We only visited the smallest part of Brazil, the south and not even all of it. Because Brazil is as large, as populated and as diverse as the rest of SA, it was still like we visited a whole another big country. We entered in the southernmost border crossing of the country, in Chui from Uruguay.
It looked dodgy already a few meters across the border. The people, the shops.. In a shop you’d be asked to leave the backpack at the entrance but not in a locker, just on the ground by the counter. Sounds so risk free. Later on I heard Hanna telling me a story how someone stole a bag like that and the staff at the counter haven’t bothered or noticed whatsoever. No thanks.
We started driving over 500km directly to Porto Alegre because we decided there is nothing interesting enough for us until then. I researched extensively how to avoid the omnipresent toll stations on the highways. There is a law in Brazil claiming the right for everyone to have an alternative route around the tolls free of charge and also if you don’t have the money on you to get a ticket instead and pay it later. So I first found some small roads around them on the map, ready to take them. Right at the first attempt it was such a disaster that I gave up on it for the rest of the country, especially in the state Santa Catarina, where the tolls are rare and cheap. My first attempt started with going on a small country road, the way around the toll. Even empty tractors went slower and cautious on this dirt road probably bombarded in the war and never been repaired again. Which was more or less the only vehicles using it regularly. It essentially was just an access road for agricultural vehicles unlike the map claimed. The last section, which would get me behind the toll suddenly ended in the middle of it. Simply there was a fence across and just a private field behind. Thank you maps! Thank you laws! So I went back the shortest access “road” towards the highway and got there but had to go kms back in order to get on the right side of the highway because a lot of junctions were just one way and you could only turn around on a “return” point. A return point is highly popular in SA and all country junctions are not an intersections but just a turn in the middle of the road, you just indicate left, use an extra piece of road in the middle and give way to the oncoming traffic. Safety first! I have seen it in Baltics as well and it is safer than it sounds but extra caution must be taken anyways. After that I tried hard not to pay the toll and get the mentioned ticket instead. Instead though, they sent me back to the nearest bank to get cash or to get lost. The nearest bank was 50km far and certainly closed for the day. That much about law justice in Brazil. The idea of the tolls was to contribute for the costs of high quality high speed highways. Meaning in reality sometimes an old single lane broken road where driving above 80km/h isn’t safe.
In Porto Alegre we were hosted by another great guy, this time actually a local. He was pretty alternative and pretty likeminded, but because he was a software developer he shared with us a fully working pretty fast wifi. It was the first fast and non-malfunctioning internet connection we experienced on the continent within 5 weeks. We had to park our car 2km away because in that neighbourhood night car vandalism is a trendy hobby. Apart of that and dense crowds downtown full of people approaching you really close without any hesitation (probably absolutely normal there) we had really no concerns about safety at all. However our hosts told us some absolutely insane stories from Rio/Sao Paolo and some pretty tough ones too from much safer cities such as Porto Alegre. We indeed saw how any business handling larger amount of cash for example paid extra security services. Cash couriers wouldn’t be two guys with hidden never used pistols like in central Europe but 4 or more guys with machine guns and heavily armored truck. And there should still be gangs that do like open bank robberies and stuff. Again, these things you had to notice, watch, talk about and realize with some effort, the feelings from the streets were so positive. Compared to Chile, Argentina or Uruguay we found the streets of the city a bit more interesting, more colonial and also the groceries and food generally richer, more diverse and some local (meaning Brazilian meaning it could be from 5000km away) products of much higher quality for the same or lower price. That is what we enjoyed for sure. Only we were advised not to buy local wine because the local wineries have no idea what they are doing. Walking down the streets in the evening you would see literally every pub, bar, club, restaurant, fastfood, barber etc. no difference – screens with football matches, and I mean like 5 screens with the same match. Other things – no chance.
Problematic for us was money. I exchanged my surplus of Uruguayan pesos on the border but wasted it much faster than expected. Withdrawals were either expensive or even not possible, for some mystic reasons. Card payments were available very widely but way too often did not want to work. Mostly the transaction went through on the 3rd, 4th or 5th attempt or never. I was not the only one. They always asked if the card is debit or credit, for a reason that we still don’t understand. After some time we discovered that debit means in Brazil credit and credit means debit. Isn’t that logical? So with that knowledge we started having a problem with card payments in 50% cases instead of 90%. They also usually have to go pull out from the back or from some premium till a special extra golden card terminal that would work with foreign cards. And later on I found in Spanish it’s the same but the payment would usually go through anyways. Not in Brazil!
For everything to be much funnier, there is the language issue. I have no idea what’s it like in Portugal but in Brazil, no one speaks English, no one speaks Spanish, if they claim that they do a bit, they don’t, if they claim that they don’t at all, they do a bit. Written language seems pretty similar to Spanish so you can figure out but spoken sounds nothing like Spanish. It sounds like a mix of completely different languages and you understand as much as you can understand for example Hungarian. Auto, credito, diesel, internet, nothing more. Obviously spoken in an insane speed and probably dialects too.
