Driving in Brazil (RJ)
December 14, 2009 1:31 PM   Subscribe

We are considering renting a car and driving from Rio de Janeiro to Paraty and back. Advice?

My S.O. and I will be in Brazil for the next week or so. We are staying in Rio, but for the last few days of our trip, we plan to spend time in Paraty. We've been thinking that we might rent a car and drive there from Rio, then drive back to Rio before catching our flight home. Does anyone have any experience with this, or pointers? More specific questions (answers to any one of them would be most welcome):

1. When is the best time of day to leave Rio de Janeiro, and when is the best time to return? We imagine that broad daylight is the best time to be driving in Rio, but are there any more specific times? (Luckily there will be a lot of broad daylight this week in Rio.)

2. What's the best way to leave Rio from the Zona Sul?

3. What should we expect from the BR-101 road along the coast?

4. What should we watch out for (e.g. traffic jams) when planning our trip back---to an airline flight we really would rather not miss?

5. Is there a particular kind of insurance we should get here, before we leave, or there, when we get the car?

6. We are confident, patient drivers in the US and wouldn't bat an eye at Manhattan or downtown Philly, say, but have not driven outside of USA/Canada or western Europe before. Is this car trip advisable or should we just take the bus?

I should add that we don't speak Portuguese, although we've had some luck reading webpages and such through triangulation from French, Italian, and Spanish. Naturally, we would plan to limit the need for conversations along the road by driving conservatively, during off-peak hours, at the speed limit.
posted by tss to Travel & Transportation around Brazil (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Manhattan and Philly are cake-walks compared to driving in Brazil.

Have you considered taking a bus?

Always expect traffic jams due to accidents and head back to Rio a day before your flight home.
posted by Neekee at 1:38 PM on December 14, 2009

I rode with a friend on BR-101 down the coast to some towns an hour or so outside of Rio. If you're confident enough, driving is potentially better than the bus as you'll be able to stop at some of the scenic beaches and towns along the way. I'd recommend a quick Portuguese language primer (there's some excellent podcasts), don't rent an expensive-looking car, and avoid heading back to Rio after dark - not unsafe, just one big traffic jam.
posted by sharkitect at 1:53 PM on December 14, 2009

Best answer: I am going to agree with Neekee that a bus is probably a better idea. Once you are in Paraty, you won't need a car (unless you want to visit some nearby beaches, which are really nice and worth the visit, but not for the amount of time you are going to be there). If you do end up renting a car, make sure that you get one with GPS, that is programmed for you AHEAD OF TIME by the car rental agency. This will be a considerable expense, so be prepared to pay a hefty fee. A good hard copy map will also be important, but you have to be prepared for roads to be poorly 'sinalizadas', which is to say, poor signage. That's why I think the bus would be better. The bus lines aren't chicken buses, and there are direct lines that go straight to Paraty. If you do go to Paraty, I cannot recommend enough the Pousada Valhacouto. It's just outside of the old town (couple of blocks), and is half the price of the B&B's in the town's center. Additionally, and I think this is more important, the old town goes day and night in the summertime, and if you stay some place like Pousada do Sandi, you are in for a non-stop noisefest. Why do I know so much about Paraty? Because it's where I go when asked to go to 'my happy place' in my head. I have spent a lot of time there (in real life and in my imagination)
Please feel free to me-mail me if you need translations of either of these websites (hint: it's my job!)
posted by msali at 1:54 PM on December 14, 2009

Best answer: Agree with msali that you really don't want a car in Paraty. I would also agree to just try the bus. It's enough of a destination that you can find one, no problem.

I've done the drive, and it's not bad. The road is ok - pretty much two-lane all the way, but well made. It's lovely in places. Angra and Ilha Grande - there is some spectacular scenery. You also get to see Brazil's nuclear power station near Angra.

In Paraty the old town is all cobbled and not nice to your car. You can just about drive on some of the roads, but others - forget it. If you drive, you want to drive in, unload and forget about your car (hint: find a place to stay that takes care of your car). You can reach the other beaches by mini van or by boat (there's a cruise around the harbour that calls in at several of the beaches, which is well worth the journey. Some of the outlying beaches are lovely and low-key.

