Guarulhos International Airport is 25 miles from our door. Google Maps says it should take 35 minutes to get there.

Our last trip to Guarulhos took us 3 hours on a normal Thursday night. No accidents, no events, just jillions of cars. Fortunately, we had allowed four hours before boarding, and most of the other travelers were also caught in traffic, so the lines at check-in and security were non-existent (silver lining!).

When we returned two weeks later, at 10:20 am, the trip took an hour, though 40 minutes of that was spent sitting almost idle on the Marginal de Tiete, one of the main arteries into the city. It was pretty clear why:

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Trucks. Trucks are not allowed in the city until 10 am, and then God help you if you have to get anywhere in a hurry. Poor driving skills, bad roads, and a high density of trucks combine to make travel via roads considerably more hazardous than in the United States. There are no laws requiring truckers to take mandatory rest stops and they often drive for excessive periods of time. All major inter-city routes are saturated with heavy truck traffic and for the most part have only two lanes.

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Accidents with trucks have increased 200% in the last two years, according to some reports, as more drivers are allowed to drive trucks without proper training.

I dread to think what traffic will be like during the World Cup or the 2016 Olympics if it is this bad in “normal” circumstances. Most tourists will be advised that public transportation isn’t safe, so there will be another jillion rental cars on the road.

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Drivers are not necessarily bad or aggressive here in Brazil, but their driving habits often differ significantly from what a European or North American driver expects. That is to say that most people drive impulsively and spontaneously, without using signals and turning left from the right lane whenever they wish.

With more than 1.7 million kilometers (1 million miles) of roadways, Brazil boasts the largest road network in all of Latin America and the fourth largest in the world. The country is currently building even more roads in preparation of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Rio Olympics. However, the vast majority of roads are unpaved versus paved. Furthermore, the National Department of Transportation Infrastructure (DNIT) considers only 43% of the paved roads to be in good or excellent condition.

São Paolo holds the infamous record of having some of the world’s worst traffic jams, which are sometimes almost 300 km (188 mi) long. To reduce this tortuous problem and to avoid further environmental pollution, the government of São Paolo implemented a rotation system (rõdizio). It prevents certain vehicles (based on the first digit of their license plate number) from entering the city on specific days of the week. Taxis and buses driving in Brazil’s biggest metropolitan area are exempt from this rule, and most people keep a second, beater car for use on rõdizio days.

Some things we take into account when driving in Brazil:

  • Due to the high incidence of car-jacking and robbery at traffic lights, it is okay for drivers to not stop at red lights at night in major cities such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro
  • Drivers in Brazil may be spontaneous and signals and mirrors may not always be used. Do not expect prior indication of a turn or other jockeying
  • Drivers should keep doors locked and windows closed, particularly at junctions and especially at night
  • Right turns at red lights are not allowed unless indicated by a livre a direita sign
  • It’s against the law to drive while wearing flip flops or with your elbow resting on the window sill and protruding from the vehicle (it’ll be taken off by a motoboy, no doubt)
  • Running out of gas is an infraction of the law, whether the immobilized vehicle constitutes an obstacle for other traffic or not

The last one is vital. If you run out of gas on the marginal during traffic, they’ll likely find your bones some day.

Tips to driving: Be alert. Don’t take things personally. Be patient. Don’t be tempted to use your smartphone while stopped in traffic. Give way, ’cause you’re going to need the same courtesy in two seconds.