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Driving deep into Brazil’s centre-west, we climbed above the sticky floodplain of the Pantanal and into lusher, greener rolling hills towards a town called Bonito (‘pretty’ in Portuguese).
Three hours from Miranda, Bonito was still hot, but less oppressive, and the mosquito count was definitely down.
The town has a charm to it, with a central plaza and a neat row of shops, cafes and restaurants, many of which cater to the mainly domestic travelers, though are much quieter outside of Brazilian school holiday times.
However, Bonito’s real attractions lie in various spots a short drive from the town, a region which has become a leader in its field and in 2013 won Best Destination for Responsible Tourism at the World Responsible Tourism Awards, yet is still little known outside of Brazil.
The place is a mecca for nature-lovers seeking a hint of adventure, with at least 30 family friendly mini-adventures including river-snorkelling, wild swimming among waterfalls, scuba-diving, cave exploring and simply bathing by the excellent public pool.
Our first stop was the Blue Lake Grotto, a cathedral-like cavern with steep stone steps down to its silent still waters which, for an hour every morning, are transformed into a brilliant blue by rays of sunshine that break through the narrow chink of light from above.
Our guide Karla asked our small group to be very quiet during our time in the cave, but she needn’t have - everyone’s chatter dropped to a revered whisper as we approached the majesty of the cave.
Later we reached what was to be the highlight of our entire trip, or perhaps any trip. An hour out of town is the Recanto Ecologico Rio da Prata, part of a network of working ranches. The place is fully booked for most of the year, but strictly limited numbers and cleverly staggered time slots mean it is never crowded. We arrived and joined a group (never more than nine) and given a time slot for our journey to the river. It was a while off so we had time to enjoy a delicious buffet lunch, with many of the ingredients sourced from the Recanto’s own kitchen garden.
It would be foolish to enter the waters on a full stomach, and sure enough we had time to doze off our meal in the shady hammocks - as children played and hummingbirds fluttered around the several feeders and dripping ponds nearby.
We were then given our wetsuits and boarded our little truck to take us part way across the ranch on an adventure that was to last around three hours. We had to walk the rest of the way, around 30 minutes through a twisting forest path that was thankfully shady - no sunscreen or mosquito repellent is allowed to avoid polluting the waters. Once at the river, we zipped up our wetsuits and gradually entered the surprisingly cool waters at a calm spot known as the ‘training pond’, the only place you’re allowed to touch the bottom. Bibi had never snorkelled before and is not a confident swimmer but some gentle encouragement and supervision from the friendly-but-firm guides meant that both her and a trembling eight-year-old boy did not miss out on one of the experiences of a lifetime.
It was probably best that both of them missed out on what many of the rest of us spotted on our little training lap - a baby caiman (cousin of the alligator) staring at us from the banks. An incredible sight but not the most comforting with just our snorkels to protect us. But as our guides pointed out, the river teaming with fish kept these relatively timid caiman full enough to never consider going near humans. We were instructed to paddle gently and not kick so as not to disturb the crystal clear waters or risk touching the jagged rocks along the bottom of the river.
The limestone formations of the region ensure that minerals filter away dirt and impurities that muddy most rivers. It meant we had underwater visibility of at least 20 metres, and that this river is one of the best snorkelling spots in the world. We set off downriver in a loose single file, calmly floating among hundreds of fish - from tiny little ones that would nibble at my knees to huge schools of golden dorados or darker pacu darting barely inches from our masks. For our dream-like 2km float downstream we were a part of their silent world, it was one of the most peaceful experiences we’ve ever had - discovering a huge one snoozing behind a fallen branch or following a pair chasing each other towards the banks.
It wasn’t all calm though - things got a bit speedy among a section of rapids which at one point got too strong to navigate safely so required us to get out and walk. There was also a bubbling underwater spring about halfway down that a few of us attempted to dive down and touch - an ear-popping challenge as the bubbles force you upwards.
Eventually the river widened out, the fish got fewer in number and the waters a little cooler. Our hypnotic adventure was coming to an end but it had been truly magical.Click here to view our video of our snorkling adventure at Recanto Ecologico Rio da Prata.