Destination Name: Bonito
Common Nickname: Brazil’s Capital of Ecotourism
Bonito is tucked in the limestone karst landscape of the Bodoquena Range in Mato Grosso do Sul, a state in central-western Brazil that fringes Bolivia and Paraguay. The closest airport is Bonito Regional Airport, 15 minutes outside of town, with flights operated by Azul on certain days of the week. More frequent flights are available to/from Campo Grande, 180 miles (about four hours) from Bonito by rental car, van transfer, or bus. Domestic flights connect to the international hubs of São Paolo and Rio de Janeiro.
Primary Active Pursuits
Caves riddle the ground around Bonito like Swiss cheese, luring adventurers to explore the eerie bowels of the earth. The same porous limestone that creates these caverns also filters underground water, creating pure natural springs that bubble up into crystal clear rivers. A highlight of Bonito is getting wet, whether by snorkeling, frolicking in cascading waterfalls, or tubing or SCUBA diving in roiling rapids. Landlubbers can hike, mountain bike, and ride horses through the rainforest, or sit back and observe wild critters like monkeys and birds.
Snorkel for more than a mile down the crystalline waters of the Sucuri River with sounds of tropical jungle overhead. You’ll float past Dr. Seuss-like aquatic plants that wave lazily in the current, and a kaleidoscope of fish, including dorado (the “king of the river”), large schools of piraputanga, and tetras darting past in silvery flashes. To protect the fragile environment, no kicking is allowed, so just relax and go with the flow. To say this experience is magical is an understatement.
Reaching the depths of this limestone abyss requires slithering through a body-width slit then rappelling 236 feet to a deck built over an underground lake. A dim shaft of sunlight filters into the giant cavern, illuminating stalactites, stalagmites, and lumpy walls where water slowly drips and forms the rock into spooky shapes. Snorkel by flashlight through the frigid waters, then work up a sweat jumaring back up the rope (or accept a hoist).
This family-owned property is a wonderland of waterfalls that cascade down limestone ledges and invite you to take a dip. Bring your bathing suit for the 2.5-mile forest walk, with eight natural pools where you can frolic in refreshing water. The last stop includes an adrenalin-inducing jump off a high deck. (Don’t worry; it’s optional.) No doubt you’ll work up an appetite for a hearty lunch served at the ranch house.
This ecological park bursts at the seams with watery pursuits, including whitewater tubing, river SCUBA diving, stand up paddle boarding, and ziplining that whips down into a lake. Or mount a horse for a whirl through the woods. Once you’re weary, relax on the expansive lawn.
Plan months in advance, especially if you’re visiting in July, December - January, or during Carnival (held annually in February), all peak tourist seasons. Better yet, avoid crowds and Brazilian school holidays by going April - June or August - October. The rainy season is January - February.
Other Cultural and Recreation Gems
Rio da Prata is yet another natural gem, featuring a half-hour walk through the jungle to reach a downriver snorkel alongside capuchin monkeys leaping among the trees. This is the only place in Bonito where you can see pacu and shovelnose catfish. Another can’t-miss is Buraco das Araras (Macaws’ Hole), a giant red sinkhole where dozens of red-and-green macaws come to roost.
© ATTA / Hassen Salum.
Bonito’s compact downtown is centered along Rua Cel. Pilad Rebuá, where you can pick up souvenirs or stroll through the plaza and marvel at the oversized fish fountain. Also worth a look is Casa do Vidro, a glass factory that upcycles the town’s used bottles into light fixtures, drinking glasses, flower vases, and other clever creations.
Try dozens of varieties of cachaça—Brazilian sugarcane liquor—at the Fabrica do Encantos Taboa, where you can take a tour and sample sips ’til you’re tipsy. The original flavor is warm and spicy, with honey, cinnamon, clove, and powdered ginger. Others feature tropical fruits.
Lodging and Dining
A mile northwest of town, Pousada Olho d’Áqua is a pleasant property where you can relax poolside, dine al fresco, and open your room’s windows to overlook tree-fringed lawns. About four miles from town in the other direction, Hotel Cabanas features bungalows on stilts and river tubing on site. If you’re seeking something central and affordable, Pousada Muito Bonito is in the heart of town. Ask for one of the newly renovated rooms.
Bonito cuisine gives a nod to the myriad of fish that inhabit its fresh waters, as well as the region’s cowboy roots. Rice with sundried meat, catfish with cheese and tomato sauce, beef barbecue, and chipa (a traditional cheese bread) are some standbys. Also look for sopa paraguaia, which literally translates to Paraguayan soup but is actually more like a cross between corn bread and quiche. Many of the area’s ecological attractions offer a buffet where you can refuel after exploring.
© ATTA / Hassen Salum.
The Taboa Bar is a popular pub in Bonito, ran by the same folks who make Taboa cachaça. Here you can dine, dance to live music, and scrawl on the wall. Casa do João is another crowd-pleaser, if a tad on the touristy side. If you’re looking for something more low key, pop into Pastel Bonito to try fried dough pockets stuffed with sweet or savory fillings, or load a plate from the buffet at Restaurante Arco Iris.
Best Single Reason to Visit
Bonito has won top honors at Brazil’s best ecotourism destination more than a dozen times. It’s a nature lover’s paradise, with pristine rivers, tropical rainforest, more than 170 caves, and a huge diversity of wildlife—nearly 500 bird species, over 60 reptiles and amphibians, 88 mammals, and close to 100 kinds of fish. Here you experience the natural world by immersing in it.
© ATTA / Hassen Salum.
With dozens of ecotourist attractions (36 at last count), Bonito makes it tough to choose but easy to guarantee a good time. To protect the area’s natural resources, the tourism council limits visitor numbers and timing, so advance reservations are required, and visitors must purchase vouchers through a local travel agency. The upside is that prices are fixed (no need to haggle) and limited group sizes create a feeling of solitude even at popular spots.
Poke around Bonitour’s website for details on attractions, lodging options, and transport. The Bonito Convention & Visitors Bureau website is also a good resource—if you know Portuguese (but officials say an English version should be online later 2016).
Avery Stonich is a freelance writer based in Boulder, Colorado, who has traveled to more than 50 countries in search of adventure. Visit her website at averystonich.com and follow her on Twitter and Instagram.