International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
At 3 am, most of Bonito’s 17,000 residents were still awake. In fact, many were downing copious amounts of cachaca (a spirit made from sugar cane) and letting off fireworks in the streets. Corinthians, the Sao Paulo-based soccer team, had just won the annual Copa Libertadores (the most prestigious football competition in South America), and celebrations continued way beyond sunrise. If there is one thing you learn quickly in Brazil, it is that football almost always comes first, second and third in a list of national priorities.
Yet here in Bonito, a small town in central-west Brazil, there is another equally important priority – the local environment. Bonito, which aptly means “beautiful” in Portuguese, is situated around 100km south of the Pantanal wetland in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Characterised by porous limestone geology and countless underground springs, the region is a wildlife-filled paradise of turquoise rivers and lakes, forested hills and massive subterranean caverns.
“Foreigners are just catching onto the fact that Bonito is one of Brazil’s premier eco-tourism resorts,” said Ulli Braun, a German tour guide who fell in love with the town on his first visit more than a decade ago. “This place has been named the best Brazilian eco-tourism destination in the country’s Travel and Tourism Awards for the last 11 years. Of course, the locals have known about the beauty of the land for far longer, and they want to keep it that way.”
Maintaining the right balance between its burgeoning tourism business and the conservation of natural resources is the key to Bonito’s success. Until the town opened itself up to greener pursuits, the main industry was raising cattle, and most of the local attractions are still located on working farms. Despite the recent proliferation of activities – such as snorkelling, spelunking and horseback riding – a strict voucher and accreditation system means tour groups are always kept small, maximising enjoyment and minimising environmental disturbance.
The Gruta do Lago Azul, or Blue Lake Grotto, located 20km west of Bonito, is a great place to kick off a tour of the region, giving an awe-inspiring insight into the area’s geology. One of the largest flooded cavities in the world (the lake at the bottom is estimated to be 70m deep), this cavernous subterranean space was only discovered by locals in 1924.
After negotiating their way down a series of steps carved into the steep rock face, explorers of the Blue Lake Grotto are faced with a deceptively deep pool of limpid blue-green water. Overhung by a cliff face studded with giant stalactites, the water is illuminated by a narrow strip of sunlight overhead. The site is rich in fossils and a new species of blind cave shrimp was recently discovered here.
The Blue Lake Grotto, like most of Bonito’s attractions, is situated on privately-owned land that is accessible by car. Conscious efforts are made in and around the town to ensure that visitors explore such attractions without spoiling them, so it is forbidden to set foot on any trail or enter any river without making a reservation and each attraction limits the number of tourists that can visit at any time. Almost all of Bonito's tours need to be booked through an official tourist agency in the town and require an accredited guide, although this is organised at the time of booking. There are plenty of tour agencies along Rua Pilad Rebuá, Bonito's main street, and international tour outfits such as UK-based Reef and Rainforest can also assist with Bonito packages.
About 24km north of Bonito lies Estancia Mimosa, a working farm turned eco-tourism resort. Set in beautifully manicured grounds, the estancia’s picturesque wooden farmhouse offers visitors a buffet lunch with an array of home-grown produce, including organic beef, chicken and salads. Most people then walk off this delectable repast on a network of sun-dappled trails and wooden walkways, making a bee-line for the waterfalls along the nearby river, Rio Mimoso. Overhead, orange-billed toucans fly past, while troops of capuchin monkeys chatter nosily in the dense canopy.
Tumbling over moss-clad rocks into a succession of mirror-like pools, the Rio Mimoso’s gentle flow has blessed Estancia Mimosa with the perfect aquatic hangout. Visitors can swim under waterfalls or in natural pools, explore miniature caves and dive off a 5m-high wooden platform into the balmy waters below.