Getting around Brazil: Transportation Tips
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Local travel in Brazil is always easy. Public transport outside of the Amazon is generally by bus or plane, though there are a few passenger trains, too. However you travel, services will be crowded, plentiful and, apart from planes, fairly cheap. Car rental is possible, but driving in Brazil is not for the faint-hearted. Hitchhiking, over any distance, is not recommended.
It’s hardly surprising that a country the size of Brazil relies on air travel a good deal; in some parts of Amazônia, air links are more important than roads and rivers. Any town has at least an airstrip, and all cities have airports, usually some distance from the city but not always: Santos Dumont in Rio, Congonhas in São Paulo and Guararapes in Recife are all pretty central. The airports of Brasília, Congonhas and, above all, Guarulhos in São Paulo are chronically crowded, with long check-in lines. If flying internationally from Guarulhos, add at least an extra hour to account for the phenomenal queues to get through passport control, and don’t be surprised, on arrival, for it to take an hour or more to clear customs and immigration. If travelling with children, go straight to the front of the lines: families, pregnant women and seniors have priority.
When buying your international ticket, you should consider the possibility of adding an air pass, though note that the emergence of budget airlines in the country means that they now only make sense if you’re planning a series of long-haul trips – from the South to the Amazon and back via the Northeast, for example.
If Brazil is only one stop on a longer trip, consider the Mercosur Airpass, which covers eight airlines of Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay and Uruguay. The regulations are fairly complicated but the passes basically allow two stopovers per country (plus point of origin) up to a maximum of eight, although an extra stopover is allowed to give you use of both the Argentine and Brazilian airports at Iguaçu Falls. The route must include at least two countries, and the price of a pass is based on the number of miles flown, which always works out costing far less than purchasing regular tickets. Prices may be affected by the time of year that you travel.
If Brazil is your only destination, the TAM Air Pass can be a huge moneysaver. It is valid for thirty days from the first flight and costs US$530 for four flights if bought together with a TAM international flight, US$700 if you fly with another carrier. Additional flights are around US$150 each, much cheaper than you are likely to pay if you book a flight yourself within Brazil.
Lastly, if you have an air pass and change the time or date of your flight, always remember to cancel the original flight. If you don’t, the computer flags you as a no-show, and all your other air-pass reservations will also be cancelled.
A recent phenomenon in Brazil is the appearance of budget airlines, of which the biggest is GOL; others include Webjet and Azul, which started operating in 2009. GOL has an extensive network, cheap seats, is efficient and usually much better value than TAM – though, irritatingly, American Express is the only foreign credit-card that’s accepted on its website. In Brazilian holiday periods (July, around Xmas, and Carnaval) flights are often booked up and you need to book as far in advance as you can. Outside these times, if you can be a little flexible on dates and if the TAM airpass does not meet your needs, your cheapest strategy would be to book tickets with Gol after arriving in Brazil at a Gol desk in an airport.
Flying to the Northeast or Amazônia from the South can be tiresome, as many of these long-distance routes are no more than glorified bus runs, stopping everywhere before heading north. In planning your itinerary, it’s a good idea to check carefully how many times a plane stops – for example, between São Paulo and Fortaleza, a flight may stop as many as four times or as few as once.
There are safety issues to consider when flying in the Amazon, where investigations following a recent series of crashes revealed serious problems in a number of regional airlines, notably Rico. Where possible, stick to Gol and TAM when flying around the Amazon. In many parts of Amazônia, air travel in small planes, or aerotaxis, is very common – the regional word for these flights is teco-teco. Before taking one, you should be aware that the airstrips are often dangerous, the planes routinely fly overloaded and are not reliably maintained, and no checks are made on the qualifications of pilots – some don’t have any.
Prices are reasonable in the South and Northeast but climb steeply as soon as the Amazon is involved, where a return flight from Rio or São Paulo can often be scarily similar to the cost of a flight to Miami. It’s always much cheaper to buy internal tickets linked to your international flights if you plan on heading to the Amazon from Rio or São Paulo. If you are flying outside holiday periods in Brazil (July & Dec–March) and you’re not heading to the Amazon, you will probably get a cheaper deal buying a ticket in Brazil after you arrive.
You probably won’t be taking many trains in Brazil. Although there’s an extensive rail network, most of it is for cargo only, and even where there are passenger trains they’re almost invariably slower and less convenient than the buses. Exceptions are the metrô rail systems in Porto Alegre, Rio, São Paulo and Brasília and a few tourist journeys worth making for themselves, especially in the South and Minas Gerais.
The bus system in Brazil is excellent and makes travelling around the country easy, comfortable and economical, despite the distances involved. Inter-city buses leave from a station called a rodoviária, usually built on city outskirts.
