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.

Hiking trip to the top of Pedra Selada – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

The “Pedra Selada” is one of the peaks of the Serra da Mantiqueira in the state of Rio de Janeiro (about 200 km west from the city of Rio de Janeiro), also home to Itatiaia, the oldest national park in Brazil. The name “Pedra Selada” comes from its saddle shaped summit. (Portuguese for saddle = “Sela”)

The region, with its mountains, countless streams and waterfalls offers many possibilities for outdoor activities like mountain climbing and hiking, rappelling, rafting and mountain biking. It is commonly known as “Mauá”, and is one of the most popular mountain destinations in southeastern Brazil.

The area around Visconde de Mauá is also famous for its collection of high quality Pousadas and chalets.

I took this trip together with my wife Fernanda, and for her it was actually the first time she went on a hike like this.

The 4 km hike to the top,  is a constant uphill walk, getting steeper toward the end. It takes you to an altitude of 1775m and from there you have a great view over the valley of the Rio Preto to the north, the Peaks of the “Agulhas Negras” to the west and the Vale do Paraíba do Sul and the Serra do Mar to the South…

Here are some of the pictures of that day. Click on them to view slideshow…

Hope you enjoyed this post… If you ever find yourself in Rio de Janeiro and feel like doing this or one of the other fantastic hikes in and around Rio, let me know.

Cheers and see you in Brazil

Hang gliding or Parasailing in São Conrado, Rio de Janeiro – Brazil

Hang gliding is just one of many offbeat things you could do in Rio de Janeiro

Some people say that Rio de Janeiro is a city where you can do just about everything without ever leaving the city. Whether it is on water, land or in the air, the possibilities are almost endless

Driving down the coastline of Rio de Janeiro in the direction of Barra de Tijuca (Zona Oeste – west side), you will pass São Conrado, one of Rio’s “noble”, and more privileged neighborhoods, which is surrounded by coastal mountains, creating perfect circumstances for hang gliding.

If you’re not too distracted by the bikini’s on the beach, on a good day, you will probably see a bunch of paragliders (portuguese: parapente)  and hanggliders (portuguese: asa delta) circling around in the air..

The Pedra Bonita take-off ramp is located inside the famous Tijuca National Park, at an altitude of 520 m.

It should only be a 20 minute drive from Copacabana, but depending on the time of day, traffic tends to cause significant delays, so always leave half an hour (or even an hour) earlier than you planned initially.

There are several tour operators offering tandem flights, and some of them can arrange to pick you up at your hotel (for the right price of course).

View of Bairro São Conrado from the takeoff ramp at Pedra Bonita – Rio de Janeiro. Altitude: 520 m Are you ready to jump off?

Depending on wind conditions, flights take from 15 to 20 minutes. After the flight you land on the beach of São Conrado. The price should be around 300R$ (+/-150 Usd)

Here are a few more pictures I took when I visited the ramp (and came close to flying myself).

Preparing the wings…

A hang glider taking off…

A paraglider taking off

A hang glider seconds after taking off…

paraglider seconds after taking off… Free as a bird.

And last but not least, here’s a link to a hanggliding video of my friend, travel writer and photojournalist Mark Eveleigh when he took the plunge himself…

Rock Climbing to Christ the Redeemer (Corcovado), Rio de Janeiro

Corcovado mountain, with Christ the Redeemer on top

Rio de Janeiro is a great place for rock climbing, and one of the more difficult climbs, but also one of the most beautiful ones is Corcovado mountain (also referred to as K2), on top of which stands the most famous landmark of Rio de Janeiro: the statue of Christ the Redeemer. When a good friend of  mine invited me to do this climb, despite not being a real rock climber, I didn’t think twice and accepted…

The climb starts at 500m above the city. You can hike the whole way to the base, but we took the car to a parking place, from where we took a minivan that goes all the way up, but we got out halfway. After a 15-20min hike through some quite dense jungle, we reached the starting point of the climb and geared up.

Like I said before, I’m not a real rock climber, and this climb is considered to be the hardest one to get to the top of Corcovado mountain, so I had a few moments where I thought that I wouldn’t be able to stretch myself far enough to get any further ahead, but turning back was not really an option, so in the end I did make it, not without a little cheating I must admit :). There were stunning views of the city during the entire climb, and this is one of the things that make this such a great experience… From the top you also have one of the most spectacular views of Rio de Janeiro.

