Caves are plentiful here in Brazil’s Pantanal, the world’s largest wetland. A huge compression in the earth’s crust has created a 150,000km [squared] freshwater floodplain, stretching into Bolivia and Paraguay. With so much water, the Pantanal is one of the most biologically diverse regions on the planet, a birdwatcher and animal lover’s paradise. It has also been under threat, since over 95% of the land is privately owned, and rich waters make the wetland fertile for crops, cattle, and of course, mosquitoes. On the other side of the mountains that frame the wetland, a small town named Bonito has reinvented itself to become one of the most important eco-tourism destinations in South America. Besides wildlife trips into the Pantanal - where tourists can enjoy night safaris, river cruises, hikes and horse rides in protected areas – Bonito is also a launch pad for caves, waterfalls, and several tasty adventures. These include unusual dishes in the local restaurants, like grilled caiman and piranha stew.
After years of destruction in the Amazon, Brazil has committed to protecting this fragile environment. New laws have been passed, tourism standards created, and farm owners have increasingly begun to see the value of eco-tourism over traditional cattle breeding. Take Rio da Prata, where 80% of the farm’s revenue comes from its extraordinary attraction. In limited groups, we are handed wetsuits and snorkels to float on our bellies down a crystal blue spring, amongst thousands of freshwater fish. With a current ebbing us along, there’s no need to kick, or swim. The visibility is breathtaking. I’m relaxed in awe floating past schools of large fish, like the golden Dorado, which is big and ugly enough to demand a wide berth. It was an incredible experience, but I was looking forward to dropping into the abyss.
Although there are daily tours into the abyss, guides test their clients the day before to see if they can hack it. After all, anyone can be lowered down, but climbing up a 72m rope through a narrow rock shaft requires an adventurous kind of stamina. Don’t worry, if you can scale up their 7m high in-store platform, you’re set. Discovered in 1984, and opened to the public in 1999, the Abismo Anhumas has an unparalleled draw. Inside sits a cave pool 80m deep, lifeless save for tiny fish, but home to massive underwater cave structures that can be explored by scuba or snorkel. While your typical spectacular stalactites drip from above, some of the conical underwater stalagmites are over 20m tall. The descent is easy enough, in that terrifying “I’m only alive because of this wet rope” kind of a way. Once I arrive on the bottom, I put on a wetsuit, and with a flashlight in hand, float weightlessly above the alien world, a scene from a movie, a waking dream.
The tranquillity is shattered when I am strapped into a belay device to begin the long climb back. The modified harness cuts into my water-softened flesh, as I heave with my legs, and steady with my arms. After ten minutes, muscles are burning, but if I need incentive, all I need to do is look down. Suddenly, the darkness below looks like a watery grave. Connected as a backup to my climbing partner, the rope shakes as he quakes with fear. But each thrust brings more light, until finally, after squeezing through an unassuming crack the rock, we reach the top. Having spent a few hours in the cool abyss, floating in its calm water, the heat and humidity of western Brazil is like a punch in the gut. Next time, I’ll rent the scuba gear and enjoy the abyss just a little bit longer.
The Abismo Anhumas is located 27km from Bonito, an eco-tourism hotspot in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul. Tours leave daily but due to the ascent are limited to 16 people. Only 4 scuba dives are allowed each day, and you must have Open Water certificate. Equipment and guides are provided. Visitors are assessed and trained beforehand in the Visitor Centre. More info at: http://www.abismoanhumas.com.br