Traveling by car is recommended if you meet the following criteria: you're not pressed for time, you enjoy driving even in places you do not know well, and you do not want to be limited by airline or bus schedules. Traveling by car is, especially if you avoid driving at night, reasonably safe in most areas and is a wonderful way to see the country and access lesser-known areas.
Driving can be chaotic in cities like São Paulo, but much easier in cities like Curitiba and Brasília. In the countryside the usually rough roads, lack of clearly marked signs, and language difference can make driving a challenge. Further, the cost of renting can be steep. All that said, certain areas are most enjoyable when explored on your own in a car: the beach areas of Búzios and the Costa Verde (near Rio), and the Belo Horizonte region; the North Shore beaches outside São Paulo; and many of the inland and coastal towns of the South, a region with many good roads.
If you are feeling at all unsure, don't forget that hiring a car with a driver gives you almost the same level of flexibility with none of the stress of driving in an unfamiliar country. You could hire a car and driver through your hotel concierge, or make a deal with a taxi driver for extended sightseeing at a long-term rate. Often drivers charge a set hourly rate, regardless of the distance traveled. You'll have to pay cash, but you may actually spend less than you would for a rental car.
Brazil has more than 1.7 million km (1.05 million miles) of highway, about 12% of it paved. While roads in the South are often excellent, the country's highway department estimates that 40% of the federal highways (those with either the designation BR or a state abbreviation such as RJ or SP), which constitute 70% of Brazil's total road system, are in a dangerous state of disrepair. Evidence of this is everywhere: potholes, lack of signage, inadequate shoulders. Landslides and flooding after heavy rains are frequent and at times shut down entire stretches of key highways. Recent construction has improved the situation, but independent land travel in Brazil definitely has its liabilities.
The Brazilian federal government maintains a (Portuguese-language) website with up-to-date information on road conditions throughout the country (www.dnit.gov.br); the site also has downloadable state road maps. A private Brazilian company, Quatro Rodas (www.guia4rodas.com.br), publishes road maps that list local phone numbers for obtaining current road conditions; these cost about R$36 ($14).
Apart from toll roads, which generally have their own services, roadside assistance is available only sporadically and informally through local private mechanics. However, the Automóvel Clube do Brasil (Automobile Club of Brazil) provides emergency assistance to foreign motorists who are members of an automobile club in their own nation. If you're not a member of an automobile club, you can call 193 from anywhere in the country. This is a universal number staffed by local fire departments. The service is in Portuguese only. In case of emergency, the fastest way to summon assistance is to call one of the following services: Fire Brigade (193); Police (190); Federal Highway Patrol (191); Ambulance (192); Civil Defense (199).
Rules of the Road
Brazilians drive on the right, and in general traffic laws are the same as those in the United States. The use of seat belts is mandatory. The minimum driving age is 18 and children should always sit in the backseat. Do not use your cell phone while driving.
The national speed limit ranges from 50 to 90 kph (31 to 56 mph), although vehicles considered light can often travel at higher speeds on freeways. Pay close attention to signs. Some sections of highway have pedestrian crossings and the speed limit drops as you approach them. In large cities like São Paulo, Curitiba and Brasília there are now cameras to detect and fine speeding and aggressive drivers. This has decreased traffic accidents significantly, but you should be careful anyway. Some drivers slow down only when close to these cameras. The worst offenders are bus and truck drivers. In cities be very careful around motorcycles, as their drivers are notorious for flouting traffic rules.
If you get a ticket for some sort of violation, be polite with the police officer and try to solve the issue either by accepting the ticket (if you committed the violation) or by explaining your position (if you did not commit a violation). Even though it's common to see scams in cases like this, the best option is to solve the problem as honestly as possible, especially if you're a foreigner.
Traffic and Parking
In major cities, traffic jams are common in rush hours (8 am, 6 pm); the problem is especially bad in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. In Brasília there are special roads for those driving faster (the so-called Eixão, where the limit is 80 kph/49 mph). At rush hour you may find the local driving style more aggressive.
Finding a space in most cities—particularly Rio, São Paulo, Brasília, Belo Horizonte, and Salvador—is a major task. It's best to head for a garage or a lot and leave your car with the attendant. The cost of parking depends on the city and the neighborhood: downtown garages, close to stores, will certainly be more expensive than those in residential areas. There are no meters; instead you must post a coupon in your car's window, which allows you to park for a certain time period (one or two hours). You can buy them from uniformed street-parking attendants or at newsstands. Should you find a space on the street, you'll probably have to pay a fee for parking services.
