Serra da Canastra: Birthplace of the mighty São Francisco River

The wall of the Serra da Canastra plateau. Up there is the higher part of the Serra.

Just type “Serra da Canastra” into Google and click on “Images” and you will quickly see why I had to go and check this amazing place out.

The Serra da Canastra:

Serra da Canastra situation map (Google Earth)

The Serra da Canastra is a mountain range in the south west of the state of Minas Gerais,located about 250 km (in a straight line) west from the state capital Belo Horizonte. The distances to get there by car are 320 km (from Belo Horizonte), 540 km (from São Paulo) and 725 km (from Rio de Janeiro).

The main reason for creating the environmental protection area (APA) in the Serra da Canastra back in 1972, is that it holds the spring of the São Francisco river (also referred to as “Velho Chico”), one of Brazil’s most important rivers .

The São Francisco river is the longest river flowing entirely on Brazil territory. It starts its almost 3000 km trajectory on the plateau of the Serra da Canastra, and from there, it makes its way to the north eastern region of Brazil, where millions of people depend on the water it brings to the region. It empties in the Atlantic ocean on the border between the states of Sergipe and Alagoas.

One of the dirt roads crossing the lower park area

The park consists of a lower part and a higher part, and a full visit of the area takes 4 or 5 days. If you come by car, make sure it is in decent shape, because some roads, especially the ones leading up to the higher part are pretty steep and rocky. I myself didn’t have any problems with my Defender, but I saw several smaller city cars struggling to ride up the precarious road.

The São Francisco river cascading down from the plateau of the Serra da Canastra. The almost 200m high Casca d’Anta waterfall is one of the Serra’s main attractions

The city of São Roque de Minas located east of the park, is considered the gateway to the Serra da Canastra. From there you can take the road leading up to the higher part of the park.

The route from São Roque de Minas to the high part of the Casca d’ Anta waterfall.

The map above shows the route from São Roque de Minas up the high plateau:

  1. Green: São Roque de Minas – Park entrance (+/- 6 km)
  2. Blue: Park Entrance – Source of the São Francisco River (+/- 6 km)
  3. Pink: final part to the upper part of the Casca d’ Anta waterfall (+/- 22 km)

This trip up the plateau and back to São Roque de Minas takes most part of one day (especially when you get lost somewhere) and you can see that it covers only a small part of the park (green area). The dotted lines are the main dirt roads in the park, which are kind of O.K. to do with a city car, but there are also dozens of smaller roads branching off of these main roads, and those are usually only accessible with a 4×4 vehicle.

The ride up to the entrance of the park is about 6 km and as I mentioned earlier, it’s not a walk in the park for a city car. Once you make it to the park’s entrance, the guards there will search your vehicle for alcohol and tools that can be used to cut vegetation. My Defender has an ax and a shovel mounted on top of the fenders and I had to hand them over to the guards. That way I HAD to come back the same way and could forget about doing a tour and ride back to São Roque via a different way.

The visitor’s center – Serra da Canastra

About 1,5 km inside the park you’ll see the visitor’s center, where you can find a wealth of information about the Serra da Canastra’s history, fauna and flora. You’ll be happy to learn that there are Poemas, maned wolves and other endangered species roaming the area.

You could easily spend half a day browsing all the information available at the visitor’s center, but I had more things to explore, so I hit the road and it was not long before I saw the sign, indicating I had arrived at the place where the São Francisco river has it’s spring.

Sign indicating the place where the Rio são Francisco starts its almost 3000 km to the Atlantic ocean.

The spring itself is not that spectacular. It’s merely a small puddle of crystal clear water the seems to appear from under a bush. Small fish can be seen in the water. Spectacular is knowing that this water is going to travel all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, 3000 km further up north.

Following the main dirt road across the flat, windy landscape for another 22 km brings you to the high part of the Casca d’ Anta waterfall, where the São Francisco takes its first 200 m plunge into the valley of the Serra da Canastra.

Along the way you might get lucky and spot some wildlife, like a deer one of the maned wolves, but don’t get your hopes up too much. I did see this Carcará eagle on top of a termite hill, that was kind enough to sit still and pose for a picture.

A solitary Carcará eagle in the higher part of the Serra da Canastra

By the time the São Francisco reaches the edge of the plateau, it has grown from a small puddle into a full blown river, picking up water along the way. After a short, sometimes difficult hike, you can reach a ledge about 10 m away from the waterfall, from where you have a great view over the lower southern part of of the park. I must say that I hadn’t been very lucky with the weather. It had been overcast or raining most of the time.

Serra da Canastra – View from the top of Casca d’ Anta

And to wrap this post up: here is my VIDEO DEBUT… A far from professional report of the visit of the higher part of the Serra da Canastra National park. Enjoy

Easy 4×4 – the Tinguá Biological Reserve – Rio de Janeiro State

“even though it was raining most of the time during my trip, I still enjoyed every second of it.”

The trip started out dry, but then the rain started and things got a little more wet and muddy.

Doing some research afterwards, I learned that this road had been opened in the early 17th century as one of the first links between the city of Rio de Janeiro and the gold and diamond mines in the interior of Minas Gerais.In my never-ending quest for new interesting places, I stumbled upon an ancient road, called “Caminho do Imperador” wich connects the municipality of Miguel Pereira and the Imperial city of Petrópolis.

