10 tips for independent travelers in Brazil

Here are 10 things to keep in mind when you are planning to take a road trip in Brazil.

  •  Driver’s License: If you’re going to drive in Brazil, you need an international drivers license, or a translated and authorized copy of your local license. A translation is only valid for 6 months. If your international license doesn’t have Portuguese, it has to be translated too.
  • Use a SPOT tracking device : once outside an agglomeration, you can be almost certain that cellphone coverage is unavailable..
  • Learn Portuguese: Brazilians are very friendly, open and hospitable people. Being able to speak and understand at least basic Portuguese (preferably a little more than that), will bring great enhancement to your trip. Except in the big cities (Rio, São Paulo), you will NOT find people who speak anything else than Portuguese. Oh and when asking for directions, take anything the locals tell you with some grain of salt, especially when they tell you it’s “pertinho” (close). Everything is pertinho, but in reality it’s pretty far.Things are relative in Brazil, distance and time in the first place.
  • Be friendly and humble when you meet local (usually poor and simple) people. They will respect you for it.
  • Avoid the bigger roads. They are loaded with trucks. BIG ONES, up to 30m and 60 tons. These things are fast, loaded to the maximum (probably over capacity in some cases), loaded badly, causing them to tip over to one side and a lot of them drive dangerously. They will overtake at high speeds with poor or no visibility on oncoming traffic or block the entire road on ascents when they are supposed to keep to the right side…. As a general rule, it’s best not to assume that anyone (except you of course) is going to follow the rules.

    Avoiding the bigger roads…

  • DON’T drive after dark. It is dangerous because of the stuff you can encounter on the road. Farm animals, cars or trucks with no lights or no brakes. Driving at night will also make you miss out on a lot of great scenery…
  • Make sure you have enough cash with you. In some more remote places you cannot pay with cards. Also try not to carry big notes, because it could be a problem to change (troco). You don’t want to be forced to buy something you don’t want just because the shopkeeper doesn’t have change to a 100 R$ bill. Twenties and tens are best.
  • Carry different credit cards. Sometimes they accept only one kind (like VISA or MASTER). Also sometimes international cards are  not accepted.
  •  Start watching out for a gas station once your tank is below half, and preferably choose one of the big brands (BR, SHELL, TEXACO, ESSO…) . You never know when you’re going to find the next one. Once, I was forced to buy gasoline from a local, who had stored it in 2L plastic bottles in his garage. He charged me twice the normal price.
  • Hitchhikers : The safest thing to do is to NOT pick them up. Especially in poorer areas, LOTS of people are trying to get a free ride. I myself – trusting my gut feeling – picked up hitchhikers on 4 occasions. A little old man on a jungle road, An elderly woman on her way to her family, a worker on his way home, and another elderly lady with a little boy. All  these people were really nice and gave me good advice about the places that I was planning to go to. If you trust your gut feeling, go for it, if you don’t, better not pick up anybody.

Hope this was useful – All comments welcome.

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Disaster weekend – Ibitipoca State park – Minas Gerais

Road sign to Ibitipoca Park

One of the great things about being a tour operator is that I need to take a road trip on a regular basis, to check out new places to see if they are interesting enough to be included in one of our motorcycle tours.

In a country like Brazil, this can hardly be considered as “work”, but things don’t turn out as planned all the time… On this particular trip just about everything seemed to go wrong

Last year’s Easter weekend, I wanted to check out Ibitipoca state park (+/- 1500 Hectares) in the Serra da Ibitipoca, a disjunction of the Serra da Mantiqueira in the south of Minas Gerais, about 70 km west of the city of Juiz de Fora. This region is famous for its quartzite caves, which are said to be very rare, but also for its natural pools, special rock formations, great views and typical fauna and flora.

I just had a few pretty expensive repairs done on the engine of my Land Rover, and I figured this would be a good opportunity to test it on a relatively short trip. Ibitipoca is about 150km from where I live. About half of the distance is unpaved road, the final part of which is pretty rough…which I didn’t know when I started out. Previous “getting stuck in the middle of nowhere” experiences in mind, I made it a habit of also taking my mountain bike with me whenever I intend to go driving around in unknown territory.

