FOREWORD: Couchsurfing is a million-member hospitality site where travelers can contact locals for free accomodation and cultural exchanges. It’s also my favorite source for travel information, with the group forums being especially useful for inside advice. Have a question about your upcoming vacation to Russia? Ask someone who has traveled there. Better yet: ask a Russian. Below is how I responded to a woman in the “Cyclists” group who is planning a bike tour in Brazil. The dialogue can be followed here as other members also add their insight.
I’m looking to go on a bike trip to Brazil this winter, and I’m wondering how safe/complicated/fun is biking over there…. Anyone has any advise for me? Is it possible to put a tent in a random spot? Is it really unsafe for a lonely woman? (just in case I leave alone..) Oh, I’m thinking about following the coast staring from Rio de Janeiro and going either north or south.
I’m currently biking Brazil after having pedaled Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia. Mostly, Brazil is different than the Spanish-speaking countries mentioned because there are many more vehicles and the distances are much greater. I’ve gone a week without seeing cars in the remote mountains of Bolivia. In Brazil cars and speeding semi-trucks are a part of daily touring. So far I’ve only biked from the Bolivian border, through Brazil’s interior (the Pantanal is amazing), to the city of Belo Horizonte. The mountains are just now beginning to sprout from the earth. Next week I’ll take back roads toward Rio de Janiero (with a stop in Ouro Preto) as I slowly work my way down the coast toward Buenos Aires, Argentina. My emphasis in Brazil is learning Portuguese and soaking in the culture, not so much seeing the entire country. Many years could be spent exploring this continent country. It’s wise that you’ve broken your tour into north or south. Inevitably, you’ll like a place and spend more time there than originally planned.
THE GOOD: Outside the cities Brazil is extremely safe crime-wise (traffic is different story, more below). The people are the nicest and most hospitable in all of South America, which says a lot since I’ve been given free room and food in every country so far. You can easily camp outside people’s homes after asking permission; many times they’ll give you a spare bedroom and warm meal.
The gas stations/truck stops are like oases on long stretches. They offer free ice-cold purified water, free sugary coffee, free bathrooms with hot showers, all-you-can-eat buffets at reasonable prices, and 24-hour security in case you pitch a tent out back, which I’ve done several times. These “postos” are great too because you can chat with the drivers and employees at night to improve your Portuguese or just hang out reading a book while the caffeine buzz burns away.
THE BAD: Brazilian cities have high crime rates, particularly Rio, Sao Paulo, and most of the larger cities in the Northeast. I’m going to take precautions in these areas. I may enter the cities by bus (or hitchhiking) from the nearest outlying suburb instead of biking into unknown favelas. A Brazilian truck driver told me even he gets lost when he enters the confusing labyrinth of Sao Paulo, that he enters only early in the morning, never at night. You can follow my blog for updates on how I decide to approach major cities.
Besides city crime, not all Brazilian highways are bike-friendly. Some shoulders are so broken you’re constantly forced to ride the white line; some don’t have shoulders at all. I’ve been biking back roads without problems, sometimes without a car in sight, just me and miles of sugarcane fields. With planning you can avoid major highways altogether. On one stretch from the interior to Belo Horizonte I was forced to bike the only road east—a major highway with heavy truck traffic. It was dangerous due to the entitled way that truck drivers feel they own the road. They pass very close, at very high speeds, honking when they’re practically on top of you. Back roads are safer and more scenic.
To end this message, I recommend Brazil. It’s much more expensive than the rest of South America, but the culture and atmosphere are a world apart too. Expect a more modern, social atmosphere than in Andean cultures where with just basic Portuguese you’ll be embraced and protected by Brazilians as a lone female biker.