Today we did two tours in Bonito: Rio da Prata and Buraco das Araras.

We awoke at 6am, ate the included breakfast at Papaya Hostel (R$200 for private double with private bath for two nights on from 7am to 9am (fruits, breads, meat, cheese, cake, fruit juice, coffee, tea, milk) and then were picked up by taxi at 7:15am. Sam, a future lawyer from London, joined us in the taxi for the day. The previous night the hostel had told us that although they had tried to find someone to split our taxi, they had been unsuccessful. So we were surprised but happy to find Sam joining us in the taxi – initially just to help split the cost, but also as company and a partial translator! We drove about one hour to Rio da Prata, which was an a ranch a bit outside Bonito. The road was largely unpaved dirt and many parts were under construction, so the going was slow at points.

We had booked the four-hour Rio da Prata snorkeling trip through our hostel for R$132 per person. Apparently tours in Bonito are regulated, so the price will be the same wherever you book. Our hostel booked us on the first tour of the day at 8:30am. Our driver gave the reception desk our vouchers for the tour, and we were introduced to our guide. Katie was immediately impressed by how the ranch recycles seemingly as much as possible – even including toilet paper and paper towels. Soon we met the other six people that would be joining us (JT, Katie, and Sam) on the tour. All of the other six were Brazilians that did not seem to speak English. Our guide would speak a lot in Portuguese, and then a little in English. Although we did not seem to miss anything important, we do wish that he completely filled us in on what he was saying. After our guide gave an overview of the tour, we obtained neoprene boots, wetsuits, and marks/snorkels (we brought our own). JT’s wetsuit was a size too small and his boots were a size too big – even after asking for a larger size suit and smaller shoes. Note that the boot sizing seems to be American scale, but it is not quite: JT wears a US12.5 shoe and the size 11 boots were a bit too big. Katie’s wetsuit had a lot of tears (seemingly from rocks), and her left boot had a hole that was uncomfortable when walking. Although tempting, we opted not to rent a waterproof GoPro camera for the tour (R$75). The rental price includes the 8 GB memory card that you get to take with you.

After changing, we put our dry clothing bags (plastic bags were provided, but we used our dry sacks) in a large bag for transport, took our backpacks to the taxi, and then loaded into an open air truck to travel to our starting point. Once at the starting point we walked two kilometers through the forest. This walk was nice, but it would have been better if it was slower and if our group had been quieter (they ignored the “silêncio” signs and instruction by the guide). Some people – including JT – were also rather uncomfortable walking in the wetsuits. Also, due to the no bug spray policy (to help keep the water pristine), many of the group were bothered by mosquitoes and gnats along the way.
After we walked on the 2km trail we reached the entrance to the Prata River. We got in and were able to stand in the testing area to learn or remember how to snorkel. Two of the Brazilian young women apparently had trouble, as they opted to wear life jackets for the tour. Then we did a practice run around a cove near what appeared to be the head of the Prata river. We were instructed to float flat on the water, keeping our feet off the ground, only using our arms to move, and following 2-5 meters behind the person ahead of us in a single file line. After going in a loop in the practice area, people readjusted back in the testing area and then the 9 of us plus the guide began our trip down stream.

We floated for about 20 minutes on the first stretch. We saw so many fish, many larger than you would expect and some with sharp looking teeth. The guide – typically at the front of the line – stayed behind in one place to point out the tail of a alligator off about 15 feet off to the side. It seems that the alligator was half-in half-out of the water sunning itself, and it completely stayed still while we passed. The water was extremely clear, which made it easy to see really far. However most of the Brazilians in our group did not understand/care that every time they stood or kicked the bottom it decreased the visibility for everyone behind them. Eventually we reached a rope marking the beginning of rapids and exited the river for a short 5 minute walk on a trail around the rapids.

We tried to get closer to the front of our group for the second stretch of river. We were still behind one particularly bad Brazilian couple for much of this stretch, until the girl floated into branches and lost her snorkel and we were able to pass while they flailed about. In general, the fish and wildlife seemed unafraid and unfazed by our presence, and some even seemed curious.

At each stop, our guide started a stationed stopwatch. Groups were supposed to be separated by at least 30 minutes, so we guess when subsequent groups arrived they would use the timer to determine when they could continue.

We stopped at an area where you were allowed to dive deeper into the water. There were some underwater springs in this area that were causing the sand to bubble up. JT dove down a few times to investigate, but Katie opted not to in order to avoid hurting her ears. Others in the group tried and failed to dive, as it seemed that their wetsuit was doing too good of a job keeping them afloat.

