Visiting Brazil started as a logistical nightmare. Many overlanders traveling the Pan American Highway skip it all together for many reasons. First, Portuguese is the main language throughout the country. Although it is fairly similar to Spanish, pronunciations are very different making communicating difficult. Second, the country is enormous compared to every other country along the Pan American Highway. Seeing the whole country could be an entire expedition in itself. Next, a wide range of landscapes occupies the territory creating unique challenges for overlanders. Specifically, the Amazon is a must see region but rainy weather can create muddy, treacherous roads. Although we were technically in the dry season, rain is still very common in the Amazon year round. Next, the visa situation we discussed in our border crossing post creates a major expense just to step foot in the country. Many folks on a tight budget, like ourselves, decide to wait until the future to pay for their visas. Finally, due to the aforementioned problems, the network of camp spots on iOverlander is significantly less compared to other countries making the overlanding experience more difficult. Regardless of these issues, we knew Brazil was a must see country and began planning.
In Cusco, Peru, we met some very interesting and very well traveled characters from Switzerland and California. Each had great things to say about overlanding Brazil and put many ideas into our heads to begin the process. Our location in Cusco put us right at a major “highway” connecting Peru and Brazil. Brazilian highways, BR 317, BR 364, BR 319 and BR 230 make a connection of highways across the Amazon to the Atlantic ocean and are collectively known as the Transamazonica “highway.” Highway has been put in quotations because these roads are mostly unpaved roads. The road was built by the Brazilian government in the 1970s as a way to connect the coastal regions of Brazil to the Amazon and, ultimately, to the highway systems of Peru. Since being constructed, little maintenance was done on the roads or bridges leaving them in disrepair. The asphalt essentially disintegrated, but in places where it had not disintegrated, potholes create a slow going nightmare.
After a bit of research, we considered driving a portion of this stretch, then heading due north to Manaus. From Manaus, it is possible to take a ferry all of the way to the Atlantic Ocean to the city of Belem. We couldn’t find much information during our planning phase, but have recently discovered that this ferry costs about $2,000 Reals, or about $650USD and takes about four days. Had we had more information up front, we would have very seriously considered taking this route, then returning to visit Bolivia following Brazil.
Both sets of our friends completed the Transamazonica and said it was a fun experience, but that very little wildlife is present along this route. Additionally, huge swaths of this region has been and is still being deforested, making for boring driving days. Finally, we discovered that work is being done to rebuild the infrastructure of bridges and roads but that the road is still in very bad condition. One of the resources we used for this route is Landcrusing Adventure’s article that you can read here. According to the article, the trip took six days and was painfully slow. Other research about this route turned up some really nasty photos of vehicles being stuck in the mud often needing dozers to pull them out. The combination of insufficient information, bad road conditions and the possibility of getting our begging-to-sink-in-the-mud, five ton truck buried in the mud made us shy away from the idea altogether.
This is what I’m talking about:
So, what does all of this discussion and information have to do with our travels that will be documented in this blog post? Well, nothing really, other than our route we chose will focus on Southern Brazil because of the information listed above. Also, we hope other overlanders reading our blog can use our thoughts to tackle this route for themselves. For those readers back at home more intelligent than to consider driving this route, we hope it was interesting nonetheless. Rather than try to cover all of Brazil in entirely too little time, we will overland Southern Brazil and fly to Manuas to visit the Amazon later in our Brazilian adventure.
In our previous post, we left Emas National Park and headed east. Major cities along our route included Rio Verde, Uberlandia, and Belo Horizonte. The landscape rarely changed and was relatively uninteresting as we cruised through the seemingly endless farmland with occasional pockets of trees. Our daily schedule started with a departure time around 9 or 10am, stop for lunch around 1 or 2 and drive until 4 or 5pm when we found a descent place to park for the night. The descent place was almost always a truck stop and was often noisy, smelly, and, well, not very descent. Thinking about this doesn’t seem to be too terribly difficult, but the majority of the highways were two lanes with lots of truck traffic and mostly at 40-50MPH. These routes are traveled by big rigs so much that ruts have been cut into the highway from their massive weight. The ruts were just a little too wide for our truck and we would be thrown from one side of the highway to the other. With exhausting and slow driving, we often only covered 250-300 miles in a day. Needless to say, we have very little to report aside from finding the cheapest oil change on the whole trip. For $45USD, we had 10 quarts of Mobil oil and our oil and fuel filters changed in less than 30 minutes. It is nearly impossible to buy 10 quarts of quality motor oil for less than $50USD, let alone having it changed for this price. This experience kept my mind happily occupied for nearly an entire day. Sometimes it’s just the small things that keep us happy!
