Bonito, Brazil’s premier ecotourism destination, feels like a village on the cusp of a boom. Most Brazilians know of it, but few seem privy to its existence outside of the country. I first learned of this place in 2019 while gathering travel ideas for my initial trip to South America. “To see Bonito is my dream,” said an Instagram friend. It was a statement so simple and so profound, I have never forgotten about it.
Translated from Portuguese as “beautiful,” Bonito lies far off the foreign visitor’s grid of Brazil, in the midwestern state of Mato Grosso do Sul, or “southern thick bush.” From here, Bolivia and Paraguay are closer than Rio and São Paulo. To the west is the Paraguay River, and to the north is the world’s largest tropical wetland and Mato Grosso do Sul’s main tourist draw—the Pantanal.
Bonito’s beauty lies not in its town—a chalky-colored grid laid around one main street decorated with restaurants, souvenir shops, and tourism agencies—but in the nature and wildlife of its periphery. The region’s abundance of azure grottos, glistening rivers, and tangerine-flecked piraputanga that leap from the waters to snatch low-hanging figs create a lush, open-air observatory. All this natural beauty is well protected: to ward off overtourism, local governmental and environmental councils haven taken steps to limit the number of daily visitors to the area’s many attractions, resulting in a meticulously organized and unusually bureaucratic ecotourism machine. Contrary to Brazilian anima, Bonito is not a place for spontaneity.
The tours and travel agencies of Bonito
The independent traveler who loves to explore off the beaten path won’t uncover any new trails in Bonito. While adventures are aplenty, they are always supervised. In fact, it is not possible to explore the area’s attractions alone: Bonito’s natural wonders are all several kilometers out of the town center, situated on privately owned land which often take the name of a recanto (“reserve”), estância (“ranch”), or refúgio (“retreat”). Admission cannot be purchased directly at any onsite reception. Instead, they can only be arranged in town at one of many certified travel agencies.
There are more than 35 tour agencies in Bonito. Between them, they offer approximately 50 different guided activities which include admission to the family-owned properties where the excursions take place. Activities such as river tubing, horseback riding, birdwatching, and what Bonito is best known for—flutuação—a float downriver in a snorkel, life vest, and neoprene wetsuit—last anywhere from two hours to two days. The prices of the excursions are the same at all agencies, so the distinguishing factor between them mostly comes down to availability, seasonal promotions, and—for non-Lusophones—convenience. For example, the agency Bonitour has descriptions of all their activities in English.
The voucher system and planning ahead
To prevent overcrowding at any given site, the guided tours and activities are usually capped to a maximum of nine people. Each group departs 30 minutes after the previous one, and the majority of tours start from 8 a.m. with the final departure leaving at around 3 p.m. For every booked tour, the agency issues an itinerary with a suggested time of departure from Bonito as well as a voucher with the actual starting time of the activity. These vouchers are collected upon arrival at the site where the tour begins.
Due to the voucher system, it’s advisable to plan ahead. Some of the more popular tours like a day-trip to the Pantanal, a descent into the Abismo Anhumas, or snorkeling along the Rio da Prata and Sucuri River can sell out weeks ahead of time, so it’s better to make your reservation sooner rather than later. I reserved all my tours approximately about a week before arriving in Bonito in mid-April.
How to book a tour in Bonito
I booked most of my trips through ABN Agência Brazil Nature as their website shows how many vouchers are still available during which times of the day. Some of the more unique activities, like an underwater dive in the Abismo Anhumas, need to be booked through the official website.
In Brazil, WhatsApp is the most common method of getting in touch with businesses, and Bonito’s agencies are very active via WhatsApp when it comes to questions and reservations. Most businesses respond to your initial inquiry within 15 minutes during their hours of operation, and with the help of Google Translate, coordinating with an agency via WhatsApp is easy. When booking a tour, you’ll find that some agencies accept payment by credit card directly on their website. Others may send you a secured link to pay through WhatsApp if you reach out to them that way.
Even if you’ve booked all your tours online, you’ll still need to visit the agency in person upon arriving in Bonito to physically pick up your itinerary and printed vouchers. If you reserve a dive, you’ll also need to check into town the day before to try on your wetsuit. For this reason, it’s not recommended to book a tour on the same day as your arrival in Bonito.
