Brazil’s Centro-Oeste region may have no easy-to-reach beaches, but the rivers of Mato Grosso do Sul are its most famous attraction. 300 kilometres from the capital, Campo Grande, Bonito sits perched on an underground aquatic world that seeps through the cracks in the rocks and returns to the surface as springs and rivers.
Discover crystal-clear waters that seem heavily photoshopped. Located in the Bodoquena Mountains, this tourist region in western Mato Grosso do Sul is also formed by neighbouring destinations, like Jardim and Bodoquena, whose attractions include caves, caverns and a surreal number of rivers that invite lingering dips.
Bonito’s most popular attraction is the Gruta da Lagoa Azul (Blue Lake Cave), a lake over 80 metres deep that enjoys waters of an intense blue, a visual effect caused by the light at the entrance, which is 40 metres in diameter. To get to this 65,000-year-old spot with remarkable speleothems, there’s a short trail, followed by stone steps on the hill leading to it. Every day, only 305 lucky people can visit this fragile natural monument, walking on platforms that surround the lake, which has been closed to bathers since the early 1990s, when fossils of prehistoric animals were found.
According to the Brazilian Speleology Society, Mato Grosso do Sul is one of the ten regions in Brazil with the greatest concentration of caves. There are 172 in the whole state, 67 in Bonito alone. Next stop is Gruta de São Miguel, five kilometres from Lagoa Azul. Offering dry access and an artificially lit interior, it’s possible to walk among a variety of formations, such as coralloids, stalactites, stalagmites and travertines. It’s like going back thousand years in time, in a place with a vivarium that is home to birds, such as macaws. Access to the cavern is via a suspension bridge at tree top level.
If you want to see the most impressive scenario of this centre of ecotourism, grab a life jacket, mask and snorkel and make for the waters that snake around the Cerrado (Brazilian savannah). After a quick training session and awareness-raising trail, the visitor follows the pace of the river, in waters with high visibility, full of fish and aquatic gardens.
The longest trail (2.6 km) takes place between the Prata and Olho d’Água rivers, at Fazenda Cabeceira do Prata, in Jardim, 48 km from Bonito, and ends with a lunch of regional fare. For those who want to go deeper (and for longer), Rio da Prata also has non-certified dives for tourists. Better known as a “baptism”, this enterprise involves diving to a depth of up to seven metres accompanied by an instructor. “Our region is famous for its crystal-clear waters. In Brazil, it’s very difficult to find rivers so shallow and with visibility of over ten metres, like in Bonito”, explains João Gomes da Silva, head of operations for Rio da Prata. The extreme colour of the waters is down to the rocks, which act like a natural filter. According to Thyago Sabino, biologist and manager of Estância Mimosa, “the region’s rocky limestone formation lends a clarity rarely seen”.
The Lagoa Misteriosa is an impressive experience. The intriguing name hails from the time when someone decided to dive down 220 metres to see where those vertical walls would lead. After a complex eight-hour operation, Gilberto Menezes de Oliveira returned amazed (and exhausted), despite not having found the end of this lagoon inside one of Brazil’s deepest caves. That said, we don’t need to go to such lengths to see the enigma at close quarters, with a range of options available, ranging from baptisms to technical dives (depths between eight and 60 metres), which feels rather like falling into a watery abyss. The waters are so clear that the treetops can be seen from a depth of 40 metres. Located in Jardim, the activity can be combined with snorkelling in Rio da Prata.
The points of interest and tour of Bonito are accessible using a voucher, which must be bought in advance at one of the city’s agencies and is unavailable at the attractions themselves. A benchmark of Brazilian tourism, this not only guarantees capacity control but also standardises ticket prices. “Ecotourism is much more than just walking in the forest. For it to work, it has to be properly managed”, explains Thyago Sabino, who believes Bonito is special because it’s more about first-generation tourism, where the owners are still heavily involved. Although high season is during the holiday months in Brazil (January, July and December), the different attractions can be visited throughout the year. Temperatures are higher between October and March and rainfall more constant.
by Eduardo Vessoni
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