Bonito – The chance to dive into a natural aquarium

A natural water playground.

By Bianca Saia

Grottoes, blue lagoons, and ornate waterfalls, all framed by lush forests. The chance to dive into a natural aquarium teeming with colourful fish. The joyful chatter of monkeys, macaws, toucans, anteaters and tapirs. Such imagery could be easily applied to the Garden of Eden, but this place is real, and it’s found in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul. This is Bonito, a town of only 16,000 people that has become one of the most important ecotourism destinations in Brazil.

Close to 60,000 tourists come to Bonito each year searching for a unique Brazilian experience. In which other spot in the country is it possible to snorkel in crystal clear water while being more than 1,000 km from the nearest beach?

“The waters of Bonito are as clear as the Bahamas,” says Alex Furtado, president of tourism agency Agência Ar. “There are places with more than 60 metres of visibility. Floating in the jungle among fish and other animals changes the visitor’s perception of snorkelling.”  Canadian traveller Adelina Lameiras adds: “The Quality of the water and the diversity of fish is far superior to what I saw in Aruba and Cuba.”

But how is this possible? The answer is limestone. The waters of Bonito are loaded with it. The mineral sticks to any impurity in the water and drags it to the bottom of the river, acting like a natural water filter.

The effect is nicely described by Emília Fernandes, author of the blog A Turista Acidental (The Accidental Tourist): “The moment you plunge your head into the water, the sensation is like being in another world, calmer but incredibly more beautiful. Everything relaxes and attracts you: the colour of the water, the fearless fish that brush past you, and the amazing aquatic vegetation, which the main quality of this floating experience. For those like me who are fascinated by by fresh water, it’s like being in a huge amusement park.”

The floating she refers to is the most popular activity in Bonito. The visitor, armed with a snorkel mask, neoprene bodysuit and lifevest, simply lets the gentle river current guide her over several kilometres. In an average journey, you’ll meet over 80 types of fish, including trout, catfish, and other local species, as well as the underwater flora.

It’s not just Bonito’s beauty that impresses. Few ecosystems in Brazil are so well protected. “Every attraction in Bonito is on private property and is subject to rigid legislation,” Futado said. “The attraction must have a biologist and geologist on staff and it’s regularly inspected by environmental officers.”

The rules allow a maximum number of visitors per day for most attractions. No one can enter without a voucher from a local agency and a tourist guide accredited by Embratur, the Brazilian tourism department. In addition, every tour has a fixed price.

This kind of organization drew cheers from the popular Australian guidebook Lonely Planet: “If all of Brazil was as organized as Bonito, life would be a lot easier for tourists.”

The recognition also comes from the inside. An annual poll by tourism magazine Revista Viagem e Turismo annointed Bonito the best ecotourim destination in Brazil for the ninth straight year, leaving other big fish like Pantanal and Fernando de Noronha in the dust.

Perhaps Bonito’s allure is in the variety of options for the visitor. Besides the floating trip, one can visit numerous grottoes and waterfalls, hike leafy trails, spot the local fauna, trace the Formoso River on a life raft, rapel down eerie caves, zip between treetops, and scuba-dive independently.

Alex Porto, diving instructor of the Bonito Scuba agency, notes that previous diving experience is not required. “Anyone over 10 years old can do a discover dive in crystalline waters with a scuba kit, always accompanied by an experienced guide, and lasting about 30 minutes. There are also excellent dives for experienced divers.”

There are five diving spots in Bonito: The Formoso River, the main one on the area, the Prata River, the Anumas Abyss, which is accessed via a 72-metre rapel drop, the Misteriosa Lake, and the Via Salobra wetlands.

When to go: the best diving season in Bonito is September through December, when there is little rain.