Trip Report: Spelunking and Snorkeling in Bonito, Brazil

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I recently spent three days in Bonito, Brazil, a small city in Southwestern Brazil famous for its caves and rivers.

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There are two ways to get to Bonito:

  1. Fly twice weekly from Viracopos-Campinas (Sao Paulo area)
  2. Fly to Campo Grande and take a four hour bus

I flew into Bonito on Azul Airlines on a Sunday from Rio de Janeiro (via Viracopos-Campinas) and flew out the next Wednesday to Sao Paulo (Azul/Viracopos-Campinas/Free Azul Bus Trip Report Here). I thought a three day trip was perfect to see the highlights of the area.

Overall Bonito has the coolest caves I’ve ever seen and the best river snorkeling I’ve ever done, however the tours are run in an overly slow and expensive way.

The Tours

I did the #1, #2, and #3 things to do in Bonito according to Trip Advisor (if you ignore that #1 and #2 are the same thing.)

Rio da Prata

On Monday, I snorkeled the Rio da Prata. The tour cost 156 reais, the transportation was 60 reais (transportation is charged separately on all Bonito tours), and an option buffet lunch was 48 reais for a total cost of $76.

I was picked up at 8:30 AM from my hotel and driven about an hour and a half out of town in a minibus on which I was one of two non-Brazilians.

The tour guide spoke basically no English. I don’t mean he didn’t have the ability to speak English. He definitely did have the ability to get his point across in English when needed, but he wouldn’t try. He would say something in Portuguese, and that was it. This was a theme throughout my trip to Bonito (partly because I had the same guide Wednesday), and I found it very annoying. Not knowing what’s going on is frustrating, and I only got the basic idea in Portuguese most of the time (due to the similarity with Spanish, which I speak.) If Bonito wants to draw more foreign tourists, and it already draws enough that guides should be bilingual at least for the script of their tours, guides need to speak Portuguese and English on the tours.

We arrived at 10 AM and were given knee-length wetsuits and a snorkel. We were driven to the woods and walked another 20 minutes to the river.

We snorkeled about 25 minutes, walked a few minutes to another part of the river, snorkeled another 25 minutes until our branch hit a bigger river, and then could snorkel another 10 minutes or be driven in a boat the final stretch. I chose the boat because while the first 50 minutes were very cold, the last 10 minutes were unbearable.

I didn’t get any pictures of the snorkeling, but here is a google images search for the activity. As you can see, the snorkeling is amazing. I’ve never seen such a quantity of fish while snorkeling anywhere in the world, and the very clear water means great visibility. Other than the “dourado,” which I heard people repeating over and over, I am not sure which species I saw out there. Some people in my group spotted an alligator–hopefully a small one!

About 2 PM, we finally made it back to the lodge on the property where a buffet lunch was being served. It had a small salad bar, chicken, beef, rice, beans, potatoes, and a large dessert selection. It is a bit expensive for Brazil at 48 reais ($14), but otherwise unimpeachable. The food was being refreshed quickly and was delicious. During lunch, a torrential downpour started. I hadn’t brought a sweatshirt–a mistake I wouldn’t repeat–so I huddled near the foods’ warming trays for the next half hour.

At around 3:30, we left and headed to the nearby Buraco das Araras, which is a sinkhole where you can spot macaws. I learned about this additional stop on the Rio do Prata tour after booking. If you want to pay 68 reais ($19) extra, you can go on the 1.5 hour walk. Otherwise, you sit in a covered pavilion with a TV showing a Brazilian soap opera and a wifi network that doesn’t work. The compulsory combination of these two tours is supremely frustrating as I was in the half of the group that didn’t join in the second tour.

At about 6:30 PM, we were dropped back off at our hotels.

I would definitely recommend the Rio da Prata snorkeling, though you would be much better off with your own car. You could be back in town by 4 PM by skipping the macaws.

Abismo Anhumas

This was the highlight of the trip.

An abismo is a cave with the opening on top. In the Abismo Anhumas, the tiny opening leads to a large cavern below with a lake in which you can snorkel, scuba dive, and boat.

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First you rappel 72 meters down, and later you have to pull yourself up the 72 meters.

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This tour is very expensive and includes a lot of waiting around, but I still highly recommend it.

The tour costs 700 reais plus 60 more to rent a full body wetsuit and snorkel plus 35 more for transportation, $228 total. Any evening before the tour, you have to go to the tour company’s office in town to learn how to rappel and pull yourself up and then to the scuba company’s office to be fitted for a wetsuit.

On the day of the tour, I was picked up at 6 AM at my hostel for the 30 minute ride to the abismo. Of the six people in the van, three of us were non-Brazilians, but again we got almost no English. Luckily one of the Brazilians was a 17 year old who had learned English from watching TV and movies and happily translated for us.

We arrived at the abismo at 6:30 AM, and that’s when the waiting began. In the eight hours from pick up to drop off, there was an hour of travel, an hour of doing, and six hours of waiting.

First we waited to rappel down in pairs. The rappelling down was extremely fun, very scary (to look down over 220 feet!), and took about three minutes. The delays were caused by having to send down all the people and equipment on the same two pulleys.

Once we got down there, the eight tourists (two more had arrived via their own car) were split into two groups of four for a 20 minute boat ride around the small lake to examine the stalactites, stalagmites, and walls.

