Picture this. Your alarm sounds off. As you raise your head off the pillow, you notice that it’s still dark outside and you groan as you dread pulling off the covers to face the cold air that is waiting to embrace you. It’s 5°C and since there is no heater inside your room, it’s just as cold inside as it is outside. You throw off you covers, take a lukewarm [yes you heard right] shower and run to meet the bus. After 40 minutes of driving into what seems like the middle of nowhere, you arrive at your destination. You’re greeted by a modest wooden building with men in helmets running back and forth, carrying climbing equipment. But that’s not the exciting part. At one end of the building is a small opening, just enough to fit two people side by side. This is the opening of Abismo Anhumas Bonito and you are about to drop 72M into a cave and experience one of the most exhilarating and breathtaking adventures in Bonito.
Abismo Anhumas is the name of a cave located 23 km [14.3 m] from Bonito in Mato Grosso do Sul, one of the top eco-tourism destinations in Brazil. This submerged cave was discovered 1984 by a local cowboy after a fire and was officially opened in 1994 after extensive mapping, training and team qualification.
I arrived at Abismo Anhumas at 7am shivering in my layers upon layers of warm clothing. It wasn’t too long before I was being strapped into a harness and donning a bright orange helmet. The narrow gap in the ground is just the beginning. From the top, visitors rappel down 72 meters – equal to almost 30 floors of a building – and land on a floating dock built on a lake over 80 meters deep and the width of a soccer field. The sensation is both exhilarating and terrifying as you drop down, the only thing keeping you from plummeting to your death is a set of ropes expertly checked and re-checked by the Abismo crew.
But before you do the rappel down into the abyss, travellers need to test their climbing skills at the organization’s head office in town. Inside you will be strapped into a harness and will be tested on your endurance skills and your fear of heights as you climb up and down an 8m high rope twice before being given the green light. In reality, this “test” doesn’t even come near to preparing you for the epic climb you will have while exiting Abismo Anhumas. But I digress.
As you descend, nothing can quite prepare you for the view you are about to see. At first you spend all your energy trying to avoid hitting anything as you dangle in between two rock faces before the cave really begins and you are met with nothing but open air. At this point you cling onto your gear, heart beating rapidly in your chest as you try to soak it all in while also trying to prevent a mini panic attack. Then as if suddenly, you’re feet touch the bottom.
The feeling is indescribable. It is as if you have entered a different world, the silence surrounds you and is only broken either by the sound of whispers or the sound of water dripping.
Drip, drip, drip.
You strain your eyes as the only light in the cave is natural light coming from the small opening of the cave, 72 metres above your head. As I glanced up I remember thinking how the heck am I going to be able to get out of here? From there we board a little boat that takes us for a ride around the lake’s perimeter. The water is incredibly clear, apparently due to the high amount of limestone. Inside the cave, we explore stalagmites and stalactites in all different shapes and formations, some of which look like people or animals [and in one case just like Homer Simpson!] The highest stalagmite is 27 meters. Just to put that into perspective, 1 cm of limestone takes about 10,000 years to be formed.
After we dock, we start getting into our bathing suits to enjoy the water portion of the tour. Snorkelling around the lake is included in the price, but for an extra R$350, certified divers can explore the depths of the lake with a certified instructor. The water is around 18°C – 20°C and 5mm suits are provided for snorkelers and divers. There are two species of fish in the water, one living deep in the bottom [and hard to spot] and the other tiny ones that have the tendency to “bite” [more like nibble] at any part of your body.
As a Divemaster, I jumped at the chance to dive inside a cave. We put on our wetsuits and went, two at a time, with the instructor. I have been diving for about 13 years, diving in Canada, Australia, Brazil, Greece and many others, and I have never had an experience as the one in Abismo Anhumas. To be able to dive in a cave takes specific training and accreditation. But diving in Abismo Anhumas is like finding a loop hole. It is technically not cave diving, but the formations and the experience is quite similar to what a real cave dive would be like. As we descend, I am welcome with only darkness and silence. All I hear is the inhale and exhale of my own breath and the flicker of my own light. As a swim, we find the bones of anteater, a poor soul that wandered too close to the edge of the opening, and a graveyard of stalagmite cones towering over us. In short, breathtaking. As we surface, I couldn’t help but have a huge smile plastered across my face. Wow, I thought. Just wow.
But as the awe of the dive wears off, I realize that it’s time to leave the cave. Imagine standing there, head tilted all the way up and realizing that you have to climb 72M, only using the strengthen in your arms and legs. We go up by using rappel techniques, which we luckily practiced the day before. In pairs we go up again, attached to each other, each having their own rope. The technique is fairly easy. You make yourself small, then push yourself up with your hands and feet. It’s a bit like a frog jump. At first I remember thinking, oh this is quite easy! But that quickly wears off as I realize that I am woefully out of shape. The problem is that once you start, you have to finish. There is no way for them to “save” you once you begin. I feel bad for my poor partner, who for 40 minutes, endured my groans, cries and complains as I often stopped, out of breath, and swearing that I just couldn’t do it. I did eventually finish it. And as I stepped on solid ground, the first thing I could muster to say: WOW, amazing experience. But I’m never doing that again! Which prompted the entire crew to laugh at the poor out-of-breath [and incredibly red faced] gringa. But it was worth it.
After I came back, I met a lot of traveler’s who turned down the chance to go to Abismo Anhumas because of the price. Indeed the price of R$700 [plus the R$300 option for diving] is pretty steep. But I rationalize it in a different way – the whole experience is so incredibly technical, in essence you are paying for the professional training and the impeccably well-maintained gear. And if that doesn’t convince, just google Abismo Anhumas and sort through some of the videos and photos out there. It truly is an unforgettable experience.
What you need to know about Abismo Anhumas, Bonito:
- 20 is the maximum number of visitors per day [environmental license limit]
- Scuba diving is allowed just for certified divers with a maximum limit of 4 dives a day
- The tour is pricey but it’s worth it! It’s pricey because of all the safety measures that are taken. There is 1 supervisor on every 3 visitors. The money goes to the right person. No need to compare prices – in Bonito all tours have fixed prices, with every agency.
- What to bring: t-shirt covering your shoulders [the harness can hurt you shoulders when you go up], long FLEXIBLE pants [NO JEANS], food [snacks, sandwiches etc. There is nothing offered in terms of food while you are down there], WATER, closed-toe shoes [runners or hiking shoes]. LAYERS! It can get quite chilly down in the cave – sometimes there can be a lot of waiting around. The layers can also come in handy right after you climb out of the water. So make sure to bring a towel and layers of warm clothes.
- You cannot use your camera while rappelling down. It will be brought down with the rope so you can take pictures in the cave. However if you have a GoPro [and the piece to attach to a helmet] than you can attach it to your helmet and film your descent or ascent.
- During high season it is recommended that you book ahead of time [especially if you want to go diving]. If one agency says they have no tickets left, shop around and visit a couple of agencies [not to shop around for prices, but for open spots].
- If you DO fail the climbing test, there is the option of the crew physically pulling you out of the cave. One of the girls that came down with us, got pulled out of the cave. But this is only if you wouldn’t physically be able to climb out of the cave yourself.
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