No-parking zones are marked by a crossed-out capital letter E (which means estacionamento, Portuguese for "parking").
Tollbooths, better known as pedagio in Portuguese, are common in Brazil. These are located along many highways, especially in the Southeast and around São Paulo. Fees depend on the type of vehicle you’re driving. Make sure you carry cash, including some small change.
In Brazil gasoline costs around R$2.80 per liter, ($1.05 or about $4 per gallon). Unleaded gas, called especial, costs about the same. Brazil also has an extensive fleet of ethanol-powered cars, carro a álcool, and you might end up with one from a rental agency. Ethanol fuel is sold at all gas stations and is a little cheaper than gasoline. However, these cars get lower mileage, so they offer little advantage over gas-powered cars. Stations are plentiful within cities and on major highways, and many are open 24/7. In smaller towns few stations take credit cards, and their hours are more limited. If you want a receipt, ask for a recibo.
Visitors to Brazil can drive with their home-country driver's license for the first 180 days they are in the country, as long as they also carry a copy of it translated into Portuguese and another piece of ID. You can also drive with an international driver's license. International driving permits (IDPs) are available from the American and Canadian automobile associations. These international permits, valid only in conjunction with your regular driver's license, are universally recognized.
Rates are sometimes—but not always—better if you book in advance or reserve through a rental agency's website. Although international car-rental agencies have better service and maintenance track records than local firms (they also provide better breakdown assistance), your best bet at getting a good rate is to rent on arrival, particularly from local companies. But reserve ahead if you plan to rent during a holiday period or at a particularly popular destination, or need a specific type of car (an SUV or a van). You can contact local agencies through their websites in advance. At many airports, agencies are open 24 hours.
When you reserve a car, ask about cancellation penalties, taxes, drop-off charges (if you're planning to pick up the car in one city and leave it in another), and surcharges (for being under or over a certain age, for additional drivers, or for driving across state or country borders or beyond a specific distance from your point of rental). All these things can add substantially to your costs. Request car seats and extras such as a GPS when you book.
Make sure that a confirmed reservation guarantees you a car. Agencies sometimes overbook, particularly for busy weekends and holiday periods.
Some common-sense tips: Always give the rental car a once-over to make sure the headlights, jack, and tires (including the spare) are in working condition. Before you set out, establish an itinerary and ask about gas stations. Be sure to plan your daily driving distance conservatively and don't drive after dark.
Car insurance is not compulsory when renting a car, but if you have plans to drive in more than one city we strongly recommend buying car insurance, given the bad conditions of Brazilian roads in some states and the risk of accidents. Most car-rental companies offer an optional insurance against robbery and accidents. Minimum age for renting a car is 21, but some companies require foreign clients to be at least 25 or charge extra for those under 26.
If you own a car, your personal auto insurance may cover a rental to some degree, though not all policies protect you abroad; always read your policy's fine print. If you don't have auto insurance, then seriously consider buying the collision- or loss-damage waiver (CDW or LDW) from the car-rental company, which eliminates your liability for damage to the car.
Some credit cards offer CDW coverage, but it's usually supplemental to your own insurance and rarely covers SUVs, minivans, luxury models, and the like. If your coverage is secondary, you may still be liable for loss-of-use costs from the car-rental company. But no credit-card insurance is valid unless you use that card for all transactions, from reserving to paying the final bill. All companies exclude car rental in some countries, so be sure to find out about the destination to which you are traveling.
Diners Club offers primary CDW coverage on all rentals reserved and paid for with the card. This means that Diner's Club company—not your own car insurance—pays in case of an accident. It doesn't mean your car-insurance company won't raise your rates once it discovers you had an accident.
Some rental agencies require you to purchase CDW coverage; many will even include it in quoted rates. All will strongly encourage you to buy CDW—possibly implying that it's required—so be sure to ask about such things before renting. In most cases it's cheaper to add a supplemental CDW plan to your comprehensive travel-insurance policy than to purchase it from a rental company. That said, you don't want to pay for a supplement if you're required to buy insurance from the rental company. Another possibility is to purchase insurance through a third-party provider such as Travel Guard (www.travelguide.com), which can cost significantly less than coverage offered by car-rental companies.