As an extra bonus, this historic road, that starts out as just another dirt road a little outside and east of Miguel Pereira, suddenly becomes a lot more interesting when it enters the State Biological reserve of Tinguá.

The Tinguá reserve is a 260km² patch of dense atlantic rainforest, located just north-west of Rio de Janeiro in the municipality of Nova Iguaçu. The area, which represents a significant portion of the Atlantic Forest’s biological diversity, became a Biological Reserve in 1989. Since then, numerous studies on local fauna and flora were carried out here. Recently (2011) there was also an interesting survey in the communities around the reserve, to collect information about, and preserve the knowledge of medicinal plants among the local population.

The rugged landscape of the reserve consists of cliffs, cut by torrential rivers, and various so-called “serras” or mountain chains, the highest of which is the serra da Tinguá, reaching  an altitude of. 1600m. The distance between Miguel Pereira and The main road (BR040) is about 42km and all along the way I was thinking that this would also be a fantastic place to hike or practice mountain biking. . .

Riding through the reserve gives you that unmistakable “Indiana Jones” kind of feeling and even though it was raining most of the time during my trip, I still enjoyed every second of it. A stop at the highest point didn’t give me the great view I would have on a sunny day, since mist was hiding most of the surrounding mountains, but just being there and hearing nothing but the sound of birds, monkeys and running watermade for another wonderful memory…

Sadly, but not surprisingly, as with so many other “protected” areas, an area of this size is very difficult to oversee, and Tinguá is also under a lot of pressure as a result of the ever-expanding communities along its borders and the pollution that goes with it. also Hunting (poaching) and capturing forest animals to sell on the black market, present another threat to the already suffering local fauna.and flora.

Enjoy the following pictures

We cannot display this gallery

And this Video…

Follow @twitter

I’m always looking for more interesting routes in Brazil so any suggestions you might have are welcome…

Road trip into the heart of Bahia – The Chapada Diamantina (Part 1)

“Big Blue”, my Land Rover Defender 110.

End of June 2010, in full world-cup season, I started out on a road trip to discover the interior of Bahia. Conversing with Brazilian friends, I regularly heard the Chapada Diamantina come up, and all of them described the place as one of the best eco-tourism locations of Brazil. After doing some research on the internet (where would we be without it these days :)), I decided that I had to see this magical place with my own eyes…

It was a great opportunity to test drive the Land Rover Defender that I was going to use as a support vehicle for my Motorcycle touring operation.

To get there from Volta Redonda, where I live, I planned to follow the coastline heading north, crossing Espirito Santo and entering Bahia from the south. On the first day, I had to pass through Rio de Janeiro, and stopped by the school where I did my guide course, to say hello to my ex classmates. There was an interesting presentation going on about the “Festa Junina” tradition in Brazil, so I stayed a while longer than planned… that’s why the first day I didn’t get any further than Búzios.

Pedra Azul: Famous landmark in Espirito Santo – 100 km west from Vitória

The next day, I wanted to get to Vitória. Fernanda’s uncle João has an apartment there and he had already told me not to pass Vitória without stopping by to pay him a visit on my way to Bahia. I was also curious about a famous rock called “Pedra Azul”, located in the Pedra Azul National Park, about 100 km west from Vitória.

Following the BR101 (the road connecting North and south Brazil) I made my way into Espirito Santo, where I started to follow the secondary roads into the interior of the state, direction of Cachoeiro de Itapemirim. This region is primarily coffee territory. many of the hillsides are covered with the plants that provide so many people each day with the necessary caffeine shot. The whole time, the landscape was alternating between coffee plantations, small villages and jungle scenery. I was afraid that I would pass by the Pedra azul and not notice it, but suddenly it was there in all its glory. I took a few pictures and continued on my way to Vitória.

I arrived in Vitória, the capital of Espirito Santo, and I immediately had a very positive feeling about the city. It seemed so much “cleaner” that what I was used to in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo. It was around 4 pm, so I had two hours of daylight left to see something of the city. João took me for a walk around his bairro (neighborhood) and showed me a nice park close to where he lives. Afterwards, we had dinner in a nice pizza place, where I also met his two lovely daughters. I wanted to get an early start the next morning, so I went to bed around 10pm.

The landscape just north of Vitória: lush green hillsides, coffee plantations and small villages.

I didn’t expect it in the middle of Vitória, but the next morning, a very persistent rooster woke me up around 4.30. I was anxious to get going, so I got up and gathered my stuff. João didn’t want to let me go without some breakfast, and I left his place around 6 am. Vitória is definitely a city that I would like to explore a little more.

The ride north through Espirito Santo was rather pleasant. I stuck to the BR101 most of the time because I wanted to catch up some of the km’s I lost on day one. I remember seeing lots of dead animals along the roadside. Especially dogs. These animals get run over, and serve as a welcome meal for the numerous black vultures roaming these parts.

