Brazil is big. Really big. By far the biggest country in South America. In fact, if you took all the other countries in South America and stuck them together, the resulting landmass still wouldn’t be as big as Brazil.
You might even say it’s huge. But we’ve made our point.
So how to get around this behemoth of a country?
If you don’t have much time and your sightseeing checklist encompasses several different regions of Brazil, flying is a reasonable option. Be warned, however, that the domestic airlines in Brazil can be a harrowingly tedious experience.
If trying to book on a domestic carrier’s website you will often be asked for a CPF (national identity number). Even if you’ve managed to obtain one before your visit, the websites in all likelihood will not recognise it. If you haven’t pre-booked flights in your home country, the best option once in Brazil is to book tickets through a local travel agent, though you can expect to pay a sizeable commission.
If you do manage to get yourself on a domestic flight, be warned that the routes are rarely direct; on some paths there are so many stops some of them don’t even appear in airport listings. This can cause staggering levels of confusion. Always ask someone working in the airport if you’re not sure and have your flight number to hand.
Bet the train is looking mighty attractive after reading that, right?
Sorry. It’s not that train travel in Brazil is particularly difficult, it’s just that at the time of writing there’s not really any opportunity to do so. You’ve got the country’s military dictatorship (1964-1985) to thank for that: during this turbulent period most of the railway system was destroyed.
There are some sporadic lines in operation, such as Macapa to Serra do Navio, Belo Horizonte to Vitoria, and Sao Luis to Parauapebas. But most services are taken more for the scenic journey than as a practical means of getting from A to B. One such is the Serra Verde Express, which rattles through stunning mountain scenery from Curitiba to Paranagua (see picture above). Another is the route from Sao Joao del Rei to Tiradentes, characterised by its antiquated steam train.
Check out that steam train in action here!
It should be noted that there are major plans for a high speed rail link between Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and Campinas. Originally it was hoped this would be built in time for the 2014 World Cup, but that timeframe is looking less and less likely. We’ll keep you posted.
Love ‘em or loathe ‘em, buses are easily the best form of transport for getting around Brazil. All major cities have frequent bus links and the vehicles are, on the whole, in pretty good nick; they’re comfortable, clean and have toilets.
Tickets are usually sold in three classes: Regular, Executive and First Class. If you’re doing an overnighter consider splashing out for the latter – sleep will come easier.
Competition is fierce between bus companies in the larger, more touristy cities, such as Rio and Sao Paulo, so make sure you scout around a few different agents to get the best price. Keep in mind that most major Brazilian bus terminals are usually located outside of city centres, sometimes in decidedly unsavoury areas, so allow time for taxis to and from the stations.
In terms of roads, generally speaking the ones in the south of Brazil are in the best condition while the ones found in the Amazon region and in the north of the country tend to be quite in quite poor shape.
If you’re keen to get out the major cities and off the beaten track hiring a car is a great option. It will give you the independence to explore at your own pace and on your own terms. Brazil has easily the largest road network on the continent and, as noted above, the infrastructure in the south is better than the north. Coastal areas everywhere usually have excellent roads with stunning scenery.
The driving culture is slightly anarchic, so you should be a fairly confident driver and always have your wits about you. Don’t expect there to be more than a gnat’s width of space between your back bumper and the bonnet of the car behind, and be prepared for a distinct lack of signalling when people are overtaking or generally doing anything that requires a signal. It may seem sometimes that traffic lights are merely a decoration for junctions; at night, especially, they are ignored so long as nothing is coming in the other direction.
You must be 25 years old to hire a car in Brazil, have a driver’s license and a credit card in your name. Finally, people drive on the right hand side of the road. That’s quite an important one to remember.
If you’re heading to the Amazon region – and you absolutely should – you’ll quickly discover that rivers replace highways, creeks replace streets and boats replace vehicles. In most areas you won’t have any choice but to hop aboard a vessel if you want to see what’s around the next corner.
This area is undoubedtly the last stronghold of passenger river travel in the world – make use of it while it remains that way.