Driving in Brazil

Hi all,

Brazil is a large, diverse, and beautiful country. There are many beautiful places to visit – but many are best visited by car. Public transport tends to be pretty good in most cities, and inter-city buses can carry you in comfort inexpensively from one city or town to another. But for real freedom to explore, nothing really beats having your own vehicle.

Fortunately, it’s easy enough to rent a car in Brazil, and often prices are very reasonable, if you shop around. If you Google “rent a car in Brazil”, the search results will show many sites in English. In larger cities you’ll find a variety of options. Even a town of 30,000 is likely to have 3-4 rental companies.

You do NOT need an international driver’s license to rent in Brazil. You will need to have a valid driver’s license and a major credit card. (Note: MasterCard and Visa are widely accepted these days, but American Express, Discovery, Diner’s Club and others are less so). You may also need to be at least 21 or 25 years old, depending on the company, so ask if you are young. (Lucky you!) Also note that, although automatic transmissions are becoming more common these days, most cars, including rentals, are manual. If you can’t drive a stick, you may be stuck. (Sorry, it was just there begging to be written.)

In case you are wondering, in Brazil we drive on the right, same as in North America. Whew! (I remember driving in Australia years ago and suddenly realizing that I was on the right – which is wrong – side of the road! Yikes!)

Most cars in Brazil are what is termed “flex” cars, meaning that they run on more than one type of fuel. Most run on gasoline and on alcohol. “Total flex” cars also run on compressed natural gas. So when you pull up at a “gas station”, you might initially be intimidated. Relax! In Brazil, laws require that fuels be dispensed by an employee. Think the U.S. pre-1970s energy crisis, when self-service was introduced to reduce costs. Pretty cool! For younger folks, this may be a new and enjoyable experience. Just tell the guy which fuel you want and how much. If in doubt, ask for gasoline, since it typically gives better performance.

Which reminds me: Something I find annoying, but which is common here, is that the car may not be full when you pick it up, as it invariably is in the U.S. You are supposed to just return it with the same amount of fuel in it, which of course requires that you estimate how much to add when you go to the service station. Annoying. You could ask for them to fill it for you at pick up, though often the rental company doesn’t have pumps and so can’t comply even if they have a mind to…

Road quality in Brazil continues to improve, but it’s a hit-or-miss proposition. As a rule of thumb, roads are better in Sao Paulo state and the South, not as good in the North and Northeast, but there are some very nice new roads there, too (such as the one connecting Natal and Joao Pessoa). So best to allow some extra time. You are not likely to be able to average the same speeds as you would on U.S. highways.

Watch out for radar traps. In Brazil, these are large stationary posts, usually put up on the outskirts of a town as you enter, or on bypass stretches. You have to really slow down, to whatever the indicated speed is. It could be as low as 40 kilometers per hour, which is only 25 miles per hour. So when you see signs saying Fiscalização eletrônica, really slow down.

I don’t find driving outside of the big cities to be challenging, except that sometimes signage is lacking. It’s also really surprisingly who often you can ask people whether you to take this fork or that fork to get to the capital city, and they will have no idea. So look at it all as an adventure.

While I have no trouble driving on highways and in smaller towns, I find big-city driving to be stressful. Drivers can be aggressive, and you have the odd horse cart and bicycle delivery guy driving the wrong way, so stay alert. Then there are those reckless motorcycle delivery guys, the “motoboys“, who zip between lanes of traffic. Whew!

If you’d like a good laugh, you might want to read about the first time I drove in Brazil – which was during my very first visit. Here’s the link: http://www.johninbrazil.org/vitoria-and-guarapari/.

Despite your misgivings, driving needn’t be intimidating here, and it allow you to see some of the more off-the-beaten path spots.

Which I think are usually the best ones.


Down south in Brazil

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