Espirito Santo has more than just Coffee. I saw a lot of pineapple and banana fields.Espirito Santo also produces papaya, maracujá, lemon, oranges, strawberries and grapes…

Coming from Bahia to Espirito Santo: large trucks with triple trailers and 60 tons of eucalyptus wood. These things often tip over in curves…

I crossed the border with Bahia, and it’s very hard to miss that fact. Ok, there’s the big billboard, welcoming you to Bahia saying “Smile, you are in Bahia”- in Portuguese of course, but what struck me the most, was the transformation of the BR101. As long as I was on Espirito Santo territory, the highway was comparable to most European highways, with two lanes in each direction, separated by a strong guardrail. When you enter Bahia, you see the road narrowing down to a pothole infested secondary road without hard shoulders. I always knew that Bahia was one of the poorer states, like all the states in the North-east of Brazil, but that the difference would be this noticeable, I would never have guessed. The billboard should rather say: “Hang on to your seatbelt, you’re in Bahia”

Once in Bahia, I set course for the coast ASAP. I was planning on following the coastline as close and as long as possible. It didn’t take me a long time to notice that the south of Bahia is a major producer of eucalyptus wood for the production of cellulose (the base material for paper factories).

The eucalyptus forests go on as far as you can see, and trucks with triple trailers and up to 60 tons of eucalyptus wood are all over the place, transporting the wood to cellulose factories in Espirito Santo. A local told me that the Eucalyptus tree is chosen because it grows so fast. In 7 years the trees are ready to be harvested.Taking the less traveled roads through the eucalyptus forests, you can see large areas where the trees have recently been cut down and new trees have been planted.

It’s not a nice sight, all these “sterile” and artificial forests with nothing but eucalyptus trees in straight rows… but who am I to judge the means of income of the people of Southern Bahia? In the forests, far from any town or village, I saw huts made of “Pau a pique” (wattle and daub). It was hard to believe that people were actually living here, but I saw a small boy (4 – 5 years old) playing near one of the houses. These people live 40 – 50 km from the nearest school, the parents are uneducated and they have no means of transport. I couldn’t help wondering how these kids ever have a chance of a decent education.

Charcoal production, another (legal?) activity in southern Bahia. Notice the -ugly- eucalyptus forest in the background.

I was headed for Nova Viçosa, a small fishermen’s village on the Whale coast (costa das baleias). According to Fernanda’s sister, this was the place to be, but I was rather disappointed. Despite some touristic folders promising “year round touristic activities”, the place was dead.It was too late to move on to another village, so I had to look for a place to spend the night. I took the advice of the “Brasil 2010 guide” and stopped at a pousada that turned out to be run by a Swiss couple.

The pousada was ok, but it was the management that worried me a little. As a couple, you are supposed to work together as a team, and it was pretty clear that the woman was taking care of everything and the husband wasn’t doing anything to help. His commitment was limited to sleeping and smoking cigarettes. Judging by his smell, he was also in desperate need of a shower. The guy drove me around the village in his car and couldn’t say one good thing about Brazil or the Brazilian people . He was clearly not happy with his situation and my guess is that they were “trapped” here, after investing in the pousada and not having the return they hoped for.

I had to speak German with him, because after 14 years in Brazil, he wasn’t able to say one decent sentence in Portuguese – or English for that matter. When I asked him if he was happy here in Brazil, he said: “my wife is happy…” I guess that sums it up… These people should have been divorced a long time ago. Very sad to live like this.

The coastal dirt road from Prado to Cumuruxatiba was a great change from the hundreds of kilometers of eucalyptus forests. My first glimpse of the Bahia coast.

I was glad to get out of Nova Viçosa and especially the pousada, where the rotten atmosphere between the Swiss owners was a serious downer. I had breakfast and left as soon as it was light. continuing my trip north along the coast. It was about 150 km to Prado, a small, charming beach town about 100 km south of Porto Seguro.

This part of Bahia is called the “costa das baleias” (Whale coast) due to the appearance of groups of humpback whales every year. Needless to say that the whales are one of the major touristic attractions of this region.

I had to do a pit stop here to do an oil change and also to find someone to fix my radio, that had stopped working earlier that day. By the time all this was done, it was time for lunch. After I filled my stomach at a small “kilo restaurant” for about 3 Usd, I went on my way.

The mechanic of the gas station who changed the oil had told me about a great dirt road right next to the coast that went all the way to Cumuruxatiba (short: Cumuru), which is a very quiet and laid back little paradise on the Whale Coast. I saw a sign saying: “Aqui, Deus descanse depois criar o mundo. Não acorda ele com o seu som” (Here, God takes a rest after creating the world. Don’t wake him up with your noise.).

Dirt road leading inland near the Monte Pascoal Ntional Park…

From there, I had to take a dirt road leading inland and passing north of the “Parque nacional do descobrimento” in the direction of the “Monte Pascoal National Park”. This road was not on the paper map, but WAS shown on my GPS, which means that somebody already had been there, which usually makes it a pretty safe bet.

Eventually, the road disappeared from the GPS, and since it wasn’t on the paper map either, I only had my compass to make sure I kept going in a northern direction, which would eventually take me on to the paved BR498, from where I could get on the BR101.

To make things even more more interesting, I discovered that my left rear damper had broken off and only the top part was still attached to the car…I had to remove the piece to prevent it to cause more damage, which made me lose more time.

