Before setting off on my travels, I hadn’t really heard of Bonito, the small town in the southern Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul. But it kept popping up when I was researching the Pantanal and most of the tours seemed to try including it as an add-on. Looking into it, I learned that it had won an award for best tourist spot in Brazil a few years previous, and that it was growing in popularity.
The town itself isn’t that amazing, but it is has an excellent location, in that many natural wonders are relatively close, and the tourism infrastructure is good for Brazilian standards. All tours have a fixed price, which means no need to negotiate prices with tour operators, which though fun at times, often becomes tiresome. Thus all the hostels and hotels have a list of definitive prices, so you pay them and they give you a voucher to get into the attraction. Note that you can’t just turn up at the sites and pay on the gate as it were; everything must be booked in advance, even in low season.
Anyway, I went straight from Santa Clara pousada to Bonito via a minibus to Miranda and car transporting just the two of us onwards to our destination. While waiting for the bus, Alex, the German I’d met at Santa Clara, and I indulged in some ice-cold beers, and despite being Schin, which has a reputation akin to that of an industrial cleaning product, I realised that any cold lager always goes down nicely on a sunny day. Added to that I munched on Paçoca, a wonderful mix of sweet peanut and fudge combo in a crumbly block, whose existence I’d ceased to recognise since my last visit to Brazil. The car picked us up and there was no mention of charging me, but rather than neglect to pay the 90 reais that it cost, I opted to ask the driver how payment should be made, not only to avoid potential confusion further down the line, but to contribute to the Circle of Honesty, a close friend of the Bank of Good Deeds, if you believe in that sort of stuff.
The car took us to the hostel Alex was staying at, Catarino’s Guest House, which was included in a Pantanal-Bonito package he’d pre-arranged. A tip for tourism Brazil is that it definitely pays to arrange things separately and on your own rather than booking packages, as commission is thrown on top. There doesn’t exist that concept of ‘the more you include, the more discount you get’ which you might encounter in Europe. I’d recommend staying in this place, as it cost just 40 reais a night in a dorm and from what I gauged from other guests, a private double room could be got for 70 reais between you. The breakfast was massive and included four types of bread with several meat and cheese fillings, a multitude of cakes, swathes of fruit and different juices as well as cheesy bread and pizza thrown in some days. Meaning you could indulge in the morning, do your activities and skip lunch, before feeding again in the evening. Even though there were only four guests at the time in the whole place, they insisted on topping up the various food items, as if we were going to eat everything in sight.
Having arrived late on the first night, I figured that rather than hastily book one of the tours, I’d rent a bike (15 reais from the hostel for the day), take a look around the city and spend a bit of time at the Balneário Municipal (30 reais with voucher paid for in advance), a spot where you can go bathing in the see-through river at a kind of fazenda, or resort. On the bike I explored the town from top to bottom, though in all honesty there wasn’t much to see, and checked out public bus times for travel to Campo Grande a few days later, for which there were only buses at awkward times. Bonito has some great cycle paths which run down the side of the highway and I followed them for six kilometres to get to the Balneário.
Thankfully it was a hot day, and though the water was freezing, it provided a wonderful respite from the heat. The water was crystal clear and full of fishes, which generally avoided you unless you had someone throw fish food at you so they went wild around you. Rather here than with the piranhas in the Pantanal. The place itself was set up to receive a load more guests than just the handful of us that were there, and I imagine it could accommodate a few hundred in high season.
On the trip I developed a habit of talking to almost everyone I meet, and there was no exception as I saw a girl emerge from the water in an almost Ursula Andrés manner. As it happened, she was an English girl who’d volunteered at the Olympics and was following much the same path as I had, having just completed her Year Abroad from languages at university. Time does indeed fly.
After jumping in and out of the water, we headed back on the bicycles, riding into the sunset, and upon arriving at the hostel I made myself some hotdog sandwiches (chop up hotdog sausages, onions and tomatoes, mix and serve on bread rolls), and drank some beer called Proibida, and my attempted joke of ‘Why is the beer prohibited?’ fell flat on the cashier, who responded ‘That’s the brand’, and I had to do that awkward thing of explaining the joke, to which she giggled and shook her head.
The next day I went on the famous Rio da Prata tour which involves floating down a transparent river full of fishes and sometimes other beasts for an hour and a half. The tour itself cost 156 reais, and the transport there and back in a minibus 70. The bus was full of middle-aged, or perhaps, senior Brazilians, including one guy with a metal leg, who only visited the ranch which runs the tour rather than floating down the river. Maybe to see the horses.
I lost my wetsuit virginity and was pleasantly surprised by how warm it keeps you. We had to walk on a trail for about 40 minutes to get the point of the river where the floating starts, and one of the pensioners took it upon himself to strip down to his trunks due to the heat. Thanks, Sir.
Snorkelling equipment on, remember to bite the mouthpiece, we did a short training session to make sure we were OK. Life jackets were recommended, but not obligatory. On the one hand it means you have total security and don’t have to worry, but in hindsight, perhaps better without, because the wetsuit gives plenty of buoyancy and you can go deeper into the water.
I decided to go at the back of the group so as not be rushed and ended up leaving a considerable distance up to the person in front, as I spent all my time underwater hunting for the elusive alligators and big snakes that were rumoured to cross your path on the way down the river. I perhaps saw a snake, or at least I wanted to believe that the colourings of what might have been tree bark was an anaconda, but either way, it was better to stay submerged because of the mosquitoes and wasps which terrorise you on the surface. Fish, on the other hand, including big ones, were in great abundance and swam close to me. To maintain the water clear, you can’t touch anything, as it will make it cloudy, so there are parts when you have to pull your arms and legs in so as not to crash into things. There are parts where you just float, and others where you need to swim so as to steer around rocks and trees.
The experience wasn’t scary, nor was it difficult to navigate down the river, and I’m becoming ever more the fanatic of extreme water sports. The floating was split into three stages, between which there were parts you had to get out of the water and walk for, and one of the pauses including trying to swim down into a shallow sinkhole so as to be spat back out again. As much as I wanted to, even without the life jacket, I couldn’t swim down powerfully enough to reach the bottom. Imagine that? I couldn’t drown myself if I tried. This escapade meant I lost my snorkel tube, and as the group had already set off, I had to hold my breath when under water and pop up intermittently for oxygen. The only regret was being Go-Pro-less, as it meant having no photos from the experience.
I neglected to go to on the Parrot Hole tour (basically loads of parrots squawking around in a massive abyss) for 60 reais and instead snoozed in a hammock while the others went.
With that we departed for Bonito, and I went back to the hostel, hotdog sandwich and beer being on the menu again. I chatted to a pair of girls, one who had studied at Nottingham and brought back further reminiscence (FYI Oceana is now closed) of past times.
I was glad I stopped off at Bonito, as the two activities I did were in beautiful settings. That said, there are many other attractions in the region, such as caves you rapel into, underwater caverns and an untold number of waterfalls. However, prices are steep in Bonito, and not very apt for the backpacker-style traveller, and in doing everything you’d end up blowing your trip budget in a week. Indeed, tourism within Brazil is expensive, as the large majority of tourists are indulgent middle-class Brazilians with bulging pockets. They probably don’t need backpackers and budget travellers to sustain tourism and thus prices are much less accessible than in places such as Peru, Colombia and even Argentina, where I’d wager that similar experiences could be had for half or even a third of price.
The next day involved getting up at 6.30am so as to head onwards to Campo Grande, so off to bed I went, but not before leaving my debit card next to the computer and being fudged economically for the next few weeks.