Sunday Times

BRAZIL: SA nature lovers’ new go-to

Though Carnival has come and gone, Brazil’s eco-attraction­s delight year-round. With direct flights from both Cape Town and Johannesbu­rg, what are you waiting for?

- Text and photos by Lee Middleton, an American travel journalist based in South Africa since 2006.

Did you see Avatar, The Way of Water? It’s kind of like that. This is how our guide describes Bonito, Brazil’s “ecotourism capital”. When planning a family trip to Brazil, my visions had been more Amazon than James Cameron. But my angst at failing to book a jungle tour begins dissolving the moment I plunge into the Caribbean blue of the Sucuri River. Perfectly visible in the crystallin­e water and so close I could grab them, golden dorados the length of my forearm and tiny orange tetras glide and flash through purple-pink aquatic primrose and swaying meadows of swordplant­s.

Named after the sleepy town that serves as a hub for visitors to the numerous eco-attraction­s in this corner of the southweste­rn Mato Grosso do Sul state, Bonito’s wellmanage­d tourism industry strictly limits visitor numbers to its natural gems, meaning the only creatures mobbing you are of the non-human variety.

“It’s like a fairytale,” my son Tau exclaims, rapt.

We have made our way to Jaguar’s Mouth Farm whose eponymous attraction — a 156m waterfall — is the impressive amuse bouche of an ecological tasting menu that finds endless inspiratio­n in the pristine waters and surreal rock formations resulting from Bonito’s limestone karst aquifer.

The current wonder is a series of clear jade pools gently cascading through a mossy glen. It’s so Disney perfect that I wouldn’t be shocked if the catfish we just snorkelled with leapt from the pool and started singing.

One of nine stops on a 4.5km forest amble, this place recalibrat­es my understand­ing of the real beauty of the natural world. Other highlights include a sinkhole cave swim-through and an “infinity pool” waterfall.

Nearby, the Beyoncé of birds soars overhead, landing in a nook in the red cliffs of the “Macaw Sinkhole”.

Plunging 100m down to a sandy floor where a caiman of mysterious origins lazes by a pond, this gaping chasm

(South America’s largest) may be the world’s best place to witness the heart-stopping spectacle that is a wild red and green macaw flying free.

Up the ante by coming in breeding season (August-November), when more than 60 mating pairs of these boldly plumed avians gather (toucans, trogans and ibises are among the other 160 bird species recorded).

“I’m a little nervous,” Tau admits.

Hanging from harnesses, we are about to descend 72m to the undergroun­d lake in the Anhumas Abyss.

Lowered through a crack just large enough for two, we clear the initial squeeze and relax into the dark expanse of the cave’s cathedral-like volume.

From a wooden platform floating over inky water plunging about 80m deep, we hop into an inflatable boat, shining torches at the stalactite­s hanging ominously overhead.

Then, wetsuit-clad, we jump into the freezing black water, snorkellin­g around stalagmite cones rising up from what feels like infinite depths, the experience granting a newly palpable understand­ing of the subterrane­an.

Though Bonito’s abundance of attraction­s makes it a worthwhile destinatio­n on its own, wildlife enthusiast­s should not miss the nearby Pantanal. Home to South America’s highest concentrat­ion of wildlife, this vast floodplain — four times the size of the Okavango Delta, it is also the world’s largest — is just a three-hour drive away.

Ten minutes into our first game drive, our leisurely enjoyment of a riot of toucans, storks, kingfisher­s and parrots is disrupted by a call on the radio. Five minutes later we are so close to a male jaguar that I don’t need binos to discern the wound on his enormous rosetted head.

While spying the Americas’ largest feline is definitely a lifetime highlight, the competitio­n is stiff, what with equally phenomenal sightings of giant anteaters, tarantulas the size of dessert plates, pools filled with the nocturnal eye-shine of at least a hundred caiman, and more bird species than I can count.

Ease of wildlife sightings increases between July and October, when floodwater­s recede and animals concentrat­e around waterholes. That said, if you’re fixated on seeing a jaguar, head to Casa Caiman, HQ for the Onçafari project whose admirable habituatio­n work almost guarantees a view of this magnificen­t cat.

Bidding farewell to the karst streams and wildlife-rich floodplain­s of the south, we head for Brazil’s famed Atlantic coastline.

Highlights of a regrettabl­y short stay in Rio de Janeiro include the pre-carnival dance party that is a typical “weekly rehearsal” at the Acadêmicos do Salgueiro, one of the city’s oldest and most respected samba schools; the fabulous Museum of the Future; stunning graffiti art around seemingly every corner; the marmosets of Rio’s delightful Botanical Garden; and the vibrant joy of ringing in the New Year with more than 2-million partygoers dressed in white on Copacabana beach — its perfect views of Rio’s iconic granite peaks glimpsed as the sky exploded in fireworks.

Much as I yearn to linger longer in the urban, my naturalist family deems we decamp to Ilha Grande, a popular weekend getaway from Rio.

Untouched by cars and cloaked in Atlantic rainforest, the island’s resistance to large-scale developmen­t gives it claim to some of Brazil’s most beautiful beaches (no small feat in a country with more than 7,000km of coast).

With its great visibility, mild temperatur­e, and abundant marine life, the sea is doubtless the star of the show (we see turtles on literally every swim). Nonetheles­s, our family’s peak moment comes when caught in a massive downpour at dusk. Running down one of the island’s numerous rainforest paths, we spy fish jumping from silvered waters and can feel the emerald forest thrumming as we scramble to make it to our pousada before dark.

Somehow this moment captures the exhilarati­on that is travelling in Brazil. Though we South Africans are spoiled when it comes to ecotourism, at seven times the size of Mzansi, Brazil’s absurd abundance of natural riches encourages you to plunge into a mysterious but radically hospitable land (be prepared to speak very little English with the world’s most charming people), exchange expectatio­n for exploratio­n, and float to a new understand­ing of the beauty of the real.


● Bonito and the Pantanal are easily accessible via a direct flight from São Paulo to Campo Grande, the collection point for most tour operators (you can also self-drive).

● To avoid disappoint­ment, all Bonito activities should be booked in advance. Prices are set no matter whom you book through, but the writer used the friendly folks at EcoAdventu­res Travel. Be sure to specify if you want an English-speaking guide.

● Ilha Grande is accessed by ferry from Angra dos Reis (a two-hour drive from Rio). Multiple companies make the trip, but be sure you go to the correct beach for your lodging, as no roads means travel between parts of the island is by foot or boat only. Also, don’t expect ATMs or consistent internet access. The writer stayed on Praia de Araçatiba.

 ?? ?? One of nine ‘fairytale’ stops gracing the Jaguar’s Mouth (Boca da Onca) trail in Bonito.
One of nine ‘fairytale’ stops gracing the Jaguar’s Mouth (Boca da Onca) trail in Bonito.
 ?? ?? Ilha Grande, a popular weekend getaway from Rio.
Ilha Grande, a popular weekend getaway from Rio.
 ?? ?? The undergroun­d lake in the Anhumas Abyss.
The undergroun­d lake in the Anhumas Abyss.

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