Sunset over Monte Pascoal

Around 6.30 pm, I reached the BR498, leading to the BR101 and it was pitch dark by then. I had done almost 300 km of dirt road that day and was glad to be on some smooth surface. It was 150 km to Arraial d’Ajuda, which is only a few km south from Porto Seguro, but with a damaged suspension, I had to keep the speed down and only arrived around 11 PM.

I checked into a pousada, took a shower and went straight to bed thinking about the next day and how to find a decent mechanic…

Even in the dark, it looked like I had been able to sniff out a great place for the night. Pousada Antares is run by an Italian – Brazilian couple and is located on a hill close to the beach and has a terrific view from the terrace. The poolside breakfast with view over the ocean was perfect.

I asked around to see if anyone could recommend a good mechanic and there seemed to be two options. The owner of the pousada, said that actually he didn’t like any mechanic in Arraial d’Ajuda, but if he HAD to pick one, it would be “Vincente”, maybe because the name sounds Italian? I decided to check the place out…

Pool and ocean view at Pousada Antares in Arraial d’Ajuda

Most car repair shops you see in Brazil are places that in normal circumstances you really wouldn’t want to come too close to, and the “oficina do Vincente” was no different… A small, dirty shack with a few skinny, toothless black guys in bermuda and chinelos (flip flops) hanging around, looking kind of dangerous, waiting for something to do. If you’re lucky they are still sober at 8.00 AM.

Once you are in Brazil long enough and have a car that tends to break down in the middle of nowhere (I could post a few more stories about this subject …), you get used to these places and things actually aren’t as bad as they look.

After the usual compliments about the Defender (everybody seems to like this car a lot, but they have no idea how much trouble I already had with it…) Vincente’s diagnose was that he would have to repair the damper, because getting a new one would cost me at least 500 USD and would take at least until the next day, but probably 2-3 days to get delivered. He would weld a new piece of screw-thread to the lower end of the damper and that would only cost me 80 R$ (+/- 32 Euros).

Next to the oficina was a big gas station and since the car was also in need of a lubrication, and it was no problem to drive around without the damper, I went there, but the guy in charge of lubrications said that his grease pump wasn’t working. He gave me directions to yet another oficina, which was of the same standard as Vincente’s. I went there and asked the guy if he could lubricate the car, but guess what… This guy was out of grease! swell… I kept talking to him and after I offered him an extra 10 R$, he sighed and told me to put the car inside. Miraculously, there was still enough grease in his pump to get the job done… Around 3.00 PM I went back to Vincente and one of the guys, who judging by his smell had 10 beers for lunch, put the repaired damper in place.

Landing place of the Portuguese in 1500 – Bahia – Brazil

The next day (Day 6) I left Arraial d’Ajuda very early since it was going to be a 430 km ride to Itacaré, with lots of dirt roads. Itacaré is one of Brazil’s surf paradises, but also has a lot to offer in terms of eco-tourism (Trekking, rafting, rappel, Arvorismo…).

First, I had to take a ferry (Balsa) to get across to Porto Seguro. there’ a ferry every half hour and the crossing takes about 10 minutes and costs 11 R$ (about 4.75 Euros).

About 25 km outside Porto Seguro, in a place called Santa Cruz Cabrália, I passed the exact location where Pedro Alvares Cabral and his crew came ashore in the year 1500. There was a scene depicting the catholic service that was held to celebrate the discovery of the new land, with indigenous people watching from a distance.

When I was almost back on the good old BR101, near a place called Itapebi, I passed some barracks, right next to a large garbage dump site, and clearly this was “home” to some very poor people, who probably spent their days scavenging the garbage, looking for something valuable. This too is Brazil, and I think it is something that has to be seen by people visiting the country. It’s one thing to read about poverty, or watch it on TV, but being confronted with the raw reality is a totally different matter.

In huge contrast with the people at the garbage dump I have another anecdote: On my way to Ilheus, passing Canavieras, I spotted a chocolate factory with a very exclusive chocolate boutique attached to it. Of course, being a Belgian, I really couldn’t pass this without taking a look inside.

Coastline near Itacaré. Should be sunny and warm here, but looks a lot more like rain…

They had a big sign saying “home made chocolate” but after I told the salesgirl that I was from Belgium, she admitted that they use the famous Belgian “callibutchi” chocolate. HUH?  It took me some time to figure out that the famous Belgian chocolate she was talking about was “CALLEBAUT”. Brazilians have a way to brazilify foreign words. (like “snooker” => SINUKA… kind of weird but once you know where it comes from it makes perfect sense J)

Anyways, the boutique had a large collection of chocolate goodies, and even some erotic items. I bought a few bonbons, just to get a taste, and a few of them were with Pimenta (red pepper). I don’t think I will buy those again. They were really spicy.

By the time I got to Itacaré, It was raining hard, so all the streets were deserted and the town looked nothing like the otherwise bustling surf paradise. I checked into one of the first pousadas I saw, and after a nice shower, I did some planning for the next day and turned in. I’ll have to check out Itacaré better next time I pass through here.

