Driving in Brazil is not for everyone. With over one million miles of highways, many of which are unpaved, Brazil's size should not be underestimated. Depending on your travel plans, you'll come across a variety of road types like the grid-locked freeways of Sao Paulo to the wild dirt roads in the Amazon region.
Whether you are planning a cross-country road trip through Brazil, or are just looking to rent a car for a day trip to a far-off beach, there are a few things you should know before you get behind the wheel in Brazil.
Foreigners over the age of 18 are allowed to drive in Brazil for up to 180 days if they have a valid license from their home country. Whenever you get behind the wheel in Brazil, you must have the following on you:
- A valid driver's license
- Your passport
Rules of the Road
When driving in Brazil, be aware of the local rules and keep an eye on the road signs, which will all be in Portuguese. Because many Brazilians don't speak English, you should learn some basic car vocabulary for your trip. If possible, practice speaking with someone who is familiar with the language, since many words like carro (car) and rua (street) are not pronounced in the way they appear to be written.
- Speed limits: The speed limit in Brazil is typically 30 kph (18 mph) in residential areas, 60 kph (31 mph) on main avenues, and between 80-110 kph (50-60 mph) on main highways.
- Road signs: Road signs in Brazil follow international standards, but keep an eye out for stop signs, which will be written in Portuguese as "PARE."
- Speed bumps: Many towns in Brazil use speed bumps, also called lombadas in Portuguese. They are usually, but not always, painted with bright stripes. There should be warning signs ahead of the bump, but occasionally there might not be.
- Seat belts: It is mandatory for all passengers to wear a seat belt in Brazil.
- Alcohol: Brazil has zero-tolerance for driving under the influence. The blood alcohol concentration (BAC) limit is .02 percent—equivalent to one beer or glass of wine.
- Tolls: Many highways in Brazil are financed and maintained by a private company using a toll system. Tolls can range between 5-20 Brazilian reals depending on your car.
- Gas stations: There are five types of fuel sold at gas stations in Brazil: regular gasoline, premium gasoline, ethanol, diesel, and natural gas, so make sure you are filling up with the right fuel for your car. There are no self-service gas stations in Brazil, so an attendant will assist you.
- Cell phones: Without a hands-free device, you can be fined for using a cell phone, even if you are sitting in traffic.
- Lane splitting: Motorcycle riders often make their way between lanes when traffic comes to a halt and even when it’s flowing at regular speed, which is known as lane splitting.
- In case of emergency: If something happens, dial 198 for the state highway police and 192 if you need an ambulance.
Should You Rent a Car?
It's not impossible to get around Brazil without a car, and many locals take advantage of busses, which can actually be quite comfortable and reliable. There are many affordable tour operators who can take out you out in a four-wheel-drive vehicle to more remote places. In larger cities, subway and bus systems are also an option for getting around. Unless you have a complex itinerary that calls for renting a car, the average visitor in Brazil will find it easy enough to manage without one.
Brazilian roads range from very well-kept highways to roads with potholes the size of craters and impassable mud pits. Roads with tolls are well-kept because of private ownership, but side roads in more rural areas can be in rough shape and are prone to flooding. Research your route ahead of time to check out road conditions and plan your travel accordingly. In Brazil, paying a small toll for a well-maintained road and a direct route is well worth it.
Car Theft and Armed Robbery
In large cities, driving a car in Brazil involves the risk of theft and robbery. Drivers in large cities may keep their windows rolled up at traffic lights in areas known to be more dangerous, to minimize the risk of having either the car itself or the driver's valuables taken by an armed individual. If you are driving after 8 p.m., you are permitted to drive through a red light (slowly and cautiously) to avoid becoming a sitting duck for a thief. Throughout your travels in Brazil, you should be careful, alert, and use good judgment.
Trucks and Motorcycles
Most Brazilian truckers are good drivers, but many are overworked and might be driving while sleep-deprived. Just in case, be constantly alert to all trucks.
Motorcycles are a huge issue in Brazil's largest cities, particularly in São Paulo, where motorcyclists are infamous for their risky moves that cause many accidents and cost many motorcyclists their lives. They are prone to speed and will pass you on both the left and right sides. Many will beep in a consistent pattern as they move through the lanes to let cars know they're coming. If you notice you're on a road with a lot of motorcyclists, listen for the beeping and keep an eye on all your mirrors.
Slow traffic at different times of the day is routine in large Brazilian cities. Holidays, storms, and accidents often cause monster traffic jams in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. It can sometimes take you 2 to 3 hours for what you might have thought was a half-hour ride, so plan ahead and leave yourself plenty of time to arrive at your destination.
Pedestrians and Stray Animals
Most streets in commercial districts are packed with pedestrians, who often dodge cars and sometimes stop in the middle of the street while waiting for a chance to finish crossing over. If you see someone in the street like this, stopping for them could cause an accident since the driver behind you won't be expecting it.
Be aware that although children in Brazil go to school for half the day, most public high schools have classes in three periods of morning, afternoon, and evening. So large groups of children walking to or from class can be present at almost all hours of the day. Many schools are located on busy avenues, and they may or not have police officers on duty as crossing guards.
Unfortunately, there are thousands of stray animals in the streets of Brazil that you should also be aware of. They pose the risk of distraction, and you need to be a alert at all times while driving to avoid a collision.
In Brazil, parking is a challenge Brazilian drivers are proud to take on. You'll need to be prepared to parallel park on narrow streets or maneuver in tight parking garages. Otherwise, it may be easier to park farther from your destination or pay for a parking lot with valet services. You should also be aware that many public places, such as shopping malls, will charge for parking.
If you park on the street, someone may come up to you asking if you'd like them to watch your car while you are away. This is a way to prevent your car from being stolen, and you should always agree, just in case. When you return to get your car, you only need to tip this person anywhere between 1 or 2 reals, which is less than US$1—a true bargain for some peace of mind.