The plan was pretty simple: Start out on Friday morning, arrive in Ibitipoca around noon, settle down in a pousada, explore the town, hike around the park on Saturday and return on Sunday…Piece of cake, right?

I drove off on Friday morning, following the RJ153 north to Santa Isabel. From there I took the unpaved road via Santa Rita de Jacutinga to Bom Jardim de Minas. (note, dec 2011: this is no longer an unpaved road).  I took a right on the BR267 until Olaria, where I turned left to enter the final 25km dirt road to Ibitipoca. It didn’t have a BR or MG code, and these roads are usually rougher and, more often than not, poorly maintained…

Ibitipoca – Park Entrance.

Ok, there I was, about 10km from Ibitipoca with a broken down car, and of course no cell phone signal, but this was exactly why I brought my mountain bike, right? What is 10k after all? I changed into my biking clothes, took the bike out and started the 10km ride to Ibitipoca. Actually, it was a great workout. Ibitipoca is at an altitude of about 1300m and the views of the mountainous surroundings made the mess I was in seem a little bit less of a nightmare.zBut I was driving the mother of all 4X4 vehicles, so I should be ok, right? Wrong! After about 15km, the engine started making weird sounds and sure enough, a little later, in the middle of an uphill section, the engine died. I let the car roll backwards until I reached a more leveled spot, where I could “park”.

There was a very small village (more like a cluster of a few houses and a church) about 3 km from where I started, but it looked kind of run down and I decided it was better not to stop here. Arriving in Ibitipoca, I asked around where I could find a mechanic, and they showed me the way to the center. The center was very crowded, not unusual on a Easter weekend, and I found out that the only mechanic in town was occupied in some sort of promotional film shoot that was taking place this weekend.

There was nothing else to do but to wait until the film shoot was over, so I looked for a bar/restaurant to have something to eat and relax until the mechanic would be available. After my lunch, I asked the waitress if she had an idea when the film shoot would be over and she said that it would take at least until 6pm. That was not really the best of news, because my biking clothes were completely soaked from sweating and I didn’t have any dry ones. Also, at this altitude it wasn’t going to take long before it would get pretty cold.

After thinking it over, I decided to ride back to the car, put on some dry clothes and come back hiking. I figured that by the time I would be back, maybe the mechanic would be ready, although the question also was wether this guy would be in the mood to go out on another rescue mission after working at the film shoot all day long. Anyways, there were not a lot of other options, were there?

The ride back to the car was all downhill, which made it kind of dangerous… Like I said before, this section of dirt road was pretty close to being a 4×4 trail, but I managed to get back to the place where I left the jeep in one piece.

I stuffed my bike back in the trunk, changed into dry clothes and started walking back to Ibitipoca… I hadn’t walked very far when I heard a sound of a heavy engine behind me. I looked back and to my big surprise, a TOW TRUCK was coming around the bend. It was old and nearly fell apart, but it was a tow truck… I tried to make it stop, but the guys inside signaled me to jump on the back, which I did.

A few kilometers further, the truck stopped in the small, run down place that I mentioned earlier, and the guys, two brothers, got out of the cabin. After a brief introduction, I told them that the blue Land Rover they had passed was mine, and that I needed a mechanic. Not surprisingly, the man that was driving the truck said that he was a mechanic. Wow, sweet… I had a tow truck AND a mechanic. The mechanic agreed to go back to my jeep and try figure out the problem.

They started to run around in the small village, and when they came back, they had collected a wrench here and a hammer there until they were comfortable they had enough tools to at least diagnose the problem. We would use an old VW Beetle (fusca) of one of the villagers to take the ride down to the jeep. I have seen a lot of these VW Beetles all over the rural interior of Brasil, and I must say I admire them for the way they seem to be able to ride trough the most rugged roads.

After a short but bumpy ride back to my jeep, the mechanic started to investigate the problem. It didn’t take long before he told me he needed some kind of tube or hose, which I was proud to have in my own tool case. After some blowing air here and sucking diesel there, he told me that there were two problems: 1. there seemed to be some dirt in the diesel, which clogged up the fuel pipes, and 2. my fuel pump was about to give up. He got the engine running again, and told me that it would run for a while, but eventually, no way to say after how long, the problem would come back.

