#Brazil, much more than a football lovers’ country! – World Meanderings (n°65)
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Without any doubt Brazil is not a next-door country for European travellers. Brazil is so large and has much more to offer than a simple overview of a single spot. A wise traveller going to Rio should have set an extra visit to Sao Paulo or Bahia, for example. If he wants to plunge into incredible cities mixing historical and cultural areas with lively chic districts as well as awfully poor zones, the notorious ‘favellas’ where it’s really not recommended to go to on your own. In these out-law districts your life has no more value than the content of your wallet, whatever its amount.
Even if the Brazilian cities’ names are well known, the best kept secret of the country is its incredible nature offering a huge variety of attractive destinations including white sandy beaches shadowed by palm trees. Not to forget the mythic great rainforest of Amazonia with its amazing net of rivers filled with friendly (!) ‘piranhas‘ as well as vast plains dedicated to cattle farms and unlimited cereal crops.
Bonito, the pearl of Matto Grosso do Sul
It would be a pity to travel so far from home without visiting at least a little part of the fabulous nature of this huge country. To me, the most amazing gem of the Brazilian nature is settled around the small town of Bonito in the state of Matto Grosso do Sul. Bonito is located on the western part of Pantanal, the largest flooded lowland on the planet and also the third largest environmental reserve in the world. Pantanal, shared between three countries, Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia, hides an incredibly various fauna of birds, fish, reptiles and mammals. It’s also home to an extremely rich flora.
At first glance Bonito is a small town with wide streets and large sidewalks mainly lined with small two floors buildings including lots of open-air bars and restaurants and many pousadas, the local name for more or less budget hotels. To benefit from great gardens, high level hotels have been built just a few blocks away on the immediate outskirts of town. The streets’ net designed with only right angle intersections gives the feeling of being in a sort of modern Far West village, but a really peaceful one. It comes to life at night and becomes a place for fun, ideal to have great parties all night long. Bonito’s nights are famous among the Brazilian students who go there in large numbers to party for spring break holidays. Samba and salsa take control!
Bonito well deserves its established reputation as the place to be to enjoy the most amazing adventure vacations. That doesn’t mean adventure only for daredevils. Bonito offers adventure for all! Taking advantage of its geological situation, Bonito is surrounded by a beautiful net of narrow rivers with the clearest waters in the world. The high level of limestone in the local soil acting as a huge natural filter gives an incredible transparency to the water. The most popular tours are snorkelling among the fish, walking along easy trails in the forest, swimming at the foot of waterfalls or even diving in deep flooded caverns.
In November 2013, at WTM in London, the city of Bonito was awarded the best Responsible Tourism Destination in the world for its control system of tours reservation.
In Bonito advance tours booking is compulsory
Notice that in order to to protect the environment strict rules are to be respected to enjoy the tours. For each activity the number of daily visitors is strictly controlled. These rules enforced by the owners of all these natural wonders (98% are on private properties) allow them to ask for high prices. But even if the fees seem sometimes a bit over the top, the activities are worth the expense.
– Any tour must be booked in advance through any of the several tour agencies in town, or through the excursion desk available in many hotels. That booking also indicates a specific timing for the activity.
– All tour prices are fixed. No bargaining!
– Generally a delicious meal is included in the tour.
– Without prior booking, or if visitors don’t respect the timing of their booking, entrance will be denied.
– Such rules give guests the advantage of visits in very small groups of eight, no crowd there. And with a minimum of half an hour gap between two groups, everyone has the same chances to spot the wild life that the local guide who accompanies the group is pleased to show to visitors.
There is a wide range of tours on offer and these are among the most popular.
River Snorkelling on Rio Sucuri
On arrival at the Fazenda you receive a wet-suit jacket, a mask and a tuba before walking to the bank of the river. The water is as clear as crystal, the river is pretty narrow and 1 to 3 metres deep and you can see easily at a distance up to 20 metres. No need to swim, the wet-suit makes you floating, preventing anyone to touch the river’s bed with the hand, and the tour goes down the stream. Immediately a stunning underwater show begins, the river is filled with dozens of great fish, mainly piratangas, that stay at a closer distance unafraid of visitors. Slowly swimming for more than two hours among these thousands of fish is a sort of jump back to Eden.
