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Our 600+ Days of travel in Brazil have included a couple of fantastic road trips that we would like to share with you.
1. Estrada Real in Minas Gerais: from Diamantina to Paraty
- Type of road trip: Focus on culture (colonial towns, baroque and rococo churches).
- Quality road: Unpaved but generally well-maintained.
- When to drive: Accessible all year.
- Accommodation / Camping: All towns have guesthouses + lots of rough camping opportunities along the way.
The Estrada Real – Royal Road – runs from Diamantina, some 250 kms north of Belo Horizonte, down to Paraty which lies along the coast west of Rio de Janeiro. The road meanders mainly through the state of Minas Gerais and has much natural beauty. We found great places for rough camping and marveled at the rich historical heritage visible in some dozen exquisite colonial towns.
When gold was discovered here in the late 17th century it resulted in a gold rush of unprecedented proportions. By the middle of the 18th century the mines were turning out half the world’s supply of gold. The wealth generated during this period bought the services of the best artisans and artists of the time and filled the towns with magnificent baroque architecture, churches, chapels and government buildings.
When you have limited time you may want to focus on the central part, from Ouro Preto to Caxambu, which has many picturesque towns and dozens of baroque and rococo churches. Arguably the best-known town is Ouro Preto, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We found Paraty and Diamantina more than worth a visit and didn’t mind driving those additional kilometers. Try visiting Diamantina on a Saturday evening between May and October when a big-band concert takes place with the musicians playing from the balconies around the plaza.
2. The Pantanal: Transpantaneira, Estrada Parque and the Interior
- Type of road trip: Wildlife viewing.
- Quality road: unpaved, from a laterite-type surface (Transpantaneira) to potholed roads (Estrada Parque) and stretches with shifting sand (interior).
- When to drive: Best is during dry season June-Sep, because it increases your chance to spot wildlife. To get to the interior you need this dry weather as extensive parts will get flooded during the rain.
- Accommodation / Camping: Along the Estrada Parque and Transpantaneira are guesthouses. On our recent visit we saw campsites along the Estrada Parque as well. Depending on the time of year (wet or dry), rough camps are easy or difficult to find. In the interior we only rough camped, no problem there as it was the dry season.
The Pantanal, part of which is a UNESCO site, is the best place on the South American continent to watch wildlife, with maybe the exception of the Galapagós Islands. This has been one of our favorite regions during our 6-year stay in South America. The terrain consists of flat grasslands and thus offers extensive views. We saw numerous macaws, toucans, lots of waterfowl, caymans and capybaras.
Other animals we spotted at regular intervals were are giant otters, giant anteaters, deer, raccoons, and iguanas. If lucky, you may spot a jaguar, although you generally need to go deeper into the interior to see it (most guesthouses offer outdoor adventure like piranha fishing – read about it here – and wildlife spotting tours).
3. National Park da Bocaina: Between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro
- Type of road trip: Adventure, nature.
- Quality of road: Unpaved (good to bad).
- When to drive: All year round but expect slick mud when it has rained.
- Accommodation / Camping: We rough camped. There are a couple of guesthouses as well but you’ll have to do some homework before going to the park by jotting them on your map or marking them in your GPS.
It’s a beautiful drive, not exciting in any extreme but we found it a nice way to drive from São Paulo to Rio de Janeiro instead of taking the regular highway that runs north of the park. It’s a mountainous region with great views and a couple of waterfalls well worth checking out.
Just north of the park is a town called Cuña that we enjoyed for its pottery ateliers. They are not one big commercial, consumer kind of production but small-scale ateliers with true artists who all very much have their own style and characteristics of pottery.
4. Beach drive in northeast Brazil from Camocin to Fortaleza
- Type of road trip: Beach driving.
- Quality of road: Hard sand to dunes with shifting sand. Expect to deflate your tires regularly.
- When to drive: Accessible year round but most fun during the dry season, June – January.
