Winging it on the notorious Brazilian roads might not be towards the top of your bucket list, but my aspiring Brazilian wanders, it should be. Driving in Brazil is the best way to make the most of Brazil’s hidden gems!
Brazil is a whopping country and between each mega-city you have a hundred towns, miles of stunning countryside and a handful of drool worthy eateries.
I’m here to endorse driving in Brazil and to ensure you its going to be funner than caipirinhas at carnival. Brazil has its fair share of dodgy laws and areas, so read through my tips to keep your trip safe, lawful and economical.
Renting a Car and Driving in Brazil
If you are looking to rent a car use decolar.com to scour the best deals. Our prefered company is Movida to rent cars in Brazil. They allow you to lock in a price-per-day and return at a later date, for instance if you hit problems (like staying an extra night away). You can return the car up to 3 hours after the hour you originally rented it. For example, rent at 12 noon on Monday and return it 3PM on Friday and you will end up paying 4 days of rent. Furthermore, with Movida you can leave the car at any of the branches in the same city you booked. Another good car Brazilian rental company is Localiza.
Many short-term tourists can drive in Brazil using there license for up to 180 days, as long as your home country is part of the Vienna Convention on Road Traffic. According to the Brazil Gov website, you are required to drive with your license AND your passport.
Practicalities of Brazilian Roads for Permanent Residents
Longer-term residents with a permanent visa hoping to get their own wheels, need to validate their license (if it’s possible). There are a number of countries that have international agreements with Brazil, which allow you to get a Brazilian license without taking the driving tests again. You must check to see if your country has an agreement with Brazil. If you are lucky you then must translate your documents, book the psychiatric test for a Brazilian license (nothing too difficult) and medical exam. Then you are good to drive in Brazil.
The positive part of getting yourself a Brazilian license is that it serves as a valid identification. You can fly on planes domestically with just your Brazilian driving license. Book your validation appointments via the Detran website of your Brazil city.
In Rio de Janeiro, for validation of the foreign driving license, you must book into the Detran mega-center in Centro. Find everything you need on the Detran website.
The Quick Guide to Driving in Brazil
For a brief overview of what you need to know for driving in Brazil safely, scan our tips below.
Drive on the right
Speed limit on highway outside city 110km/h
Speed limit in city: 30 km/h; Avenues: 60 km/h; Highways: 80 km/h
18+ driving age
However, usually you must be 21+ to rent a car in Brazil.
0% alcohol limit
Not even one beer folks.
Use headlights on highway
If in doubt use headlights is my motto.
Bring cash for tolls
On the swish roads (São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro) the tolls are rather frequent. You can always choose the road less travelled, if you fair well with potholes. Though I believe that with a couple of people in the car the toll roads balance out and in Brazil they can cut hours off your trip. Recently some toll roads began accepting Debit cards. This is the case for the road between Rio and Juiz de Fora, the Niteroi bridge and some routes past Belo Horizonte.
Be cautious however, since many foreign Debit cards are considered Credit Cards. Probably since the money can not be transferred immediately. This is also a good tip for foreigners whose Debit cards aren’t working in the Brazilian machines. Try selecting “credito,” on the machine instead.
Top up gas in the cheaper states
Service stations use a tab card you pay on the way out
In most service stations there will be a barrier where you collect a card. This card will be topped up with whatever you eat, drink or buy inside and you pay on the way out like a tab. Don’t misplace this card.
7 Things to Remember When Driving in Brazil
You can go through a red light at night
Make sure the road is clear, but it is OK to run a red light, rather than stopping in an isolated area, which can be unsafe. Thieves can approach cars at night so keep your wits about you as you go down deserted roads.
No alcohol tolerance
Since 2008 Brazil has been a zero alcohol kind of country and the police take it extremely seriously. Lei Seca (Dry Law) officers set up random breathalyzer barriers on main roads and exits in the cities. They are ruthless and caught red-handed you’re looking at a R$3000 (US$800) fine, confiscation of the car and possibly losing your license.
