Shortly after getting married in 2006, I decided to purchase a car here in Rio de Janeiro. We bought a brand new Chevy Astra for about R$48,000. At the time, that was about $20,000. Still today, it is perhaps one of the most popular cars in all of Brazil. Our Astra included leather seats, a 2.0 liter engine, and an MP3 player. Also, I could not live without the rear sensor which lets me know when I am near something when in reverse. After 5 years, we only have about 15,000 kilometers on the car (10,000 miles), but it still has been a great investment.
1. Consider Parking
By and large, we do not drive in Rio de Janeiro. The main reason is that you should not take out the car unless you feel comfortable that you will be able to park the car. For example, a popular weekend activity is going to the beach, however, I would never take my car because you could literally spend 1-2 hours just looking for a parking space. There are however lots of stores and malls that have ample parking. There are many restaurants that have valet parking. Some but not all of the valet parking is free.
2. Obey The Rules
This is not as easy as it sounds because by and large no one else is obeying the rules. It is clear to me that the there is really no traffic police on patrol and so it is basically a free for all. On my street, Epitacio Pessoa, there is a very hairy place when leaving Copacabana, where suddenly 4 lanes are condensed to 2 lanes. If there is traffic, then it slows to a halt as every one vies to get a car length on the other cars. Worse yet, this happens near a gas station, and it is not uncommon to see people zipping through the gas station, to gain an edge on the other side. I always obey the rules. For example, if there is bumper to bumper traffic, and there is an ambulance behind you, then get out of the way and let them pass.
3. Know Your Route
Rio de Janeiro is one of the most complex cities in the world. Worse yet, many of the streets are not very well marked. Now with the internet, spend a good amount of time studying the maps to understand how the road system is put together. One good way to get to know the city is to just drive around on the weekend where there is less traffic and you are not as rushed. It is such a big place.
4. Traffic Is A Killer
It is normally a 45 minute drive from where I live to Recreio. One afternoon, it took close to 3 hours. You don’t know when it will hit you or where, but sometimes you can get stuck in traffic for hours, literally. Sometimes the traffic patterns are predictable. Fridays are the worst day to drive because many people leave Rio de Janeiro. Same goes for the day before a holiday weekend, and there are a lot of holidays here in Brazil.
5. Beware Of The Buses
There are a lot of buses in Rio de Janeiro and the people that drive them are all training for NASCAR. Buses are a lot bigger than cars and they know it. There is definitely a pecking order and buses are on top. If you see a bus, you should assume that they will not see you and cut you off. Pass buses with caution.
6. Motorcycles And Scooters
On the other end of the pecking order are the motorcycles and scooters. They are everywhere and they follow no rules. If there is a tiny space or crack in traffic, they will try to drive through it and some times at high speed. They are hard to spot in a rear view mirror. The one thing that I have learned is that scooters and motorcycles can stop much faster than a car. It is well documented but each day, 4-5 motorcycle drivers die. All I can say is that I am higher up in the pecking order. One note for pedestrians. When crossing the street and the traffic is all stopped, beware of the bikes that are darting between the cars trying to get ahead.
If you look from the outside, it seems like a daunting tax. With all the traffic, horns honking, buses cutting you off, and motorcycles darting in and out, it might drive you insane. The one by product of all this and no one obeying the rules, is that traffic moves slowly. You don’t need to have lightening reflexes nor be nervous. Most things are happening to you like in a slow motion movie. Most of the time when driving in Rio, I am driving around 50 km/hour (30 miles/hour), which by American standards is not very fast.
8. Use Alcohol
By law, all cars accept both gasoline and alcohol. We always use alcohol. It is cheaper, better for the environment, and made by sugar cane in Brazil.