- Accommodation / Camping: the beaches are remote and vast, so perfect for rough camping. In many of the beach towns you’ll find different types of guesthouses as well.
It’s a fantastic, adventurous journey. Many stretches of the beach can only be driven during low tide, so check with locals before setting off. At a few places there is no bridge or ferry so you’ll have to loop southward a bit before you can return to the beach. After you’ve crossed the river from Camocin (east) you’ll encounter a couple of hand-powered ferries along the trip.
Note to truck overlanders: your vehicle is too big and too heavy for those hand-powered ferries, so expect to make more loops around lagoons or rivers via asphalt or unpaved roads.
Along the way you can stop to do kitesurfing, windsurfing, sandboarding, buggy tours in the dunes and eat some fantastic seafood. Here are more photos of driving Brazil’s beaches and dunes.
5. The Transamazônica, Traversing the Amazon: from Humaitás to Altamira
- Type of road trip: One of the epic journeys on an overlander’s itinerary.
- Quality of road: Unpaved, which may differ from severely potholed to rather smooth. Note that they are asphalting the road, so the adventurous element may be disappearing in the years to come.
- When to drive: Dry season: June-Nov. In the wet season the dusty road will turn into mud and bridges may collapse.
- Accommodation / Camping: We rough camped although it could take hours before we found a suitable place, mostly below a bridge along a river/stream. Most of the time the sides of the road are fenced off by cattle ranches. I suppose (but didn’t check) that in the towns along the way you will be able to find (basic) accommodation. If you depend on it, plan accordingly because distances between towns can be enormous.
The Transamazônica is one of the best ways to see the Amazon, Brazil’s extensive cattle ranching, indigenous communities ánd to learn about the conflicts that exist among these parties. It’s an adventure just to drive it. It offers culture as it shows an important part of Brazil’s different ways of life and its attempts to preserve nature and the ancient indigenous ways of life. To learn more about our journey, read this blog post.
6. The BR319 – the Unofficial Road Between Manaus and Porto Velho
- Type of road trip: Only for the adventurous who are equipped for camping.
- Quality of road: Horrendous with totally destroyed asphalt and rickety, if not plain dangerous, bridges.
- When to drive: Dry season June-November. Most likely impossible to drive during the rainy season because of collapsed bridges.
- Accommodation / Camping: We rough camped along the way although at times it was hard to find a proper spot. We came across six other vehicles in the couple of days we needed to cover this stretch so we recommend bringing enough food and water and to make sure your vehicle is in good condition. Don’t expect to find guesthouses, although when you ask in the few villages along the way, maybe somebody will offer a Bed & Breakfast Stay.
It used to be a highway between Porto Velho and Manaus but its construction was badly executed. During the rainy season whole stretches have been swapped away and until today most transport, including all trucks, take the ferry between the two cities. The only reason to drive the BR319 is for its sense of adventure. It traverses Amazon rainforest as well as extensive cattle ranches. Our journey can be read in this post.
7. Across the Sertão – the Dry and Inhospitable Interior of Northeast Brazil
- Type of road trip: Adventure & culture.
- Quality of road: Unpaved varying from potholed and dusty to smooth and thick mud.
- When to drive: Dry season: June-December.
- Accommodation / Camping: We did pass a couple of towns but most of them felt too shady to wanting to rough camp within a 100-km radius, so we didn’t linger and I have no idea about the availability of guesthouses/hotels.
The Sertão is vast and empty and we enjoyed rough camping. It’s best to bring camping equipment, I’d say. We had no problem finding small restaurants along the way for lunch (don’t expect to find places in the countryside to eat dinner; lunch is Brazilian’s main meal).
The farmers and people in hamlets are incredibly friendly and it’s a perfect way to see something of Brazil’s rural life, however, expect to be also confronted with the harshness of life in Brazil’s driest region. It’s a region where farmers have a hard time to be self supporting and often live under the yoke of rich fazenderos (cattle farm owners).