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May,04 2010

'Bonito' means beautiful!

'Bonito' means beautiful!

The Pantanal is framed by mountains, and just on the other side is the town of Bonito (pop: 15,000), now the de facto centre for eco-tourism in Brazil.

The town of Bonito serves-up ATV tours, caving, rafting, wildlife viewing, river diving and waterfalls attract everyone from Israeli backpackers to Argentine high rollers. The main street is lined with souvenir shops, restaurants serving caiman and capybara, tour operators, bars, and some pretty funky public telephones. My first adventure here involved a training session, whereby guides assess whether their prospective clients have the physical strength and the moxy to complete the task. Because it's one thing rappelling 75m into a dark cave pool. It's another climbing up the same rope to get out.

The Abismo Anhumas was only discovered in the 1980's, mapped and excavated and opened to tourists in the 1990's. From a small crack in the ground, my guide and I lowered ourselves onto a wooden platform, looking out into nothingness. Beneath us was an 80m deep pool, lifeless save for tiny fish swimming around huge underwater stalactites. Here is a cave with all the amazing formations, but the fact that you can scuba and snorkel in this alien world is simply incredible. I wish photos could do it justice but I gave up trying to take good pictures in caves a long time ago. Never mind underwater ones. After a few hours hanging about the Bat Cave, and after waiting our turn (it takes over a half hour to climb out), my guide and I strapped up again and began the long climb out. The billet mechanism required us to slide a hook up, and then kick with our legs. After a dozen pushes, we were exhausted, sweating, and getting high enough to realize that a fall would be very ugly. Half way up, muscles screaming, sweat dripping, the sun beaming in from the crevice above, while the rope dangles below like spaghetti hanging out the mouth of a baby. I've been stuck in these situations before, but have learned that no matter how bad things get, you will always get out, and you will always have a great story to tell later on.

There's one more adventure I highly recommend here, the Rio de Prata. Anyone who finds themselves within 100 miles of this place just has to experience it. A stream, as clear as glass, filtered by the earth, clean enough to drink. Donning wetsuits and a snorkel, you climb inside, raise your legs, and flow gently with the current amidst thousands of incredible freshwater fish. Some of them, like the Golden Dorado, are as big as sharks, just as scary, and just as harmless. Others are just large and curious. Amazing underwater flora adds to the ambiance. I felt like a floating pixel in an underwater screensaver. Some of the low underwater rocks are sharp and could snare you, but this Brazil, where one of the best river adventures I've ever seen is open to the public, at the risk that groups can look after themselves, and respect the environment. Kicking is not allowed (and unnecessary), guides are friendly and well trained, and groups are limited in size so that traffic remains at a minimum. After three hours, you join up with the main river, where visibility deteriorates considerably, and a truck is waiting to return you back to base (which also serves up an excellent buffet). Rio da Prata is located on a cattle farm that now receives 80% of its income from tourism. Blessed with this incredible natural resource, it took some brains and balls to develop it into a must-do tourist attraction, but it also shows farmers that eco-tourism can be just as attractive as agriculture. Especially in a country diverse as Brazil.



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