Excursions and activities on offer in Bonito
The majority of bookable activities available in Bonito are water-based. Flutuação, literally “flotation,” is the most popular type of excursion. There are many different locations where one can float, each with its own highlights. The Rio Sucuri, or Sucuri River, is the clearest of them all and features emerald underwater gardens which infuse the crystalline river with millions of small, pearl-like oxygen bubbles. My most recommended flutuação is along the Rio da Prata, or River of Silver. At roughly four hours long with more two hours in the water, not only is it the longest snorkeling tour, you’ll also drift past the most impressive shoals of fish and get the opportunity to touch “O Vulcão,” a large ebullient underwater spring which pumps an endless supply of fresh groundwater up through the sand.
For those who want to plunge deeper, Bonito also offers diving in various river, lake, and cave sites. The nonpareil dive site is in the Abismo Anhumas, or Anhumas Abyss, home to an underground lake which can become 80 meters (262 feet) deep during the rainy season. The dive only begins after a harrowing 70-meter (230-foot) descent through a narrow crack in the earth down into the abyss—a large cavern complex covered with rock formations. Here, daylight is sparse, and under the water, it illuminates everything in an eerie, lunar glow. From the depths of the lake, larger-than-life limestone stalagmites formed by ceiling drippings over hundreds of thousands of years loom towards the water’s surface.
Other excursions in Bonito include macaw-spotting at the Buraco das Araras, river tubing (bóia-cross), zip lining (tirolesa), horseback riding (cavalgada), and waterfall hikes which include many swimming options. If you have one or two full days to spare, you can even consider a visit to Brazil’s incredible wetlands—the Pantanal—home to an unparalleled amount of wildlife such as the elusive jaguar and the nonchalant capybara. (I definitely would have done this if I had an extra day to spend.)
Getting to and around Bonito
While Bonito does have its own airport with a direct connection to São Paulo’s Viracopos Airport, the round-trip ticket with Azul Airlines doesn’t come cheap. I purchased my flight tickets one week before my trip and shelled out US $800. If you do decide to take the direct flight, keep in mind that Viracopos Airport is technically located in Campinas, which is one hour by Uber (BRL 239 or US $50) or one and a half hours by bus (BRL 28 or US $6) from São Paulo city. Azul also offers free shuttles for passengers from several points in São Paulo, but they only depart a few times per day.
The flight from Campinas to Bonito lasts three hours 40 minutes and crosses from Brasilia standard time into Amazon time. It includes a quick half-hour stopover in Corumbá, a small town at the gateway of the Pantanal. You may be asked to get off the plane and wait in the arrival hall with the other incoming passengers while the crew disinfects the aircraft. Once everyone is back on the plane, it’s another 35 minutes from Corumbá to Bonito. (The return flight from Bonito to Campinas is direct, however, and only lasts one hour 45 minutes.) If you have more time on your hands, other options include flying into Campo Grande, the capital of Mato Grosso do Sul, and then taking the bus. I even met a French couple that rode to Bonito all the way from Iguaçu Falls.
Bonito itself is small enough to walk. It takes approximately half an hour to traverse the length of the town, and the streets are safe. When it comes to shopping or dining, you can pay for everything by card. For getting to the departure points of my tours, I relied on taxis and transporte compartilhado, or shared buses. They can usually be booked directly from the agency website when you book a tour, and they are a decent way to get around the area. The pickup and drop-off point will be at your hotel reception. The only thing to note is that the return trip will not necessarily be when you finish a trip, but it may be a few hours later; this depends on the tour times of the other passengers. Therefore, if you would like to do two tours per day and want to use shared transport, you should aim to start your first tour as early in the day as possible to be able to catch the midday bus back if there is one. The agencies can clarify the itinerary and bus times for each tour and help you plan your stay in Bonito.
Sample Bonito itinerary
Although one activity per day is enough, if you’re ambitious, you can squeeze several tours in one day. However, making the most of Bonito requires careful planning. Below is a five-day itinerary I would propose with all the tips and information I have gathered during my visit. The highlight activity is always the first event of the day. Keep in mind that in April, daylight lasts from 6:00 in the morning until 5:30 in the evening.
