Driving in Brazil – Practical Survival Guide and Tips

Rio - Santos (BR101) near Angra dos Reis

Rio – Santos (BR101) near Angra dos Reis

Brazil is a huge and fantastic country, and one of the best ways to discover it is taking a car or motorcycle and hit the road. Here’s how to do it.  

When you’re a European or US citizen, you will quickly notice a number of differences between what you’re used to, and the way people drive in Brazil.

In my opinion/experience, 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” (and I don’t mean “the law”) vary according to which of the above mentioned situations you’re in, but a few things are very general and apply almost everywhere:

1. who has the bigger vehicle, (thinks that he/she) has the upper hand.

2. Don’t expect people to stop and give way, even if you have priority (like on a roundabout).

3. Don’t expect people to use indicators when they are about to turn left or right.

4. Don’t be surprised to see cars and even trucks driving at night without lights.

Big cities – Traffic jams:

In the big cities, chances are that you will 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) splitting lanes, frantically honking their horns often driving at considerable speeds. When you’re driving a car, ALWAYS check your mirrors before changing lanes.

Major highways in Brazil:

BR116 between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo

The BR116 between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. One of the best highways in brazil. Also one of the most expensive in terms of toll booths

Of all Brazilian states, São Paulo is the state with the densest and best road network. a quick glance at a road map of Brazil and you see this very easily.

Big highways in Brazil are usually in reasonably good condition (except in the north and north east – read more about this later). One of the best highways in Brazil (also the most expensive in terms of toll) is the BR116 (also referred to as “Dutra”) between Rio and São Paulo.

Most toll roads – like the Dutra – are equipped with a well-functioning tow service . In case of an accident or engine problems, you will get towed to the next gas station (free of charge).


Condition of vehicles in Brazil

the condition of other vehicles on the road (cars, trucks, motorcycles, bicycles…) goes from excellent to literally falling apart… I’ve seen cars with doors missing, or parts 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.

Here are five practical hints and recommendations for anyone who wants to venture out on the road in this amazing country.

1. Road conditions and signalization in Brazil

General Situation: 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…

Worst kind of dirt road

Worst kind of dirt road. Better stay away when it rains

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

Important: Running out of gas in Brazil constitutes an infraction of the law, so make sure you fill up before leaving home.

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 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 advisable to ALWAYS buy gas at “big brand” stations like BR or Shell.

3. Animals (and other stuff) on the road in Brazil

Stray animals

A badly loaded truck AND cows on the road… Double hazard.

Unfortunately, Brazil has thousands, if not millions of stray animals wandering the streets. Cows, horses, donkeys, dogs, chickens, etc., not to mention wildlife, like capivara, tatu, snakes and lizards. It is one of the reasons why it is better to avoid driving at night or at least be extremely careful.

Under the “other stuff” category, I would like to mention the kite lines that are extremely dangerous to motorcyclists.

4. GPS

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. When I arrived in Brazil, I only had the Garmin “City Navigator” 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..) Learn more on GPS and a great free Brazil map for GARMIN 

5. Be prepared

Lady with flat tire

Make sure to Check your spare tire: you don’t want to end up like this lady. When I got out the spare, it turned out to be flat as well. Luckily I had my mountainbike pump :)

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)

and make sure to:

  • Buy adequate Insurance: For yourself and third parties.
  • Learn some Portuguese, or at least have a Portuguese Phrasebook handy.
  • Check your spare tire… (it could be out of air) 
  • VERY IMPORTANT: NEVER drink and drive!! Brazil has a ZERO TOLERANCE policy (Lei Seca) and even the slightest amount of alcohol in your system will get you in a heap of trouble.

Hope this was useful. If you ever drove around in Brazil and lived, let me know your story.

13 thoughts on “Driving in Brazil – Practical Survival Guide and Tips

  1. Great tips, and clearly written by someone who has actually done that/been there!

    Which route would you recommend from Sao Paulo to Ilheus (BA) — via Belo Horizonte or via Rio and ES? (Main considerations: safety and time.)

    Thanks again!
    Frank

    • Hi Frank,
      The two routes you mention are basically the same distance (only 50 – 60km difference).
      I think road conditions would be better on the Rio de Janeiro route. The BR101 is in good condition in Rio and Espirito Santo, but gets worse in Bahia.
      On toll sections you have free towing service…

      Time-wise, the principal determining factors will be the weather (it is the rainy season), traffic density (don’t do this trip on a feriado) and especially the number of trucks on the road… There’s only 2 lanes and tons of curves, so getting past a slow truck can be a nightmare… Be careful… many Brazilians drive like crazy people and tend to overtake in very dangerous ways.

