Overlanding in Brazil: Our Favourite Country This Trip
From our experience, it is a big mistake not to include Brazil in a South America Overland itinerary. After having finished our second trip around the continent, we now reply to people who ask “What is your favourite country in South America?” with “Brazil, for its people and its sights.”
Yet so many overlanders by-pass Brazil, for various reasons. Brazil is not on the main Pan-American Highway path, which goes down the west side of the continent. Some people simply run out of time, and others are afraid to travel in Brazil. There are also those who simply want to avoid the visa fees, which apply to visitors from specific countries.
Our Travels in Brazil
We have entered Brazil three times – four if you count a short one-night stay, crossing into Santana do Livramento from Rivera in Uruguay (in order to get another 90 days in Uruguay, and to buy some cheap food and fuel).
Our first visit this trip was in October 2016, when we had arranged to travel across Brazil with some other overlander friends. The plan was to visit Iguaçu Falls, Bonito, the southern Pantanal together, and then to cross into Bolivia. Well, it soon turned out that we had different ideas of what would be a good day’s drive, so we decided to go our separate ways.
We then decided to stay in the state of Rio Grande do Sul in the south, to visit some new places and revisit some of the mountain regions we had passed through in 2008. Since we were also keen to see the World Heritage listed Jesuit missions , we exited Brazil towards the Misiones province of Argentina after around 3 weeks in the country.
After our one night stand (see above) we entered Brazil for the final time, again from Uruguay, in early April 2017. This time we had the idea to see as much as possible without rushing it. Lucky for us, the border officials didn’t take our earlier stay into account, and stamped us in for the full 90 days.
It was southern autumn, and we first mostly followed the coast as far as the northern tip of the Espírito Santo province, where we turned around to attend a medical appointment in the province of Rio de Janeiro. After that we drove inland, through the state of Minas Gerais and its countless historic sights, onward to Brasilia, and finally visited the North-Pantanal. We exited via a small border into Bolivia.
The Sights in Brazil
There is much more to Brazil than just Samba, Carnival, and Caipirinhas. We explored interesting UNESCO World Heritage sites, regions with strong evidence of their European roots, wineries, the famous architecture of Oscar Niemeyer, world-class street art, and of course some of the most threatened, yet very unique tropical environments. Last, but not not least, let’s not forget their countless beaches.
Please see our individual reports from Brazil – to repeat everything would go beyond the scope of this post.
Safety in Brazil
Security seems to be one of the most important topics for people who think about whether to visit Brazil or not. Even from Brazilians we heard constant reminders of how “dangerous” their country is. I don’t want to play down such concerns, but we never ever felt threatened or had the feeling, in any form, that we shouldn’t be at a particular place at a particular time. We actually felt safer in Brazil than in a number of places in Peru!
Of course, Brazil is plagued by some of the worst violence in some of its neighbourhoods. You really don’t want to get stuck in a favela at dusk or later; actually, you probably never want to enter any favela on your own. But why would you? Except when your GPS gives you wrong directions. Well, trust me, you don’t have to listen to it all the time! ;) Violent incidents in poor neighbourhoods are replayed on all media and give the country a bad reputation – even in the minds of locals.
We really felt that with a minimum of common sense, overlanding in Brazil was no different to other countries. As a matter of fact, since we were out of season, and most beach places were more or less deserted, we had an easy time finding quiet overnight places, which always felt safe (more under camping further down).
So our advice would be: listen to your “inner voice”; don’t camp where it doesn’t feel right; always keep doors and windows closed overnight; don’t open your door for anybody; don’t flash your wealth around (expensive camera, jewellery, iPad, etc.), and you’ll be right!
Brazilian Road Conditions
Road conditions in Brazil can vary from first-class to absolutely shocking, and everything in between. Most of the toll highways are good to very good, but often very crowded with speeding trucks. You will encounter the most expensive road tolls along the coast; inland toll booths are often hundreds of kilometres apart.
Most country roads are free of tolls; often nice and wide, and easy to drive. Others can be fairly narrow with overgrown edges and therefore slow. Unpaved roads are no worse than in neighbouring countries – except in the Amazon basin, which we didn’t visit.