On day 7 I wanted to get to the Chapada Diamantina, in the center of Bahia State, which is again a +/- 450 km ride, so I made sure I got going at first light (actually, it was still dark). Since I hadn’t had a chance to check out Itacaré the night before, because of the pouring rain I made a quick tour around the city. It has a really beautiful shoreline, but driving through the smaller streets away from the ocean, I saw lots of houses in poor state of conservation. Of course, the rain wasn’t helping to paint a nice picture. A little sun and the place would look totally different.

I was going to take the shortest possible route to the Chapada Diamantina and according to my GPS there would be a great deal of dirt roads. (Yay J).

Big Blue after a 43 km jungle mudbath

Soon after leaving Itacaré, I entered a 43 km long muddy jungle road that leads to Ubaitaba. As I expected, the road was very muddy due to the rain last night, and it didn’t take long before the jeep had the same reddish brown color as the road. I have kind of large tires, and the fenders aren’t able to keep  the mud from getting all over the car. In the middle of the jungle I picked up an old man who needed a ride to Ubaitaba.

In Ubaitaba I said goodbye to my old new friend, cleaned my windows and stopped at a gas station to buy some water and juice. Next, I would have to take the BA330 to Jequié, which, according to my GPS would be “Muito Ruim” (very bad) but to my pleasant surprise, the asphalt was brand new. I was pretty much expecting that this nice asphalt would only last for a short while, but it continued to be great all the way to Jequié.

About halfway to Jequié, I picked up my second hitchhiker for the day. An elderly woman waved me down and asked if I was heading for Maracas. Since that was one of the options, and she told me it would be the best option if I was going to the Chapada Diamantina, I decided to give the lady a ride.

In Maracas, I dropped the lady off at the house of her family and with a last “may God accompany you at your left side, your right side, your front and back side” she joined her sisters. I noticed that the house was very small, but at least 7 women were waiting for her. That was because all the men were watching the world cup game Brasil – Holland… a decisive game for Brazil, because if they would lose this one, they would be out of the cup. The streets were very quit, and that was a clue that things were not looking too good for Brazil.

Roadkill on the way to Marcelinio Souza. The vultures will take care of it.

I stopped at a gas station to buy diesel, and to figure out the best way to get to Marcionilio Souza, my next waypoint. I found a dirt road on my map, but it didn’t show up on my GPS. The guy of the gas station told me that in fact there WAS a road, but a different one than the one on my map. Yikes… even more confusion. He told me to take the road to Planaltino and after about 12 km take a left and “va embora” (just go)… He also said that the road was not very good, and there was a serra, but mostly descending… Just before I left the gas station, I learned that Brazil had lost the game against Holland and was going home. Someone said “a vida continua” (life goes on)…

Ok, so I was about to take a 50 km stretch of not so good dirt road that was neither on the map nor on the GPS. I didn’t like that idea very much, but it was a second pleasant surprise that day to find out that this road had a few signs on crucial places pointing to Marcionilio Souza. Also, the road wasn’t that bad at all. I’ve seen a lot worse.

The BA-245: The worst road EVER

After Marcionilio Souza however, things changed drastically for the bad. The BA245 couldn’t be worse. It was clear that this road had been asphalted with a layer way too thin, and now the road was a complete mess, with potholes everywhere, making it worse than it probably was before they put the asphalt. 65km on a road like this is no joyride, I can tell you that much.

In this hellhole, I picked up a 3rd hitchhiker. A working guy who wanted to get to Itaeté, and judging by his smell, he wasn’t one of those Brazilians that take two showers a day. But he had useful information for me. When I told him that I was planning to get to Lençois by 6 pm, he said that there was no way I would get there that early, and driving after dark was not advisable because of the road conditions but also because of the BANDIDOS. That sure sounded like I was in the Far West or something. He gave me the advice to either stay in Itaeté, or try to get to Mucugé, which was closer and less dangerous.

I decided that it would not be a bad idea to follow his advice and change plans to try and get to Mucugé. Like the guy said, the road from Itaeté to Mucugé wasn’t half bad, and I got there at around 5.30pm, in time to find a pousada and a phone to call home…

END OF PART ONE – Stay tuned for part TWO

I’m always looking for more interesting routes in Brazil so any suggestions you might have are welcome… please leave a comment. 

Driving in Brazil – Practical Survival Guide and Tips

Rio – Santos (BR101) near Angra dos Reis

Brazil is a huge and fantastic country, and one of the best ways to discover it is taking a car or motorcycle and hit the road. Here’s how to do it.

When you’re a European or US citizen, you will quickly notice a number of differences between what you’re used to, and the way people drive in Brazil.

In my opinion/experience, driving in Brazil can be divided into a number of different conditions :

  • big cities like Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo.
  • major highways.
  • smaller back roads.
  • tracks and dirt roads.

The “rules” (and I don’t mean “the law”) vary according to which of the above mentioned situations you’re in, but a few things are very general and apply almost everywhere:

1. who has the bigger vehicle, (thinks that he/she) has the upper hand.

2. Don’t expect people to stop and give way, even if you have priority (like on a roundabout).

3. Don’t expect people to use indicators when they are about to turn left or right.

4. Don’t be surprised to see cars and even trucks driving at night without lights.

Big cities – Traffic jams:

In the big cities, chances are that you will end up in a traffic jam. Rio de Janeiro but especially São Paulo are notorious for the hectic traffic.

