Nestling in the Bodoquena hills, over three hours by bus from Anastácio and Miranda, and four from Campo Grande and Dourados, BONITO is a small, somewhat sleepy sprawl of a town, which comes to life during the main holiday seasons when it’s invaded by hordes of young people from southern Brazilian cities. The dirt tracks that make up most of the region’s roads conceal the fact that ever since Bonito starred as an “undiscovered” ecological paradise on TV Globo in 1993, it has become one of Brazil’s major ecotourist destinations, with caves, rivers and nature reserves. Needless to say, visitors have been swarming to the town ever since (especially over Christmas and Easter, and in July and Aug), although the mood, out of season, is surprisingly relaxed and not at all pushy. Situated as the town is at the southern edge of the Pantanal, a visit to Bonito can happily be combined with a trip exploring the swamp; indeed, between the two locations it’s possible to see a fantastic range of wildlife and several ecological centres. Culturally Bonito doesn’t offer loads, but in July the Festival de Inverno showcases street theatre, art and music.
The Aquário Natural complex is justifiably Bonito’s next most popular attraction. Located at the river’s source, 7km from town, the Aquário itself is a small sanctuary with water so clear and full of fish that the experience is like looking into an aquarium – something you can take advantage of by a ride in one of the glass-bottomed boats. In fact, visitors are encouraged to put on a floating jacket, mask and snorkel, and get into the water with the 35 or so species of fish, mainly dourado and 35cm piripitanga fishes – a tickling experience with no danger from piranhas who never swim this far upriver. The sanctuary is accessible by a path from the reception through a swamp and mata nature reserve, the Parque Ecológico Bahia Bonita, replete with wildlife, including white-collared peccaries, agouti and the majestic caramugeiro snail hawk. From the Aquário, the Bahia Bonita, a kilometre-long stretch of river, runs down to meet the Rio Formoso, where there’s a death-slide (a pulley and rope system for exciting splashdowns into the river), and trampoline-based river fun.
The Aquário Natural is only one of several snorkelling locations in the area, though it has by far the most developed infrastructure. If you’re on a tight budget, the nearby Pousada Bacuri (R$7 admission), 500m from the Aquário Natural, has a stretch of river all of its own, with dourado fish, four small waterfalls and a small forest. Tour companies also offer snorkelling trips to the Rio Sucuri (R$70 half day), and the Rio da Prata (R$140 full day). One of the best local scuba sites is the Gruta do Mimosa (R$250 full day); a trip here requires both a guide and permit, best obtained through either the Pousada Olho d’Agua travel agency or Ygarapé Tours.