7 things you should know before cruising a Brazilian city

Street of Pelotas, Rio Grande do Sul state. Photo by Fabrício Marcon, via Flickr

Sales of private vehicles grew 10% in 2010 and Brazilians get more and more addicted to their cars. In a way, it is a pity – more traffic jams, more air pollution, less urban interaction. In contrast, the circulation by public transportation or using your own feet offers wonderful opportunities for those who want to mingle with the locals, discover the country’s culture and habits, find unbeaten paths. I am a big enthusiast of the pedestrian way of life – got my driving license 25 years ago but never used it (you can read more about this experience here, in Portuguese).

Naturally, knowing how the Brazilian cities grew and function can be very helpful for the amateur strollers. I collected a few tips that are pretty universal all over the country. Please, let me know about your own observations.

  1. In most cities, houses and buildings are numbered according to the distance in meters from the beginning of the street. In this case, if you are in front of house # 100 and you are looking for house # 1100, you know you will have to walk 1 kilometer.  Street numeration begins downtown (or on the extremity that is pointing towards downtown). The same is valid for roads. If you see a sign saying the city you are heading to is 15 kilometers away, this is the distance to the center of the town, not to its borders. Personally, I love this system. I remember having trouble in Paris because the house numbers bear no relation to the size of the blocks. I could never calculate how long it would take to reach my destination.
  2. Street markets are common and normally happen once a week in regular streets. Which means a street you visit on a Monday may become impossible to recognize on Tuesday. By the way, be cautious if you have to drive through a street that hosted a market the day before. Most fruit and vegetables are transported in wooden boxes. The sellers remove the lids and throw the nails on the floor. Once, my mom had four flat tires because of that. All at once.
  3. Most Brazilian cities evolved around a Catholic cathedral placed in a square (sometimes known as or matriz). In smaller towns, this central square includes an early twentieth century bandstand and manicured gardens and a fountain that, even today, attract the population in warm evenings. Find the cathedral and you will find the City Hall, the main commercial streets and a whole bunch of social life.
  4. Several touristic cities keep their original colonial pavements – irregular or round stones that can be very slippery. This is true in the historical quarters of Paraty (Rio state), Salvador, São Luis and many cities of Minas Gerais.  Avoid high heels and pay attention not to fall.
  5. Never trust a street light blindly. It may indicate you are allowed to cross, but you should still check for drivers that disrespect the law. This is specially true after dusk. In many cities, there is an unwritten rule that says you should never stop in the evening at a red light, because you might be attacked by criminals. Most drivers prefer to slow down when they realize they might have to stop ahead. Others, speed up. Anyways, in those neighborhoods, you will have to consider the possibility of  not walking at all after dusk. I am not the best of advisers, though. My parents were constantly worried because I insisted in walking by myself late at night (my secret – very fast pace and handbag crossed over my chest).
  6. Never count on public toilets. Unless you are visiting a museum, eating in a restaurant or shopping in a mall, there is very little chance you will find an decent restroom. When you are out of options, look for the closest McDonald’s.
  7. If you are a newbie, it will take a while to understand how urban buses operate. In some cities, you will embark through the front door, in others through the back door – and in some other cities, one never knows. Some big cities have articulated buses, twice or three times the size of a regular one (I don’t recommend standing right on the articulation. Very bumpy). It is just like Forest Gump’s chocolate box – one never knows what he will get. Only one thing is universal, as far as I know: all buses have a cobrador – the guy who receives the money ticket. As we say: “tudo é passageiro, menos o cobrador e o motorista” (pretty untranslatable joke – passageiro means both passenger and transitory. It would sound like: everything is transitory, except for the driver and the cobrador.

If you liked this post, you should also read Practical tips for driving in Brazil and 20 best tips if you are visiting or moving to Brazil

2 thoughts on “7 things you should know before cruising a Brazilian city”

  1. About #1 (houses and building numerations) I think it is very logical and works fine for me too. I guess it works fine for locals and tourists. In Holland the numbers are just crazy ! The other side of a regular street can be much higher than the side where you are – do no ask me why. And I am not talking about concentric canals ! Another thing that puzzels me is that especially in villages many streets in a certain area have the same name. Some times in a vast area (many, many blocks range) – all the streets are just one name.

  2. Pingback: Walking? - Page 2

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