After nearly a week of mindless driving, we found our way to the town of Ouro Preto just southeast of Belo Horizonte. The name translates to “black gold” as the town has a rich mining history. The landscape to which the town calls home is hill after hill after hill. There really is no substantial flat area in the entire region. We lucked out and found a large parking lot next to a church right as we entered the city. From the church we looked out and caught our first glimpse of the adorable colonial city. Cobblestone streets with a steepness that put San Francisco streets to shame run up and down the hills between the buildings in a million different directions. Often streets would go down a ways then turn 90 degrees without any warning. We joked that had we accidentally driven down these streets in our truck, we probably would have died from heart attacks! All of the steep hills and disorganized cobblestone roads add to the charm of this beautiful town.
From dozens of points within Ouro Preto, a large rock outcropping can be seen on the horizon of a mountain in the distance in Itacolomi State Park. We packed up the camper early in the morning to beat the Brazilian independence day crowds and drove the short distance to the park. Upon arrival, two busses of kids were in front of us but the workers waved us to the front of the line, which was greatly appreciated. Once parked, we grabbed a backpack with water and sandwiches and began hiking. It had been nearly a month since our previous hike, so, despite the lower elevations, the trail was fairly slow going. At the top, we could see dozens of miles in every direction. At least a half dozen fires could be seen burning in the distance and smoke from them made the sky lightly hazy. After lunch, we made our way back to the camper and enjoyed cool, 60 degree overnight temperatures. Having spent many nights at noisy truck stops, the quiet was deafening.
Two weeks after leaving Corumba, the highway finally came to an end as we arrived in the coastal City of Vitoria. About twenty miles south of Vitoria, we found wonderful camp spot between two beaches near the city of Guarapari where we would sit still for three days. A strong breeze blew throughout the day, but always stopped after sundown. Consistently, clouds filled the sky every morning until about 1PM, then cleared to allow for a few hours on the beach.
Our last day in Guarapari happened to be my first birthday on the road. Here is a quick summary of my birthday and a little insight to a day in our lives on the road:
We woke up at 7AM as a kid was trying to get into the camper as we slept. He ran away as soon as he realized we were inside. Luckily, I saw he had one of our pad locks in his hand and told him to drop it. He obliged, dropping it on the ground then sped away on his bike. I went back to sleep. At about 10AM, Laughlin made breakfast of fried eggs, toast with jalapeño jelly and thick cut bacon. As we were cleaning up, three men talked to us, curious if we have had any problems with police since we only have four digits on our license plates. I explained that our plate is a valid foreign plate and, aside from a little confusion from time to time, we have had no problems. We packed up and left our camp spot. The road that we thought was a secondary highway along the coast actually required us to turn every mile or so as opposed to one seamless road. Many of the cities we passed through turned out to be much bigger than they appeared on the map causing a little bit of heartburn. In one little town, we found a gas station with a stall with shower heads, so we ran back to the truck and grabbed our shower gear, excited to have our first shower in three days. In the afternoon, we arrived at a cliff along the ocean that we were told was a great camp spot. Had the wind not been blowing 60MPH+, it would have been great but we left not wanting to listen to the wind howl all afternoon and evening. What was supposed to be a easy 60 mile day quickly turned into 150 miles as we finally ended up at a truck stop near the town of Campos. We were excited as this particular truck stop had parking far away from the highway and a separate lot from the trucks. We grilled steaks with zucchini for dinner and settled in for a cozy night watching TV shows until bedtime.
Almost certainly, each day on the road turns out to be very different from what we expect. Sometimes it is welcomed and other times it is exhausting, but we have come to learn that having no expectations and being flexible is the only way to combat this.
Following our truck stop outside of Campos, we made our way to Cabo Frio directly east of Rio de Janiero. We found ourselves exhausted after navigating through the city with narrow streets and endless closed roads. Eventually, we gave up trying to find our way to the end of the peninsula and found another free beach in a residential area. The waves rolling in on white sand beaches looked incredible out our camper windows, but the wind was blowing harder than any other place on our whole trip. It reminded us of winter in Casper. I thought I would get seasick as the camper rocked back and forth in the wind but managed to fall asleep. We hit the road once again first thing in the morning.
Our next “mini road trip” took us to Teresopolis, Itapaiva, and Petropolis to the north of Rio de Janiero. The draw to these communities is that they are located in the mountains that create the backdrop to Rio. Driving in these towns was exhausting as they were filled to the max with weekend traffic from the cities. Nonetheless, we enjoyed the sights and the temperate weather.
In Petropolis, we lucked out finding a parking spot and set out on foot to explore. The city’s main cathedral was very impressive. A short walk away, we found a park with the Crystal Palace in the middle. It was fun watching the people admire it as they strolled through the park. Right around the corner, we found the Bohemia Brewing company building and stopped in for a quick visit. We picked up some beers to try a few days later as it was only 11:00AM and we had plenty of driving ahead of us. On our way back to the truck, we admired the mansions lining the main street. Each had the equivalent of historic register sign out front with information about its origin. Although quite different architecturally, each was masterfully painted with pastel colors.
We left Petropolis and headed south where Rio de Janiero waited, only 35 miles away. In our next blog post we will share our week long experience in Rio!