I think I can safely say that Bonito in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul is very much not on your average traveler’s radar as a must-see destination in Brazil. I personally had never heard of the place before I saw it written on an extremely tempting AIESEC internship job description form, which included the words ‘snorkelling’, ‘horseriding’, ‘tubing’, ‘stand-up paddle boarding’… you can imagine how hard that decision was for me to make.
My idea of a job!
I have since spent 8 months living and working in this small town, which is located pretty much dead in the middle of the vast and fascinating continent that is South America. Bonito is officially the middle of nowhere, a town with a population of less than 20,000 4 hours drive from the state Capital, and more than an hours flight from there to the metropolises of Brazil. To put things in perspective, Mato Grosso do Sul is larger than France, and England fits into the Pantanal, a vast area of wetlands that has been called the Amazon of Southern Brazil, that can be found a few hours further into the wilderness from Bonito. Here we are, relatively speaking, very close to the borders with Bolivia and Paraguay, and many travelers that I’ve met have been on their way to see the wonders of Bolivia (Paraguay not so much), from Foz de Iguazu or Rio de Janeiro.
But is it just a handy pit stop, a might-as-well-as-I’m-in-the-area kind of place, or should Bonito be on every backpacker’s cannot-miss-whilst-in-Brazil list?
It’s incredible, but only if you’ve got a reasonable budget.
Bonito is not cheap. Even your trip here will probably set you back more than most internal flights around Brazil because Campo Grande, the state capital, is not on the beaten track, so if you are going to book anything in advance on your trip it should be your flight here. From Campo Grande there are buses but they go all round the houses and cost very little less than the direct ‘vans’ that will drop you off at the front door of your hostel, worth every penny.
There are a few very good hostels. I like the International Hosteling offering the best despite the fact it’s a bit out of town, as it has great communal space and I’m friends with lots of the staff who are stars. You won’t be forced to spend copious amounts of money on accommodation, but to make your trip here worth it you need to be able to actually leave your hostel, and that’s what will set you back. Not only will you have to pay a good R$150 or more (about £40) for the trip itself, but you’re looking at another R$60 on transport plus a minimum R$30 lunch… so that’s a good £60 for a day trip, which on a long haul backpacking budget might be pushing it a bit.
Bonito completely and utterly lives up to its name. Picture crystal clear rivers with waterfalls of all shapes and sizes, some to be admired from a deck, some aching to be swum in, some to jump off, some that give cracking massages and some to be descended on a tube, a boat or a blow-up kayak. Add to that a few incredible springs with water bubbling up between lush green vegetation swarming with incredible fish, from titsy-tiny red ones to huge golden ones the size of your thigh that eat all the others. I didn’t have such luck, (if it is lucky to have an encounter with a lethal animal) but I’ve seen videos of anacondas snaking along the river bottom underneath the snorkellers, and even slightly less alarming wildlife like antas (those animals that look like mini elephants without a trunk and apparently enjoy a dip).
A few days can be passed renting a bike and cycling out to the Balneario Municipal, which is crammed full of ridiculously sized (over fed) fish and for about R$30 provides a spot to swim around in blue water and work on the tan. Rent a bike to get there and stock up on supplies at the supermarket and you’re golden. Your other cheap and accessible by bike option is the Parque Ecologico Rio Formoso, 7km from the town and where I have been a tubing monitor for the last 9 months.
For R$70 you get a one and a half hour tubing trip or the same amount of time on horseback, with the use of the lake for the whole day complete with stand-up paddle boards, kayaks and a zipline. On the horse riding trip I’ve seen loads of wildlife, even armadillos. Growing up with countryside riddled by rabbit holes, it is the coolest thing in the world to know that the same holes here are dug by armadillos. I’ve raved about tubing quite enough on this blog and posted more than enough pictures, so have a look for yourself!
The two activities above are great, and they can be used to spin out your time in Bonito without spending copious amounts on a daily basis, but if you’re on a tight schedule you should prioritize the waterfall and snorkelling tours. I haven’t been lucky enough to visit the most popular waterfall tour Rio da Prata which everyone tells me is more than worth the money, but would recommend both Aquario Natural (the natural aquarium- closer to the city = cheaper transport) and Nascente Azul (the blue spring). The clarity of the water knocks you for six.
I’ve done a few waterfall tours here but nothing compares to Boca da Onca. It’s not cheap but it is stunning. The newly built reception building is a beautiful piece of architecture, situated of the top of a gentle slope with two natural swimming pools looking out over the most perfect valley. Get your trainers out for the 4km up and down trail with a few chances to cool down in the gorgeous water.
The climax is the beautiful Boca da Onca (Jaguar’s Mouth) waterfall, the highest in the state, with a natural swimming pool below it. The 886 steps to the top afterwards are a challenge but the deliciousness of the fresh water shower to cool off at the top and knowing you’ve really earned that second (or third) helping at lunch make it all worth it. And then you can digest by the pool at your leisure.
I left Boca da Onca truly happy and the most chilled out I have been in a very long time, the exercise having tired me out and the tranquility of the place leaving me with a smile from ear to ear, feeling like I was on a cloud where nothing could touch me. You will sleep very well after Boca da Onca.
My last tip is just for those who have got money to burn, because much as Abismo Anhumas is hands down one of the best things I have ever been lucky enough to do, I did it for free and you’re looking at more than R$500 (it fluctuates a bit) for the basic abseil with snorkelling. Whack on another R$300 for diving if you have a licence. Have a look at this other post of mine from when I was fresh out of the cave and raving about it. It is absolutely incredible, but if you’re doing South America on a shoe string have a good think about how many caipirinhas (priorities) the same money will fund, or how many nights in a hostel that would pay for, or if you’re heading onwards just how many banana pancakes that would get you on a South East Asian beach…
Don’t expect too much from the night life in Bonito, content yourself with a few chilled drinks at one of the two local bars with a live band providing a bit of ambiance, but don’t forget to factor in the cover charge at the end of the night. And then get yourself into bed because all the tours start at ungodly hours of the morning.
The message is, you’ll never regret spending a few extra pennies in Bonito but come prepared to spend them. With any luck you’ll tap into the feeling of peace that the rivers and caves just radiate, and go away feeling incredibly privileged to have been part of such a place.