Ibitipoca – Inside the Park

Ok, for now, I was happy that I could go on and get the car to Ibitipoca, which is a lot better than having to leave it behind in the middle of nowhere. By the time I got back to Ibitipoca, it was already getting dark (and pretty cold due to the altitude) and I was hungry again. After checking out the local pousadas and finding out that there was no more rooms available in the whole village, I went back to the restaurant where I had lunch earlier and sat down for dinner.

While I was eating, a group of six Brazilians (3 men – 3 women) arrived and sat down at the table next to me. They seemed a little tipsy, and it didn’t look like they were planning to stop drinking any time soon… One of them asked me if they could take one of the free chairs at my table, which was how they found out that I was a “gringo”. Pretty soon they were asking me the usual questions about where I was from, how I ended up in Brazil, what I did for work, etc… and I ended up being invited at their table to have a few drinks with them.

They also asked where I was staying, and when I said that actually I was planning to put my tent up somewhere, or spend the night in the jeep, they said I could put my tent at the cabin they were renting… which I gladly accepted.

After setting up my tent, my hosts invited me to join them for a walk around Ibitipoca. Actually, I couldn’t have picked a worse time to come here, for it usually gets invaded by tourists on holidays (feriados). The narrow, steep cobblestone streets were packed with mostly young people and there was a strong smell of beer and marihuana hanging in the air all over the place.I walked around for a while, but went back to my tent to get some sleep around 11pm.

My hosts came back from their party around 3am and started some kind of afterparty at the cabin. One of them came to my tent and insisted that I would have a last drink with them. At that point they were all beyond drunk and almost unable to walk, which became kind of funny in the end. I’m very grateful for their offer, but our agenda’s didn’t really match up. After all, I wasn’t there to party but to do some hiking early the next day… Around 5 am they finally let me go back to my tent and go to sleep.

So, Saturday morning around 7.30, I got up, got dressed, bought some breakfast and water in a local padaria (bakery) and took off to the park, which was about 3,5 km from the cabin. On the way over there, I passed a few camping sites and made a mental note that next time I would probably stay at one of those instead of staying with the party folk.

Arriving at the park entrance, I had a very unpleasant surprise… Despite the early hour, there was a long line of people waiting to get in. After talking to a few of them, I learned that you were supposed to buy your entrance ticket the day before if you wanted a chance to get in. I really should have done some more research before coming here

This park has a policy of letting in no more than 300 people at one given time to avoid putting stress on the fauna and flora of the park. After waiting in line for almost an hour, I started to realize that my chances of getting into the park that day were very slim, especially since I didn’t have an entrance ticket yet. At that point I was also more worried about getting home, since there would be a chance that the jeep would break down again. Taking everything in consideration, it seemed like a good idea to abort my hiking plans and concentrate on getting back to Volta Redonda.

I walked back to Ibitipoca (at least I had hiked 7 km that day :), loaded my tent and other stuff in the car, said goodbye to my hosts, who at that point were awake, looking like zombies and preparing lunch, meanwhile enjoying their first few beers of the day… I didn’t like the idea of spending another day, evening and night here, with them getting drunk all over again, so I was kind of glad to get the hell out of there…

Ibitipoca – Surrounding scenery

zI took the same dirt road back to Olaria, passing once again the small village where the tow truck had stopped, and everything seemed to go smoothly. I had been driving around Ibitipoca and didn’t really notice anything weird, so I had the feeling (more like wishful thinking) that the car was going to hold up until I got home.

Yeah, right… About 3 km from the main road, the engine died on me again. Swell… This time I knew where to find help. The guy who fixed my car the day before, was the owner of the gas station of Olaria, so I knew where to find him. Once more I took the bicycle out and started pedaling towards the village.

In what seemed as a confirmation that this was NOT my lucky weekend, the heavens opened up and it started pouring rain so hard that I was soaked in a matter of seconds. By the time I reached the gas station, I was drenched to the bone and feeling very cold.

The gas station was very simple and looked deserted. There were only two pumps, a dirty office, and next to the office, an even dirtier place that seemed to be some kind of tool shed. A number of car wrecks and partially disassembled cars, mainly VW Beetles, were littered around the gas station property. I remembered that the mechanic/owner told me that he was specialized in these cars, and that it was his hobby to fix them up or create a good one out of two or more old ones.

