Friday, October 18, 2013

Travel options in Brazil for the adventurous and others

Luiz and I are seasoned travelers. Between the two of us we have been to more than 30 countries all over the world. Within Brazil we have been to more locations than practically any other Brazilian we have met.  Most of that travel has been on what most people would consider a shoestring budget.

While some may find negotiating for a room with a private bath in an otherwise (clean and quaint) sex worker-filled little hotel in Paris objectionable, we find it a way to secure a room on the cheap (with our own bath!) Truth be told, we did not realize it was an establishment utilized by sex workers until after we had checked in, but we stayed. The room had a great view of an adjacent flowered square, if we craned our neck hard to the left while leaning off the tiny balcony (better view than the advertized “Acropolis View” we once paid for in Athens, seen only out the bathroom porthole).

Over the years our pantomime communication skills have gotten us out of many a tough spot, including catching a train on time in Bangkok where we resorted to pulling on an imaginary overhead cord and voicing a train whistle to get the tuk-tuk driver onto the right road to the station.

Travel and adventure have gone hand in hand. We enjoy planning in advance but tend to nail down as little as possible prior to actually arriving at our destination. Our general rule of thumb when landing in a new city is to have a place picked out for the first night then stay open to changes thereafter once we get the lay of the land. We follow our nose and trust our gut. In the end it can really save a fist full of cash – and it’s fun! For us, the journey is indeed what we enjoy about traveling.

But not everyone likes to travel this way. Some people, lucky them, have the luxury of leaning on padded budgets rather than always keeping a watchful eye out for the value discount.

Here in Brazil Luiz and I have traveled via various means at one time or another: plane, bus, organized excursion, hired driver, van, tucked under the wing of a new friend in a new town, and even the rare passenger train.

Over the years we have seen our travel choices evolve as our budgets have grown (if only slightly) and our tolerance for hammock overnight stays has faded into memory.

Speaking from personal experience, here are some thoughts on ways to get around in Brazil, including their joys and pitfalls as we have seen them. Whether you are planning to come visit us soon and extend your stay to do some exploring, or you live locally and need a little push to get something (anything) in motion, perhaps these ideas will get you started.

Going it on your own. This is our preferred method. We are pretty comfortable reading guidebooks, tracking down tips online, piecing together transportation and lodging options and generally following our nose. Luiz and I share a travel style, that is, we do not freak out over the details and are confident things will sort themselves out just fine. Plus, as I’ve mentioned, we see our vacations in terms of every minute and every discovery/challenge from the minute we leave our apartment on one end through unlocking our apartment door upon return on the other - that way any unforeseen bumps in the road at any stage are just more grist for the mill. For us, it is not only about the destination.

Choosing a pousada (hotel or B&B) upon arrival can be fun. Just plan to arrive with some time before sundown so you can walk around and check out several options. We tend to start the search with an up-to-date guidebook or personal recommendation, but looking around and taking a peek inside several places can be a fun way to discover the feel for the place as well as getting more of an inside view of various buildings, neighborhoods, and price range values. Leave your luggage at the bus station, or take it to the first pousada and ask them to look after it while you check out some others. They will generally agree because it means you have to return to them at least one more time, increasing their chance of you choosing them.

One of the times we went to Paraty we took an hour or so walking around the historic district and checked out several pousadas before choosing a 150 year old house-turned-pousada with a beautiful back garden. Most of the properties look pretty much the same from the front, but once inside you never know what you will discover. Even if you are not actually in need of a place to stay, wander into several places and ask to see a room and their other amenities. Some of these places are amazing!

