Why you should care
Because the middle of nowhere never looked so breathtaking.
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Snorkeling in a river? I was doubtful. After snorkeling above the colorful corals of Hawaii and scuba diving with sharks and turtles in the Florida Keys, my expectations weren’t too high for snorkeling the rivers of Bonito, Brazil — practically smack in the center of South America.
But after coming upon an aqua-blue stream so bright it appeared dyed, I realized this would be a water adventure in a category of its own. Azure water gave way to a white-sand bottom covered in flora and with colorful fish and river otters gliding along. Swimmers can see photosynthesis happening before their eyes, with plants emitting little oxygen bubbles.
The Rio Sucuri is just one of countless, diverse natural wonders in this small Brazilian town in the middle of nowhere and not far from the border with Paraguay and Bolivia. The drive from the nearest major airport on a freeway flanked by cornfields may make visitors feel more like they’re in Iowa than about to enter a tropical paradise. Located in the transition between three of Brazil’s great biomasses — the Atlantic Forest, the Cerrado bushland and the Pantanal wetlands — Bonito is a unique environment that’s home to waterfalls, crystal-clear rivers and mysterious caverns and sinkholes. “That’s the big differential here; there’s so much biodiversity, so close,” says Sandro Pereira, head of the region’s national park.
It’s an experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life.
Dara Estevam, a visitor from Rio
“It’s indescribable,” says Dara Estevam, a 26-year-old student from Rio de Janeiro who visited Bonito in 2014. “You can totally turn off and be [immersed] in nature there. It’s an experience you’ll remember for the rest of your life.”
The snorkeling doesn’t stop with the Rio Sucuri. Equally incredible is the Rio da Prata, a 78-degree river jam-packed with fish, including the gold-scaled dorado. On my snorkel down the river, I was greeted by an anaconda slithering out of the water and onto a sun-drenched boulder.
Visitors can also snorkel or scuba dive in the nearby Lagoa Misteriosa (Mysterious Lagoon), a sinkhole in the jungle that gained its name because of its unknown depth — the farthest divers have traveled down is 721 feet. When the sun shines into the lagoon, there’s a show of multitonal blues as the water goes deeper.
Don’t miss the Blue Grotto, a rift in the jungle that gives way to a 1,000-foot-deep cave with massive stalactites and which ends in a deep-blue pool. Divers have found fossils of sabertooth tigers and “giant sloths” (which once stood about 10 feet tall) — evidence that the cave is thousands of years old.
Above the water, expect to see countless monkeys, colorful toucans and huge, vibrant macaws. And those bright-colored river fish? They’re a staple of the local cuisine, along with caimans (reptiles that are members of the Alligatoridae family). In town, there are dozens of excellent restaurants offering up these freshwater delicacies.
“It’s really worth it for foreigners to travel to a piece of Brazil outside of what’s mass-marketed,” says Estevam, the student from Rio, pointing out that travel agencies tend to push big-name destinations like Rio and the Amazon. “Without a doubt, Bonito is the place everyone wants to go. They just don’t know it yet.”
Go there: Bonito, Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil
- Directions: Rent a car or take a shared transfer van for the 3-hour drive from Campo Grande International Airport. There’s a small airport in the city of Bonito, but with far fewer flights.
- Where to stay: There are plenty of small, locally owned accommodations in town. Hostels range from $8 to $30 per night; bed-and-breakfasts (known as pousadas) are between $50–$130.
- Fees: Most activities in Bonito are strictly regulated for conservation purposes and require booking in advance with a tour agency. Tours are generally between $20–$80.
- When to go: Bonito is great year-round, but an excellent time to visit is during the Southern Hemisphere’s winter — you’ll avoid not only the crowds of Brazilian vacationers that come in the summer but also the heat and humidity.