overnight the place was mobbed by young Carioca and Paulistano ecotourists. Luckily, the summer crowds have done nothing to mar this unspoiled spot. Bonito is one of Brazil’s most shining examples of sustainable tourism. The region’s attractions are situated on privately owned land that is accessible by car or van. In order to preserve nature, rules abound: Nobody can set foot on any trail or enter any river without making a reservation, paying an eco-charge, and hiring a guide. Moreover, each attraction has a limit on the number of visitors at any given time. Paradise doesn’t come cheap—guides and entrance fees will cost you upward of R$150 per day—and the farther-flung attractions such as Rio da Prata and Buraco das Araras involve spending a frustrating amount of time on the road. However, most admit that the distances and costs involved are a small price to pay for experiencing Bonito’s natural marvels. In terms of when to travel, winter (with the exception of July) is recommended—not only will you avoid the summer crowds (and obtain low-season discounts), but reduced rainfall means increased visibility in the region’s rivers. The downside is that bathing in the waterfalls is an icy experience.
For better or for worse, Bonito’s tourism is highly organized. Many of the larger hotels have their own tour companies or can organize guides and excursions. However, there is no lack of tour agencies in town. Don’t waste your time shopping around—all excursions and activities in Bonito have set prices (although they can be lower across the board during off-season). Among recommended agencies are: Agência Ar (Rua Colonel Pilad Rebuá 1184, tel. 67/3255-1008), which can put you in touch with tour guides if you have your own form of transportation; Ygarapé Tour (Rua Colonel Pilad Rebuá 1956, tel. 67/3255-1733), which, aside from excursions and guides, also offers scuba diving for beginners; and Natura Tour (Rua 29 de Maio 1000, tel. 65/3255-1544). During December–January and June, it’s recommended that you make reservations at least three months in advance.
Bonito is surrounded by grottos, forests, rivers, and wildlife sanctuaries, most located on private fazendas, but which can be visited by guided tours from Bonito. Most involve halfday or full-day trips in small groups, which need to be purchase in advance at one of the town’s many tour agencies. Often lunch is included in the price. Besides hiking, sports include horseback riding, climbing, rappelling, white-water rafting, and the activity that is synonymous with Bonito: “floating.” Independent-minded adventure-sports enthusiasts will probably chafe at all the rules and the guidance of monitors; however, for kids, elderly travelers, and more reticent or nonathletic types, Bonito provides an ideal and safe environment to indulge in such diversions.
Gruta do Lago Azul
One of Bonito’s most popular “must-see” attractions, the Gruta do Lago Azul (Rodovia Três Morros Km 22, R$36) is a deep cavern (accessed by precarious stairs) adorned with stalactites and stalagmites at the bottom of which is an impossibly blue lagoon. It turns a piercing turquoise when hit by the sun’s rays, which happens November–January 8:30–9 a.m. Although the whole tour takes 90 minutes, you only get to gaze at the lake itself for 20 minutes before the next group of tourists arrives, sending you back up to the surface.
Buraco das Araras
When a cattle farmer purchased the Fazenda Alegre, he wasn’t pleased to find a giant buraco (hole) sitting in the middle of his pasture. The hole, with a lake at the bottom, has a diameter of 500 meters (1,640 feet) and a depth of 100 meters (328 feet). However, he soon cheered up on discovering that the Buraco das Araras (BR-267 Km 58, 7 a.m.–5 p.m. daily, R$25) was a favorite roosting spot for over 40 exotic bird species, among them the gaudily colored arara vermelha (red macaw). Now an ecological refuge, the Buraco can be visited with an excursion (the tour lasts an hour). The best time to see the macaws is in the morning when they rise from their nests and start to sing in unison. Bring binoculars. The Fazenda Alegre is some 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Bonito.
There are wonderful opportunities for hiking in the Serra da Bodoquena, with the bonus of abundant waterfalls and natural pools. The Parque das Cachoeiras (Estrada Aquidauna, 18 kilometers/11 miles from Bonito) boasts six lovely cascades as well as small grottoes and refreshing springs that are ideal for bathing. The Estância Mimosa (Estrada Bodoquena, 26 kilometers/16 miles from Bonito) is a neighboring farm that shares the same six falls and throws in a seventh for good measure. A delicious home-cooked lunch is served at the fazenda house. Equally popular are the two trails that weave through native foliage and past numerous cascades to the Cachoeiras do Rio do Peixe (Estrada Bodoquena, 35 kilometers/22 miles from Bonito), located on the Fazenda Água Viva. After taking a dip in the cool water and lounging in the sun, return to the farmhouse of the loquacious owner, Seu Moacir. Following a hearty lunch cooked over a wood-burning stove and homemade doces, you can veg out in a hammock. Guided excursions to all of these attractions cost around R$85 and include lunch.