Buses are operated by hundreds of private companies, but prices are standardized, even when more than one firm plies the same route, and are reasonable: Rio to São Paulo is around R$80, to Belo Horizonte R$75, to Foz do Iguaçu R$200 and to Salvador R$240, while São Paulo to Brasília is around R$150. Long-distance buses are comfortable enough to sleep in, and have on-board toilets (which can get smelly on long journeys): the lower your seat number, the further away from them you’ll be. Buses stop every two or three hours at well-supplied postos, but as prices at these are relatively high it’s not a bad idea to bring along water and some food. Some bus companies will supply meal vouchers for use at the postos on long journeys.
There are luxury buses, too, called leitos, which do overnight runs between the major cities – worth taking once for the experience, with fully reclining seats in curtained partitions, freshly ironed sheets and an attendant plying insomniacs with coffee and conversation. They cost about a third of the price of an air ticket, and twice as much as a normal long-distance bus; they’re also less frequent and need to be booked a few days in advance. No matter what kind of bus, it’s a good idea to have a light sweater or blanket during night journeys, as the air conditioning is often uncomfortably cold.
Going any distance, it’s best to buy your ticket at least a day in advance, from the rodoviária or, in some cities, from travel agents. An exception is the Rio–São Paulo route, where a shuttle service means you can always turn up without a ticket and never have to wait more than fifteen minutes. Numbered seats are provided on all routes: if you want a window, ask for janela. If you cross a state line, you will get a small form with the ticket, which asks for the number of your seat (poltrona), the number of your ticket (passagem), the number of your passport (identidade) and your destination (destino). You have to fill it in and give it to the driver before you’ll be let on board. Buses have luggage compartments, which are safe: you check pieces at the side of the bus and get a ticket for them. Keep an eye on your hand luggage, and take anything valuable with you when you get off for a halt.
Driving standards in Brazil hover between abysmal and appalling. The country has one of the highest death tolls from driving-related accidents in the world, and on any journey you can see why, with thundering trucks and drivers treating the road as if it were a Grand Prix racetrack. Fortunately, inter-city bus drivers are the exception to the rule: they are usually very good, and their buses usually have devices fitted that make it impossible for them to exceed the speed limit. Electronic speed traps are widely used everywhere, and if you get caught by one in a rental car, the fine will simply be added to your credit card. Since 2008, a zero-tolerance law has made it strictly illegal to drive after consuming any amount of alcohol, a response to the enormous death toll caused by drunk drivers. Offenders risk severe punishments if tests detect any alcohol in their blood – expect at least a hefty fine and the threat of imprisonment.
Road quality varies according to region: the South and Southeast have a good paved network; the Northeast has a good network on the coast but is poor in the interior; and roads in Amazônia are by far the worst, with even major highways closed for weeks or months at a time as they are washed away by the rains. Most cities are fairly well signposted, so getting out of town shouldn’t be too difficult; if city traffic is daunting, try to arrange to collect your car on a Sunday when traffic is light. If at all possible, avoid driving at night because potholes (even on main roads) and lombadas (speed bumps) may not be obvious, and breaking down after dark could be dangerous. Outside the big cities, Brazilian roads are deathtraps at night; poorly lit, in bad condition and lightly policed. Especially worth avoiding at night are the Via Dutra, linking Rio and São Paulo, because of the huge numbers of trucks and the treacherous ascent and descent of the Serra do Mar, and the Belém–Brasília highway, whose potholes and uneven asphalt make it difficult enough to drive even in daylight. Where possible, avoid driving after dark in the Mato Grosso and Amazon regions as well; though rare, armed roadside robberies have been known to happen there.
An international driving licence is useful: although foreign licences are accepted for visits of up to six months, you may have a hard time convincing a police officer of this. Outside of the towns and cities, service stations can be few and far between, so keep a careful eye on the fuel gauge. Service stations sell both petrol (gasolina) and ethanol (álcool), with new cars (including rentals) usually capable of running on either fuel. Álcool is considerably cheaper than gasolina, and there’s no longer a noticeable difference in terms of performance. Service stations in rural areas do not always accept international credit cards, so make sure you have sufficient cash on a long trip. In urban areas, plastic is universally accepted at petrol stations, although a common scam is to charge around twenty percent more per litre when payment is made by credit card rather than cash: always check in advance whether there is a price difference if you intend to pay by credit card.
