Kacy and I tend to prefer to live and travel in walkable cities and not have to rely as much on a car to get around. However, our time in Brazil has required more driving to get us around locally, as well as take us to some of the neighboring areas and cities. There was certainly a learning curve to this so I decided to put together this American’s guide to driving in Brazil to share some tips and learnings from my experience.
Now, I assumed that driving in Brazil was just driving and since it’s done on the right side of the road like we do in the U.S. that things would pretty much be the same as long as I got used to kph instead of mph. To my surprise, however, many things have been different and have taken some serious adjusting. Example: you can’t turn right on red, yet blowing through a stop sign is common practice… yep, it is as scary as it sounds.
Learning to Drive Stick in Brazil
For starters, nearly all cars in Brazil are manual and you come across very few automatic vehicles (we also learned they are much, much more expensive throughout the country). The more you travel outside the U.S. the more you see that this is a common theme in other countries. Back in the ol’ US of A, I only have one friend who drives a manual. Here in Brazil, people were almost shocked to learn that I had never driven a stick shift and that I didn’t know how. As a teenager they learn to drive on a manual car and take their driving test using a stick.
So I was presented with my first Brazilian driving challenge, learning to drive stick. Like any other red blooded, 20-something I sought out the best resources I could find for learning such a skill (aka: I googled “how to drive stick” and also searched for youtube videos of the same). Many of these articles and videos are fairly simple and not that long, as the overall concept of driving with a manual transmission is actually quite easy:
- Start in neutral
- With the clutch pressed down, move the stick into 1st gear
- Release the clutch and simultaneously push down on the gas to get moving in 1st gear
- Release from the gas pedal and press the clutch to move the stick into 2nd gear
- Release the clutch and simultaneously push down on the gas to continue moving in 2nd gear
- Repeat steps 4-5 for all other gears
- Whenever using the brakes, press down on the clutch first
- Park in neutral and pull up the emergency brake
Quite different from driving an automatic but not that complex of an idea, right? Sure, but I soon learned the difficult part is in the feel of the pedals and the fact that I would now be learning how to drive with two feet. This is a strange and bizarre concept for my left foot. The same foot that can barely kick a soccer ball or perform any independent task for that matter. This same foot is now a leading player in working in unison with the right foot to operate a moving vehicle. Life was so much simpler with just gas and break, and shifting between park and drive.
I enlisted the help of my friend, Lucas, who drives a small Fiat and speaks excellent English. He took me to a mostly empty neighborhood (to limit civilian casualties) and showed me the basics before handing over the wheel. My Youtube studies had taught me well and I knew a little bit of what to do to get started and I was able to get the vehicle moving. However, my success was short lived and I experienced the dreaded stall out.
When the car stalls out the engine turns off completely and you are left to be still in your failure. After a few of these it’s easy to get frustrated pretty quickly. With my dignity at stake, I persevered and tried to learn from my stall outs and attempt to make the changes I needed to avoid them. By the end of the lesson I could drive around the block a few times and was only having some issues with reverse, so I felt fairly confident.
Lucas and I had planned to meet for a second lesson but we didn’t get around to it before the time came when I needed to pick up a new (manual) rental car. I read more how-to articles and watched a couple more youtube videos before picking up the car. The car rental place is just a meager 2 blocks from our apartment, so I assumed even the most novice of driver could manage that.
I signed for the car, nodded repeatedly to the employee who described the car’s features to me in Portuguese (I didn’t understand most of what he was saying) then started up my little, red Volkswagen Fox (see above) and entered the mean streets of Brazil. After three consecutive (and highly embarrassing) stall outs on the same steep hill, I finally managed to get the car to the front of our apartment. I stayed in the car and attempted to repeat the route a few times before feeling (very) slightly more confident. My two feet were still on opposite pages and I had very little “feel” for the pedals.
Despite plenty more stall outs, I was miraculously able to drive us around the next day without serious injury or death, so I took that as a small victory. As the time passed I became more and more comfortable with the feel of the pedals and how to navigate some hills and parking lots in Brazil. The hard part now was how to survive the aggressive Brazilian driving habits that seemed to be the norm.
Get Out of My Way
That is probably the best way to describe some of the driving habits of Brazilians, “I’m going to go faster than you, so get out of my way”. This varies from cars tail-gating so close behind me they could steal the groceries I just put in the trunk (don’t take my fat-free yogurt!), to a car flashing their high beams repeatedly telling me to change lanes, to motorcycles giving me a quick beep to tell me they are swerving in between traffic at break-neck speed to get around me.
Naturally, never really being that slow of a driver myself, my first reaction to these types of things happening on the highways were to curse profusely at those who dare pass me in such an aggressive and selfish manner. Over time, however, I have learned that this is merely the driving style here and it is more of an every-man-for-themselves type atmosphere on the road. It is best to just get out of the way of the fastest drivers and learn how to properly pass the slower vehicles yourself, just don’t expect many courtesies or accommodations from your fellow drivers.