There are several places you can rappel in Bonito (including the Buraco das Araras and the Boca da Onça), but the most breathtaking option is to go to the Abismo Anhumas (Estrada Campo dos Índios, Fazenda Anhumas, 22 kilometers/14 miles from Bonito). If you’ve never rappelled before, this is the perfect initiation (a day prior, you’ll have a 30-minute practice session at a climbing wall in town). After monitors teach you the ropes, you’ll get geared up and then plunge 72 meters (236 feet) into an abyss studded with stalactites and stalagmites. At the bottom is a lagoon the size of a soccer field where you can snorkel or dive. The outing lasts four hours, with 30 minutes spent in the water. Rappelling with snorkeling costs R$360, and with diving costs R$530. Reserve in advance since only two groups of eight people can visit per day (opt for the 7 a.m. group when the light is best instead of the one at 10:30 a.m.).
Rafting on the Rio Formoso is more about relaxation than thrills and spills. For this reason, it is ideal for kids and families. The 1.5-hour, 7-kilometer (4-mile) journey down the river in rubber rafts involves few rapids but lots of gorgeous scenery. The voyage ends at the Ilha do Padre, a nature reserve, with lots of foliage and birdlife, where you can bask in the sun, bathe in pools and waterfalls, and have a bite at the restaurant. It’s 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from Bonito (take the Estrada Ilha do Padre); you can enter the reserve without a guide. The rafting trip costs R$50.
The activity for which Bonito is most famous is flutuação, which consists of donning a mask, snorkel, neoprene wetsuit, and life jacket and letting yourself be carried down Bonito’s rivers, whose unearthly transparency allows you astonishing close-up interaction with over 80 varieties of fish. The sensation is akin to being let loose within a giant tropical aquarium (for this reason, don’t show up without an underwater camera). The fantastic visibility, which extends to 50 meters (165 feet), is due to the water’s high limestone content, which acts as a natural filter, leaving the rivers exceptionally pure. You don’t need to have any diving experience to “float”: After a few practice sessions with monitors, just let yourself quite literally go with the flow. Among the colorful fish you’ll find yourself rubbing up against are piraputangas, dourados, and curimbatás—rest assured that piranhas prefer other aquatic pastures.
One of Bonito’s most popular attractions, the Aquário Natural (7 kilometers/4 miles from Bonito) is a wildlife sanctuary whose crystalline rivers can be explored with snorkeling equipment or glass-bottomed boats. Recommended for beginners (there is a training session before you hit the river itself), this 500-meter (1,600-foot) underwater excursion is dazzling, but all too brief—its popularity limits your floating time to one hour. The price (R$155) includes lunch and access to hiking trails. Longer and equally stunning floating experiences can be had on the Rio Formoso (Rodovia Guia Lopes, 6 kilometers/3.5 miles from Bonito, R$53 with lunch), Rio Baía Bonita (BR-267 to Jardim, 7 kilometers/4 miles from Bonito, R$65 with lunch), the Rio Sucuri (Estrada São Geraldo, 17 kilometers/11 miles from Bonito, R$136 with lunch), and Rio da Prata (BR-267 Km 518, 50 kilometers/30 miles from Bonito, R$140 with lunch). Rio Sucuri is particularly spectacular. The hour-long excursion begins at the river’s source and then continues for 1.5 kilometers (1 mile) along a river bed that is lined with a swaying jungle of aquatic plants.
Equipment rental and guides are available at all the fazendas through which these rivers flow. Equally fantastic is Rio da Prata—the clear waters are always teeming with fish, and the 2-kilometer (1.2-mile) route itself (preceded by a 40-minute hike through the forest) is Bonito’s longest. It is also possible to go scuba diving in the Rio Formoso, Rio da Prata, and the Abismo Anhumas. Bonito Scuba (Rua Sen. Filinto Muller 656, tel. 67/3255-1077) organizes diving trips and offers lessons.
Information and Services
The tourist office (Rua Colonel Pilad Rebuá 1780, tel. 67/3255-1850, 9 a.m.–5 p.m. daily) is quite helpful. In Portuguese, a useful site is www.portalbonito.com.br. You’ll find a Banco do Brasil (tel. 67/3255-1121) at Rua Luiz da Costa 2279. A downside to Bonito is that, unless you’re on a package, on-site tours of natural attractions don’t include transportation, and there is no bus service. One alternative is to share costs of the vans operated by local tourist agencies (around R$35 pp per day). The only disadvantage is you’ll have to adhere the vans’ schedules. Another option is to take a taxi. While there is no shortage of taxis, they have all made a pact to charge the same rather extravagant rates (upward of R$130 per day). You might find it more economical to rent a car in Campo Grande (there are no car rental agencies in Bonito).
Getting to Bonito
Cruzeiro do Sul (tel. 67/3255-1606 in Bonito) runs several buses a day between Campo Grande and Bonito. The trip takes around five hours. If you’re driving, from Campo Grande take BR-060 and then MS-382, both of which are paved.
Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Brazil.