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Clear clear waters

June 21, 2010

Bonito: The small town of Bonito is, as its name suggests, a lovely place to spend a few days. We stop in a pretty hostel with hammocks strung out around a tree-shaded courtyard and kittens to play with. There are fewer mosquitoes here than in the swampy Pantanal and the days are pleasantly warm even in winter.

The dorado fountain in Bonito

We stroll the few streets where dogs lie sleeping on the pavements and cats sleep surreptitiously above them on walls and window ledges. We eat in one of the ‘per kilo’ restaurants that are sprinkled throughout Brazil and which we’ve discovered offer the best food in our budget. They are essentially buffets in which you pile your plate with food and then take it to be weighed and priced accordingly.

Meat hanging outside the grocery store

Choosing food by weight offers a whole new perspective on the dining experience, I find. For instance, carpaccio of beef weighs a lot less than a potato or tomato. So my plate is often a strange assortment of dried foods – raisins are better than grapes; rice better than mashed potato – and leaf salads rather than olives or tomatoes. And if, like me, you don’t speak brilliant Portuguese, it’s a great to be able to see what you like from a buffet, rather than ordering an unhappy surprise from a menu.

Nick wrestles a jaguar

Bonito is a cowboy town of men who wear prominently buckled jeans and walk with the bandy-legged gait of someone more comfortable on horseback. Children play in the street, throwing lassoes to snag a wooden cow’s head over and over again until they are as accurate as their low-brimmed hat-wearing fathers. Women are the only people who hurry here, rushing to the market, rushing from the market, sweeping the dust, carrying babies.

Nick gets ready on the river bank. It's so cold in the water, we need hoods

The area is very rich in calcium carbonate, which is deposited when rainwater erodes the limestone rocks. It filters the water in the rivers making them exceptionally clear and providing up to 50 metres of visibility. We join local diver Miguel (who takes many of these photos) and head to the Formosa (‘beautiful’) River and duck down beneath its waters.

Me, Nick and a small golden dorado

Golden dorado fish (Salminus Maxillosus) swim alongside us, their scales glinting like gold-leaf in the sunlight and their tails a fiery orange. We traverse fallen tree trunks and find a large feisty red crab hunting beneath a rock.A red river crab in the Rio Formosa

Further upstream we battle against current and turbulent waters until we reach the source of the turmoil: a small waterfall. It’s the first time I’ve dived under a waterfall and I love it. It’s like swimming in champagne bubbles, the light scattered by flying diamonds with golden fish flickering in and out. The rushing water makes it hard work to breathe, though, so we return to the leafyspot where we entered the river.

Above water

Next day we travel a few kilometres further from the town to the Rio da Prata (Silver River) for a gentle float downstream with snorkel and mask. Here the river is crystal clear and the fish more diverse and bigger. There are more than 20 species of fish here, monkeys above in the branches and anacondas lurking between. We find the shining white skeleton of a deer and float over a bubbling ‘volcano’ where a natural spring emerges from the riverbed.

A school of huge, metre-long dorados pass by, barely moving in effortless swim. The dorados found here are a primative member of the salmon family and known locally as ‘river tigers’ for their aggressive nature. A group of black disk-shaped pacu hover in the water and we spot a caiman swimming underwater towards the bank with bird-like alligator feet.

It’s a fantastic and relaxing ride downstream but after 1.5 hours I’m chilly even in a 5mm wetsuit, so we sit out on the bank in the sun and warm up as toucans and butterflies dance around us.

Nick and the giant toucan

We’re leaving Brazil tomorrow, on our way through Corúmba to Bolivia. But we’ll be back in a few weeks, this time along the mighty Amazon.

Nick's eyes are clearly bigger than his stomach. Posing with typical sugar cakes

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