GUIDE TO BRAZIL
Because of the great distances in Brazil , the occasional flight can be a necessity. If you intend to take more than just a couple of fights, a Brazil Airpass will probably save you a lot of money. Book ahead for busy travel times – from Christmas to Carnaval, Easter, July and August. Always reconfirm your flights, as schedules frequently change.
Brazil has three major national carriers and many smaller regional airlines. The biggest airlines are Varig, TAM and VASE At least one of these flies to every major city. Varig , Brazil’s biggest airline, has two affiliates, Nordeste and Rio Sul, which offer flights all over the Northeast and in the South. Of the big three, VASP is usually the cheapest, though Varig tends to have better service.
Gol is the biggest of the budget airlines, with a decent number of routes and usually the lowest prices of any carrier. Fly and Trip are also budget airlines.
Usually tickets can be booked online. The following are recommended:
A Brazil Airpass is a good investment, if you’re planning on covering a lot of ground in a short amount of time. Each of the three major Brazilian airlines (Varig, TAM and VASP) offers a version of the Brazil Airpass, giving you five flights on its domestic routes, within a 21-day period, for around US$500. Up to four additional flights can usually be added for US$100 each. Varig has the most extensive network, but it can only be purchased if you fly into Brazil on Varig or one of their alliance carriers (United, Continental and British Airways among others).
You have to buy the pass before you go to Brazil , and to do so you must also have an international round-trip ticket to Brazil . The agent who sells you your international ticket will normally be able to sell you the air pass too. You have to book your air pass itinerary at the time you buy it, and sometimes there are penalties for changing reservations.
If for any reason you do not fly on an airpass flight you have reserved, you should reconfirm all your other flights. Travelers have sometimes found that all their airpass reservations had been scrubbed from the computer after they missed, or were bumped from, one flight.
Many areas, especially Amazonia , feature air-taxi companies that will fly you anywhere their small planes can reach. Unfortunately, these planes and the runways they land on aren’t always maintained. You might think twice before booking one of these flights.
You don’t see many long-distance cyclists in Brazil . Crazy drivers who only respect vehicles larger than themselves, lots of trucks on the main roads spewing out unfiltered exhaust fumes, roads without shoulder room and the threat of theft are just some of the reasons for this. Long-distance cycling in Brazil is not recommended; it’s a dangerous thing to do.
If you’re still determined to tackle Brazil by bike, go over your bike with a fine-tooth
comb before you leave home and fill your repair kit with every imaginable spare part, There are a few decent bike shops in Rlu for buying equipment and gear – as well as renting bikes (which average US$10 per day). See p145 for details.
The Amazon region is probably the last great bastion of passenger river travel in the world. Rivers still perform the function of highways throughout much of Amazonia , with passenger-carrying vessels of many shapes and sizes putt-putting up and down every river and creek that has anyone living near it.
River travel in the rest of Brazil has decreased rapidly due to the construction of a comprehensive road network, but it’s still possible to travel by boat along the lower reaches of the Rio Sao Francisco.
Boat is also the only – or at least, the most interesting – way of getting around many parts of the Pantanal and to the many islands and beaches along the Atlantic coast.
Except in the Amazon Basin , buses are the primary form of long-distance transportation for the majority of Brazilians and many foreign travelers. Bus services are generally excellent. Departure times are usually strictly adhered to, and most of the buses are clean, comfortable and well-serviced Mercedes, Volvos and Scanias. The drivers are good, and a mechanical governor limits their wilder urges to 80km/h.
All major cities are linked by frequent buses – one leaves every 15 minutes from Rio to Sao Paulo during peak hours – and there are a surprising number of long distance buses, It is rare that you will have to change buses between two major cities, no matter what the distance. Every big city, and most small ones, has at least one main long-distance bus station (rodovikria; ho-do-vi-ah-ri-ya).
Bus service and road conditions vary by region. The South has the most and the best roads. Coastal highways are usually good; while the roads of Amazonia and the sertdo (backlands of the Northeast) are quite bad. The Quatro Rodas Atlas Rodovidrio, a very useful road atlas for any traveler, helpfully marks the worst stretches of road with lines of large Xs and classifies them as estradas precarias.
Brazil has numerous bus companies and the larger cities have several dozen rival agencies. Before buying a bus ticket from Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro to other destinations, be sure to shop around.