Pay the street ‘guard’
Although parking metres are springing up here and there, the norm is the pay the street ‘vigilante’. Sometimes legit, dressed in a city fluorescent jacket; usually any young mug who has claimed the street. Either way, I suggest you pay up the R$2 to avoid a fine from the first or something worse from the second.
If there is no one there for you to pay, you can just lock and leave your car. On return someone may beckon you to pay up. Where there are government officials, with official looking parking vests, they can raise your windscreen wipers. It is a signal you haven’t paid the parking fee yet, and you should find them to pay before driving off.
Frentista fills gas/petrol tank for you
Brazilian petrol stations provide a tank filling service. Just tell the gas station ‘frentista’ how much petrol you want and pay cash or card right from your seat.
When you are driving in Brazil, make sure you know what kind of fuel the car accepts. In many cases the car will accept both ‘etanol’ and ‘gasolina.’ The former is cheaper. Ask your rental company what fuel the car needs.
“Cheio” means a full tank in Portuguese.
Some taxis convert their cars to accept natural gas (gás natural). This is why in the back of taxis you may see a yellow gas tank. This unfortunately also reduces the boot/trunk capacity. When you need considerable space for luggage, make sure to flag down a larger taxi or book an Uber XL or Uber Select.
Watch out for motorbikes:
You will enviously stare after the bikers as they weave in and out of the hour traffic jam you’re stuck in. They are reckless. They beep their horns as they whizz 50mph through the traffic so ALWAYS check your side mirrors.
To ride a motorbike in Brazil you will need a specific driving license.
Brazil fine using cameras:
In Brazil there are plenty of speed restrictions in the cities and on the highways. These are monitored by automatic cameras. The speed can vary numerous times on the same road. Pay attention to varying speed limits in Brazil.
Furthermore, other restrictions are bus and taxi lanes. Usually marked by a solid blue line. Don’t drive in these lanes, you will be fined. Note that sometimes, when the traffic is absurd, it is better to catch a yellow/ official taxi rather than an Uber, since they can fast-track through these special lanes.
What to do if your car is towed in Brazil:
We all make mistakes. We can all miss the signs. If your car is towed in Brazil you can look up your license plate on a website. You can look up the license plate on the relevant city’s Detran website. Then click “infrações> liberação de documento/ veículo, and follow the instructions.
Once on the website, you can find the DETRAN storage location and the amounts to pay for towing and storage. If your car is towed over the weekend, you will need to wait until Monday to locate it. Some patience is required. The word for tow is ‘rebocado.’
From there you need to print the fine. A barcode will be present that you then pay at a bank. Sometimes it must be a specific bank. Though it should say on the fine slip. Lean in on help from your hotel, Airbnb host or a doorman at the property you are staying. The Portuguese and bureaucracy can be confusing.
There are some reasons your car may be towed besides being parked in the wrong place. For example don’t park in the wrong direction, too far from the curb, too close the the corner of a road, by a fire hydrant, or in a designated disabled car parking space.
What Awaits you Driving on the Brazilian Roads
For you wildlife buffs, amid our monthly road trips I’ve seen eagles (Carrapateiro, or Carcará Branco), a king fisher (Martín Pescador), skunks (Gamba, like in bambi), owls nesting on the ground and the reflections of the eyes of wild cats speeding down the highway at night.
For foodies service stations in Brazil are not just for a quick pee.
Sometimes it will be a tiny hut on the edge of the Mata Atlântica, other times a towering mega-block with numerous options. They all specialise in some sort of regional food and it’s your best shot at getting the real deal not just touristic mush.
My personal favourite finds on the road include: Bananas de ouro purchased by the bunch from a shack right on the edge of the forest they’ve been harvested. These bananas are the size of your finger with a super sweet flavor. The real Pão de Queijo stuffed with sausage, like a cheesy, sausage bap. Bottles of liquid butter, which are traditionally used in cooking in the state of Minas Gerais.
Congratulations, now you are a fully bona fide Brazilian driver. Heck you might even know more than the Brazilians themselves.
Good luck or sucesso in Portuguese!