The Many Faces of São Paulo, Brazil: Tips for Newcomers

A crowded bus in São Paulo I was looking at an American guide book to Brazil recently and felt great sympathy with the writer when he tried to describe São Paulo. It was obvious that he had been so horrified by the sheer size and apparent chaos of the city that he had ditched all the flowery verbiage which marked the rest of the guide and did little more than list some hotels and restaurants.

He made it clear that the section on São Paulo was for the unfortunate business traveler and not for the sensible tourist who would not go near the place. You could almost sense the relief as he got onto the next chapter.   

This is a natural reaction from any foreign visitor who has been led to believe that Brazil is a kind of gigantic tropical beach-cum-jungle paradise. The fact is that São Paulo can be an overwhelming place even for local and foreign residents.

São Paulo is so big that it is impossible for anyone to know the whole city. It is growing so fast that it has already swallowed up separate municipalities like Guarulhos and Osasco. It is a matter of time before it takes over places like the ABC towns, Jundiaí and, who knows, even Campinas and Mogi das Cruzes. Santos would already be part of the city if it were not for the barrier of the Serra do Mar mountains.

I first came here over 20 years ago and there are still areas I have never set foot in. I have got completely lost many times. Once I took a bus from Osasco to the Pinheiros district, a distance of about six miles. After 10 minutes of following a familiar route, the bus took an unexpected turning and then proceeded to take me through districts which were totally unknown.

I became so confused that I asked the driver if we were really heading for Pinheiros or another district with the same name. He assured me we were. One hour and forty minutes after leaving, I finally arrived at the Largo da Batata bus station. 

I am constantly recommending visitors to double the amount of time they have scheduled just to cope with the traffic. My advice to people coming to live here is to try and find accommodation near your work, leave your car at home and take a taxi or use public transport if possible. Draw up a monthly budget for taxis and you’ll find it cheaper than the cost of running a car.

Let the taxi driver cope with the stress, petrol bills, parking costs and overheated engines. It is also worth getting to know a taxi driver you can trust and can call whenever you need him. These are the Sir Galahads of the city and worth their weight in gold. This is because even taxi drivers often don’t know certain parts of the city. Getting to your destination can then become like a motor rally with the passenger becoming a navigator/map reader – if the taxi driver has a map, that is.               

As São Paulo has no easily recognizable prominent geographical landmarks, apart from the Serra da Cantareira hill, it is difficult to get a fix on a location. Tens of thousands of skyscrapers block views and the intense traffic makes it hard to get your bearings. Asking passers-by for directions can be frustrating as they are often as lost as you. Don’t be surprised if people come up to you in the metro or street and ask for directions even though the signs and street names are marked. This is because many people are illiterate and if you look educated they will assume you can read.  

There are almost 1,000 separate bus routes just within the city and almost 30 terminals. There are also hundreds of routes taking passengers throughout other states in Brazil and even as far away as Santiago de Chile, 3,883 kilometers across the Andes on the other side of the continent. There is a so-called integrated transport system involving buses, trains and the metro stretching from Jundiaí in the north to Ferrazópolis in the south. It looks good on paper but the reality is different.

The metro is far too small for such a large city and can become downright scary at peak periods. I have squeezed out of trains several times during the rush hour before reaching my destination to escape being crushed. The train service is also not up to the task. The CPTM line is still new and efficient but many of the other routes are served by dirty old trains that should have been scrapped years ago. There are also no intercity trains, something which Europeans find incredible.

There are also no train or public bus service to the airports and travelers rely on taxis or private coaches. The airports are far apart. The main domestic airport is in Congonhas, near Jabaquara, while the international airport is at Cumbica in Guarulhos. There is also another international airport at Viracopos, near Campinas, but it is little used although it is easier to reach than Guarulhos.

The administration is not centralized so you can find yourself traveling long distances for essential services. The state government has its official headquarters in Ipiranga but the administration is based in the downtown area. The state assembly building is next to Ibirapuera park while the city council meets in the downtown area.

The area around the Praça da Sé contains some of the financial businesses, including the stock and futures markets, the Bovespa and BM&F, but the main financial groups are headquartered as far away as Osasco (Bradesco), Jabaquara (Itaú), the marginal Pinheiros (Unibanco) and Santo Amaro (Santander).

Most heavy industrial activities are carried on outside the city as such, such as car manufacturing in the ABC towns of Santo André, São Bernardo and São Caetano. The services sector tends to be centered in the Paulista, Faria Lima, Itaim, Berrini districts but many companies have moved even further out in the direction of Interlagos where the Formula One race takes place.  

The bane of a foreigners’ life is the Federal Police headquarters which is located in the outer reaches of the Lapa district a long way from its old central location. The previous place was a dump but at least it was in a convenient location.

I had to make two trips to the new Federal Police station recently to renew my visa. This not only meant that I was unable to work those afternoons but I had to pay around 600 reais (US$ 265) in taxi fares and for a despachante (fixer) to get my papers in order.

This is part of the infamous “custo Brasil” which holds this country back.

Welcome to São Paulo!

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish writer and consultant with long experience of Brazil. He is based in São Paulo and runs his own company Celtic Comunicações. He can be contacted at jf@celt.com.br. You can read more by him at his site www.brazilpoliticalcomment.com.br.

© John Fitzpatrick 2009

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