The already complicated situation is often made worse by accidents, broken down vehicles or storms (flooding).

There are also hundreds of motorcycles (125 – 250cc) splitting lanes, frantically honking their horns often driving at considerable speeds. When you’re driving a car, ALWAYS check your mirrors before changing lanes.

Major highways in Brazil:

 

The BR116 between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. One of the best highways in brazil. Also one of the most expensive in terms of toll booths

Big highways in Brazil are usually in reasonably good condition (except in the north and north east – read more about this later). One of the best highways in Brazil (also the most expensive in terms of toll) is the BR116 (also referred to as “Dutra”) between Rio and São Paulo.Of all Brazilian states, São Paulo is the state with the densest and best road network. a quick glance at a road map of Brazil and you see this very easily.

Most toll roads – like the Dutra – are equipped with a well-functioning tow service . In case of an accident or engine problems, you will get towed to the next gas station (free of charge).

Condition of vehicles in Brazil

the condition of other vehicles on the road (cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles…) goes from excellent to literally falling apart… I’ve seen cars with doors missing, or parts being held together with a piece of rope. You also see lots of cars with completely bald tires. Some vehicles you see here wouldn’t last 10 minutes on the road in Europe.

I don’t want to scare anyone, because a road trip in Brazil can be an extremely rewarding experience. It’s just that with the right information, you can avoid bad situations or at least avoid getting frustrated by the undisciplined or even reckless behaviour of other road users.

Here are five practical hints and recommendations for anyone who wants to venture out on the road in this amazing country.

1. Road conditions and signalization in Brazil

General Situation: As in most countries, road conditions in Brazil can vary a great deal. As a general rule, the roads in the south and south-east regions are in much better shape than those up north.

When you cross the state border between Espirito Santo and Bahia, the BR101 suddenly changes from a double two lane highway with perfect asphalt into a secondary road with potholes and no hard shoulders. No better example of the economical differences between the South-east and the North-east of Brazil.

Independent from the location, heavy rains can wreak havoc, causing land slides, wash away part of the road surface or leave impassable mud holes.

Holes in the road: Sometimes water can wash away the earth under the asphalt and eventually part of the pavement will cave in and a hole will appear in the road… people usually “mark” these places with a leafy tree branch. So when you see something that looks like there’s a tree growing out of the asphalt, there’s probably a deep hole in the road. Needless to say that this kind of “signalization” is very hard to spot in the dark…

 

Worst kind of dirt road. Better stay away when it rains

One good rule of thumb is: when you’re in a dirt road and don’t see any tracks from other cars, (meaning that the road hasn’t been used for quite some time), chances are that the road you’re on is not going anywhere and it might be a good idea to turn around and find another route to your destination.Dirt roads: are very common in Brazil, especially in the rural interior, and are being used intensively by cars, motorcycles, but also by trucks and buses. Some of them have codes (like RJ153 or SP225) and are official state roads and are usually kept in reasonable condition, whereas the “unofficial” dirt roads can be in very bad shape, especially after the rainy season, when landslides make lots of roads very difficult to use.

Signalization: On the major highways, signalization is good, but in more remote areas and small cities and villages, don’t rely on following signs to get somewhere. You will often see signs to your destination for a while until they vanish. In case you’re lost, gas stations usually are a good source of information, but you will have to get it from someone who only speaks Portuguese…Signalization of road works is usually good, even in the dirt roads.

Speedbumps: To control the speed of vehicles around schools or in village centers and residential areas, there are numerous speed bumps all over the country. The official name is “Lombada” but most people call them “quebra molas” (literally: suspension breakers). this is not exaggerated, because some of these bumps are so high and steep they almost look like concrete half-cylindres. Hitting one of these at high-speed will destroy your car… They should be painted in bright yellow and black stripes for visibility, but unfortunately this is not always the case. Beware!

Flanelinhas: when you park your car in most urban centres, it is very common to see a guy come up to you, indicating that he’s going to keep an eye on your car. They also “help” people to find parking spots and sometimes even offer to wash your car. These people are called “Flanelinhas”, and what they are doing is illegal, but it is unwise to turn them down if you don’t want to end up with a few scratches on your car.

2. Gas stations in Brazil

Important: Running out of gas in Brazil constitutes an infraction of the law, so make sure you fill up before leaving home.

Gas stations in Brazil are still very much operated by humans. Unlike in Europe, where in most countries you need to fill your tank yourself, every station has several attendants who will fill up the car for you. Usually there’s no problem to pay with a credit or debit card, but several gas stations in more remote areas will only accept cash.

Gasoline prices and quality: Gasoline prices in Brazil are high compared to the US (about 7$ a gallon), but lower than in Europe. Some gas stations – usually the small, unknown brands – have lower prices, but this usually means that the alcohol level in the Gasoline is higher than the legal 20-25%. Some gasoline you buy at “cheaper” gas stations has up to 60% of alcohol in it. It is advisable to ALWAYS buy gas at “big brand” stations like BR or Shell.

