Brazil hogs the lion’s share of the continent of South America and is easily reached in most cases via redeye flights from North America and Europe, departing late at night from the U.S. or the U.K. and arriving in Brazil at the crack of dawn. With a little sleep on the plane, you can usually keep jet lag manageable.
Once in country, an extensive air and bus network makes getting around Brazil pretty easy. Keep in mind, though, that the country is deceptively large, and it’s easy to misjudge distances looking at a map. For example, a domestic flight from Porto Alegre (in the deep Brazilian South) to Manaus (in the heart of the Amazon) is nearly five hours. A recent influx of flights from Miami to Northern Brazilian cities like Manaus, Belem and Recife has cut flight times from the U.S. to Brazil by two to four hours in some cases.
Read on to learn more about your best Brazil transportation options.
Flying to and Around Brazil
The two main gateways for international visitors are Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, though transatlantic flights to Belo Horizonte, Recife, Natal, Manaus and Belem are becoming more and more popular. A laundry list of international airlines serves the country, including Air Canada, Air France, American, Avianca, British Airways, Copa, Delta, Emirates, GOL, LATAM, Lufthansa, South African, TAP Portugal, Turkish Airlines and United, among others.
Brazil has four main domestic airlines: Avianca, Azul, GOL and LATAM (along with a handful of regional carriers serving remote areas of the Amazon and Pantanal). Flying is definitely the easiest way around the country, though airfares can be notably pricey. Non-Brazilian residents can save a bundle on domestic airfare with an Azul Brazil Airpass or GOL Brazil Airpass, which give you discounts on flights within Brazil when purchased in conjunction with an international flight. Brazilian travel specialists like Miami-based Brol can plan and book air passes that best suit your travel needs.
One tip: Almost every airline flying to Brazil allots passengers a generous two checked bags at 70 pounds each (a full 20 pounds more than the U.S. standard per bag), but the domestic limit is one checked bag at 23 kilograms (about 50 pounds) — so come in light, but leave stuffed with goodies for everyone back home!
Renting a Car in Brazil
Driving in Brazil will certainly test your patience, skills and sanity, but once you get the hang of it, the highway systems and roads are generally good, and driving can be a great way to give yourself a little extra freedom on your visit.
Logistically, renting a car is pretty straightforward (you must be 21 years old; valid driver’s license, credit card and passport required), but prepare yourself for sticker shock, both to rent and for gas. Most Brazilian cars run on both gas (gasolina) and ethanol (alcool). These hybrids are known as Flex, but be sure to check ahead of time whether your vehicle accepts both. Ethanol is cheaper but burns less efficiently.
The biggest local rental company is Localiza, but most international brands of note are represented as well, including Budget, Hertz and Alamo. It’s a good idea to carry an international driver’s permit along with your home country license. It’s not required to rent, but if you are pulled over, the police won’t be able to read an English license.
Some words of warning: Brazil relies heavily on an electronic radar camera system. They are irritatingly frequent along highways and in cities and towns. Keep an eye out for signs warning of Fiscalizacao Eletronica. It is also illegal to turn right on red in Brazil, and there is a zero tolerance law when it comes to drinking and driving. Don’t even think about it.
If driving is your thing, there are some amazing stretches of coastline, especially the beautiful Costa Verde between Rio and Sao Paulo.
Brazil Car Rental Resources:
Brazil by Bus
Brazil is extremely well connected by its long-distance bus system; it is, after all, the main method of transportation for the majority of Brazilians. Though buses here don’t approach the comfort and service levels of those in neighboring Argentina, buses usually range from pretty tolerable to very comfortable, depending on class of service.
The cheapest is convencional or comum, which will usually make more stops and will not likely have air conditioning. Next step up is executivo with air-con and reclining seats. Leito, the top level of service, is designed for comfortable overnight trips and offers seats nearly reclining to flat position, air conditioning, blankets, pillows and usually an attendant serving coffee and meals.
Tickets for buses are most easily purchased by foreigners at the bus station itself (rodoviaria in Portuguese). Advance purchase and reservations can be tricky online, as most bus companies require a Brazil tax ID number (known as a C.P.F.) in order to process reservations. The best national companies are Itapemirim and Cometa, but most services are regional. For extra-long routes between major cities, always compare flights with bus fares before pulling the trigger — sometimes they are comparable.
With the exception of certain routes (overnight trips from Belem, for example), buses are generally safe. Take the usual precautions with your personal items, wear your seatbelt and enjoy the ride.
Brazil by Riverboat
Considered an adventure by tourists and a means to an end by locals, traveling through the Amazon by riverboat is a popular way to traverse the world’s largest tropical rain forest. Service varies wildly, from basic riverboats where everyone slings up a hammock to luxury cruises with private cabins and all the modern conveniences. The Amazon Clipper is an excellent middle ground. Either way, navigating the Amazon’s massive waterways in this manner is the dream of many.
Trips vary from overnight to five-night extravaganzas (Belem to Manaus, for example) with all manner of food, comfort level and passengers. Bring insect repellent (though mosquitoes often can’t compete with the wind generated by the movement of the boat), a good book or two, your camera (pink river dolphin spottings are not uncommon) and a lot of patience.
Brazil Riverboat Resources:
Brazil Motorcycle and Bicycle Hire
Motorcycle rental in Brazil isn’t widespread, but there are some amazing landscapes to take in on the open road throughout the country, like the Royal Road through Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais states, and from Rio de Janeiro to Iguazu Falls. Some motorcycle rental agencies might be hesitant to rent to foreigners unless you can prove your competence beforehand. A specialty motorcycle license from your home country is mandatory.
Renting long-distance road bikes is unheard of by cyclists; Brazilian roads are not cycle-friendly. While many folks enjoy localized bike tours, taking to the streets on your own on a bicycle would be ill-advised.
Brazil Motorcycle and Bicycle Hire Resources:
Chartering a Sailboat or Yacht in Brazil
Riding the wind along the coast of Brazil is a popular activity for sailing enthusiasts — you have more than 4,000 miles of coastline to work with. More focused trips, especially around the island of Ilhabela in Sao Paulo and Ilha Grande in Rio de Janeiro, are also popular.
Brazil Yacht Charter Resources:
Brazil by Buggy
Buggy trips are extremely popular in the northeast of Brazil. You can rent your own to get around to the isolated beaches in Fernando de Noronha, or hire a buggy and driver to make the three- to five-day, 434-mile, 92-beach buggy ride from Fortaleza to Natal. The buggies are loud and guzzle gas at astonishing rates, but that’s all part of the adventure. If you are asked if you want the trip “Com or Sim Emocao?“, the driver is asking how much excitement you want. Be careful how you answer!
Brazil Buggy Resources:
–written by Kevin Raub
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