Long Brazilian Road Trips: Eight Helpful Suggestions
Brazil is large. With a total land area of 8.5 million square kilometres, it takes a while to get around. Traveling from Brasilia to Recife, for example, is some 2500 kilometres via winding and unpredictable roads. One can understand why attempting to road trip this route can seem a little… daft.
But road trips give you a flavor distinctly lacking from other forms of transport; there’s plenty of opportunity to get to know a country’s landscape and your travelling companions that you’d never get from a reclining airline seat.
With this in mind, in February 2011 I squeezed into a Fiat Uno 1.0 with a German, an American and the car’s Brazilian owner. We made the trip from Brasilia to Recife in time for carnival.
Over the course of our eight day odyssey we did some things right…and some stuff wrong. What follows is a scattered tale of our endeavours with associated suggestions for any aspiring road-trippers. But first, here is some useful information for anyone considering renting a car in Brazil.
The trip described below was made in a privately owned car. The following information offers suggestions on car rental in Brazil if you need to hire a vehicle.
Car rental companies
All major chains are present in Brazil, including Avis, Budget and Hertz. Check out prices on their websites to get a rough understanding of rental costs per day for your route. Then put aside a day when you arrive in Brazil to look for local rental companies that will offer you a more competitive rate.
Car rental advice
• Be clear when negotiating a rental how long you will need the vehicle for, and where you will need to drop it off. Discounts are negotiable for longer rentals.
• Make sure your driver’s license is valid in Brazil. An international driver’s license is recommended; one less reason for the police to demand a roadside fine because they don’t recognise your license…
• All drivers must be over the age of 25 and at least one driver must have a credit card.
• Make sure the rental costs you are quoted includes insurance.
• When you receive the car make a through inspection for any dents, scratches or damage to avoid companies charging you for existing faults when you return the vehicle.
Road safety in Brazil
Brazil is widely regarded as a dangerous place to drive. This should not put you off a Brazilian road trip, but be aware of the following points.
• Brazilians like to drive fast, and will not slow down to your pace. Allow faster drivers to pass as soon as possible.
• Due to concerns of being robbed at stoplights when driving at night, red lights tend to mean ‘slow down’ instead of ‘stop’.
• Night-time driving is dangerous and should be avoided due to the condition of the roads and the increased possibility of drunk-driving.
• Speed bumps are the norm around towns, so make sure you reduce your speed.
• Off-street parking is a good option for towns and cities. If you must park your vehicle on the street, make sure nothing valuable is on display.
Our Journey Begins in Brasilia: February 25th 2011, 4:30 am
With brains still fuzzy from sleep we attempt to fit the luggage of four people into a boot that was designed to fit a couple of full plastic bags from a trip to the supermarket. After thrashing around for a while the back seat occupants decide to build a pile between them of the excess baggage.
The car rolls out of the intense fluorescent strip lighting of the underground car park. We slide into darkness and the high-rises of Brasilia loom over us in the half-light of early morning. My head nods towards my chest within minutes.
My neck creaks as I lift my head. Sunrise has come and gone and the clock on the dash reads 07:43. Driver Henrique is thundering along highway, flat green expanses of crops stretching out on either side of us. I bleat my desire for coffee and we pull into a gas station.
“How are you doing mate?” I ask Henrique. “I was a little tired before, but I’m great now,” he replies, refusing the thick black liquid I offer him.
Henrique’s not bullshitting; he drives for the rest of the day until our first night stopover at the national park of Chapada Diamantina, some 1000km northeast of Brasilia.
Common sense dictates the following; set manageable legs for the trip and have multiple drivers taking shifts. However, our solution was to use a single bionic Brazilian driving huge distances. It worked just fine.
Pot-holed paving disintegrates into a dirt track and we wind our way through thickening vegetation. The road dips and rises, and from the ridges we see vegetation spreading across rolling plains to the distant rock columns of Morrao that rise into towering plateaus.
Eventually we skitter down a rocky track into the hippy village of Capao. After crawling around town for a half hour we find a campsite and pitch our tent beside a banana grove. There are a lot people juggling in town; it turns out that we’ve crashed Capao’s second annual circus convention.
Avoid driving at night. Traversing Brazil’s remote highways and rural roads would have been a tire-bursting hell.
February 27th 2011, 12:30 pm
The arable landscape begins to sprout buildings, warehouses, tower blocks. We enter Salvador do Bahia on the bustling main highway, all confusing junctions and over-passes.