Don’t buy into the hype expressed by travel agents or by many folks online: a place is never without a room to let. High season, special event weekends, World Cup or Olympics – there is ALWAYS a room available somewhere. It is safe to say you will never find these rooms online, but they are out there. Trust me. OK, so it may not be the best room you have ever stayed in or in the best location, but it is there. We have found a room in Provincetown, MA during the 4th of July and Florence, Italy on the eve of Carnevale. It takes some doing, but the room is out there (and often for much less than you would have paid online). Get on the ground, talk to people (everyone you come across), do some leg work, be flexible. One time Luiz and I arrived in a tiny seaside village without a room booked. A woman learned of our need, packed a bag and her small son, moved in with her mother, and rented her house to us for several days (fully furnished, of course, and with access to her washing machine). We needed a room and she needed the money.

As a car-less couple we have the sometimes disadvantage of traveling via public transport options. Almost all of the time we work the local bus system and other options rather than renting a car. Most, if not all, of the local sights are usually accessible by bus or some other option developed to shuttle travelers to and from said sights. Renting a car is seldom the only solution to a problem. It is usually a perceived convenience – one which we rarely see as such. There is always (95% of the time) another option (like renting a scooter for the day, for example). More about car rental later.

Going it on your own keeps almost all of your options open and generally allows for easy budget reallocation as new info presents itself. Flexibility is key. But you have to have the chops for it, especially if language is a barrier.

Buying a package. This is the tempting half-independent, half-packaged route. The tour company puts together the flight, rental car, hotel and maybe even tickets to a local attraction or more. It works for folks who wince at the idea of digging through guidebooks or searching travel site bulletin boards for the necessary tips to make the most of an unfamiliar destination. If you go with a well respected and proven travel company you are pretty assured to get an OK hotel at an OK price. And you might even get a deal on the airfare. But the devil is in the details.

Our experience has been that the hotel is nice, but often “nicer” than we really require. We would just as well stay in a place without a pool, workout room, or bedside telephone (which we never utilize anyway) and go with a smaller, more personal place at a lower price. The real kicker is typically the location of the packaged hotel. We put a premium on a central location since a good location often trumps the need for a rental car or frequent taxis. After dark we enjoy being in a location where we can wander through a pleasant area and enjoy an outdoor café or beach side stroll. Package deals invariably put you further than you want from where you want to be.

This hotel was across the street from the ocean beach. We don't need to pay for a pool...

Packages are often a deal for what you get. You just have to want all of what you are buying. Another plus is that you can forward the link containing your package trip details to your friends and recruit them to come with you. Packages have worked great for us when trying to motivate a group of friends (often families with children) with varying vacationing styles to bust out a week long party at a distant beach side resort area.

Brazil is over flowing with travel agents pulling together packages to popular destinations. Choose wisely. The cheapest option is often the most risky in terms of your overall satisfaction. Getting an official license to be a travel agent is tough, but not that tough. A lot of people are getting into the business, especially as the Brazilian government continues to pour gazillions of $$ into the tourism sector. Everybody knows somebody who runs an agency, owns a pousada, rents a van, acts as a personal guide, etc. If you hook up with a low overhead agency it is best to find them by way of a personal referral you trust. You can save a lot – or wind up being very frustrated. Guarantees or refunds may be spoken about, but rarely play out in reality. So-called refunds typically take the form of credit applied toward future bookings or are steeply discounted for cash refunds. (True cash refunds from businesses of ANY KIND in Brazil are rare.) Read the fine print in your contract carefully. Again, choose an agent wisely.

A word about the Pantanal. In my book, for successful wildlife viewing nothing beats the Pantanal. The Amazon gets all the press, but the nature of the dense Amazon jungle makes wildlife viewing very difficult at best. The Pantanal, on the other hand, is a visually expansive wetlands area half the size of France that is sure to satisfy even the most Discovery-Channel-like expectations. The vast majority of people visiting the Pantanal will utilize a tour company for some or all of their adventure. Going it on your own is technically possible, but not practical. Nearly all of the Pantanal is private property, so unless you and your family are renting a houseboat and crew for a week and meandering through various waterways, it’s best to choose a tour operator that is offering what you are looking for. Choosing how, where and when to visit this area can be complicated. In brief, my personal opinion is: visit the northern end of the region; dry or wet seasons each have their unique appeal; spend as much as you can on quality accommodations, activity options and guide services. Send me an email if you want further help.