Then we started the final section at the front of our group. Unfortunately, the visibility is pretty bad in this section of the river so we were not able to see nearly as well as in previous sections. This seemed to be caused by another spring throwing up sediment. The water certainly became much colder in this section (~24C/75F down to ~18C/64F). Katie enjoyed sticking her head out of the water and enjoying the solitude of the jungle.

Eventually we got to a boat (which had an electric motor), which the two girls in life jackets eagerly hopped into. The rest of us chose to swim in the colder water 10 more minutes to the end. Upon getting out at the end, it was interesting to note how clear-looking even the not-so-clear water was. From the shore, you could easily see fish swimming through the river.

Even with us visiting in winter, the wetsuits were probably not necessary from a temperature standpoint (although they did make it more pleasant). Katie guesses they are more an environmental thing as they reduce the amount of skin exposed to the river. But why did they go with long-sleeve and short-pant leg wetsuits? Why not either tank top with shorts ones or long sleeves with long leg ones?

At the end, we could use things we put in a group transport bag at the beginning to dry off and change into dry clothing and shoes. There were about 4 changing rooms in a structure built near our river exit point. Then we rode an open air truck back to the reception building. Katie opted to stand since the truck only seated 8 and when we boarded last the only open half-seat was near a wet Brazilian man. This ended up being a great choice as the ride back was scenic looking out the front of the truck and pleasant in the wind. Along the way, we passed many of the ranch’s cattle and saw some cool looking birds.

We got our lunch from the taxi and ate lunch at a covered picnic area near the restaurant. Sam had also brought lunch, so we ate together. We had gone to the grocery store and bought two R$3 ‘natural sandwiches’ the night before that contained ham, lettuce, cheese, and tomato as well as some R$7.75 potato chips (to satisfy Katie’s craving). We all enjoyed the free tea and coffee offered in the dining area (although it came in tiny cups). Talking with Sam continued to be interesting. We were also joined by the German girl from last night’s transport van and a couple who we learned were bicycling around the world. They had already covered about 5000 km! They were on a tight budget and had decided not to do the snorkel tour, despite our insistence that thought it was worth the money. We relaxed in the picnic area before leaving around 1:45pm. Katie was asked to fill out a survey when leaving, giving generally excellent ratings.

We were very impressed with how Rio da Prata was run. From ecological concerns (recycling bins were prevalent, recycling/disposing properly the snorkel disinfectant, electric motor on boat, well trained guides with each group to try to discourage visitors from disturbing wildlife, limited group size, limited frequency of groups), to safety concerns (supposedly they had an emergency response plan and there were enough exits from the river if something did happen to someone, radios were located at each exit), to general operating (everything was clean, staff were ample, friendly, and multilingual, there were steps at every point we loaded or unloaded a vehicle). Our only complaints were the use of single-use plastic bags for the snorkels (provided to the customers to hold their dry clothes) and the beat-up state of our boots and Katie’s wetsuit.

Next we made the short drive to Buraco das Aranas (R$48 per person). Sam opted not to do this tour, so he waited in a covered area while we went on the tour. A guide named Pierdo greeted us as we arrived. We filled out the visitor log (which strangely asked for blood type) and then the introduction to the tour started with looking at their safety management system. It seems there is a standardized safety plan for Brazil, which displays common risks, their danger levels, and ways to mitigate the risks. All risks were 1 on a 1-4 scale. The only risks for Buraco das Aranas seem to be dropping valuable items into the sinkhole, bug bites, and sunburns. Hats were actually available for borrowing (for free!) and JT grabbed one as he had forgotten his in the taxi.

Soon the two of us were off on the trail with Pierdo. We were pleasantly surprised and pleased by his English, knowledge of the plants and animals, his eagerness to share knowledge, and his attitudes on conservation – not to mention that he was our personal guide! We walked to the first viewing platform where we could see the beautiful macaws nesting in and flying around South America’s largest sinkhole. Apparently the macaws in the sinkhole were in serious danger as at one point it was used as a cemetery and trash dump (apparently there is still one car in the bottom of the sinkhole that was impossible to remove – but they did remove bones to at least 20 human bodies and 5 ‘containers’ worth of trash) and people would also come to the sinkhole and shoot the macaws for fun. Then a man bought the land for a farm, and decided to clean up the sinkhole and preserve it as a nature preserve. We found out that the owner has even convinced a neighboring farm to allow some of his land near the sinkhole to grow back naturally to help preserve the preserve.