      I don’t have a outspoken preference for any of the two routes, but the Rio, ES one would definitely be more scenic.

      Check Google street view to get an idea of driving conditions on both routes…

      Good luck

      • Thanks for the quick reply, and the advice.

        I did BR-101 from Rio to Ilheus many years ago, and it seems from your comments that it’s essentially the same — fine until the Espirito Santos/Bahia line. At that point, there is (or was) a huge banner over the highway with a “Welcome to Bahia” message, but you didn’t need the sign to know you were there: The sudden appearance of potholes, right over the line, said that you had arrived! (As long as there are Bahias, it seems, Brazil will remain in the Third World.)

        But as this seems to be a better alternative than going via Belo Horizonte, I’ll do it soon and post some impressions.

        Thanks again,
        Frank

        • Hey Frank,
          It’s funny that you mention the banner… I saw a big billboard on the side of the road saying “Smile, you are in Bahia” – in Portuguese of course…

          The 101 is actually one of the better roads up there… I broke the two rear shock absorbers of my Land Rover Defender driving around in Bahia :)

          About the “third world”, I actually like a lot of what is considered “3rd world Brazil”. The small places in the middle of nowhere, only possible to get via bad dirt roads, the nice people you meet there… I wouldn’t like to see all of it disappear since it is very much a place of refuge for me, and probably a lot of other people.

          Cheers and have a good trip.

          • Re the “third world”, I might depend on whether you’re a visitor or a resident. I started as the former and was completely captivated by the romance of Brazil. I’ve now been a permanent resident for 7 years, and the romance has . . . well, maybe it happens to ALL romances! At any rate, I agree that there are many aspects of rural Brazil that should be preserved, even if it means crummy roads to experience it. My beef, as a resident, is that it’s abundantly clear that the country is quite capable of providing first-class roads; it’s just that some states choose to do so why others (like Bahia) just shrug their shoulders.

            But enough of that stuff: On to the ride review!

            The highway from Sao Paulo to the city of Rio de Janeiro is excellent – perfectly maintained and at a reasonable toll. But from Rio to the border of the state of Espirito Santos is another story. Although it’s the same highway, administered by the same 3rd party that runs the Sao Paulo-Rio stretch, it’s a slap in the face. It’s one lane all the way, but still with a toll. There are some stretches of construction in progress to add lanes but they haven’t progressed beyond the rough grading stage, so I’d say 2015, maybe. And the maintenance is spotty.

            The highway across Espirito Santos to the Bahia border is much better. The maintenance is very good (read “very few potholes”), and no more tolls! And, importantly, the shoulders are well maintained, too.

            At the Bahia border (yes, the “smile” sign is still there), the highway immediately becomes an obstacle course of potholes, especially dangerous when it’s raining (they’re hard to distinguish from ordinary puddles on the road). Even worse is that maintenance of the shoulders is non-existent. Should you drift over (or be forced over by some oncoming clown in your lane), you can probably kiss your axle goodbye. Yet another downside is the scarcity of climbing lanes, and there are plenty of long and winding steep grades. Many trucks in Brazil are loaded way beyond their rated max. They move so slowly that as you pass you can count the lugs on their wheels! So be prepared for some long, slow rides up the mountains.

            As always, the scenery is great and the people very hospitable. Just remember to leave your watch and your calendar at home. Enjoy!

          • Thanks for that update Frank…
            So… you passed by Rio de Janeiro and didn’t stop for a Caipirinha (or juice) and a chat. Next time I won’t be so forgiving :)

            Cheers

          • Wow — had no idea you lived here. Will sure get in touch next time in Rio. And if your rides ever take you WAY off the beaten path — to Canavieiras, BA — let me know. I make excellent Caipis, too!

          • Actually, I took the BA274 in July 2010… Great road :)
            Didn’t visit Canavieras though…
            Probably next time.
            Cheers

  2. Thank you for this! I am going to be travelling from Rio to Florianopolis and then onto Iguazu Falls by bus and was slightly nervous about the conditions of the roads there. This post has done much to reassure me!

    • Hi Roberto,
      If you’re going to travel by bus, that should be no problem at all. The interstate buses are very comfortable and some even have Wifi (don’t expect too much though)
      Have fun.
      Raf

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  5. Great site! I love how specific you are–if it’s not a motorcycle or 4X4 road adventure in Brazil, it’s not on the site.

    Great specific advice in this post which we will certainly benefit from when our Trans-Americas Journey 200,000 mile working road trip through North, Central and South America FINALLY reaches Brazil–it’s taken us 5 years to get from Alaska to Honduras, so don’t hold your breath.

    Here’s our similarly detailed list of tips re road-tripping in Mexico: http://trans-americas.com/blog/2011/07/driving-in-mexico/

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