After Porto Alegre we started slowly exploring the hilly area going north, relatively near the ocean. It is probably the most interesting area (beside the coast) where hilly countryside brakes the edge down to the coastal lowlands creating a fantastic scenery. It also is the greenest part of the land because Atlantic winds blow into it and drop a lot of their water. I think it goes beyond Rio but we only drove up to Santa Catarina and its capital Florianopolis. First 200km after Porto Alegre we stayed mainly on a route called Ruta Romantica. Its name comes from the flowers along the way and we found it highly overvalued and the name a joke, nevertheless we did enjoy it. The country is really hilly and roads are very curvy. Lots of villages or towns are greatly German influence since the 19th century and are sometimes funny to watch for that. There are two towns which are levels above that all, they are full of Alp style shops, restaurants, hotels etc. and are absolutely crowded in the season. We found nothing interesting there though, except one wonderful waterfall just next to one of them. Much more can it offer just a bit further north where you can find some absolutely stunning canyons, that also have waterfalls and really cool wild forests to walk around. There are a number of roads climbing from the coastal area up the hills and they are a sure challenge to drive (or not get sick from). Half of the roads are not paved and when a road isn’t paved it means horrific! It’s nothing like in Uruguay where the dirt roads are usually well drivable, here it’s for tanks. That we certainly did not enjoy and one more bad habit on the Brazilian roads is the slowing humps. They are in the other countries too and way too often and way too harsh for the purpose but in Brazil they took it further, they have them everywhere and extreme.
Meanwhile up the hills subtropical pastures (by the way, the cows look often so different from ours) are quite prevalent, down by the cast we saw more close to tropic fields full of bananas, rice and other stuff. Bananas were grown by the road and kind of like a wild forest you wouldn’t guess who’s that, what field do they belong to. But the main thing is the coast and the beaches, Santa Catarina has got so much great to offer. Beaches always sandy, long, wide, not even crowded considering it was already hot in the air and warm in the sea. Even the famous island of Florianopolis had the beaches quite far from crowded, even though they are just amazing. It is fairly easy to camp near or park near, you can get delicious and rather cheap food or drinks. Because it is not as flat as in Uruguay, there are random hills between the beaches, you also have some wonderful views every now and then. Also, the cities and the coast seemed to us very cosmopolitan, much more than Santiago, Argentina or Uruguay.
If something was crowded, it was the city of Florianopolis. Just like Porto Alegre. Very much. Navigating was pretty stressful,.it was somewhat more difficult than the other countries so far, mainly because the drivers are reckless, not many rules are followed, signs are rubbish (out of the city often just missing), you never know how many lanes does the road have and the locals seem to know as much as you,. but the stronger wins, right. And also, the so popular one way system in SA gets into another level in Brazil, where it doesn’t rotate logically (left,right,left,right), but very randomly (for example left, left, left, left, left, right, right, left…). We had an assignment in the city, to get our third rabies vaccine and it was fun to handle it once again. First we got a contact via a friend of a friend from the hospital where they give it. The contact only asked us why do we need it and never got back to us. So we went to the hospital and after an hour and half of trying to communicate with hands and feet, we got to see a very young doctor that actually spoke English. We learned that we need to register with the hospital and then we get the vaccine for a special request. They usually do not give such vaccines of low urgency because simply there isn’t enough of them in the country. At the end though, the shot was for free.
Then we turned to the west and cut through the countryside towards Iguazu and Paraguay. Nothing much about that, it’s nice, all the way hilly to Argentina. We went into Argentina to see Iguazu and crossed the border at another point than is usual for tourists. The crossing went over the river and the customs were on each side of the bridge. Because these countries are within Mercosur and the border controls are pretty lax and often they don’t bother with exit stamps, only enter stamps,. we considered the empty Brazilian side as a sign that it is the Friday night and who would work if not necessary. At the Argentinian side though we were sent back. The Brazilian customs were not in the original and logical building on the way but somewhere back deep in the town where no one passes and no one would expect it and where no signs lead at all. Classic logic. When we found the building we struggled to find anyone or how to get in. Inside it was just one officer and us. He gave us a stamp with the wrong year and two TIP (temporary import permit for vehicles) instead of one. When we discovered, Hanna convinced me we need to get back to get the year fixed. The guy took out his stamp and hit it right on top of the ‘wrong’ one. Hanna was confused and asked, if it’s okay that way and he was like “ah, I don’t care. If they care in Argentina, come back”. Thank you officer! Nobody cared though and so we only wasted absolutely unnecessary 2h to cross there. Later we also crossed into and out of Foz do Iguazu on 2 different points and the customs were at the right place because these are busy routes, but they managed to mess it up again. You always need to check in the people with passports and then the vehicle with customs. Sometimes you struggle to find where to check the passports, you need to ask some guy that sends you somewhere and there they send you somewhere and finally you find a guy either standing on the road or in an abandon part of the building that takes you somewhere else and fills the papers with you virtually on the knee. And the layout is always different and always makes no sense.
Our just over a week in Brazil was eventually fun, we really enjoyed the landscape and food, there is no doubt. People are friendly and open and without the language barrier it could be a lot more fun. There are also a lot of downsides that I really didn’t like but the conclusion was the country has got a lot to offer. and what we heard is the rest of the country is nowhere less interesting than the south and is very diverse. so the whole Brazil could be worth another half a year trip. Anything but boring!