Because I didn’t see anyone, I shouted a few times, and after some time, a skinny, dirty black guy, who didn’t look like he was older than 18, appeared out of the tool shed. Apparently he had been taking a nap on a dirty mattress behind an improvised counter in the tool shed. I asked him where the boss was and he answered something in Portuguese that I couldn’t understand, basically because my Portuguese wasn’t perfect, but also because he was speaking the “sul de minas” dialect that, for me, sounded like another language at that time.

After I asked him four or five times to repeat, I managed to filter out that “the boss” wasn’t there because he was playing football. He wasn’t going to be back for a few hours… Since there was no other option, I found a place to sit down somewhere between the chaos, and waited for two and a half hours for the mechanic to return.

So there I was… It was way passed lunch time, I hadn’t eaten yet, I was freezing my ass off, my car broke down -again- , I didn’t know if I was going to get home any time soon, and it looked like there was another rainstorm coming… I can think of a few better moments in my life

When the mechanic finally returned, it was around 3 pm. He saw me sitting there and immediately knew what the problem was. He was quite convinced that it would be the fuel pump that hat given up, and we took off in the tow truck to pick up my car.

We arrived back at the gas station, and after a short inspection, he decided that it was indeed the fuel pump that needed to be changed. The question now was: where the f… are we going to find a fuel pump for a Land Rover on a Easter Saturday afternoon at almost 4 pm?

The guy had a bunch of address cards in his office and started calling people. After a while, he told me that he found a pump in Juiz de Fora, a city about 70km from where we were. Since it would be impossible to get there in time before closing, he called his cousin in Juiz de Fora, who owns a small supermarket there, and asked him to go and pick up the pump. Meanwhile, the mechanic’s brother had showed up at the gas station and said he would drive me to Juiz de Fora to collect the piece.

I accepted and we took off in the guy’s car, I believe it was a Volkswagen polo. It was still raining pretty hard, but this guy was driving really fast and I can’t say that I was feeling comfortable about that. He told me that he was a truck driver and that he usually was on the road for 3 months in a row, taking his wife and kid along every time. Things are really different in Brazil…

After about 45 minutes we arrived at the cousin’s supermercado in Juiz de Fora. The cousin gave me the box with the pump and I paid him the 150R$. I had a hunch that this maybe was too good to be true, so I took a peak inside the box and immediately saw that this pump was completely different than the one that came out of the jeep. Jeezes, I hate it when I’m right sometimes…

Of course, there was no way of giving the pump back, because the cousin only did us a huge favor picking it up for us, so feeling pretty screwed, I got back into the car and we hit the road again, direction Olaria. By the time we arrived at the gas station, it was already dark.

I was very curious about what was going to happen next. Since I already saw that the pump was wrong, I had been thinking about the possibilities. If the pump turned out to be usable in one way or another, fine, but in a worst case scenario, I needed to start thinking about finding a place to spend the night, and calling a tow service the next day to get my car back to Volta Redonda. Also, all the time this was going on, I had this little voice in the back of my head, trying to tell me that maybe, just maybe, all these people were trying to screw me over…

Upon arrival, I gave the box to the mechanic, saying that I was pretty sure the pump was different, and when he opened the box, he confirmed that it wouldn’t be usable. Swell… To my surprise, he immediately came up with another solution. He would put a 20l jerrycan on the roof of the car and bypass the fuel pump, using gravity to get the fuel into the engine… Ok, why not?

After another hour I was ready to go. Finally… I was getting tired and I still hadn’t eaten a lot that day. I had another 130 km ahead of me, and about half of that was dirt road, which would probably be very muddy after all the rain. At least it wasn’t raining any more. It took me another 3 hours to arrive in Volta Redonda, mainly because I had to take it really slow in the dirt roads.

It is a really bad idea to be driving around in these roads at night. Part of the road can be washed away by a flood and it wouldn’t be the first time somebody ends up in the hospital or the cemetery after taking a dive in the abyss.

Before arriving home, I got pulled over by the police, and because my international drivers license had expired, and the translation of my Belgian license was only valid for 6 months (something I found out right there and then…) I had a very hard time to convince the police officers to let me go and not confiscate my car…

I have no idea what made all these things happen in just one weekend. Probably sometimes things just turn out that way without a specific reason. It was a weekend to remember for sure.

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