Bonito – the Caribbean of central Brazil

16 Sep

Bonito is a small, charming Brazilian town set on the edge of Parque National de Serra de Bodoquena – a beautiful nature-lovers paradise complete with dense forests, stalactite filled caves, crystal clear lakes bursting with fish and scenic waterfalls. Bonito and the Mato Grosso do Sul region have become increasingly popular as a tourist destination in the last few years, especially amongst holidaying Brazilians. We’d heard that out of peak season (December – February) Bonito was a laid back, friendly town and an excellent place to relax for a few days so we headed there after our trip to the Pantanal and before returning to Bolivia.

We stayed at Catarino’s Guest House in a double room with bathroom and breakfast included for 70 Reals (roughly 30 USD) which in itself was a good standard hostel with spacious rooms, hot showers (a luxury), a common area, hammocks and a pool table but what set this place apart was its fantastic buffet breakfast – by far the biggest and the best we’d had in the whole of South America to date.

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On our first full day we rented push bikes and cycled 7km out-of-town to the Municipal Pool – a natural riverside swimming spot where it’s possible to snorkel in beautifully clear water with river fish. On our way there we cycled past the local rodeo which was buzzing with activity so we called in to see what was happening. It was like we’d stepped into the American Wild West with checked shirts and cowboy hats everywhere we looked. Music played, BBQ’s were being fired up and the hiss of beer cans opening made us look at our watches – 10.45am – good work guys!

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A lassooing competition was in full swing (no pun intended) in the arena and bulls were let loose and encouraged to charge forward whilst a Gaucho on horse back galloped after it swinging a lassoo above their heads and letting go just at the right moment. To lassoo the bull’s feet, body or neck was considered bad practice but instead they aimed for the forehead and a small hump on the back of the bull’s neck. The skill and precision were impressive as man after man hit his target effortlessly.

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We continued our journey to the pools along a relatively flat section of road and paid a small entrance fee upon arrival. The pools were a local family affair and much of the community seemed to be there enjoying the warm weather and cool water. The river was completely natural with some stone steps and sun bathing areas added.

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The river meandered through lush, green countryside and there were two lifeguards at different stations watching over swimmers in the clear water. The current was strong so it was possible to enter the water upstream and float effortlessly around 5 minutes downstream to a barrier which marked the municipal baths limits, but it was almost impossible to swim back upstream.

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One grassy area had been flooded when the river broke its banks during heavy rains the previous week and a group of local kids were enjoying running around in this area kicking water at each other.

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A group of young guys played volleyball like professionals, returning the ball effortlessly over the net and sometimes getting into rallies using their heads, chests and feet – anything but their hands surprisingly – which lasted over 20 volleys.

There were two family run cafes on site serving light meals, snacks and drinks and people sat around in swimwear enjoying the warm weather.

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Extremely tame and brightly coloured Macaws sat in the trees posing for photographs and comically mimicking people’s voices.

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Two Macaws in particular appeared to be great friends sitting close and preening one another. Their vibrant colours were opposite to each other but both were startlingly beautiful.

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The cafe was also frequented by a troupe of monkeys who would climb down to the tables when a customer had left and finish off any uneaten food. One monkey we observed for a little while was particularly fond of french fries!

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We bought a bag of fish food and headed for the river. Just below the surface we could see hundreds of brown speckled fish about 30 – 40 centimetres in length weaving in and out of each other.

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We took a handful of the pellets we’d bought and threw them into the water. The surface suddenly erupted becoming a frenzied white froth as the fish jumped over each other and out of the water to get to the food.

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We had lots of fun standing up to our knees in the water and dropping food beneath us to feel the fish darting around our legs and occasionally giving us a little nibble. Every now and again a really big fish from the depths of the river would appear, scaring us and smaller fish but earning himself a meal for one. We hired snorkels and took a good 10 minutes on the river bank working up the courage to plunge into the cold water and come face to face with the fishes. The water took our breath away initially but our skin felt refreshed.

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Under the water was like a different world. We could see three metres down to the river bed which was a mixture of fine sand and smooth rocks. There were fish everywhere and they swam directly towards our faces, only diverting around us at the last moment – probably hearing us letting out small screams in our snorkels. The fish were very inquisitive to see us in their territory and must have thought we were two of the ugliest fishes they’d ever seen. Their muscular bodies and fins allowed them to hover in the current effortlessly as the flowing water poured over their bodies. As well as the free-flowing fish food supplied by the tourists, the fish also foraged on small green plants growing on the river bed and we agreed that it was no wonder that they grew to be such whoppers.

It was getting late in the afternoon when Dan and I decided to pick ourselves up from our sunbathing spot and head back to Bonito. The air was very warm but we felt revived and pedaled enthusiastically. At one point Dan took the lead and shot on ahead leaving me dawdling behind, just taking in the scenery. I wasn’t concentrating when Dan swerved around a large rock in the road and shouted “Watch out!” I wobbled a little but managed to keep control and pulled up next to Dan who’d stopped on the roadside and was now looking horrified.

