I cringe as my back scrapes along the bedrock at the opening of the dark hole. Just don't look down. Eduardo, the Brazilian comedian whose knees are hooked onto mine, makes jokes as we descend into the abyss. Our bodies jerk along the ropes as we try to synchronize our rappel. Keep your face away from the metal a voice in Portuguese calls from somewhere - 72 meters below.
Abismo Anhumas, a cavern near Bonito in Mato Grosso, was discovered in the late 1970s when a fire stripped the land's surface. The chamber expands into a space as big as a soccer field.
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Halfway down, I look around. Despite a fear of heights, I feel at ease. The intensity of the electric blue water reflecting off the walls close out any feelings of terror - replacing them with amazement. The bigger of the two cavern openings casts a light that illuminates the organ pipe pillars.
As we settle onto the platform, I struggle to stand up, as my body spins around on the rope. The circulation in my legs is gone from the harness straps. On wobbly legs, I make my way across the wood boards. Small – that’s how I feel as I behold the underground sanctuary.
Having reached the second phase of our underground journey, we board a rubber raft to get a closer look at the stalactites – the eerie formations made of calcium carbonate and other minerals left by the dripping water. Marcío, our underground guide, points out one stalagmite that is pointed at an irregular angle toward the gaping hole in the ceiling far above. "So you know which way is out," he jokes.
A procession of six snorkelers skim the surface - their black wetsuits and wide strokes causing them to appear like spiders scooting over the water.
Eduardo and I, the only divers out of the 16 people allowed to enter the cave each day, are ready to take it to the next level. With a basic certification from PADI, the global association of diving schools, I can submerge 30 of the lake's 80 meters.
I enter the water and feel the icy shock hit my skin before the wetsuit does its job. Now, Eduardo, the dive master and I share the water with only microscopic shrimp and organisms. Down below fingerlike stalagmites reach up from the depths threatening to pull me down into the abyss. I release the air in my buoyancy control device (BCD) - surrendering to their beckon.
The naturally filtrated water is it is barely perceptible. It appears that we are floating in a world without gravity. Stalagmites, some shooting up as high as 20 meters, tower over us as we study their textured mounds - marveling at nature's surreal artwork.
Floating between the cavern floor and the water surface, I lie on my back, hovering in the water. The sun's rays splay outward from the hole in the ceiling, now 300 feet above. I think to myself, I've seen this before. I am gazing through a real-life version of the hole through which Little Ariel, the Disney mermaid, reaches out to the human world.
I watch as my bubbles float up - highlighted by the sun. Expelling air, my body sinks deeper. Now, I feel like a drowning victim that has given up the fight, sinking peacefully to the sea bottom. The only difference is, I am not drowning - but, in fact, very much alive, as the stalagmite poking me in the rear reminds me when I drift too close.
Jerked back into reality, I follow the others up for the five-minute safety check, peering into the darkest deepest corner where we saw the bones of a giant anteater—now only a black void without the strong flashlight. This anteater met its doom recently, during the fire in the 1970s, but in 1984 the first expedition team into the cave found the ancient bones of a giant sloth and a saber tooth tiger.
Back at the top, I'm exhausted from the scooting up the rope like an overgrown inchworm. João, the dive master, and Eduardo make fun of me for being in a different world when they tried to communicate with me underwater. I turn and look down into the hole. That's because I was.
Diving in Bonito, Brazil
Nature has blessed this area with magic waters that flow from underground limestone springs into mysterious caverns, gem-like lagoons, and pristine rivers, creating a paradise for nature-lovers and adventurers. Gruta Mimosa is considered one of the top cave diving sites in the world. The ultimate adventure is the 72 meter rappel into the Abismo Anhumas cavern. PADI certified divers can continue the descent 30 meters deeper into the underground lake.
Visit the Abismo Anhumas Cavern
The rappel and snorkel package runs about US$180 and the rappel and SCUBA outing about US$260 through all tour agencies in town. I used Ygarapé Tour (55 67 3255-1733), which was organized and prompt. An hour-long training session is required the evening prior to the descent. It is best to book ahead if you are on a tight schedule since only 16 people, including four divers, are allowed to enter the cavern per day.
After Diving in Bonito
Anacondas hang out along the banks of the Rio Sucuri, known for its white water rafting. Spend a lazy day floating on an inner tube down the Baía Bonita river, as tame and clear as that of a water park, or relax at Boca da Onça, one of the many waterfalls. On a trek, spot macaws, monkeys, tapirs and even boa constrictors!
Getting to Bonito
Bonito is a five-hour bus ride from Campo Grande. The only company that serves that route is Viação Cruzeiro do Sul. Unfortunately, the website is in Portuguese only.
Lodging in Bonito
I stayed at the Eco Pousada Villa Verde. The owners Manila and Tim speak English and are extremely helpful. Just to give you an idea, because I was going to leave too early to catch the daily poolside breakfast on the day of the rappel, Manila offered to wake up early to fix me something before I left. Book the Eco Pousada Villa Verde on Hostelworld.com (a BrazilMax partner).
Katie O’Hara recently moved back to Arizona after living and teaching in Brazil for two years. Her project Canoa Naturals sells handmade jewelry from Canoa Quebrada, Ceará, with the goal of helping the children of that community.