Buying into a planned excursion. Excursions are those soup-to-nuts adventures (or not) where you buy into a pre-planned itinerary shared by a group of people led by a guide. Luiz and I have gone on several such adventures with mixed results. They can be a lazy three day weekend taking in an annual festival in some quaint mountain town, or a 10-day hiking trip into the forest searching out waterfalls, snorkeling inside caves and conquering mountain peaks.

We utilize excursion travel when the destination is out of reach by bus or includes wandering about that is facilitated by a tour guide. A good guide can open up the secrets in some locations that would otherwise be missed.

The trick behind a great excursion experience is to know your company/guide well and to be certain you share values and priorities about your desired excursion experience. Things are not likely to go perfectly your first couple times testing out operators, but with a little investment of time, research, conversation and sought-out recommendations you should be able to find a company that is a good fit for you. But in the beginning, manage your expectations.

This is our style of restaurant on the beach. We would never be taken here while on a regular commercial excursion. But when we travel with our eco-tourism group it is EXACTLY where we eat (we ate). That is Luiz at the counter ordering fresh fish for lunch.

I guess I say this because Luiz and I have had a few missteps in the excursion department, even while being conscious consumers.

We have not taken excursions led by international operators. On the contrary, we have gone with much more local folks and companies. We don’t demand much. In fact, most of our trips exceeded our expectations in the transportation and accommodations department. It was in the “things to do” department that we have had to be most investigative and assertive.

An old coffee plantation manor house turned family museum and restaurant near Conservatoria.

We enjoy seeing the natural sights like waterfalls or big parks. Our taste tends toward historic towns, characteristic architecture, municipal museums and family run restaurants. Our experience with city/town excursions thus far is that many set aside a significant amount of time to go shopping. Shopping for clothes, wine, chocolate, house wares – you name it. If the region is somehow famous for a consumer item the tour is sure to stop at a few shops and encourage you to load up. As you might imagine, the guide gets a commission for any sales s/he may bring to these shops. The pay scale for guides sucks, so naturally they are very motivated to show you all the places to shop.

Urgh. Nothing could be more off the mark for us. So now we are very careful to drill the operator about how the time will be spent, if there will be shopping stops, what alternatives are available if we choose to step off the bus, and where they plan to corral us all for lunch.

Luiz on a 3 day hike from Petropolis to Teresopolis.

We have yet to identify a perfect fit for small town explorations, but in the eco-tourism department we have found a wonderful group that fits us like a glove. This small company named RJ Adventura out of Rio is run by several outdoor enthusiasts/athletes who place adventure and activity above all else. We have gone on several hiking trips in Rio state from 3 to 7 days long and have a trip planned in November for 10 days in Chapada Diamantina in central Bahia state. This group can sometimes put us in pretty funky sleeping quarters, but their passion, personality, attention to safety and focus on the environment hits us in the bull’s eye. They speak a little English, but not really.

In summary, excursion travel can be a carefree good value overall, however it is really important to know your operator and get the details on your trip: planned stops, what is included, what is not included (how much extra cash you should bring), the demographics of your fellow travelers, and most importantly the values of the operator and guide when it comes to exploring various destinations.

Renting a car. The short bit here is: don’t rent a car unless you absolutely have to. Brazilian drivers have earned their reputation as myopic, often-dangerous, inconsiderate drivers (yes that is a generalization – and I stand by it, in general). Depending on where you are roads can be dangerous to drive on, lack emergency services and be overrun with scofflaws or worse. Most people do not find the experience relaxing. To make matters worse, rental rates and the price of gasoline (or alcohol, or natural gas) will make you reconsider your plans to go on vacation in the first place. Or maybe not – maybe I’m just not used to local automobile expenses as a fact of life. As I said, Luiz and I live a car(e)-free life.

Pack light!