3. Animals (and other stuff) on the road in Brazil

 

A badly loaded truck AND cows on the road… Double hazard.

Under the “other stuff” category, I would like to mention the kite lines that are extremely dangerous to motorcyclists.Unfortunately, Brazil has thousands, if not millions of stray animals wandering the streets. Cows, horses, donkeys, dogs, chickens, etc., not to mention wildlife, like capivara, tatu, snakes and lizards. It is one of the reasons why it is better to avoid driving at night or at least be extremely careful.

4. GPS

A GPS can be a great tool and save you lots of time and gas as long as it has a good map installed. I have a Garmin GPS that I use both on my motorcycle and in the car. When I arrived in Brazil, I only had the Garmin “City Navigator” map of Brazil that I purchased in Belgium. As long as I was on a major road or a significant city, things seemed fine, but once I started venturing into the interior, I quickly learned that the Garmin map was all but accurate. In fact it was perfectly unusable… (sorry Garmin, but that’s just the way it is..) Learn more on GPS and a great free Brazil map for GARMIN

5. Be prepared

 

Make sure to Check your spare tire: you don’t want to end up like this lady. When I got out the spare, it turned out to be flat as well. Luckily I had my mountainbike pump 🙂

Some food & waterWhenever setting out on a road trip, bring the following:

  • maps of the area you’re going to travel through
  • Flashlight / Headlight
  • A phone card: comes in handy when you’re in an area without mobile phone signal. every small village has at least one payphone (orelhão). You can also call collect (a cobrar) from the payphones
  • Cash for highway toll (there’s no way to pay with any type of card)
  • Cash for gas (especially when you plan to go to remote areas)

and make sure to:

  • Buy adequate Insurance: For yourself and third parties.
  • Learn some Portuguese, or at least have a Portuguese Phrasebook handy.
  • Check your spare tire… (it could be out of air)
  • VERY IMPORTANT: NEVER drink and drive!! Brazil has a ZERO TOLERANCE policy (Lei Seca) and even the slightest amount of alcohol in your system will get you in a heap of trouble.

Hope this was useful. If you ever drove around in Brazil and lived, let me know your story.

Driving in Brazil – Practical Survival Guide and Tips

Rio – Santos (BR101) near Angra dos Reis

Brazil is a huge and fantastic country, and one of the best ways to discover it is taking a car or motorcycle and hit the road. Here’s how to do it.

When you’re a European or US citizen, you will quickly notice a number of differences between what you’re used to, and the way people drive in Brazil.

In my opinion/experience, driving in Brazil can be divided into a number of different conditions :

  • big cities like Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo.
  • major highways.
  • smaller back roads.
  • tracks and dirt roads.

The “rules” (and I don’t mean “the law”) vary according to which of the above mentioned situations you’re in, but a few things are very general and apply almost everywhere:

1. who has the bigger vehicle, (thinks that he/she) has the upper hand.

2. Don’t expect people to stop and give way, even if you have priority (like on a roundabout).

3. Don’t expect people to use indicators when they are about to turn left or right.

4. Don’t be surprised to see cars and even trucks driving at night without lights.

Big cities – Traffic jams:

In the big cities, chances are that you will end up in a traffic jam. Rio de Janeiro but especially São Paulo are notorious for the hectic traffic.

The already complicated situation is often made worse by accidents, broken down vehicles or storms (flooding).

There are also hundreds of motorcycles (125 – 250cc) splitting lanes, frantically honking their horns often driving at considerable speeds. When you’re driving a car, ALWAYS check your mirrors before changing lanes.

Major highways in Brazil:

The BR116 between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. One of the best highways in brazil. Also one of the most expensive in terms of toll booths

Big highways in Brazil are usually in reasonably good condition (except in the north and north east – read more about this later). One of the best highways in Brazil (also the most expensive in terms of toll) is the BR116 (also referred to as “Dutra”) between Rio and São Paulo.Of all Brazilian states, São Paulo is the state with the densest and best road network. a quick glance at a road map of Brazil and you see this very easily.

Most toll roads – like the Dutra – are equipped with a well-functioning tow service . In case of an accident or engine problems, you will get towed to the next gas station (free of charge).

Condition of vehicles in Brazil

the condition of other vehicles on the road (cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles…) goes from excellent to literally falling apart… I’ve seen cars with doors missing, or parts being held together with a piece of rope. You also see lots of cars with completely bald tires. Some vehicles you see here wouldn’t last 10 minutes on the road in Europe.

I don’t want to scare anyone, because a road trip in Brazil can be an extremely rewarding experience. It’s just that with the right information, you can avoid bad situations or at least avoid getting frustrated by the undisciplined or even reckless behaviour of other road users.

Here are five practical hints and recommendations for anyone who wants to venture out on the road in this amazing country.

1. Road conditions and signalization in Brazil

General Situation: As in most countries, road conditions in Brazil can vary a great deal. As a general rule, the roads in the south and south-east regions are in much better shape than those up north.

When you cross the state border between Espirito Santo and Bahia, the BR101 suddenly changes from a double two lane highway with perfect asphalt into a secondary road with potholes and no hard shoulders. No better example of the economical differences between the South-east and the North-east of Brazil.