This is one thing definitely worth doing, and I’m looking forward of doing it again in the future, but first I need to get some more rock climbing training/ experience,  and oh, needless to say that you cannot be afraid of heights

Here, I had a major “damn, I’m going to have to turn back” moment. Not a lot to hold on to and a little water running down the wall, making everything very slippery.

A welcome ledge to take a breather and admire the stunning scenery

Ok, real rock climbers will say I’m cheating here, grabbing a hold of the metal bar sticking out of the rock face. I need to train more…

One of the dozens of helicopters that daily take tourists to circle the statue of Christ the Redeemer

We made it!!! and it felt really good 🙂

Up close and personal: the world-famous statue of Christ the Redeemer

The “postcard view” from the top of Corcovado: The center of Rio de Janeiro and Sugar Loaf mountain

Rocinha, biggest favela in S.America, Rio de Janeiro – Brazil

Favela Rocinha – Rio de Janeiro

Rocinha, Rio’s biggest favela has been off-limits for tourists for many years due to the violence that comes with drug trafficking, but this has changed.

In December 2010, as part of an 8 day motorcycle tour

, we spent a few days in Rio de Janeiro, staying at “Rio Hostel” in Santa Teresa, one of Rio’s most charming historic bairros. Walking around Santa Teresa, we visited places, like Lapa, the bohemian nightlife centre, and Rio Scenarium, Rio’s most beautiful nightclub (according to some), but it’s also a museum…

During our visit to Rio Scenarium, I asked our guide (Isabela from “Trustinrio“) if it would be possible to visit Rocinha, which is South America’s biggest – and at that time still “upacified”- favela

(After a cleansing operation in the “Complexo do Alemão” – another favela complex – a month earlier, it was believed that many of the 400 drug traffickers that got away, were hiding inside Rocinha.) Her answer was short and clear: “Sure, why not”, like it was just another visit to the Sugar loaf mountain…

We met up with Isabela at the Arcos da Lapa and boarded a minivan that took us on a wild ride across town to the access road of the favela. Riding a minivan across Rio de Janeiro is an experience in itself. When we were on the Avenida Atlantica, passing all the beaches of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon, our driver seemed to have a lot of fun racing another van that was going in the same direction. Maybe it was just his way to make his day a little more interesting.

The other passengers didn’t seem to be worried too much, but sadly 35.000 people die in traffic accidents in Brazil every year… I have to admit that it was kind of exiting though.

Arriving at the entrance of Rocinha after a pretty wild minivan ride…

We got out of the van and the first thing we noticed, was the large number of mototaxis, gathered at the entrance of the favela. Isabela told us that we would take one of the mototaxis to get to the highest point of the favela, and then walk back down… It was a first for me, getting on the back of a small 125cc motorcycle and my driver, as I expected, wasn’t paying a lot of attention to other traffic or traffic rules. Regardless, we got to the top in one piece… well… Maryel got there about ten minutes later.

He explained that his motoboy had to go to the bathroom, so they made a detour and he had to wait outside the guy’s house while he was going to do his business. Maryel said that at the house, he saw five guys with machine guns, but they didn’t bother him…Once Maryel had arrived, we bought some water and started going back down.

To be honest, my first impression was not that we were in a potentially dangerous place. Everything seemed more or less the same as in a normal “bairro”, but during my two years in Brazil, I have seen so many TV news reports about the situation in the favelas and it is better not to let your guard down.

A sure sign of the fact that Rocinha is in the process of becoming more  “touristy” was a small souvenir stand we found at the top, and the guy who was running it did his best to speak english. He showed us the English dictionary that he kept handy for when he had to look up something. According to him, most people living in Rocinha are very aware of the fact that tourists can bring a little – financial – improvement in their lives, and are doing their best to clean up the image of the place.

One thing that is really striking, is the incredible view that the people of Rocinha have. At the highest point of the community, you overlook all of the “Zona Sul” of Rio de Janeiro: Lagoa Rodrigo de Freitas, Christ the Redeemer, Pão de Açúcar, Guanabara bay… the works.

the more than privileged view from the highest point of Rocinha: The Lagoa, Corcovado, Pão de Açúcar, Guanabara Bay…

Closer up of Christ the Redeemer as seen from the highest point of Rocinha

Isabela told us to be careful and not take pictures of certain places… on our way down we saw a few guys sitting on the sidewalk with assault rifles in their laps… when we passed them they actually said a friendly “Boa tarde”, but I guess in another situation they would just as easily take our stuff, or worse…

Regardless of the fact that there are agencies offering favela tours here in Rio de Janeiro, there is still a real danger for anyone venturing alone into these places and ending up in a wrong area or not behaving according to local rules… I would advise everybody not to enter a favela all by him/herself, but to take a good, local guide.

