I saw my first not-in-the-zoo toucans on the way to Bonito, which is a resorty, jungley town a few hours northwest of Dourados. We four Nolsens and Matt’s parents, Deb and Steve, traveled there for a little five-day vacay last month. It was my very first road trip in Brazil, the first time I’d really been anywhere outside of Dourados.
There were many activities we were looking forward to once we arrived in Bonito, but I was also excited to just watch the landscape as we drove there. So many people have recommended that we spend time in Bonito, and I just couldn’t square their stories of lush jungle trees, waterfalls, and animal life with what I’ve seen in Dourados. This city has its own charm, but beautiful jungle it is not. It is dusty, brilliant red farmland and grids of streets with broken pavement, boulevards dotted with but not overwhelmed by palm trees. How could we travel only three hours by car and be transported into an environment so different?
The sad truth of it is that much of our state, Mato Grosso do Sul, has been clear-cut. Matt and I are not alone in drawing comparisons between Texas and Dourados because of similarities in politics, industry, and culture (also there is literally a restaurant here called Texas Burger), but where the state of Texas actually is somewhat of a desert, Dourados only looks that way on the outside. We get a lot of rain, entire consecutive days of rain (it’s raining as I type this), and yet we are not living in the rainforest. On the way to Bonito, we saw long stretches of farmland reminiscent of the midwest broken up occasionally by five-ish acre plots of undeveloped jungle. We were reminded of what this geography used to look like, and it was sobering. Especially considering that- full disclosure- we are living here because of a soybean oil extraction plant, and much of the land around Dourados is used now for growing soybeans. It’s an important crop to food production worldwide…but as I said, sobering.
And because the world is full of complicated contradictions, I noticed these lonely stands of jungle trees, and I also squealed with excitement when we passed a field full of emus, casually pecking around. As we got closer to Bonito, the landscape started to become hillier, the tree canopy fuller and more verdant. It’s spring here, and I saw a towering tree full of tiny purple blossoms next to a small pond. Suddenly, Matt spotted a toucan in and pointed it out to us. Full of familiar color, outrageous beak, sleeker body than you’d expect. Now, I felt, we really were heading into the jungle and towards something new.
We arrived at Pousada Olho D’ Água in the middle of a drippy afternoon but were almost immediately greeted with more toucans and other tropical bird sightings. I caught a glimpse of an unfamiliar animal hopping around the grounds, and another couple staying at the resort told us there were many cotias nearby (fans of Amazon Trail will know these rabbit-sized rodents as agoutis). We unpacked our bags in our spacious villas and set up the kids’ sleeping arrangements, one of the first things we always do when we travel as a family.
In some ways, my mind struggles to differentiate life in Dourados from some long trip: I don’t have a job, this stay is temporary, and the climate is tropical. Matt and I joke a lot that we have furnished our condo as though we are camping in it, and we have to convince ourselves to buy “luxury items” (like a grater for the kitchen, and I’m not even kidding) because we always have it in the back of our minds that we’ll have to find a place for all of the things we buy once we leave. Sometimes I have to force myself to remember that we are not vacationing in Brazil- we are living in Dourados, and it’s okay to buy a kitchen grater. It’s also okay that we develop routines, have stresses, and sometimes find things boring. That’s life. Leaving Dourados for five days made the city and our condo feel more like home
It was a joy and a comfort to be on a real vacation. I didn’t have to do any meal planning or prepping because there was a charming restaurant and lounge on site, and we were just a short drive from Bonito proper. Someone else would be laundering our towels and even Oscar’s bedtime was taken care of, as he was staying with Deb and Steve in their villa.
I’d highly recommend Olho D’ Água to anyone and particularly to those traveling with young kids. There was plenty of interesting bird-watching to do on the grounds of the resort, the restaurant offered good food (the breakfasts in particular stood out), and the pool and surrounding patio were bright and lovely. Most importantly for us: the restaurant and pool were both within our monitor’s signal distance from our villa.
Before arriving there, it was hard for me to picture what the idea of Bonito was. How did it all work? How would we find our way to the natural areas we wanted to see? Have the adventures we wanted to have? Marina, our babysitter, assured us that Bonito was set up well to receive tourists, and she was right. The hotels and resorts in the area manage any excursions their guests want to do, including organizing details and payment for those passeios, and easy-to-follow maps abound. Not only that, but it is not uncommon to find English translations on said-maps and menus. So, the idea of Bonito is to offer visitors easy access to natural attractions and adventures, and pairing all of the adventures with all of the lodging makes that idea a practical reality.
We’d picked out a few passeios to do on this, our first trip. We were mostly considering what we could do with the kids in tow (i.e. not rapel down into a caverna), but Matt found us some good options that let us lounge in Bonito’s beauty and still make sure August got some sort of nap. (Side bar: Matt is an excellent trip planner, and I keep telling him that if he ever wants to quit engineering, he would be in high-demand as an adventure-focused travel agent.) The two of us were even able to get away for a full day by ourselves (!!!!!!) because of my wonderful in-laws, who stayed with the kids. And in the midst of all the jungle fun, we also celebrated our sweet Oscar’s fourth and golden birthday.
Balneário do Sol
A wide, shallow river bend with a large grassy lawn. We literally swam with the fishes. We hung out with monkeys. We ate alligator. Matt thrilled us with a couple of zip line runs. A perfect spot for a family with young kids to spend the afternoon.
Water as clear as Lake Superior in this teal-bottomed river. We paddled upstream, and then snorkeled back with up-close views of fish and underwater fields of watercress. Oscar and August stayed in the boat to help navigate.
Trilha para cachoeiras
Matt and I spent a day hiking in the quiet green jungle and swimming in several clear, peaceful waterfalls. We also jumped into one! This adventure is already one of my favorite travel experiences with him.
Oscar’s Fourth (and Golden) Birthday
Our smart, funny, sassy, sweet firstborn turned four last month, and we celebrated in Bonito. I’ll write more about the birthdays we’ve had here in my next post, so for now: Oscar Matthew Nelson, we love you to Mars and back! Happy, happy birthday, sweet boy.
Driving back to Dourados, I felt a sense of denouement and a sadness that our first Brazilian vacation was over. Matt had to return to work (actually literally that day- his VP and GM had flown in for a short visit), and I had to pull our home routines back together. But I also felt a sense of grounding in the return to our life at Residencial Gramadu’s. It really was good to be…home.
Annnnnd we’ve asked Marina to go to Bonito with us on our next trip, so we do have future waterfalls to look forward to.