Speed bumps are the worst in Brazil! Honestly! You can find them on country roads, with no houses around, simply because you approach a dangerous bend; and certainly all through settlements, from the tiniest village to large cities. And not only one every 100 metres or so – oh no! They usually come in sets of two, three, or four, close together, possibly with a speed camera added just before the first one.
Speed cameras in Brazil are another nuisance: they are everywhere, most with a warning sign, but some without. What makes them worse is that almost all Brazilian drivers jam their foot on their brake right in front of them, usually passing a camera at around half the permitted speed. When you’re in a truck behind them, it takes you quite some time (and Diesel) to get back up to cruising speed.
We avoided most of the toll road between Porto Alegre and Vittoria – the BR101 and BR116 along the coast. We found the short bits that we drove relatively expensive. Inland we couldn’t really complain about the road charges.
Border Crossings and Visas
Whether you need a visa for Brazil depends entirely on your citizenship – your passport. Most Europeans don’t need one, US-Americans, Canadians, Japanese, and Australians (us!) need a visa, as do many African and Asian nationals.
As with most countries, Brazil’s visa regulations are “tit-for-tat”, meaning you get as much time as Brazilians get in your home country. This can work in your favour, too! For us it meant that we were able to easily receive an extension of another 90 days because Brazilians can visit Australia for up to 180 days per year.
European Schengen citizens can enter visa free but, since the Schengen only allows 90 days in any 180 day period, Europeans shouldn’t expect an extension in Brazil (occasionally we heard of travellers who had received one – but these are exceptions).
The biggest concern for overlanders will be that Brazil is a bloody big country with very few land borders in its vast north. With the current crisis in Venezuela, it’s impossible to cross that border, which leaves you with one border into Guyana and one into French Guiana. The next is one in the west is in Assis Brasil, along the BR317, connecting the newly constructed Interoceanic Highway with southern Peru.
We found almost all Brazilian border crossings fairly easy and correct. In most cases we were lucky enough to find officials with basic English. Even when we extended our visa in Angra dos Reis, the woman at the Federal Police spoke good English.
I say “almost all”, because the crossing from Rivera/Uruguay to Santana do Livramento was anything but straight forward. Here the border runs through the middle of the town, and the offices for both sides are well away from the actual border – hidden in suburbian streets. Use the iOverlander app to find them; the information on this was accurate when we crossed.
You also receive a 90-day TIP (temporary import permit for your vehicle) from the customs office at the same border. The process is computerised and all data is accessible for a possible extension at the next customs office.
Shops & Services in Brazil
Most of Brazil where we travelled is fairly densely populated, so the next shop is never far away. Unlike 2008, this time around we found supermarkets in almost every medium to large town. Whereas in 2008 these offered not much in the way of fresh supplies, now all have a wide selection of fruit, vegetables, meat, sometimes fresh fish, and bread. Be careful though, some can be outrageously expensive compared with small local shops!
One thing, which makes supermarket shopping more complicated, is the fact that there seem to be very few nationwide chains. You’re in one area, getting used to looking for a particular name of markets, and then you drive on for 2-300 kilometres and never see the same name again – so you start from scratch. From São Paulo north, even in Brasilia, we often encountered the Pão de Açúcar markets, which were often the most expensive. But the same group also owns the cheaper Extra, which you can find frequently.
If you like to eat out you can find many buffet style self-serve restaurants, where you pay for the weight of what’s on your plate – a fair pricing for people after a small(-ish) lunch. We loved the Sushi restaurants in buffet style, where you can pick only one piece of roll instead of a full roll with the same ingredients.
Even more inviting are the icecream buffets in Brazil: they also are self-service, so you can pick tiny bits of several flavours, try them all and be charged by weight. And believe us: some offer more flavours than you can count.
One thing, which is very difficult to find in Brazil, is a laundry service at reasonable prices. The aren’t many to start with, and then the majority charge per piece – you might as well buy new clothes… The few we discovered (2: one in Ubatuba, one in Diamantina) we added to the iOverlander app.
