Brazil is a huge and fantastic country, and the best way to discover it is by car or motorcycle.
Of course, when you’re used to driving in Europe or the US, you will quickly notice a number of differences. In this post, I would like to give some practical information and pointers about driving in Brazil.
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The rules of driving in Brazil
In my opinion, 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” (I don’t mean “the law”) vary according to which situation you’re in, but one thing that almost always applies is: who has the bigger vehicle, has the upper hand.
Don’t expect people to stop and give way, even if you have priority (like on a roundabout). Don’t expect people to use indicators when they turn left or right. Don’t be surprised to see cars and even trucks driving at night without lights.
Big cities – Traffic jams: In the big cities you will almost always 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) making their way through the rows of cars, honking their horns and switching lanes, often at considerable speeds, so be VERY careful in traffic jams and check your mirrors before changing lanes.
Major highways: These are usually in good condition and especially the toll roads are equipped with a well-functioning tow service (free of charge). In case of an accident or engine problems, you will get towed to the next gas station. One of the best highways in Brazil (also the most expensive in terms of toll) is the BR116 (the “Dutra”) between Rio and São Paulo. São Paulo is the state with the densest road network. a quick look at the road map of Brazil and you see this very easily.
The condition of vehicles (cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles…) goes from excellent to literally falling apart… I’ve seen cars with doors missing, or pieces 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.
Tips for driving in Brazil
Here are five practical hints and recommendations for anyone who wants to venture out on the road in this amazing country.
1. Road conditions in Brazil
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…
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. 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.
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
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 that 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 always advisable to buy your gas at a big distributor station like Petrobras or Shell…
3. Animals (and other stuff) on the road
Unfortunately, Brazil has thousands, if not millions of stray animals wandering the streets. Cows, horses, donkeys, dogs… not to speak about the wildlife, like capivara, tatu, snakes, lizards… Your reflexes can be tested.
4. Use a GPS for directions when driving
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, and I arrived in Brazil with the standard Garmin 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..)
When you come to Brazil you want to use your Garmin GPS, make sure you have a good map installed. I strongly recommend the “Tracksource” map. It is totally free, developed by volunteers and as far as I have been experiencing up to now, very accurate.
Another advantage this map has, is that it not only contains the official roads (Federal and state roads) but also a wealth of small roads, 4×4 tracks and hiking trails that aren’t on ANY map. Some smaller cities don’t have all the streets yet, but there’s a monthly update and the map gets more complete every time.
5. Be prepared when driving in Brazil
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)