Luckily, we’ve made arrangements. Fifteen minutes later we’re backing into the off-street parking space of Raquel, who welcomes us into her apartment and presents a steady stream of food and drink despite weak protests. On her suggestion, we wander up to Bahia’s old town and find a drum crop thumping happily away at their instruments in preparation for an impending carnival.
We sleep fitfully on mattresses in air-conditioned rooms. It’s a welcome change after a couple of sticky nights camping on hard ground with an army of bugs for company.
Include stop-overs with friends en-route. If you don’t know anyone, try making friends through websites such as Couchsurfing or Hospitality Club. You’ll get a great taste of the place you are passing through, even if it is only for an evening.
March 1st 2011, 18:30pm
Since leaving Salvador to find beach campsites up the coast, our pre-selected option in Aracaju isn’t looking promising.
A fat Brazilian in a stained vest tells us in the fading daylight that a pitch will cost more than a hotel room. As mosquitoes fill the car we roll up the windows and get back onto the beach-front road. We drive out of town looking for a sneaky place to pitch. “That car looks like it is parked in a safe place,” I cheerfully volunteer. We pull alongside the stationary vehicle. It is badly dented, and every single window has been smashed.
The beach further out of town is lined with deserted bars. One has a light faintly glimmering from within. We circle the bar with a growing sense of dread and knock on the door to ask permission to put the tent up. There is no answer, only the whistling wind in the darkness. “It’s like we’re in a horror movie,” someone chuckles nervously.
We all run to the car, slam the doors and drive like a bat out of hell to the cheapest hotel in the Lonely Planet (“…wood floors and decent natural light..”) with a stained and decaying reception with rooms to match. At least there’s no fear of death.
Despite overpriced and infrequent campsites, camping on the coast is actually easy. Look for informal spots to pitch your tent on or near the beach during the daytime when businesses are open and people are around. Be sure to ask a nearby business or residence if it is ok to camp.
Common sense and gut instinct rule. If a situation feels bad, opt for a hotel or guest house (pousada). There will be plenty of options for accommodation all the way along the coast.
March 2nd 2011
Rotten luck; within a couple of hours on the road, we’re pulled over. After a solemn exchange with a looming traffic cop, Henrique leaves the car with his license in hand.
He’s back after a couple of minutes. “What happened?” We ask. “She thought she saw me overtake illegally,” he replies, “And I told her she was wrong.” Our eyes widen. “Oh don’t worry,” he reassures us, “She agreed with me.”
Portuguese will be your most useful road trip tool – asking directions, ordering food, getting accommodation suggestions… and that’s not even negotiating questionable disputes with the law. If you can’t travel with a native speaker, put in some serious work with your Portuguese. Try Byki for a free starter course.
Hunger rolls through the car; bellies are growling. We pull up to a well presented restaurant. Red tablecloths drape over a symmetrical floor plan. Waiters with monogrammed aprons stand attentive beside a vast buffet. One look at the price list confirms our worst suspicions, and we’re back on the road.
Pulling into the next gas station for a top up, we see a shabby looking hole in the wall with a couple of plastic chairs and tables scattered around. Five minutes later all of us are elbows deep in huge plates of rice, beans, salad, chicken and beef.
Look to the humble options for wholesome and economic meals when you are on the road. Gas stations nearly always have a restaurant. If the place is too expensive, have patience; there will be another option in a few miles.
March 4th 2011 12:04 pm
After eight days of roads winding through national parks, cities and beaches we’re in Recife… but our journey is far from over. The city is a labyrinth of one-way streets, bumper-to-bumper traffic and pre-carnaval hysteria, all at equatorial temperatures high enough to fry an egg on the bonnet.
Our map is dog-eared and useless; the scale gives us no inner city information at all. All I’ve got is the address of my friends where we will be crashing over carnaval.
This sounds like a disaster, but I’ve got technology on my side; Henrique’s iPhone. I tap our destination into the Google maps application and it spits out a neat route across the city to our destination, one way streets accounted for. Wonderful… until the battery dies two blocks short.
Henrique’s Portuguese is put back into use and eventually we complete the last kilometre of thousands, rewarding ourselves and getting into the carnival spirit with cold beers.
3G cellphone coverage in Brazil is good around most towns and cities; any in-car navigation applications will make life easier for you when negotiating unfamiliar streets. Just don’t forget the charger…
Jon Clarke likes to play with words, understand people, and vice-versa. He left the UK over two years ago to explore and doesn’t show any signs of returning. Right now he’s on a one man mission to make postcards the weapon of choice for travel blogging.
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