Transportation in Brazil: Getting there, away and around
In a large country like Brazil, travelling domestically by airplane is something to consider seriously, as it is sometimes as affordable as travelling by long-distance bus. Moreover, Brasil is the country with the highest number of airports in the world after the USA, so the network is vast. If you want the most options and best prices, try to book as long in advance as possible, especially during the holiday season (one week before Christmas until one week after Carnival) and in July/ August (summer holiday in Europe and Northern America).
|The main carriers which offer domestic
flightsin Brazil are GOL and TAM. The cheaper one usually is GOL, but do not miss out on special offers by TAM. Other major ones are Azul, Trip, Ocean Air and Varig (which is the former largest airline in Brazil, now entirely incorporated by GOL).
If you plan on visiting more cities on one trip, purchasing a Brazil Airpass might be a good idea. This pass, offered by both GOL and TAM, gives you the possibility to be on 4 to 5 flights anywhere in its respective domestic network. Extra flights are offered for reduced prices as well. Prices of the Brazil Airpass slightly differ between the two
airlines(TAM gives a discount when you fly to Brazil with them as well).
There are some restrictions though, for instance the Brazil Airpass is valid for a maximum of 30 days and you can only purchase it outside Brazil. Furthermore, when you buy your Brazil Airpass you need to book your flights at the same time, otherwise penalty fees might apply. You cannot change the route anyway, only the dates. Nevertheless, the investment in a Brazil Airpass is often money well spent.
Note 1: Airport tax applies on all domestic flights. If it is not included in the price you have to pay the tax in cash reais when you check in. Taxes also differ; the larger the airport, the higher the tax.
Note 2: Always reconfirm your flight about 48 hours before departure.
In Brazil, the bus network between all the major cities and beyond is extensive. Unlike domestic flights,
busesusually leave strictly on time. Long-distance buses are often spick-and-span and comfortable. The best services and vehicles will be found in Southern Brazil. In Amazonia and up north they are of less quality. Services are operated by numerous private companies. Standard prices between them are more or less similar, although if you have time it might be a good idea to look for discounts. Every town of considerable size has one or more long-haul bus terminals which are called ‘rodoviária’. Unfortunately, they are often located at the edge of town. Bus terminals are bustling places, the larger ones with facilities like showers, ATMs, luggage lockers and tourist offices.
|A few classes are available:
- ‘Comum’ (or ‘convencional’), which comfort is reasonable. It sometimes has air-conditioning and a toilet aboard, but not always and if so, it is not always in service; better check before you buy a ticket.
- The second class is called ‘Executivo’, which is in general of better convenience (air-conditioning and reclining seats for instance) and it has more express services (less stops).
'Leito' class with comfy reclining seats
- The best class is ‘Leito’, which are usually night buses (to take into consideration: you save money on a hotel, but miss out on the scenery). Seats are very comfy and can be almost turned into a bed (‘Semi-leito‘ means your seat is not able to be put fully in horizontal position). In Leito class often a host is on board, handing out bed linen and serving snacks and drinks.
Regardless the class, every bus will stop for short breaks every few hours. In general, it is possible to buy a ticket for the next departing bus, but to be safe you best buy your ticket in advance. In the high season (one week before Christmas until one week after Carnaval and in July/ August) you best make your purchase a day in advance (so you can check other companies if necessary). Many bus companies have agents in town, so you do not have to go all the way to the rodoviária in order to buy a ticket.
Note 1: Bus tickets will not be refunded, so be sure about date, time and destination.
Note 2: Seats are numbered, so you can choose window or isle seats. If possible, stay clear of the seats near the toilet.
Driving yourself is a great way to experience the beauty and vastness of Brazil. However, road conditions vary by region. As a rough rule of thumb, the best roads are in Southern Brazil and the more north you go, the worse the conditions might get. Roads in the Amazon, Pantanal and Sertão are often unpaved and only accessible by 4x4.
In order to
rent a car, you need to show a valid driving licence, your passport and a common credit card. Bringing an International Driving Permit (IDP), although not officially recognized by Brazil, might be a good idea in case of a road accident and its aftermath (the permit is essentially a multiple language translation of the permit-holder's normal driving licence). It is usually possible to purchase an insurance policy with the car but you must be often at least 25 years old to rent a car. Note: in order to drive a motor cycle in Brazil, you have to carry a Brazilian driving licence for motorbikes; a foreign licence is not sufficient.
|There are plenty of car rental companies in the cities and smaller towns. In the metropolitan areas there is more competition, so prices are usually lower.
Localiza is the largest national brand, but also the large international brands like Hertz and Avis have many representatives.
A car rental company is called a locadora. There are plenty of options concerning size, comfort and price.
Note that cars in Brazil run on petrol and/ or ethanol, but many rental cars run on petrol only (if you can choose: ethanol is a lot cheaper). Gas stations with petrol are also more common than the ones selling ethanol.
Things to consider:
- If you plan to stay only in one city, a rental car might not be your best option to move around (the exception is Brasilia). Driving in the large metropolitan areas can be chaotic and a great hassle; traffic jams can be a nightmare and your fellow road users will not perform the same courtesy like you are used to at home. Parking can also be a problem in the metropolitan areas. Never leave valuables in your car and if possible, park inside a closed, off-street car park (consider this while choosing your accommodation).