There are three main classes of long-distance bus. The ordinary comum or convencional is the most common. It’s fairly comfortable and usually has a toilet on board. An executivo is more comfortable (often with reclining seats), costs about 25% more and stops less often. A leito can cost twice as much as a comum and is exceptionally comfortable. It has spacious, fully reclining seats with blankets and pillows, air-conditioning, and more often than not, an attendant serving sandwiches, coffee, soda and kgua mineral. If you don’t mind missing the scenery, a leito can get you there in comfort and save you the additional cost of a hotel room.
With or without toilets, buses generally make pit stops every three or four hours. These stops are great places to meet other passengers, buy bizarre memorabilia, and load up on greasy plates of food.
Air-conditioning on buses is quite strong; carry a light sweater or jacket to keep warm.
Bus travel throughout Brazil is very affordable; comum fares average around US$2 per hour. For example, the six-hour trip from Rio to Sao Paulo costs US$12.50 comum or US$25 leito, and the 20-hour trip from Rio to Florianopolis is US$32 comum or US$55 leito. The 42-hour Rio-Recife ride costs US$64 comum, and for US$85 you could even take a 55-hour ride from Rio to Belem .
Usually you can go down to the bus station and buy a ticket for the next bus out. If this is not the case (eg in Ouro Preto), it will be mentioned in the relevant destination chapter. In general, though, it’s a good idea to buy a ticket at least a few hours in advance or, if it’s convenient, the day before departure. On weekends, holidays and from December to February, advance purchase is always a good idea.
Aside from getting you on the bus, buying a ticket early has a few other advantages. First, it gets you an assigned seat – many common buses fill the aisles with standing passengers. Second, you can ask for a front-row seat, with extra leg space, or a window seat with a view and the side of the bus to lean on (ask for a janela), and you can steer clear of the rear seats near the toilet, which can get smelly.
You don’t always have to go to the bus station to buy your bus ticket. Selected travel agents in the major cities sell tickets for long-distance buses.
CAR & MOTORCYCLE
Especially in Rio, the anarchic side of the Brazilian personality emerges from behind the driver’s wheel as lane dividers, one-way streets and sidewalks are disregarded. The police take little interest in road safety.
Bringing Your Own Vehicle
All vehicles in Brazil must carry the registration document and proof of insurance. To take a vehicle in or out of Brazil , you might be asked for a carnet de passage en douane, which is kind of a vehicle passport, or a libreta de pasos per aduana, which is a booklet of customs passes; in practice these are not often required. Contact your local automobile association for details about all documentation.
Your home-country driver’s license is valid in Brazil , but because local authorities probably won’t be familiar with it, it’s a good idea to carry an International Driver’s Permit (IDP) as well. This gives police less scope for claiming that you are not driving with a legal license. IDPs are issued by your national motoring association and usually cost the equivalent of about US$10.
Fuel & Spare Parts
Ordinary gasoline (combustivel or gasolina) costs around US$1 per liter. Travelers planning to take their own vehicles need to check in advance what spare parts and gasoline are likely to be available. Unleaded gas is not on sale across Brazil , and neither is every little part for your car ( Brazil does have plenty of Volkswagen parts).
A small four-seat car costs around US$40 a day with unlimited kilometers. If you take a car for five days, you will often get a sixth and seventh day for no extra cost.
To rent a car you must be 25 years old (21 with some rental firms, including Avis), have a credit card in your name and a valid driver’s license from your home country (not just an IDP).
There is little price variation among the major rental companies, except for the occasional promotional deals. Some agencies have been known to charge your credit card long after you’ve returned the car. This is less likely to happen with more-established agencies.
You will probably be offered a variety of insurance options, and it’s wise to take a+ much insurance as you can get (about US$211 a day).
Road Rules & Hazards
The number of fatalities caused by motor vehicles in Brazil is estimated at 80,000 per year. The roads can be very dangerous, especially busy highways such as the Rio – Sao Paulo corridor. This cult of speed is in satiable. Many drivers are racing fans and tend to imagine that they are Ayrton Senna, finding it impossible to slow down to anyone else’s pace.
At night, many motorists don’t stop at red lights – they merely slow down. This is because of the danger of robbery at stoplights, and it’s particularly common in Sao Paulo . In big cities, keep your windows closed and doors locked when stopped.
