Part 10: Big Fish, Small Airport
After our night of blow drying soggy shoes (a funky experience in the case of Andy’s) we were up at the crack of dawn for our flight way out West to the tiny town of Bonito- close to the edge of the Pantanal marshlands, which are close to the edge of the jungle: “la selva”. According to any reliable guidebook the ‘only’ thing to do in this town (which doesn’t quite live up to its ‘Beautiful’ name) is to snorkel down the Rio da Prata and observe the rainforest freshwater habitat and all its many inhabitants. Having heard this, I was sceptical at being able to see anything- picturing the brown, silty, soupy, ‘can’t see my own hand in front of my face’-y waters that I’d seen on rainforest documentaries. How wrong I was.
One thing worth mentioning before I launch into marine-Biologist-mode is Bonito airport: not much bigger than a postage stamp, yet one of the most efficient airports known to man. After exiting your plane you walk perhaps 50m to the baggage reclaim area where bags from your flight have already begun their distribution back to their owners. Within 2 minutes you have recuperated your luggage from, not a carousel, but two blokes stood outside, in tropical and humid climes, frantically posting bags and suitcases through two ‘dog-flap’ size holes in the wall. There is a bit of a scramble for each and every posted item but we were out and in our taxi to the ‘town’ centre in record time.
So, as I mentioned earlier, I was very wrong about the muddy opaque waters I predicted for the Rio da Prata. Literally five minutes after arriving at the spring, down which we were about the snorkel, the heavens opened on us for the second time in 2 days and the full force of the wet weather associated with this part of the world relentlessly bore down on us. No problem, we were already in wet suits by this point. It was literally like being in a cold shower and even the thick overhead foliage provided little protection, so it was quite a relief to get into the comparatively tepid spring water.
We lowered ourselves in one by one, unable to see beneath the surface due to the weather beaten water surface. Thankfully I wasn’t first: imagining something slimey and slithery sidling up to me as soon as I ducked under. We adjusted our snorkels and tested our views under water. ‘Wow!’ after ‘Wow!’ was uttered as each person came up from just a glance downwards in their mask.
The crystal-clear water had over 20m visibility and there were precisely no huge scary poisonous bite-y things. Double win! We were only joined by some colourful tiddlers dancing around beneath us amongst the cascades of sandy silt uplifted by the rising spring water, which smoothly babbles up out of the river bed creating an under-water sand fountain effect. None of the uplifted silt drifted anywhere but back to its original resting place, which meant that the newly surfaced water carried no debris downstream with it, creating incredible underwater visibility.
We drifted with the current for around an hour, just watching the fish floating around, going about their daily lives “Hey, look, a tourist”… “Ooo, that’s a nice rock”… “Hey, look, a tourist”. We saw packs of massive black Pacu fish drifting in small clusters and several solitary giant up to 1m long Dorados (completely invisible when looking down from above the surface), the latter glinting in their golden suit of scales, with extremely grumpy faces and mouths full of “nasty pointy teeth”. They were all completely unperturbed by our presence and didn’t even stop to notice this band of strange and non-streamlined creatures formation-floating past them. I was positively ‘cut up’ by one dorado who casually glided (glid?) about 6 inches in front of my face to cross the river.
Apparently the group that had been out that morning had seen an Anaconda lurking in the depths, but unfortunately we had no such luck. However, where the spring merges with the main river the visibility reduces to about 2m so I could have swam mere metres from one and just not realised. It was a fantastic activity anyway, made all the sweeter by us realising the following day that our hostel had cocked up our payment and that we’d only paid for one person (what a shame that we’d already moved on and couldn’t pay up!). It is an expensive activity at around R$160 (maybe £45) but still worth it. We celebrated with our most vegetarian and adventurous hostel-cooked meal of the trip so far: stuffed peppers and Spanish potatoes- scrumptious!