Independent from the location, heavy rains can wreak havoc, causing land slides, wash away part of the road surface or leave impassable mud holes.

Holes in the road: Sometimes water can wash away the earth under the asphalt and eventually part of the pavement will cave in and a hole will appear in the road… people usually “mark” these places with a leafy tree branch. So when you see something that looks like there’s a tree growing out of the asphalt, there’s probably a deep hole in the road. Needless to say that this kind of “signalization” is very hard to spot in the dark…

Worst kind of dirt road. Better stay away when it rains

One good rule of thumb is: when you’re in a dirt road and don’t see any tracks from other cars, (meaning that the road hasn’t been used for quite some time), chances are that the road you’re on is not going anywhere and it might be a good idea to turn around and find another route to your destination.Dirt roads: are very common in Brazil, especially in the rural interior, and are being used intensively by cars, motorcycles, but also by trucks and buses. Some of them have codes (like RJ153 or SP225) and are official state roads and are usually kept in reasonable condition, whereas the “unofficial” dirt roads can be in very bad shape, especially after the rainy season, when landslides make lots of roads very difficult to use.

Signalization: On the major highways, signalization is good, but in more remote areas and small cities and villages, don’t rely on following signs to get somewhere. You will often see signs to your destination for a while until they vanish. In case you’re lost, gas stations usually are a good source of information, but you will have to get it from someone who only speaks Portuguese…Signalization of road works is usually good, even in the dirt roads.

Speedbumps: To control the speed of vehicles around schools or in village centers and residential areas, there are numerous speed bumps all over the country. The official name is “Lombada” but most people call them “quebra molas” (literally: suspension breakers). this is not exaggerated, because some of these bumps are so high and steep they almost look like concrete half-cylindres. Hitting one of these at high-speed will destroy your car… They should be painted in bright yellow and black stripes for visibility, but unfortunately this is not always the case. Beware!

Flanelinhas: when you park your car in most urban centres, it is very common to see a guy come up to you, indicating that he’s going to keep an eye on your car. They also “help” people to find parking spots and sometimes even offer to wash your car. These people are called “Flanelinhas”, and what they are doing is illegal, but it is unwise to turn them down if you don’t want to end up with a few scratches on your car.

2. Gas stations in Brazil

Important: Running out of gas in Brazil constitutes an infraction of the law, so make sure you fill up before leaving home.

Gas stations in Brazil are still very much operated by humans. Unlike in Europe, where in most countries you need to fill your tank yourself, every station has several attendants who will fill up the car for you. Usually there’s no problem to pay with a credit or debit card, but several gas stations in more remote areas will only accept cash.

Gasoline prices and quality: Gasoline prices in Brazil are high compared to the US (about 7$ a gallon), but lower than in Europe. Some gas stations – usually the small, unknown brands – have lower prices, but this usually means that the alcohol level in the Gasoline is higher than the legal 20-25%. Some gasoline you buy at “cheaper” gas stations has up to 60% of alcohol in it. It is advisable to ALWAYS buy gas at “big brand” stations like BR or Shell.

3. Animals (and other stuff) on the road in Brazil

A badly loaded truck AND cows on the road… Double hazard.

Under the “other stuff” category, I would like to mention the kite lines that are extremely dangerous to motorcyclists.Unfortunately, Brazil has thousands, if not millions of stray animals wandering the streets. Cows, horses, donkeys, dogs, chickens, etc., not to mention wildlife, like capivara, tatu, snakes and lizards. It is one of the reasons why it is better to avoid driving at night or at least be extremely careful.

4. GPS

A GPS can be a great tool and save you lots of time and gas as long as it has a good map installed. I have a Garmin GPS that I use both on my motorcycle and in the car. When I arrived in Brazil, I only had the Garmin “City Navigator” map of Brazil that I purchased in Belgium. As long as I was on a major road or a significant city, things seemed fine, but once I started venturing into the interior, I quickly learned that the Garmin map was all but accurate. In fact it was perfectly unusable… (sorry Garmin, but that’s just the way it is..) Learn more on GPS and a great free Brazil map for GARMIN

5. Be prepared

Make sure to Check your spare tire: you don’t want to end up like this lady. When I got out the spare, it turned out to be flat as well. Luckily I had my mountainbike pump 🙂

Whenever setting out on a road trip, bring the following:

  • Some food & water
  • maps of the area you’re going to travel through
  • Flashlight / Headlight
  • A phone card: comes in handy when you’re in an area without mobile phone signal. every small village has at least one payphone (orelhão). You can also call collect (a cobrar) from the payphones
  • Cash for highway toll (there’s no way to pay with any type of card)
  • Cash for gas (especially when you plan to go to remote areas)

and make sure to:

  • Buy adequate Insurance: For yourself and third parties.
  • Learn some Portuguese, or at least have a Portuguese Phrasebook handy.
  • Check your spare tire… (it could be out of air)
  • VERY IMPORTANT: NEVER drink and drive!! Brazil has a ZERO TOLERANCE policy (Lei Seca) and even the slightest amount of alcohol in your system will get you in a heap of trouble.

Hope this was useful. If you ever drove around in Brazil and lived, let me know your story.