It's easy enough to follow the coast around through Barra de Tijuca or you can go out through the centre of town (which is probably faster, though not as pretty). If you go the Barra way, I'd recommend a stop at the Sitio Burle Marx. That's probably one reason to take a car, as it's kind of off the beaten track. Allow a couple of hours for a visit there.
posted by sagwalla at 2:58 PM on December 14, 2009

Hmm, it's been a couple of years since I was in Brazil but I can't really think of a reason to want a car in Paraty given the cobbled roads and ease of getting around on foot or via taxi/hired boat. If there are places on the way you want to visit, it would probably be worthwhile. But otherwise my experience was taking the bus from Rio and other than the a/c being broken on the first leg (humid & my elderly seatmate had asthma) it's a nice drive for reading and looking out the window at the scenery.
posted by gov_moonbeam at 4:15 PM on December 14, 2009

Oh hey, just noticed an above comment. Another vote for Pousada Valhacouto. That's where I stayed and other than the 15 minute walk out of town to get there, it was one of the nicest places I stayed during my time in Brazil.
posted by gov_moonbeam at 4:18 PM on December 14, 2009

Chances are, whatever car you rent will me manual. Don't rent an expensive looking car. Do make sure you get AC -- you will want to drive with your windows up when you are in the city, because muggers are known to sticking their hands into the car and just grabbing watching/jewelry/etc.

Do get GPS. You do not want to get lost in Rio. But also have a look at a map, so you know what to expect in terms of routes. Also ask locals (e.g. concierge at the hotel, guy at the car rental agency) for the best routes. Drivers are very aggressive, and don't necessarily signal when changing lanes, etc.

Do try to pick up some minimal Portuguese. If you know some Spanish, that will help a lot (due to the similarities), but most Brazilian people are not exposes to either Spanish or English, so expect delays and confusion.

Enjoy the trip! And do take the boat ride from Paraty! (Very nice)
posted by TheyCallItPeace at 8:16 PM on December 14, 2009

Best answer: I've done that drive. I'm a very experienced driver in a variety of places, from Manhattan to Chicago to Florence to Mumbai to the Andes in a flash flood. Rio is the only place outside of Montpellier, France, that made me want to cry ;-) That said, it's certainly doable, and only the part in Rio is bad - the rest is quite nice and easy.

The problems in Rio were:

1. The streets were very poorly or not marked.

2. The main 8 lane highway we took out of town was in rough shape, and didn't really have marked lanes in many places. Cars and trucks just kinda... wandered.

#2 can be managed by staying very alert. It's different than what you're used to, so don't just assume you know what the car in front of you is going to do. The lack of street signs, even on the major highway that was a much more difficult problem. I got lost on the way out of town, and very nearly missed my flight on the way back to the airport due to several wrong turns. My advice would be to very, very carefully research your route from Rio to Paraty and back using Google maps, especially satellite view. Bring detailed print outs of the route, and try to pick out some landmarks along the way, especially near turns and highway exits/entrances you'll need to take. Don't rely on seeing signs alone. If all else fails, you can do what I did - drive until you see a taxi stand (they're everywhere) and pay a driver to lead you to where you want to go. Even better, if you can rent a GPS unit in Rio these days, do it.

I'm assuming you're good with manual transmissions - if not, given all the other confusion of driving in Rio, I'd probably stick with the bus.

Have a great time. And believe everything they say about crime in Rio. Stay very aware, and do not walk after dark, even in nice neighborhoods. Even one dark block to go from one cafe to another - everything they say about the high incidence of armed robbery in Rio is true in my unfortunate and limited experience.
posted by centerweight at 9:53 PM on December 14, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! We both love standard transmission cars and spending hours making precise plans for complicated journeys. But... we shall take the bus!
posted by tss at 10:02 PM on December 14, 2009

Have fun tss, Paraty is such a wonderful place.
posted by msali at 5:57 AM on December 15, 2009

i've done that drive too. once you're an hour or so out of rio, it's ok...

until then, things like lanes, indication and speed limits are fluid concepts, especially with the buses and trucks. you have to drive aggressively - keep the revs high for evasive action and be prepared for anything. i was white knuckled and stressed by the end of it, and i'm a fairly experienced driver.

on the other hand, the second half of the drive is just wonderful. long, winding roads, well surfaced, amazing views of the seaside and hills. relaxing and fun to drive.

oddly enough, i also stayed at pousada valhacouto as well. it was brilliant, and i can not say enough good things about it. and there's car parking inside.

also, paraty is just amazing. have fun.
posted by soi-disant at 7:14 AM on December 15, 2009

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