Another essential item for many overland travellers is difficult (to impossible) to refill in Brazil: propane gas! To this day we don’t know of a single overlander who has managed to have their cylinders refilled. The reason is that Brazil has very unusual propane bottles without a valve on top. So better make certain that all your cylinders are full before you enter Brazil. We use our gas for cooking, hot water for showers, and for heating. Since we didn’t need to heat much we managed to stretch our two 11 kilogram bottles for the nearly six months we were travelling in Brazil.
What surprised us the most are Brazil’s service stations. The bigger ones of these, mostly along major roads, really deserve this name. First of all, they are cheaper than other fuel stations – one way to recoup some of the road tolls. The attendants almost always rush out to wash your windows. In the lane where you fill up diesel trucks, they usually have pits for the entire length of the pumps. So, while you fill your truck’s tank, they can perform minor service work. The labour of a grease service or an oil change is mostly completely free; for an oil change you only pay the price of the material used (oil and filter). The few times we used this service, we never had any complaints about the quality of their work either.
You also get to enjoy free and fast WiFi at most of the service stations; they have clean bathrooms, showers, a restaurant, often a truck wash and a well stocked spare parts shop attached – all you need in one place! We know of many overlanders who regularly overnight at truck stops; we did so only twice during the entire trip (mostly because we stayed off highways wherever possible).
Overnight Places in Brazil
When we went to Brazil we were completely out of season. During our first week of the last trip, most tourist places were closing down, which included most campgrounds. Hence, we had no choice but overnight freely – wherever we felt safe (see above about “Safety in Brazil”). Most days it was surprisingly easy to find somewhere to park for the night.
The iOverland app is of limited use in Brazil, certainly once you leave the coastal strip between the border with Uruguay and Rio de Janeiro. One more sign that Brazil isn’t that popular a destination for international overlanders. We added a good number of new spots to the database…
So how did we find places in a country, where everybody says it’s too dangerous to camp for free? Well, first of all: our camper box is really safe! Once we’re inside, it would be very difficult to get in to it. Our rule is that we prefer not to hide, but stand out in the open for others to keep an eye on us. We also dislike camping at truck stops due to the constant coming and going.
Our choices in Brazil were numerous. In the south it was easy to park at churches, as most have a large community hall and vehicle parking on the same lot; further north we found these often locked up. Parking lots of tourist attractions was another option we used.
I can’t count how often we parked in an empty sub-division, where the roads were in and building hadn’t started (or much progressed). Several times we met the owner of these places, often educated people with some English, and asked for permission. One was so nice and returned the next morning to ask us if everything was okay.
I used the GPS map to get a better idea to where to look. Among holiday houses we regularly found a bare patch to spend a night or two – these houses were vacant in off-season. But in general we also encountered less fences than in some other countries, so pulling off the road was sometimes an easy option. For more ideas, see our post: “How We Find Overnight Places On-The-Road” .
For those of you who need or love the comfort of official camping places, there is good news: Brazil has its fair number of such places, from basic tent camping to luxurious RV-parks with full hook-ups (including sewer). Brazil is the only country in South America with a sizeable industry making “recreational vehicles”.
Country Specific Observations
Now, after having finished all of South America, we can say that Brazil was our favourite country to travel in. This is foremost thanks to all the amazing and friendly people we were fortunate to meet along the route!
Our time in Brazil wasn’t the easiest period of our travels because both Yasha’s parents died within 6 weeks, and I needed a small eye operation. The uncomplicated help and warmth we received from complete strangers was astonishing – and now they aren’t strangers anymore, but good friends!
If you add to this that Brazil has some very varied landscapes and beautiful historic towns, many of which are heritage protected; the amazing architecture like the Oscar Niemeyer buildings ; yummy icecream buffets (see above); and overall a good infrastructure – travelling overland in Brazil was a nice experience for us. We happened to be there during the low-time of Brazil’s economy, inflation was high and the Real was reasonably cheap – which helped our budget.
And the best news for people our age or older: if you are 60+ years of age entry to all National Parks and museums is free – everywhere in Brazil. We would wish other countries would follow this example.
Brazil is a country with enormous problems: corruption, crime, and poverty are only some of them. But it’s also a country with a big heart. And in no other South-American country have we found so many historic towns, which were so nicely cared for.
I still say that Brazil is probably the only country in South America I would like to revisit – partly because we missed so much of it, but partly because we loved it so much.