Day 1: Arrival in Bonito · Balneário Municipal
Don’t plan too much. Pick up your vouchers from the agency in town, try on your wetsuit at the rental shop if you plan to dive, quench your thirst with a refreshing limonada suíça, or limeade with condensed milk, and fill up on slow-cooked beef ribs at Juanita or fried wolf fish at Casa do João. If you’re absolutely set on going into the water, you can purchase an entrance to the Balneário Municipal—town baths—located 8 kilometers (5 miles) outside of downtown Bonito.
Shared bus from Bonito Airport to Bonito: BRL 50/US $10
Balneário Municipal: BRL 55/US $10
Day 2: Rio da Prata · Lagoa Misteriosa or Buraco das Araras
If you choose shared transportation, the flutuação in the Rio da Prata will almost certainly become a full-day trip. The tour includes a delicious homemade lunch buffet at the Recanto Ecológico Rio da Prata, where you can also taste their award-winning doce de leite, or caramelized milk, made from the region’s typical humped zebu cattle. If you have your own transportation, you can squeeze in an additional tour in the afternoon such as a flutuação or a dive in the Lagoa Misteriosa or a visit to the birdwatching paradise of Buraco das Araras. All three tours are located within close proximity of one another, but remember: you cannot simply show up to a tour spontaneously.
Rio da Prata (w/ lunch): BRL 300/US $60 with shared transportation BRL 90/US $18
Lagoa Misteriosa: BRL 190/US $38 for snorkeling; BRL 440/US $87 for diving
Buraco das Araras: BRL 92/US $19
Day 3: Abismo Anhumas or Gruta do Mimoso · Aquário Natural
A dive into the otherworldly Abismo Anhumas will take half a day and you’ll need to organize your own transportation. For this tour, I booked a taxi through the agency BonitoWay located in my hostel. The round trip costed 250 Brazilian reis (approximately US $50), although if you approached a taxi driver directly, you may find prices around 160 Brazilian reis (US $32) or so. The Abismo Anhumas is not the only cave with impressive underwater limestone stalagmites: you will also find them in the Gruta do Mimoso, although the grotto is located further away from Bonito. In the afternoon, you can book a flutuação at the Aquário Natural, which combines snorkeling with a small zip line adventure and a walk through the Baía Bonita Ecological Reserve.
Private transportation to Abismo Anhumas and back: BRL 250/US $50
Abismo Anhumas: BRL 1,690/US $333 for rappelling, boat tour, and dive
Gruta do Mimoso: BRL 400-690/US $79-136 for diving (depending on your diving experience)
Aquário Natural: BRL 230/US $45 with shared transportation BRL 65/US $13
Day 4: A visit to the Pantanal
Even though Bonito is still a few hours’ drive from the Pantanal, the distance becomes relative considering Brazil’s vastness. A day trip to the Fazenda San Francisco by the town of Miranda is a tour I would have loved to book had it not been all sold out by the time I found out about it.
Day trip to the Pantanal (w/ lunch): BRL 250/US $50 with shared transportation BRL 130/US $26
Day 5: Visit to the Pantanal (day 2) or Estância Mimosa or Boca da Onça
ABN also offers a two-day visit to the Pantanal, which of course is more comprehensive than just a day trip, most of which will be time spent on the road. However, a waterfall hike such as the Estância Mimosa trail or the Boca da Onça trail is a good alternative to wrap up your visit to Bonito if you want to squeeze in a final few splashes.
Two-day trip to the Pantanal (w/ dinner and lunch): BRL 810/US $160
Estância Mimosa (w/lunch): BRL 205/US $40 with shared transportation BRL 65/US $13
Boca da Onça (w/lunch): BRL 350/US $69 with shared transportation BRL 80/US $16
If you’re pressed for time and would like an even shorter itinerary, you can drop the events outlined in Day 5 and leave a day earlier. Personally, my favorite tours were the flutuações in the Rio da Prata and the descent into the Abismo Anhumas, so I would recommend not skipping those.