Driving in Brazil and Living to Tell About It

 Driving in Brazil and 
  Living to Tell About It

Brazilian drivers have
the unfortunate habit of tailgating at
highway speeds. To changes lanes you might want to wave your
hand out the window and hope they don’t rear end you. Another
constant menace is the overloaded and underpowered truck.
The exhaust from many of the diesels is amazingly sooty.
by: Tom

Like to drive? Enjoy the open road? As a gringo, there is no reason that you
can’t get out there on the asphalt and go head to head with Brazilians driving
compact cars, buses, trucks, and chances are you will even live to tell the

Car rental is easy and
inexpensive in Rio, with a variety of places to choose from, and here the
market is not dominated by national or multinational firms—no Hertz,
no Avis, etc.

A pleasant surprise for
the American driver is that driving with unlimited miles is the norm (ask
for quilometragem livre), and another is that the company will often
deliver the car to where you are.

After some calling around
to compare prices, we went with Montalto, conveniently located in Rua da Passagem
near the beach in Botafogo (www.montalto.com.br),
where a basic model, no air condition, four doors, will run you R$ 80 (US$
25) per day with unlimited miles.

Our first rental was a
Fiat Palio, with radio/tape, our second a Volkswagen, no radio, both with
stick shift. The folks are very pleasant. You will need to bring your passport
and driver’s license for them to photocopy, and you can pay by credit card
or cash.

Our first jaunt was up
the highway towards Petrópolis. The quickest way out of Rio to Petrópolis
is along the malodorous—and occasionally dangerous, due to wars between
the Polícia Militar and the traffickers in the favelas by the
highway—Linha Vermelha, a modern highway (speed limit 90 kph or 55 mph)
that runs out past the airport, and connects with the toll road, the BR-040,
that ascends into the mountains.

The BR-040 would take
you all the way to Brasília if you stayed on it. A very useful website,
which will give you point to point distances along the whole length of the
highway) is at aondefica.com – www.aondefica.com/rj_bhr.asp.

We were going to stay
in Itaipava, a few kilometers farther along (Rio-Petrópolis, 57 km,
Rio-Itaipava, 80 kms), where many Cariocas have country homes—this
means that Itaipava has all mod cons, but that it is rather quiet except on

Treacherous Road

The BR-040 is fast (110
kph limit) on the flat, but once you start up the hill it becomes a one-way
road, two lanes, winding up the side of the mountain. This is the only through
route here, so you will be sharing the road with pedestrians and bicyclists,
and there are residences and businesses on both sides of the road—no
limited access here.

For long stretches the
road seems to have been tacked on to the vertical side of the mountain, and
the barrier between the left lane and the long fall down the mountainside
seems lower than it could be.

My Brazilian passengers
were constantly ragging me about my tortoise pace here, but at night on this
sort of road this gringo didn’t want to make any mistakes. Once one finally
gets over the crest of the hill by Petrópolis, the road widens out
and you can make some speed.

Our day trip from Itaipava
the next day was over the mountains (it’s all mountains up here) to Teresópolis.
The road is well-marked, and once you get out of Itaipava, you have about
a 40-minute trip up over the pass and down into Teresópolis.

There is one spot to pull
over about half way up on the Itaipava side, and otherwise virtually no residences
or buildings of any sort along the road. Amazingly enough there is one public
school there—how the students get there is hard to imagine—by foot
from the surrounding hills. The road is slab concrete (apparently some bigwig
had a ranch nearby), and it is not always in good repair.

A local resident wrote
to www.estradas.com.br to complain: "The state of the Petrópolis-Teresópolis
road is deplorable, with enormous holes for quite some time now. I have been
driving on this road for six months and I feel like I am in constant danger,
afraid of breaking my car in one of these craters, or of colliding with another
vehicle when avoiding the holes on the tight curves. I would be completely
without assistance since there is no cell phone coverage on the road either."

We saw one enormous hole
that was in fact being fixed by the time we were driving back. The views on
the Itaipava side of the ridge are simply stupendous.

Not for Tourists

The city of Teresópolis
itself is not a tourist destination, unlike Petrópolis, which has the
imperial palace, the Santos Dumont house, and other sights. We asked a passerby,
"What is there to see?", and he said, "This is a normal city",
i.e. nothing out of the ordinary.

However, the entrance
to the National Park of the Serra dos Órgãos is right outside
town, with a minimal entrance fee, and attractive well-marked hiking trails.
We followed one up to a lookout with an amazing view of the valley in which
the town sits, including the training camp where the Brazilian national soccer
team practices, where you may be able to gawk on weekends. It being a weekday,
we had to sweet-talk our way in, leaving our seven-year old future soccer
star in ecstasy.

The Park has a marvelously
landscaped reflecting pool, with grottos, a little island, etc. After our
visit to the soccer camp, we made our way back over the mountains. To an American
eye, a guardrail with three or four holes punched in it by falling vehicles
is an unnerving sight, but perhaps this is more honest…it lets you know
that you need to watch out.

Our second jaunt was down
along the Dutra (the new Dutra, as they call it, BR-116), the highway
that links Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. This is also a toll road.
To get there just follow the Linha Vermelha out to its end, and merge.

From an American standpoint
driving the Dutra is a little like being on one of the national highways that
preceded the interstates—two lanes, divided, limited access (most of
the time), rather narrow shoulders, not enough time to merge.

And Brazilian drivers
have the unfortunate habit of tailgating at highway speeds, so that if you
leave a safe space ahead of you it will always be filled in. Likewise, it
won’t do just to turn on your turn signal to changes lanes. You might want
to wave your hand out the window, and even so you will have to muscle in,
and hope they don’t rear end you.

Another constant menace
is the overloaded and underpowered truck poking along in the right lane, especially
on upgrades of course, but even on the flat stretches. And the exhaust from
many of the diesels is just amazingly sooty.

The Dutra is actually
very well-marked, full of signs warning of dangerous curves ahead, and numbered
signs that let you know exactly when the curve will begin (5, 4, 3, 2, 1,
now!). The most-nerve wracking portion I found to be the descent of the Serra
das Araras, two narrow lanes, very tight curves between rock walls, full of
buses and trucks that don’t always stay between the lines).

Hiking Paradise

After 4 hours or so, we
took the exit for the road (BR-354) up the serra towards Itamonte,
where we stayed with friends just short of the boundary between Rio and Minas
Gerais. This is the Serra Mantiqueira, with simply stunning mountains that
look pristine—a good spot for ecotourism with mountain hiking and biking.

Once you go over the top
and down into Minas there are some interesting attractions in the neighborhood
of Sobradinho. Trout fishers can go angling in the mountain streams here,
but those who are novices can borrow a rod and line at the Truticultura Sobradinho,
hook as many trout as they like from the fish pond, take them to the kitchen
to be cleaned and cooked, and enjoy a delicious meal. You pay by weight for
your fish.

Mine was sinful in butter
and walnut sauce. Across the highway is a nice spot for homemade sweets (in
jars, the sort you eat with a spoon), as well as local cachaça
(hard liquor), sold to you by the distiller (no federal taxes on liquor here—it
is a food no different than any other), R$ 6 (US$ 2) a bottle.

After dark we tooled back
down BR-354 to the Dutra—not a sport for jangled nerves, what with trucks
passing each other over the solid line around blind curves. Be sure you fill
your tank on the Dutra, because gasoline stations can be few and far between
once you get off the major highways.

Tom Moore has been fascinated by the language and culture
of Brazil since 1994. He translates from Portuguese, Spanish,
French, Italian and German, and is also active as a musician.
Comments welcome at querflote@hotmail.com

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