Getting from Sucre to Bonito in Brazil was an adventure itself. We started out with a flight to Santa Cruz, opting out of the long bus ride that we'd heard horror stories about. Then, we took a bus to the center of Santa Cruz, followed by a taxi to the combined bus/train station on the east side of the city. After waiting a few hours, we took one of the nicest overnight buses we rode on in South America to Puerto Quijarro, the city that lies on the border with Brazil. We crossed the border that morning and caught a ride into the town of Corumbá, a wild-west feeling town and our first truly hot temperatures of our trip: 37°C/99°F. Only one bus makes the trip to Bonito each day, so we checked into a hotel and whiled our day away. The next morning, we jumped on the six hour bus to Bonito.
Most travelers we meet have never heard of Bonito, so don't be surprised if you haven't either. Located in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, the city is closer to Bolivia and Paraguay than São Paulo or Rio. That doesn't stop it from being one of the premier domestic tourist destinations for Brazilians. When we were there in the third week of October, one of the workers at our guesthouse said that all the activities in the area were completely booked out from the months of December and January. What makes this place so special?
- Crystal clear rivers that you float-snorkel down for one or two hours, letting the current pull you downstream as you soak in the aquatic world around you.
- Deep caves, often with pools at the bottom that you can walk or rappel down to
- Lakes/pools that you can dive in
- Public and private river-pools where you can go for a dip
- Guesthouses that provide unbelievable breakfasts
This last one may not be true of all of them, but it definitely was for ours. Going on the advice of fellow travelers (thanks Heidi and Cyril!), we booked our stay at Catarino's Guesthouse. For R$60 per night, we got a double room, A/C, a shared bathroom with great pressure, and the following for breakfast: 4-5 types of freshly-baked cake, 2-3 types of fresh-squeezed juice, 2-3 flavors of yogurt, 5-7 types of bread, 5-7 types of fresh fruit, plus meat/cheeses for toasted sandwiches, pizza bites, and cheesy balls (Pāo de Queijo). Every. Single. Morning. The cell phone photo below shows maybe half of what was provided.
What makes Bonito not as great, and why its probably not as well known to the budget-minded crowd, is that all tours and transportation comes at a fixed price. No matter who you book it through, everyone pays the same high price. How high?
- Gruta do Lago Azul, a vibrant blue lake at the bottom of a cave: $32.24 for 2 people entrance. Transport was $31.34
- Barra do Sucuri, one of the options for floating down a clear river: $70.75 for 2, transport was $31.34, underwater camera was $20.15 for the day
- Balneario Municipal, part of Rio Formoso with a swimming area open to the public with no reservations needed: $26.88 for two, including entrance and bike rentals to get there.
- Prices as of October, 2013
Life isn't cheap in this city. Barra do Sucuri was the lowest-priced option to float down a clear river that we were told of. The Gruta tour lasted a grand total of 3 hours, including 25 minutes each way in a car. We spent the most time at the Balneario as we were free to stay as long as we pleased. The question then is this: was all the money worth it?
YES! We absolutely think so. Despite a stormy morning and nearly canceling our tour, floating down the river in our suits and jackets was magical and incredibly relaxing, showing a side of underwater river life you often can't see otherwise. The lake in the cave threw off an amazing blue color, and we were there at least an hour after the best time of day. We definitely had some amazing breakfasts that everyday would tide us over until dinner.
But we also benefited from having Bonito being "on the way" from Bolivia to Rio. For travelers on a budget, Bonito is "hard" to get to. It took us about 30 hours on a bus to get from Bonito to Rio via Campo Grande. You can easily fly into Campo Grande and then bus to Bonito, or fly direct from São Paulo at certain times of the year, but there's no denying that it's not on the more common, coastal path that many take in Brazil.
If you have time and (a good bit of) money to spend, try and make your way to this corner of Brazil. You won't regret it.