With more experience I did learn that tail-gaiting the car in front of you is just one of three common ways of saying, “Hey there, please move so I don’t have to pass you on the right. Thanks.” The other two ways include the flashing of the headlights to the car in front of you and the last (and my preferred) method is to simple turn on your left turn signal. Now you would do this when you are already all the way over in the left lane of the highway and there is clearly no left turn to be made, but it is seen as a more polite way of asking permission to be let on through.
And yeah, that thing I mentioned earlier about stop signs, many of the drivers here see them as suggestions or more of a yield sign then a full on stop sign, so that’s another fun twist.
Other Twists and Turns
The Cars in Brazil
Along with pretty much all of the cars being manual, they are also predominantly small (think Mini Coopers and Fiats). The average car is a small four door sedan with a 4-cylinder engine and less than 100hp. The main companies you see here are Volkswagen, Fiat, Renault, Citroen and good ol’ Chevrolet.
For many reasons (high demand, unstable economy/currency, high import taxes), buying a car in Brazil is very expensive. These small, not very powerful cars are a reaction to the high cost of vehicles in the country and are the only models that most of the population can afford. Similar models in the US can cost up to 30-40% more in Brazil.
Vintage VW Beetles
Speaking of the cars, there is a high number of 1970-80’s era VW Beetles that have lasted and you see them in cities throughout the country. It provides a pretty unique feel and I can’t help but gawk at them whenever around. They call them “fuscas” here, which stands for beetles in Portuguese.
The Roads in Brazil
Sometimes in Brazil, a “road” is a generous term for an unpaved, rocky stretch of dirt that hopefully leads you in the proper direction. Encountering some of these roads on a route that Google Maps suggested can be quite a surprise and also terrifying if you fear getting stuck in your tiny, helpless car (see: our road trip from Sao Paulo to Paraty). This happens from time to time with varying levels of fear and potential damage to your car, but usually its not that big of an issue.
Getting Gas in Brazil
All the gas stations here are full-service, meaning they have an attendant who pumps the gas for you. They also offer two main fuel types: ethanol and gasolina. Gasolina is, you guessed it, regular gasoline. Ethanol is a cheaper alternative, however it doesn’t it get nearly as good mileage as regular gasoline so there is a trade off there.
I quickly learned to says “Gasolina commum… completa, por favor” in Portuguese to inform the gas station attendant that I wanted the regular type of gasoline (gasolina commum) and to fill up my tank (completa).
Tolls in Brazil
From Bauru it is about a 3-4 hour drive to São Paulo and this route includes several toll booths, I think there are seven if I can remember correctly. The toll prices range from R$3 to upwards of R$11 (that is roughly a range of $1 to $3 US) and they accept cash or a Speed Pass type device that you can purchase ahead of time and link to your credit card account for quicker passage. These tolls do add up quite a bit and does lead many of the Brazilians to choose to take a longer, slower bus ride into São Paulo in order to save on gas and tolls.
You will some some police cars on the road from time to time but it is not common practice for them to pull vehicles over on the side of the road for speeding or other offenses. Overall, speeding is regulated by a set of cameras that monitor the roads and highways ready to take pictures of passing license plates when a vehicle is going too fast. They then send the tickets to you via the mail.
So what tends to happen on the roads is that most people drive quite fast and speed most of the time and merely slow down momentarily when a camera is close by. I am not sure what the threshold is for the cameras and how many kph you can go over the limit without getting ticketed, but people tend to slow down to the exact speed needed when passing one and not have any problems.
The radio stations are pretty bad here and mainly rotate a few awful pop songs from the US mixed in with some Brazilian tunes that, even most Brazilians are quick to point out, are OK at best. When you look forward to some Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift songs as being the best the radio offers, you know you’re in trouble.
The motorcyclists here are very aggressive and will speed past you in between lanes with reckless abandon. Proceed with caution.
In our five months here I have driven somewhere between 7,000-10,000 km (roughly 4,000-7,00 miles) and I can say that driving in Brazil, although different, really isn’t all that bad or difficult. Despite my early frustrations, learning how to drive with a stick shift is something I’m now very proud of and glad to have acquired the skill. The overall driving experience is actually quite similar once you get used to the little quirks and it is typically just as safe as in the U.S.
*Editor’s Note: As a U.S. Citizen, all Tom needed to rent a car in Brazil was his U.S. driver’s license and passport to be legal for the road. A lot of forums caution foreigners against driving in Brazil. Although we had no problems during our time here, be safe, obey the laws and if you’re not comfortable, there are plenty of buses that travel all over the country. Here is a good source for more information on bus travel.