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The rock Dan had closely missed turned out to be a large, hairy tarantula who was casually crossing the road. Tarantulas are often hairy and very large spiders belonging to the Theraphosidae family of spiders of which approximately 900 species have been identified. Most are not dangerous and some are kept as pets but this monster spider struck arachnophobia into us and acting irrationally we checked each others backs in case any more had appeared – where we thought they’d come from we had no idea! The largest tarantula in the world is the Goliath birdeater from Venezuela and Brazil and they can often weigh up to 150 grams and have a leg span of 30 centimeters.

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Dan placed his hand next to our hairy friend for a size perspective and although it wasn’t quite 30 centimeters, we knew it was big enough. Then suddenly, it ran first in one direction and then the other with alarming speed, only slowing to a casual cruise again once it was a safe distance away. We felt like doing the same so we jumped back on the bikes and sped away.

For purely medicinal purposes to get over our shock we headed out that evening in Bonito for a couple of beers and some food. Bonito’s bars and restaurants are clustered around a busy high street and cater for local and international tastes. We found the portions in Brazil to be huge and they were particularly fond of all you can eat buffets. We chose to eat at a Churrascaria which was a meat BBQ restaurant where the waiters bought endless skewers to our table and all salads and vegetables were included.

The following day we decided to take an organised tour to one of the attractions around Bonito. The increased popularity of the region has increased the number of package tours (there are around 30 in total, most of which explore the ecology and natural environment of the area) on offer and unfortunately this has pushed prices up, some of which are now out of reach for the backpacker budget. The tour which took our fancy was the Blue Cave or Grotto Azul.

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Tours in Bonito are a fixed price amongst the agencies but tend to be expensive – firstly because many of the attractions are on private land and it’s necessary to be accompanied by a guide when you visit, and secondly because public buses don’t go to these places so you’re left with no other option than to hire a taxi for the trip. Nevertheless, we wanted the chance to see one of the spectacular sights on offer. Our driver took us and two other girls staying at our hostel 20 kilometres West of Bonito through beautiful countryside of thick forested hills and lush palm trees laden with coconuts. Lazy, spotted cows grazed and the occasional anteater snuffled in the dirt.

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We were introduced to our guide when we arrived at the centre and joined a small group of four others. For safety purposes we were required to wear helmets and unfortunately, due to hygiene purposes, there was also a very unattractive hair net to put on underneath the helmet (even though Dan clearly didn’t need one!) Unlike in Bolivia, health and safety was taken to the extreme and we listened impatiently as our briefing stretched to nearly 20 minutes! A 10 minute walk through lush forest brough us to the mouth of the cave.

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It’s estimated that the cave is in the region of 400 million years old but it was only discovered in 1924 by one of the local Terena Indians. It is now a protected site and visited by thousands of people each year. The dimensions of the cave make it one of the largest flooded cavities in the world. The mouth of the cave was huge and we could see down the passageway into which we’d climb. The 100 metre path sunk deep underground with tunnels heading off in different directions. Creepers and plants hung down around the entrance and some water droplets, created in the humid air, fell from above.

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We peered down into the cave, letting our eyes adjust to the darkness and we could see another group below us who looked like tiny stick people in the vast cavern. We climbed down and across uneven, wet ground and we soon realised why hard hats were a good idea as we nearly lost our footing on the slippery rocks several times.

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It was very difficult to keep our eyes on the path as the roof of the cave was lined with thousands of spectacular, pointed stalactites which seemed to glow with layers of colour. The light from outside reached into the cave like an outstretched hand and where it ended dark corners and tunnels filled us with a fear of the unknown.

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During November to January at around 8.30am in the morning, where the sun is low in the sky, its rays directly enter the cave and penetrate all the way to the blue lagoon at the bottom. The spectacle it creates as it lights up the crystal clear, turquoise water is said to be near to heaven.

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Sadly, it wasn’t that time of year when we visited but the sight of the lagoon was still incredible. We learnt that the lake is rich in calcium carbonate and magnesium which gives its hypnotic intense blue colour.

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In 1992 a Franco-Brazilian diving expedition found fossils of mammals 57 metres underground including a saber tooth tiger and a giant sloth said to be up to 10,000 years old. The depth of the water is estimated to be around 90 metres and underground caverns stretch out for kilometres so much of the network remains unexplored.

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The visibility for us into the water was about 6 metres until the light faded and when we crouched down and put our hands in the water it was icy cold. Our voices echoed around the cathedral of stone which made it difficult to hear each other clearly but we could see from the look on our faces, despite our ridiculous head-gear that we thought our surroundings were really marvellous.

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Bonito is frequently referred to as the Caribbean of the Central West due to the unbelievable nature and the colour of its waters and we felt particularly smug that we’d found a pocket of paradise in the hugeness of Brazil. We’d relaxed, we’d eaten well, we’d swam and we’d explored, and in the morning we’d look forward to returning to Bolivia to continue our journey.

One Response to “Bonito – the Caribbean of central Brazil”

  1. tina stevenson December 18, 2013 at 2:13 pm #

    quite fantastic enjoyed the trip with you both

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