Travel within most parts of Brazil is easy. Public transport outside of the Amazon is generally by bus or plane, with services plentiful and relatively 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 major cities have airports, usually some distance from downtown. The airports of Brasília, Congonhas and, above all, Guarulhos in São Paulo are chronically crowded, with long check-in lines, so allow extra time when flying from these locations.
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 TAM South American Airpass, which covers TAM flights to Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela. The regulations are fairly complicated but the route must include at least two countries (and a maximum of five), and the price of a pass is based on the distance flown (starting at US$339 for 1200–1900 miles), which usually works out costing far less than purchasing regular tickets. If you fly into the region on a carrier other than TAM you’ll pay a slightly higher rate.
If Brazil is your only destination, the TAM Brazil Air Pass can be a huge money saver when travelling long distances. It is valid for thirty days from the first flight and costs US$532 for four flights if bought together with a TAM international flight, and US$582 if you fly with another carrier. Additional flights are around US$150 each; for flights of two hours’ duration or more, this is much cheaper than you are likely to pay if you book a flight yourself. GOL, the low-cost Brazilian airline, offers the Brazil Airpass, which includes a minimum of four flight coupons (U$532) and a maximum of nine (US$1152), with a maximum stay of thirty days – all for flights within Brazil. Their Northeast Brazil Airpass starts at U$390 for any three flights in the northeastern part of the country (including all the airports between Porto Seguro and Salvador to São Luis, but not Belém and Amazonas).
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.
Budget airlines and fares
Budget airlines are now well established in Brazil, the biggest being GOL (voegol.com.br); its main competitors other than TAM (which has been forced to lower prices on domestic routes and cut business class to compete) are Avianca Brasil (avianca.com.br) and Azul (voeazul.com.br), launched by the founder of US budget carrier Jet Blue. GOL has an extensive network, cheap seats, is efficient and usually better value than TAM – though TAM still provides free snacks and drinks on most flights (with GOL you have to pay for anything other than glasses of water). Azul is also very efficient and has a large network, and though its planes are usually small (mostly Embraer aircraft), they generally come with live TV in each headrest. GOL and TAM are the best equipped to handle English-speakers, though websites for all of these carriers have an English option and now take most foreign credit cards (debit cards can be a problem, however).
In Brazilian holiday periods (July, around Christmas, and Carnaval) flights are often booked up and you need to book as far in advance as you can – as in other countries, prices for budget flights become more expensive closer to departure. The best deals are typically on well-travelled routes such as the Rio–São Paulo–Belo Horizonte triangle (from just R$130 one-way), and for flights of one hour or less anywhere in Brazil rates can be very reasonable – and still save 5–6 hours of bus travel. Travelling further afield – Rio to Fortaleza or Manaus, for example – starts to get a lot more expensive (from R$550–800 one-way). Again, book several weeks in advance for the best deals.
Flying within the Northeast or Amazônia can be tiresome, as many long-distance routes are no more than glorified bus runs, stopping everywhere en route. When planning your itinerary, it’s a good idea to check carefully how many times a plane stops – for example, between Manaus and São Luis, 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 Rico was involved in a couple of high-profile accidents in 2002 and 2004 (the airline closed in 2011). Where possible, stick to GOL, Azul and TAM when flying around Amazônia, or regional carrier MAP Linhas Aéreas (voemap.com.br). Air travel in small planes, or aerotaxis, is very common, however (Manaus Aerotáxi, for example; manausaerotaxi.com.br) – the regional name 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. Though it’s one of the better operators, a Manaus Aerotáxi Embraer plane crashed in 2009, killing 24 people on board.
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$70–80, to Foz do Iguaçu R$200–260 and to Salvador R$300, while São Paulo to Brasília is around R$170–180. Long-distance buses are comfortable enough to sleep on, 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 (highway rest stops with restaurants and toilets), 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 the bus is going to cross a state line, you may be asked for proof of ID when buying the ticket (your passport is best). 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.
Rules of the road
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. Make sure that you 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 (muggers). 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.
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 death traps 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.
Petrol and ethanol
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 Brazil’s 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.
Renting a car
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$130 a day for a compact car (Fiat Punto or similar) including unlimited mileage; a basic air-conditioned model will start at around R$150, 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 an excess 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.
Car rental agencies
There are enormous numbers of taxis in Brazilian cities, and depending on where you are, they are relatively cheap, though rates have risen a lot in recent years. City cabs are metered, and usually 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 on 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.
By ferry and boat
Boats and ferries are important forms of transport in parts of Brazil. 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.
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