Going down the narrow streets, it was really interesting to see how the people had constructed their houses on this hillside… sometimes it was hard to see where one house ended and another begun. I couldn’t help but think about how it would be to live in a community like this. Over the years, it seems like not only poor people are living here, since we saw a fair number of good quality houses and also doctors and dentists cabinets. No doubt this has its effect on real estate prices here.

In many ways a favela is very much like any other neighborhood, with supermarkets, bakeries, bars and schools, but of course, the majority of people here is still poor and live in very badly constructed houses, sometimes with no electricity or water. Also the health conditions of people here is way below average. In certain areas, we saw big piles of garbage, which – of course – had a horrible smell and most likely would attract rats and/or other pests…

Overlooking the west side of Rocinha. In the background: São Conrado highrises and Pedra da Gávea

In total about 400.000 people call this place home.

At a certain moment, Isabela entered a house and took us to an apartment of a person she knew. This house had a terrace looking out over the west side of the favela, and the owner welcomed us in a very friendly way. We spent some time taking in the awesome views and taking pictures, before thanking our host and walking further down.

Our guide Isabela and the owner of the house on the man’s terrace, chatting and enjoying the great view and the Brazilian summer sun…

There are many stories about the favelas in Rio, and most of them are about the drug traffickers terrorizing the population. I’m sure that most of those stories are true, but something you rarely hear in the news, is that the majority of people in favelas are honest, hard working people that only want what other people all over the world want: lead a normal life, raise a family and a decent future for their children…

As with many places I visited in the 2.5 years that I have been living in Brazil, I had the feeling that I only saw the tip of the iceberg and would need at least a couple of days to really get to know this interesting and exiting place, and I’m certainly going back when I have the chance.

UPDATE – September 2012

Since the pacification operations started,  you hardly ever hear the word “Favela” any more in the local media more and more it is being replaced by the word “comunidade” (community).

Climbing a steel cable to the top of Sugar Loaf. The Via Ferrata

Taking the cable car, you see the side of sugar loaf mountain along which you climb the Via Ferrata.

If you want to tell people you have seen Rio de Janeiro, there are a few “not to miss” attractions and one of them is the Pão de Açucar (Sugar Loaf).
Most people go to the summit of Sugar Loaf the normal way: by cable trolley.

There are however, alternative, more adventurous ways to get there…One of them is a walk to the top (referred to as “costão”), a three hour walk which involves a little rock climbing, but nothing too difficult. I doesn’t require prior climbing experience and can be done with normal running or hiking shoes.

Another way of getting to the top is climbing via a steel cable that runs along the steepest side of the rock, called the “Via Ferrata”. This is a little more difficult than the walk, but it is so rewarding if you get to the top and see the sunset over Rio de Janeiro.

The whole experience starts with a 20 minute uphill trail starting from the base of Sugarloaf, leading through the forest that covers most of the surrounding slopes, until you reach a ledge. From there it is a fairly steep climb to the place where the cable starts and for me, this was actually the hardest part, partially because I found out right there that I hadn’t brought my climbing shoes… I would have to go up with my Asics running shoes. Since Robson was leading the way, and he has been climbing since his teenage years, I was pretty confident that I was in good hands.

My guide Robson taking the first hurdle: a steep wall leading to the starting point of the cable. Notice the cables of the trolley in the blue sky…

Once the steep wall conquered, you just follow the steel cable upwards. The cable is rusted and you can cut your hands on little steel pins sticking out here and there, so wearing gloves is not a bad idea.

Why take the easy way if you can make it more difficult huh?

A short rest halfway… We’ll have a cold one at the top, right? Note the little mountain tip right above my hand? That is Christ the Redeemer

Getting closer to the top…

Like sardines in a can? No thanks :o)

And this is the reward: a stunning view of Rio de Janeiro in the light of the setting sun…

This was one of my first adventurous activities after moving to Brazil in January 2009. I have to thank Robson for taking me there. It was an awesome experience and I couldn’t have done it without him.