The small town of Bonito is tucked away in the corner of the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, a decidedly landlocked location. Surprisingly, however, some of the Brazil’s most fascinating underwater activities are a stone’s throw from this eco-minded community.

Bonito makes for an ideal stop either before or after an epic wildlife-watching trip to the Pantanal, so spend a couple days finding aquatic adventure in the savanna’s hidden oases.

Two snorkelers float away from the camera in crystal clear water, with a large silver, red-tailed fish in the foreground
Explore the aquatic wonderlands located around the ecofriendly city of Bonito © Luiz Felipe Sahd / Getty Images

Chase the waterfalls of Boca da Onça

Diving into emerald swimming pools at the base of giant waterfalls is the stuff of office daydreams and fragrance commercials, but it’s a reality at Boca da Onça. Think of this place as a nature-oriented day club that balances ecological exploration with relaxation. Located on a private farm, this outfit takes visitors on a scenic hike through the dewy forest along the Salobra River where they can feel the spray of eight unique waterfalls and take refreshing dips at four designated swimming holes. These aren’t trickles of water, either – the big kahuna, the Boca da Onça (Jaguar’s Mouth) waterfall is a staggering 156 meters (511 feet). When you’re not swimming, take your time on the trails, which are rich with organic treasures. Keep an eye out for the striking bacuri tree with its giant prickly seed pods, the jaracatia tree used to make sweets (tastes like coconut!), and a host of enchanting fauna including bristly neon caterpillars, springy stick bugs and task-oriented leaf cutter ants.

When you’ve worked up an appetite, head back to the lodge for some tasty Brazilian fare and take a more relaxed swim in a landscaped pool that overlooks green hills of the nearby canyon. For those thrill seekers – skip the pool and head to the rappelling platform next to the Boca da Onça waterfall, which clocks in at a whopping 90 meters tall.

A woman with orange hair stands in front of a tall waterfall with her arms outstretched
Revel in the spray of the Boca da Onça waterfall © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

Snorkel the springs of Mato Grosso do Sul

Snorkeling ain't just for the ocean, folks. Mato Grosso do Sul is home to a host of freshwater springs whose impossible clarity create some of the loveliest snorkeling experiences in Latin America. Bonito is well positioned for visiting these subaqueous stunners, with two spring-fed rivers within an hour’s drive.

Rio Sucuri leisurely winds through verdant farmland, a natural lazy river that carries visitors through a watery wonderland; drift over gardens of gorgeous vegetation (you’ll see dayglow green, deep purple, and warm maroon variations), long riverbed grasses, and snail shells the size of your fist. The water itself is completely clear, which makes for easy fish spotting, including the red-tailed piraputanga, the smoky-colored pacu, and the hundreds of tiny fish flickering among the tree roots lining the shore.

Rio da Prata is another option close to Bonito for those looking for a spring water dip. While the water might not be quite as clear as that of the Sucuri, visitors will be rewarded with plenty of up-close interaction with a large variety of finned inhabitants including the sizable dorado.

A flat-bottomed canoe floats on a clear, blue river lined with savanna trees
Float along the Rio Sucuri, a crystal-clear waterway fed by natural springs © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

Rappel into the Anhumas Abyss

Without a doubt, a trip to the Anhumas Abyss will test your stomach for heights, but the payoff is immense. Visitors rappel 72 meters (236 feet) down to a floating platform perched on a royal blue lagoon, where the adventure really begins.

Hop in the inflatable boat for a guided tour of the 14 million year old cave, where you’ll get an up-close view of the massive stalactites hanging from the ceilings and dripping down the walls like melted wax. Peruse the curtains of limestone before donning a wetsuit for the big ticket item: snorkeling in the lagoon. Sun rays pierce the crystal water like tangible rods of light and small, almost-blind cave fish bumble around near the water's surface. Then you notice them – massive underwater stalagmites peppering the cave floor, the highest of which measuring 19.2 meters tall (64 feet). A guide then takes visitors on a snorkel circuit to point out some of the lagoon’s most impressive underwater features.

Wrap up your visit with one more challenge: climbing back up the rope from whence you came. Don’t worry though – the rigging professionals at the abyss can pull you back up if the climb proves too much of a challenge.

A shot from the floor of a tall cave looking up at its opening with two climbers hanging from ropes near the top
Test your grit by rappelling into the Anhumas Abyss © Bailey Freeman / Lonely Planet

Honorable mentions

These activities aren’t necessarily aquatic in the sense you get to swim, but both involve water in some regard and are nice stops if you’re passing through the area.

Gruta do Lago Azul

Cave nerds will appreciate this natural landmark’s impressive size and the seemingly radioactive blue lake at its base. This lake is deceivingly deep, estimated at 87 meters, and harbors several unique fossils including those of a saber-toothed tiger and a giant sloth.

Buraco das Araras

With its 100-meter-tall iron red cliffs and mossy pond at its bottom, this sinkhole (one of the world’s largest) is dressed to impress. This geological feature is roughly 300,000 years old (though its formation process started an estimated 10 million years ago), and is a veritable cornucopia of bird life. It’s home to an astonishing number of scarlet macaws that slice across the chasm with exciting frequency, as well as vocal ibises, top-heavy toucans, and hungry hawks waiting to snag their next meal. Mysterious caimans reside in the sinkhole's waters, though scientists aren't exactly sure how they got there and what they eat to survive.

Three scarlet macaws fly against a background of red-toned stone
Scarlet macaws fly across the mouth of the sinkhole at Buraco sad Araras © Westend61 / Getty Images

Exploring Bonito 

Bonito itself is a small, exceptionally green town about three and a half hours from Campo Grande by car. The place knows its strengths – a walk past the central square reveals a large fountain with resident piraputangas as its centerpiece, and the main drag is atmospherically decorated to evoke the essence of the surrounding savanna and nearby Pantanal.

The food and drink scene is humble, but it has a few stand-outs. Head to homey Juanita’s to try the signature fish, the succulent pacu, or Casa do João for a bowl of moqueca, a savory fish stew. If you’re looking to sample some local suds, pop into Bonito Beer, a small outfit on the main drag that serves up craft beer and enjoy a pint on their sidewalk patio.

A close photo of two large fish statues in a fountain at night
Piraputangas are the centerpiece of the fountain in Bonito's Liberty Square © Thiago Santos / Getty Images

Bonito came onto the ecotourism scene in the 1990s and has embraced a policy of sustainability. Excursions to natural features are highly regulated (the Abyss, for example, only allows 20 visitors a day), so booking ahead is a must, especially if you plan to visit during high season.

Bailey Freeman traveled to Brazil with support from ATTA and H20 Ecoturismo. Lonely Planet contributors do not accept freebies in exchange for positive coverage.

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