Parking, especially in the cities, can be tricky due to security and finding a space, and it’s worth paying extra for a hotel with some kind of lock-up garage. A universal feature of city driving in Brazil is the flanelinha, named for the flannel that informal parking attendants wave at approaching cars; these attendants will help you into and out of parking spaces and guard your car, in return for a real or two. Brazilians will go to almost any lengths to avoid paying them, but they’re making a living and providing a service, so do the decent thing. In any event, never leave anything valuable inside the car.
Driving in Brazil is very different from northern Europe and the US. Do not expect Brazilians to pay much attention to lane markings, use indicators or worry about cutting you off or overtaking you on the inside. Use your rear and wing mirrors constantly when city driving. At night, you should cautiously roll through red lights in city centres or deserted-looking streets, to avoid assaltantes. And a crucial thing to know is that flashing lights from an oncoming car mean “I’m coming through – get out of the way” and NOT “please go ahead”, as in the UK and US. It sounds intimidating, and it is for the first couple of days, but it is surprising how quickly you get used to it.
Renting a car in Brazil is straightforward. Of the big-name international companies, Hertz and Avis are the most widely represented, with Budget and Dollar increasing their representation. There are also plenty of reliable Brazilian alternatives, such as Unidas, Interlocadora and Localiza. Car-rental offices (locadoras) can be found at every airport and in most towns regardless of size, although you will pay slightly more for airport pick-up and drop-off. Almost all cars in Brazil have manual gears; automatics are rare.
Rates start from around R$120 a day for a compact car (Fiat Punto or similar) including unlimited mileage; a basic air-conditioned model will start at around R$140, also including unlimited mileage. Four-wheel-drive vehicles are rare and extremely expensive. Prices don’t always include insurance – a comprehensive policy will cost an additional R$25 per day or so with a deductible of R$500. If you have a US credit card, you may find that it can be used to cover the additional liability – check before leaving home. In any case, a credit card is essential for making a deposit when renting a car. It’s not a bad idea to reserve a car before you arrive in Brazil, as you can be sure to get the best available rate.
As you would anywhere, carefully check the condition of the car before accepting it and pay special attention to the state of the tyres (including the spare), and make sure there’s a jack, warning triangle and fire extinguisher: the police will check for these if you get pulled over. All cars have front and back seatbelts; their use is compulsory, and stiff on-the-spot fines are imposed on drivers and front-seat passengers found not to be wearing them.
There are enormous numbers of taxis in Brazilian cities, and they’re very cheap, especially if there are two or more passengers. City cabs are metered, and have two rates: 1 is cheaper, 2 more expensive. The rate the taxi is using is indicated on the taximeter, after the fare. Rate 2 is automatic on trips to and from airports and bus stations in big cities, after 8pm, and all day Sunday and public holidays. Many cities give taxi drivers a Christmas bonus by allowing them to charge Rate 2 for the whole of December. Occasionally, drivers will refer to a sheet and revise the fare slightly upwards – they are not ripping you off, but referring to price updating tables that fill the gap until taximeters can be readjusted to reflect the official annual increases.
Taxis in small towns and rural areas do not often have meters, so it’s best to agree on the fare in advance – they’ll be more expensive than in the cities. Most airports and some bus stations are covered by taxi cooperatives, which operate under a slightly different system: attendants give you a coupon with fares to various destinations printed on it – you pay either at a kiosk in advance, or the driver. These are more expensive than regular taxis, but they’re reliable and often more comfortable. Tipping is not obligatory, but appreciated.
Water travel and ferries are also important forms of transport in parts of Brazil. Specific details are included in the relevant sections of the Guide, but look out for the ferry to Niterói, without which no journey to Rio would be complete; Salvador, where there are regular services to islands and towns in the huge bay on which the city is built; in the South between the islands of the Bay of Paranaguá; and most of all in Amazônia.
In Amazônia, rivers have been the main highways for centuries, and the Amazon itself is navigable to ocean-going ships as far west as Iquitos in Peru, nearly 3000km upstream from Belém.
In all the large riverside cities of the Amazon – notably Belém, Manaus and Santarém – there are hidroviárias, ferry terminals for waterborne bus services. Amazon river travel is slow and can be tough going, but it’s a fascinating experience. On bigger boats, there are a number of classes; in general, it’s better to avoid cabine, where you swelter in a cabin, and choose primeiro (first class) instead, sleeping in a hammock on deck. Segundo (second class) is usually hammock space in the lower deck or engine room. Wooden boats are much more comfortable than metal, but usually slower. Take plenty of provisions, and expect to practise your Portuguese.
The range of boat transport in the Amazon runs from luxury tourist boats and large three-level riverboats to smaller one- or two-level boats (the latter normally confining their routes to main tributaries and local runs) and covered launches operated by tour companies. The most popular route is the Belém–Manaus trip, which takes four to six days.