Photo: Alf Ribeiro/Shutterstock

6 Tips for Driving and Surviving in São Paulo

by Elise Kiera Hahl Jun 21, 2014
1. Don’t drive.

Think about returning that rental car and hailing a cab. Unless you happen to be a native Brazilian, your biology’s probably all wrong.

The Brazilians I know have a gift called jeito or “way,” usually meaning “a way around the rules.” They zigzag, tailgate, swerve, and samba around town without even nicking their side-view mirrors. They don’t fret about things like speed limits and stop signs because they know just how far they can push without getting into real trouble.

2. Remember that three rights make a left.

I discovered this rule the first time I tried driving to the local grocery store. The concierge in my extended-stay hotel gave me a map, pointed a pen toward an intersection two blocks away, and marked it with a thick “X.” I got in the car, drove for a minute, and saw the grocery store coming up on the left-hand side, just as expected. I flicked the blinker smugly. And kept looking. It took me a few seconds to realize there was no place to turn from the left lane in which I was driving.

I could’ve walked through the checkout line an hour earlier if I’d known this rule in advance: Left turns are almost always impossible in São Paulo. You can only make them on tiny, obscure streets, or on a one-way street to another one-way street. Do what the cab drivers do, and make three right turns instead.

3. Honor the motoboys.

Motoboys are São Paulo’s motorbike riders. They deliver things that need to get somewhere quickly, like documents, packages, or meals. Other drivers wait 45 minutes for a light to turn green, but these boys don’t seem to play by the same rules.

One time, a motoboy nearly buzzed into the side of my car and then cut in front, even though we were the only two people on the road. I responded with my worst glare, but he did something unexpected in return. He looked back at me and smiled, ran his fingers down his face and pretended to cry, all the while roaring ahead at 60mph.

Try to be extra cautious around the motoboys. If you make the lead motoboy of a pack angry by cutting him off, his buddies will try to rip your side mirror off. They’re trying to protect themselves in a city where at least one motoboy dies a day. So before you switch lanes, look — and then look again to make sure the motoboys are out of the way.

4. Remember that nunca means “never.”

There’s one rule in São Paulo that even Paulistanos with the most jeito hold sacred: NUNCA FECHE O CRUZAMENTO. Never block the intersection, not even if you’re fairly sure the bottleneck in the middle of the road will clear up before the yellow light turns red.

You’ll see signs with this rule at a lot of intersections, especially downtown. It’s a way of keeping traffic from totally paralyzing the city. A professional driver named Leonardo Araújo put it this way: “Here we have a name for people who block the intersection once the light turns red: fair game.”

5. Beware of ‘bad guys.’

Vendors of all ages will bombard you at all times of the day. They’ll tempt you with bonbons at your side-view mirror, flowers on your windshield, or, if you’re lucky, fire juggling. Give money away only when it’s light out, and only if other drivers manage to do the same without a problem.

6. Bring along snacks, and make sure your gas tank is full.

If you’re heading to a place as popular as a soccer game, bring along a bite to eat as you stare at the back of a stopped car for long stretches of time.

My husband and I once drove to the Guarulhos airport at the beginning of a holiday weekend. The entire city was on its way to the same airport, and we waited for some lights to turn green seven times before we were able to sneak through the intersection. Even the ambulances couldn’t make any progress. We reached the airport four hours later and were told it was too late to board the flight.

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