Evening in the town's central plaza: lighted fish sculptures and fountains, Bonito, Brazil (photo by Luis Bastardo)
The appropriately named Bonito, meaning beautiful, is a small town in the southeast of Brazil used by most travelers as a jumping off point to the Pantanal, Brazil's sprawling and swampy wildlife reserve. The town itself, though, is full of interesting things to do, including many excursions such as floating/snorkeling down the crystal clear rivers of the Rio da Prata (Silver River) swimming alongside the colorful and sometimes sinister-looking river fish, hiking through the densely forested trails and hills, exploring ancient caves filled with stalagmites and stalactites, swimming under hidden waterfalls, horseback riding, bird-watching, rappelling down through cave openings to turquoise waters below and, for the more adventurous, sampling alligator and piranha at the town's many restaurants.
Thirsty butterflies refreshing themselves on the Rio da Prata (photo by Luis Bastardo)
Although we were eager to head out to the Pantanal, we decided to linger a few days in Bonito, which seemed especially appealing after our long bus trip, made longer by the many stops the driver needed to make to repair or replace tires. We arrived out of season, so the streets were fairly empty and, at this time of year, the town atmosphere is laid back and quiet. The people who live there, many of whom have relocated from other more chaotic areas of Brazil, are equally laid back. Whenever we asked someone why they had uprooted their life and family and moved to Bonito, they would give essentially the same answer: quality of life. After a few days there, we understood. The town is clean and relatively quiet and safe, small enough where most people know each other (although it is understandably overrun by tourists during high season), convenient to many beautiful, natural places to hike or picnic, yet filled with modern conveniences.
Our River da Prata companions (courtesy of http://www.bonitoweb.com.br/)
We booked a daytrip to the Rio da Prata the next day through the Hostelling International hostel in Bonito who in turn reserved it through the Rio da Prata Recanto Ecologico and it turned out to be one of the most amazing trips either of us had ever taken. The water is incredibly clear due to the natural filters in the river and is filled with beautifully colored or jet-black fish. We were all given wetsuits that, at first, I thought were unnecessary, but after floating and paddling along in the cool water for four hours, seemed like a stroke of genius in hindsight. The river current can be quite strong in plces, so little effort is needed to swim. The fish swam alongside us as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It seemed completely normal to them that they should be sharing their river with us and were not in the least bothered by our presence. They seemed to regard us as just another form of rubber-suited, snorkel-masked sea-life.
Floating down the crytalline waters of Rio da Prata (courtesy of http://www.bonitoweb.com.br/)
It was like swimming in a giant aquarium, filled with dorado, pintado, piraputanga, caiman and aquatic plants, while above, butterflies and songbirds flew over our heads and dipped into the water. As I watched what I first thought was bits of silver paper shimmering on the bottom of the river, but which turned out to be hundreds of tiny feeding silver fish glistening in the sun, I couldn't imagine anywhere on earth I would rather have been at that moment.