Pierdo brought some nice binoculars we could use to see the macaws up close. Macaws apparently mate for life, so we usually saw the macaws in pairs. They are such incredibly pretty birds! The preserve does not alter the land or provide food to the birds – but they do leave out fresh water for the birds.

After staying a while at the first platform (with no other groups disturbing us), we walked to the second viewing platform. On the way, we passed by the neighboring farm that has a strip of land near the sinkhole growing back naturally. Our guide quieted us at one point along this trail and then pointed out macaws perched in a nearby tree! At one point, there were about six macaws within about 40 feet of us.

A photography tour was camped out at the second viewing platform, but they gladly made room for us. One of the non-photographer spouses on the tour took the time to point out an owl and its white fluffy baby in a nest in the wall of the sinkhole. They were hard to find at first, but unmistakable once you found them. The macaws were so beautiful both flying around the sinkhole and perching in the trees. Meanwhile, JT had some strong camera envy seeing all the expensive cameras the photography tour participants had. The digital camera bases alone were $2-5 thousand, and the 500mm lens they were using probably cost even more. As we were talking to the non-photographer spouse, we found she had also been to Nemrut Dagi in Turkey! As we were watching a group of three macaws fly around the sinkhole, we were shocked when a macaw separated from the group and landed on the railing of the viewing platform! Those of us with small cameras quickly captured pictures, but the large, expensive cameras were useless for such a close shot! We tried to give the bird space. It seemed very comfortable around us, but you can never predict wild animals. It knew and said the Portuguese word for macaw. Based on this and its action, the guides assumed it must have been domesticated and then released. At least it found a great place to live! Pierdo said a bird has never landed on the platform like this and stayed so close to humans for so long, so our experience was extremely rare. Eventually the bird flew away, but it was awesome to see a wild macaw in nature that close.

We walked back to the entrance and parted ways with Pierdo. We bought some postcards and souvenirs at the gift shop – as we really enjoyed our tour and wanted to support the preserve since we really agree with its purpose and how it is run. Katie filled out another survey. We were very happy with our guide and all the conservation and operating principles of this tour.

Katie had read in so many places that Bonito is one Brazilian city that actually does eco-tourism correctly. From our experience, this is indeed correct. Although the tours are a bit expensive (R$132 snorkeling, R$48 for preserve tour), they are high-quality and well-run. Katie would have loved to stay around Bonito for a few more days and enjoy a few more tours. Our one complaint was that most people have to take taxis to the tours, since transport from Bonito is not included. Not only is this expensive (R$160 taxi for the day), it leads to a lot of cars running the same routes when a shared transport would be possible. It seems that tours are starting to be sold with the possibility of booking a minibus for transport to at least Rio da Prata, so that seems to be a step in the right direction.

In fact, Sam had actually booked a minibus and then he mistakenly got put in our taxi instead by our hostel in the morning. Since he already had paid R$45 for the transfer and we were expecting to pay for the entire taxi anyway (until we surprisingly had company), we paid the entire R$160 taxi fare. Sam felt bad and offered to buy us drinks. We told him he really did not need to, but he wanted to, so we agreed.

We dropped off our bags, hung up wet clothing on the hostel clothes line, and went to the main street in Bonito in search of a bar. After walking around for a while looking for a bar that was open at this time, we stopped at Pantanal Grill where we each had two serving of a Cachaca do casa (R$2.5 each), split a large bottle of beer, and shared a platter of fried potatoes. It was nice to just chat! It was also impressive to see how Sam’s conversational Portuguese was so functional despite his only previously knowing Spanish before coming to Brazil. He had obviously been working hard to learn Portuguese.

After we finished our drinks and snack, Sam went back to the hostel to cook dinner and we went to Venus for a large pizza dinner. We split a grande pizza – half margarita and half pepperoni (R$36) and also split a large beer. The pizza was delicious and extremely filling (we actually struggled to finish it). Our waitress was friendly and patient with us and seemed thrilled to serve us foreigners.

Overall, an excellent day in Bonito!

Entrance sign at Rio da Prata

Parrots at Rio da Prata

Peacock at Rio da Prata

Safety Management System at Buraco das Aranas

 The sinkhole at Buraco das Aranas

 Macaws soaring around the sinkhole
Macaws nesting in the walls of the sinkhole

A macaw flying in the sinkhole

Macaws sitting on a nearby branch near the top of the sinkhole

 Macaws flying in the sinkhole
 The macaw that approached us

 Katie with the macaw that approached us

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