Then we got into our wetsuits and snorkels and had a 15 minute snorkel. The snorkeling is all about seeing the underwater rock formations, which are marvelous, because there are very few fish in the cave. You can also scuba dive in the cave if you are certified, and I am sure that is more fun and more expensive.

After the snorkel, we waited several hours–because I was in the last pair–for our turn to pull ourselves out of the cave, which took about 20 minutes.

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You will have quite a sense of accomplishment when you get to the top; it was exhausting, and something the 20 feet of practice a few nights before had not prepared me for!

While I got satisfaction out of pulling myself out of the cave, Abismo Anhumas needs a machine to pull people and things out to save time. According to an employee, they want one and are just waiting on the permit… for the last 15 years. Until they get that machine to pull you out, bring a good book on this tour. There is enough light at the bottom of the cave to read.

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As frustrating as one hour of doing in an eight hour day is, I would still recommend this tour. The rush of rappelling down into a cave, and the beauty of pulling yourself out as heavy rainstorm rages outside–but only a few drops get into the opening and make their way down to the bottom–are worth the wait.

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Here is a google image search for Abismo Anhumas.

Gruta do Lago Azul

On my last day, I did a half day tour to the Blue Lake Grotto that ended in plenty of time to catch my 4 PM flight.

This tour is only 45 reais plus 35 for transport or $23.

I was picked up at 8:30 AM at my hostel and returned by 12:30 PM. My guide from Monday was back to speak no English to a group that now included four foreigners. We drove 30 minutes to the gruta, which is literally next door to the Abismo Anhumas. We put on some helmets and walked a few minutes to the entrance. There are steps leading to the bottom of the cave. You check it out, take a few pics, and head back up.

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The cave is stunningly beautiful–the blue effect is caused by magnesium or something–remember, no English explanation–but the tour is frustrating.
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I was just in the cave region of Vietnam in January, and you mostly get yourself from cave to cave and walk in and out on your own schedule, which is quicker and more convenient than going in a tour bus. I assume Bonito has the tour bus system as a make-work plan for its citizens, but I’m sure the people of Bonito could do something more productive than turn a 1.5 hour activity (30 minutes at the cave and an hour roundtrip driving) into a 4 hour activity. (We sat around a lot before going in and after coming out of the cave. I have no idea why.)

All of my ranting about the pace of these tours leads to an obvious suggestion…

Renting a Car

There is a Localiza Rental Car agency in town that sends two people to the airport to meet planes. Renting a car is definitely the way to go if you drive stick and don’t mind dirt roads. (About 15 minutes each day were on paved roads, and the rest on dirt roads.)

With your own car, you’d save on the transport fee on the tours, and more importantly you’d save a ton of time. You could save 3+ hours on the Rio da Prata by leaving right after lunch instead of waiting around another 45 minutes then heading to the macaw tour for an hour and a half before coming home.

And you could combine Abismo Anhumas and Gruta do Lago Azul in one day. Get the earliest time at Abismo Anhumas and ask to be the first pair in your group to exit the cave. Then drive a few minutes to the gruta next door. (You do have to have a reserved time at the gruta, and the last one is 2 or 3 PM, but this is very doable, just set it up with a tour agency in advance.)

Before You Go/Getting In

If you land at Bonito Airport, you can make the 15 minute trip to town by bus for 25 reais ($7) or a taxi for 60 reais ($17). You must reserve your spot on the bus in advance. Any travel agency can reserve the spot on the bus.

I would recommend being in touch with a travel agency before you go to reserve your tours, especially the Abismo Anhumas during the high season (January, February, July, August) because it is limited to (I didn’t write this down) 15 or 35 people per day.

I stayed at the Papaya Hostel for 40 reais ($11) per night in a bunk in a dorm room. I recommend it. It had what you’d expect from a hostel (kitchen, lockers, high carb breakfast) plus a few extras like a small pool. The English owner was a very helpful island of English in an unrelenting sea of Portuguese. She corresponded with me at length before my stay to book my tours through their partner agency (as far as I can tell at the cheapest price possible.) And in person, she was happy to give restaurant recommendations, directions to the supermarket, and some bread and cheese for my breakfast the night before my 6 AM pick up. The hostel is fairly empty–seemed like 3-8 other guests per night–in the offseason, so don’t worry about a party hostel wrecking your sleep.

Food

I went to the #1 ranked restaurant on Tripadvisor, Zapi Zen, for dinner one night, mainly because our translator on the Abismo Anhumas tour was the son of the owner. It mostly has individual-sized pizzas for about $7. I ordered the Abismo Anhumas, which was eggplant and garlic.

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The pizza was quite good, certainly far better than the string of all-you-can-eat buffets that line the main street. Brazilians love all-you-can-eat places that charge $10, leave the food out all day, and use only the cheapest cuts of meat. I don’t.

The best of that bunch is Casarao on weekends when it has enough people to actually refresh its dishes frequently. The buffet plus a water was 43 reais ($12).

At the Palacio do Sorvete, you can get sorvete assado (grilled ice cream.) Why not, I thought?
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I’m really not sure what was happening. “Grilling” didn’t cause the ice cream to melt, and it wasn’t very special for 22 reais ($6.)

Bottom Line

Overall Bonito has the coolest caves I’ve ever seen and the best river snorkeling I’ve ever done, however the tours are run in an overly slow and expensive way.

You can do the area easily in three days, or two if you have your own car.


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