The Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul, in the southwest of the country, is home to one of the most biodiverse areas on the planet. Here lies the expanse of the Pantanal, the largest tropical wetland in the world, and famed for its abundance of wildlife including jaguar, capybara and caiman. During the dry season, freshwater tributaries become extraordinarily clear, offering some of the most unique diving and snorkeling in South America.
Diving Bonito and the Panatal
The small Pantanal town of Bonito, meaning “beautiful” in Spanish, lives up to its name in great fashion. Filtered by layers of limestone rock, Bonito’s two spring-fed crystal rivers boast stunning clarity and are home to a menagerie of aquatic flora and fauna. The Rio Sucuri is located 12 miles (20 km) from Bonito and features lush subaquatic gardens and forests. Green, purple and maroon grasses and vast snail shells are some of the river’s highlights.
The locals refer to the Rio Olho d’Agua as an aquarium and it’s no surprise why. Native piraputanga, dorado, pacu, arapaima and even freshwater rays live here, hiding or swimming between the river grass and lilies. Divers and snorkelers can also spot small anacondas — often smaller than the individuals in larger rivers — yet no less impressive. Before the Rio Olho d’Agua converges with the larger Rio da Prata, look for erupting piles of sand, churned up from jets of warm water emanating from the warmth of the earth’s core.
Slightly further afield, the Formosa marshes are considerably muddier than the rivers mentioned above, yet home to one of the jungle’s most iconic giants. Anaconda reside in waters between 3 and 12 feet (1 to 4 m) deep and, with both a local guide and a permit you obtain through diving tour companies, you may film and photograph the iconic snakes.
Arriving at the dive area
Bonito is as remote a destination as possible. From Sao Paulo International Airport, a short domestic flight will transfer you to Campo Grande Airport, where a 4-hour taxi, van or bus ride delivers you to Bonito in the southern Pantanal. Once there, shuttles can take visitors to one of the rivers or, alternately, a small panga will take divers along the Formosa River to encounter wildlife.
May to November is the dry season and undoubtedly the best time to visit Brazil to dive the inland areas. The heavy rain run-offs during the wet season can cause the clear waters to turn a muddy brown from sediment and, therefore, chances to encounter the freshwater wildlife become almost impossible.
Taking advantage of local knowledge of the area and hiring guides is key before you begin diving. Whether you organize a guided tour through companies such as SDM Adventures or Recanto Ecologico Rio da Prata, numerous operators will organize transfers, dives and logistics. Arriving in such a remote area is not cheap, but the experience will be well worth the money.
While staying in Bonito, highlights include watching scarlet macaws fly across the giant, blood red cliffs of Buraco das Araras, rappelling down the jaw dropping Anhumas Abyss or marveling at the waterfalls of Boca da Onca. Those who want to take a bush plane to the Northern Pantanal, may encounter tapir, jaguar, capybara and giant river otters.