Just for the record I went to a travel website and did a search for car rental in Rio for one week.  A tiny two door (you would need minimal luggage to make this work) rents for R$563/week. R$315 is the fee, R$248 are taxes, etc.  A four door with suitable luggage space rents for R$797/week. That’s R$528 for the car and R$269 for the taxes, etc. Then there is insurance, parking, fuel and the like to consider.

Often times, if you just need a car for one day you can rent a guy with their vehicle to take you where you want to go. Negotiate a good deal. Be nice to him. Buy him lunch. Or consider renting a scooter to explore the local hot spots. Rental cars are often the default setting for some but they are only sometimes the best solution in any given situation. Give it some thought.

Airline tickets. Brazil is a huge country with very long distances between popular locations. First time visitors often ask about cramming trips to the Amazon, Salvador, Rio and Foz de Iguacu into one two week vacation. [Good luck with that.] Plane travel within Brazil used to be prohibitively expensive. Fares were ridiculous. But in recent years, thanks to a degree of deregulation and the introduction of low-fare airlines, the prices have dropped considerably. It is now definitely worth comparing fares for bus transportation vs. airlines. But do consider how the location of the airport vs. the bus station impacts local ground transportation options. If you have a favorite website for checking airfares beyond a generic Google search for same, please mention it in the comments.

Bus tickets. The inter-municipal busses in Brazil are very comfortable, safe and affordable. Controls keep track of your luggage and (mostly) prevent busses from pulling out of pit stops without you if you tend to straggle. We choose to book the overnight schedules for longer trips. Be sure to buy tickets for the more comfortable so-called “leito,” “semi-leito, ” or “executiva” options. These busses provide seats that recline partially or completely for easier sleeping. Some are ridiculously comfortable (three seats across, fully reclining). The higher price also tends to weed out many families with children, so the bus may be quieter as well. Unlike in the States, buses in Brazil tend to be quite direct with just one or two stops between major cities. Travel times are relatively fast, for ground transportation. Tales of crazy bus drivers traveling at insane speeds on dangerous roads are a bit exaggerated nowadays. Back in the day it was all true, and then some. But now – not so much. This governmental website is a good place to start when looking for road transportation options.

A good travel agent can help you with most all of the options I’ve mentioned. Their minimal fees tacked on for helping you out with bookings, etc. are worth the service.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jim,I hope you and Luis are well. I spent several hours yesterday night, reading your blog. It was very interesting and beautiful( I like love stores). All the best for both of you. :) Juliana

Jim said...

Thank you, Juliana, for your sweet words. Luiz and I are indeed lucky to have found each other.

Thanks for checking out the blog.

The Reader said...

Good tips! We haven't ever gone so far as to locate a pousada on arrival, but we do seek out the lowest rate while still in a safe area type places; why spend big bucks on just a bed to sleep in???

We do locate activities, tour options, local guides, etc. when we arrive, and have not been disappointed in that method yet. Who better to ask, someone online who visited once (ala TripAdvisor) or the local pousada owner who's lived there his/her whole life?

One word on car rental, though -- for small groups, one or two people, the cost of car vs. bus fare doesn't make much sense, especially if just visiting one city. BUT, for a family, especially once the kids are past the discount fare age, the cost comparison isn't so far off the mark. One car for all 5 vs. bus fare x 5, especially when going between distant/far flung locations, it can be worth it.

For ex, we flew to Recife, rented a car, drove to Porto de Galinhos, stayed there 4 days, drove to Natal and then Praia de Pipa, stayed there 4 days, drove back to Recife, turned in the rental car, caught our flight back. Just one example, but you get the idea....

Wonderful post though!

Jim said...

Reader - your comments really shine light on how our personal perspective shapes our decision making. There are certainly different considerations for families, not the least of which is car rentals. Thanks for the reminder.

From following your travel tales over the years I know you are a wise consumer - and not afraid to think outside the box. It is a great skill/confidence to have.

Amber Lynn Jones said...

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