After snorkelling, back to the Fazenda, many visitors choose to walk with the guide to discover mammals and birds in the surroundings. You can also rent a bike before or after the little rest (or eventually siesta) that follows the delicious homemade lunch based on local tasty produce that is served to visitors. Horseback and four-wheel motorbike rides are also available.
River Snorkelling in Rio da Prata
There is a 40 min trail from the Fazenda Rio da Prata to the spring of the river where the snorkelling begins. During approximately 1h20 visitors enjoy the numberless fish slowly moving around, and soon discover that there are many small fresh water springs creating sandy whirlpools in the riverbed. The local gastronomy is also highly estimated by guests.
Another tour (to be booked in advance) is also available at the Fazenda of Rio da Prata, the Lagoa Misteriosa (Mysterious lake). After a 15mn walk, the lake appears among the trees and bushes like a mirror whose colour goes from emerald green to azure blue. Despite this paradise vision, the best is to come. The water is so clear that the underwater visibility is about 60 metres deep, surely a world record. Snorkelling is like flying in the air. Sadly snorkelling into the lake is limited to only 30mm, but of course to enjoy a few more minutes of this bliss, some visitors claim to lose their hearing when the guide call the swimmers out of the water!
Rafting in Formoso River
This is a great adventure in rubber boats for a maximum of 14 persons with 8 for an 8-kilometre trip to “Isla do Padre” (Father Island) sailing through several rapids. On the river’s banks you can watch monkeys, birds and maybe “sucuris” (anacondas) who in winter time usually leave the river waters to climb up the trees or find a secure place in the bushes. During this tour you will get a lot of adrenaline worthy of Indiana Jones. Harrison Ford himself was astonished at its beauty on the day he visited Bonito. When there is more than one boat getting down the river, the adventure is much more stirring, because boats “race” with tourists fiercely rowing and also having great “water battles”. When they reach calm waters, they can enjoy snorkelling or just swim in one of the most crystalline rivers in the word.
Waterfalls at Parque das Cachoeiras
The Fazenda das Cachoeiras, located by the Rio Mimoso, offers a nice trail under green vegetation going from waterfall to waterfall. All 6 main waterfalls look different in form and size, and for each one a wooden gangway gives access to the water. The guide invites everyone to swim at the foot of the waterfall and even to go under the cascading waters, an impressive souvenir. After lunch, hammocks await everyone for a little resting siesta.
Gruta do Lago Azul is an azure lake at the bottom of a deep open cavern, and the only way to reach its banks is to go down a 100m long narrow and steep flight of stone steps. All visitors have to wear a helmet all along the way down.
This tour is open to fit adults and kids.
Abismos Anhumas is a real adventure tour. The total number of daily visitors to the Abismos Anhumas cave is limited to 18. Through a small crack you begin to rappel down for 72 m to reach the cave bottom. There you find a large and deep lake that you can explore snorkelling. Scuba diving in the lake is a stunning option only for certified divers, with a maximum of 4 divers a day.
Many more activities are available including night expeditions in the Pantanal to see tapirs, alligators, capybaras, deer or the mysterious jaguar.
How to get there
The main door to reach Bonito is through Campo Grande International Airport, which is linked to all the major cities in Brazil. From Campo Grande International Airport visitors can rent a car to drive the 300 kilometre long journey, a four-hour trip on a very easy road, just a long flat straight line. There are also several bus and van services.
Even if Bonito is quite small it’s a vibrant city that has become the Mecca of Brazilian students during their spring break vacations. Its small size, its large streets lined with two floors buildings create a special peaceful atmosphere. Bonito is a safe walking city with open-air bars and restaurants everywhere. Bonito offers a full range of hotels, from 5 star resort and pousadas (centre-town small hotels), to back-packer budget accommodation.
More info at: http://www.atrativosbonito.com.br/home
Text & Photos ©Frederic de Poligny