Drivers use their horns without restraint, and buses, which have no horns, rev their engines instead. One of the craziest habits is driving at night without headlights. Driving at night is particularly hazardous; other drivers are more likely to be drunk and, at least in the Northeast and the interior, the roads are often poor and unreliable. Poorly banked turns are the norm.
Brazilian speed bumps are quite prevalent. Always slow down as you enter a town.
Further headaches for drivers in Brazil are posed by poor signposting; impossible one-way systems; tropical rainstorms; drivers overtaking on blind corners; flat tires (common, but fortunately there are borracheiros – tire repairers – stationed at frequent intervals along the roads); and, of course, the police pulling you over for bogus moving violations.
For security, choose hotels with off-street parking; most in the mid-range and above offer this option.
Hitchhiking is never entirely safe in any country in the world, and is not recommended. Travelers who decide to hitchhike should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. People who do choose to hitchhike will be safer if they travel in pairs and let someone know where they are planning to go.
Hitchhiking in Brazil , with the possible exception of the Pantanal and a few other areas where it’s commonplace among local folk, is difficult. The Portuguese word for ‘lift’ is carona, so ask ‘Pode dar carona?’ (Can you give us a lift?). The best way to hitch – practically the only way if you want rides – is to ask drivers when they’re not in their vehicles, for example by waiting at a gas station or a truck stop. But even this can be difficult.
Local bus services tend to be pretty good in Brazil . Since most Brazilians take the bus to work every day, municipal buses are usually frequent and their network of routes is comprehensive. They are always inexpensive.
In most city buses, you get on at the back and exit from the front, though occasionally the reverse is true. Usually there’s a money collector sitting at a turnstile just inside the entrance.
Crime can be a problem on buses. Rather than remain behind the turnstile, it’s safer to pay the fare and go through. Don’t take valuables on the buses. See Dangers & Annoyances in the Directory chapter for more information.
Jumping on a local bus is one of the best ways to get to know a city. With a map and a few dollars you can tour the town and maybe meet some of the locals.
Both Rio and Sao Paulo have excellent metro systems. These are a safe, cheap and efficient way of exploring the city. Fares cost around US$0.80, one-way.
Taxi rides are reasonably priced, and are the best option for getting around cities at night, and zipping across town in a hurry. Taxis in the cities usually have meters that start at US$1 and rise by something like US$0.75 per km. Occasionally, the taxi driver will refer to a chart (tabela) and revise slightly upwards. This reflects recent official hikes in taxi rates and the meter has not yet been adjusted.
In small towns, taxis often don’t have meters, and you’ll have to arrange a price beforehand.
Some airports and bus stations now have a system for you to purchase a fixed-price taxi ticket from a bilheteria (ticket office). At a few such places it’s much cheaper to go onto the street outside and find a cab that will take you for the meter fare or sometimes even less. In this book we’ve indicated places where this is the case. If you are carrying valuables, however, the special airport taxi, or a radio taxi, can be a worthwhile investment. These are probably the safest taxis on the road.
If possible, orient yourself before taking a taxi, and keep a map handy in case you find yourself being taken on a wild detour. The worst place to get a cab is where the tourists are. Don’t get a cab near one of the expensive hotels. In Rio , for example, walk a block away from the beach at Copacabana to flag down a cab.
Brazil’s passenger-train services have been scaled down to almost nothing in recent years, as the railways became more and more debt-ridden. There are still over 30,000km of track, but most trains carry only cargo. Rail enthusiasts should not quite despair, however, as there are still a couple of great rides. The outstanding one is the trip from Curitiba to Paranagua, descending the coastal mountain range with some unforgettable views. The Belo HorizonteVitoria run, via Santa Barbara and Sabara, is a cheaper and far more pleasant than the bus ride.
Steam trains in Brazil are affectionately known as Marias Fumafa (Smoking Mary), and a couple of them still run as leisure attractions. One is the 13km ride from Sao Joao del Rei to Tiradentes in Minas Gerais. Another pleasant short trip, this time by electric train, is the ride through the Serra da Mantiqueira of Sao Paulo state from Campos do Jordao to Santo Antonio do Pinhal, the highest stretch of track in the country.