- Brazil has right-hand traffic. Road rules are more or less the same as in Europe and Northern America (an important exception is that you are not allowed to turn right at a red traffic light unlike in the USA). Nevertheless, many drivers completely ignore the road rules and can be aggressive and impatient. Overtaking at the right, suddenly switching lanes without indicator, speeding and tailgating are common. ‘Survival of the fittest’ is also prevalent in Brazilian traffic: the bigger the vehicle, the more ‘rights’ it claims (with trucks at the top and pedestrians at the bottom of the ladder).
Come prepared and be confident while driving yourself (and make sure the horn functions properly...).
- If you head out for a road trip, make sure your car is in good condition and bring water, reserve fuel, a spare tire, tools and a flashlight in case of a breakdown.
- Better not driving at night. Roads, even the highways, are often poorly lit, so road signs and other road users are hard to distinguish, let alone speed bumps and potholes. At night, many drivers ignore red traffic lights for safety reasons, bear this in mind and do the same if possible.
Unfortunately, the chances of enjoying travel by train are very slim in Brazil. It has never been a country with a dense train network and furthermore, many old railways have been dismantled to make way for roads. As luck would have it, there are still a few scenic train journeys to be made in Brazil, although they are often more or less presented as a tourist attraction. Arguably the most scenic trip by train is Curitiba – Morretes. Another interesting train trip is Belo Horizonte – Vitória, from the heart of Minas Gerais to the coast of Espirito Santo.
|Besides ‘real’ train services, there are also a handful of interesting genuinely touristy steam trains, like the Maria Fumaça (‘Smoking Mary’) between Tiradentes and São João del Rei or the one between Ouro Preto and Mariana.
Travelling by boat is a lot more common in Brazil. At least in some specific parts of the country: the Amazon and parts of the North and North-eastern coast. In the Amazon basin, rivers are still the most important ‘roads’. The boat network from Manaus is extensive and there is a wide range of vessels and destinations available.
Serra Verde Express
The most popular itinerary by boat is from Manaus to Belem or from Manaus upstream in the direction of Peru.
Amazon river cruise
|In some parts of the North East it is much more convenient to travel from one coastal village to another by boat, than to make huge detours by car. Most notable is the scenic stretch of coast between Parnaíba (Piaui) and Tutóia (Maranhão), which is 80 km/ 50 miles as the crow flies (as the fish swims...), but a 4 hours drive by car.
Ultimately, for the ones who can afford it: there are many options of travelling along the Brazilian coastline by cruise liner, with plenty ports of call, especially between Santos and Salvador. The islands of Fernando de Noronha are accessible by boat from Recife.
In Brazil there are many options to travel locally from point A to B. The large metropolitan areas of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo have modern metro networks, but in most of the cities buses and minivans are the most common way of public transport. In rural areas the only option of local transport is often a motor taxi (‘moto-taxi’): at the back of a moped.
- Metro: Fortunately Sao Paulo as well as Rio de Janeiro have convenient metro/
subwaylines which are much easier to navigate than the complicated bus network. They are also considerably cleaner and safer than travelling by bus. The metro system of Sao Paulo is much more long-winded than the one in Rio de Janeiro, but here most places interesting for the tourist are more or less in reach of a metro station.
|Moreover, Rio de Janeiro metro has some ‘extensions’ of the network covered by aircon metrobus, carrying you to points of interest that are not near a metro station, like Leblon and the Sugar Loaf.
The metro in both cities is not in function at night, with the exception of the Rio metro during Carnival (5 days 24/7).
Among foreign visitors the combination of metro and taxis is the most popular form of urban transportation in Brazil.
Metro in Sao Paulo
There are also smaller subway systems in Recife, Brasilia, Belo Horizonte and Porto Alegre.
- Bus: In Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo buses run 24/7, but less frequent at night (at night you should take a cab anyway). At the windscreen the final destination is shown and in smaller print you can read important stops along the line. In the bus you will buy a ticket from an attendant at a tourniquet; keep change at the ready. Buses often get entangled in the never ending traffic jams and are frequently packed. Petty theft occurs regularly; safest place to be in buses is at the front.
More on safety in local transportation
- Taxi: When you want to make use of a taxi, you can flag one down in the street, order one by phone (radio taxi) or walk to one of the numerous taxi stands.
Moto taxi waiting for a ride
|In the big cities taxis have a meter. However, some taxis like the ones at the airport and major bus stations as well as radio taxis do not have one, but take you around for a prefixed price. You should buy a ticket for these at a ticket stand (bilheteria).
Using a metered taxi, make sure the meter is at ‘0’ before you go and the tariff is ‘1’, except at night from 11 pm to 6 am, at Sundays and in December when tariff ‘2’ is applied. In smaller towns, taxis usually do not have meters, so you should negotiate a price before you head off.
The same applies if you use a moto-taxi. In case you are not sure what price is fair, ask at reception of your accommodation to give rough indications.