SAO PAULO, Brazil — After a few hours, you sink into a pleasant trance. Time no longer matters. You stop checking your phone, if it hasn’t already lost its charge. You’re comfortable. Your mind settles into the little there is to do — think, maybe read a book or, of course, watch the stunning Brazilian forests and countryside pass by. Soon enough, you’ll be at one of the country’s deservedly famous tourist spots, by way of a few nice little towns no one has heard of.
Traveling through Europe by train is an elegant and relaxing alternative to flying. But traveling comfortably and relatively cheaply by bus through Brazil, a country twice the size and a bit more expensive than countries in the European Union, is a well-kept secret.
These are not buses on which chickens compete for space with three adults on a seat made for two schoolchildren, and they aren’t just for budget travelers. Air-conditioned and with plush seats that can recline almost completely, they are a calm alternative to the hustle and bustle of the country’s expensive and messy airlines. I almost always prefer to move around my adopted home country by land, and a visitor with two weeks can easily move among some of its best spots at a leisurely pace and, more important, see what’s in between those spots.
On my way to a recent assignment, I took a version of this trip, leaving Sao Paulo, South America’s largest city and cultural capital, for Rio and a few days on the beach, then to the state of Espirito Santo, famous for its mountain forests and hiking, and finally to Salvador, Brazil’s colonial capital and current capital of Bahia, center of Afro-Brazilian culture.
The journey to Rio is six hours or so, so I wandered into the Terminal Rodoviario Tiete bus station sometime between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m. for the overnight trip. The terminal is quite safe, with places to get food or sit and watch TV as you wait for your bus. Planning is not required — another huge advantage to bus travel in Brazil. Just arrive about 20 minutes before a scheduled departure, and you can usually get a row of soft seats to yourself. In Brazil, it is near impossible for foreigners to buy a ticket online for a local airline flight (you must use a Brazilian credit card), and a last-minute ticket goes for more than $400, or about 10 times the price of a bus ticket.
I looked forward to the bus ride. The world became quiet and dark. I slept for most of the trip, awakening in the morning as the bus slowly descended a small mountain, the thick, bright-green forest just visible through the mist. Rio and Sao Paulo sit within the Mata Atlantica, or the Atlantic Forest, but because it was cleared away to build them, it’s tough for most visitors to notice.
The natural beauty of Rio is overpowering — it probably is the one must-see city in Brazil. The standard tourist traps are usually the right ones — caipirinhas or coconut juice on the sand at Ipanema, and the trip to see the statue “Christ the Redeemer” is well worth it if the day is clear. I spent the mornings reading on the beach and bodysurfing in the warm waters, and the afternoon strolling downtown and having dinner and drinks at Amarelinho, a restaurant and bar marked by its yellow plastic chairs in the Praca Florian …
Read more: Vincent Bevins, LA Times