Car ownership in Rio de Janeiro is very low. Most residents take the metro or the bus to get around the city and depending on where you are going, the time of day and the weather, it can either be a relatively painless experience, or a nightmare.
While the metro system is very nice, it only covers a small portion of the city. Most residents rely on the bus system to get around town which is fine if you grew up in the city. You learn it at an early age by heart. However, if you are visiting or are a part-time resident such as I am, it can be a daunting and intimating task.
I never take buses in the United States so for me, it is always a scary experience. Whenever I am in Rio and need to get somewhere the metro does not go, I have two choices: pay a lot of money for a taxi or get on a bus and take my chances on one of the over 800 public bus routes.
However, with a little bit of education, it can be managed, but it will require you to do some things you probably are not accustomed to in Anytown, USA.
First, how do you catch the right bus?
Bus Rapid Service
Up until a couple of years ago, you could flag down a bus from any point on the street, however, they have put into place something called the BRS (Bus Rapid Service) now which included several changes.
First, they implemented bus lanes on the right hand side of every one way street such as
However, the major change is that now buses will only stop at certain bus stops along the street based on the BRS numbering system. Locations around the city are either BRS1, BRS2 or BRS3.
- BRS Line 1 - primarily in Zona Sul,
- BRS Line 2 - Zona Sul and Centro and
- BRS Line 3 - Zona Oeste (Barra da Tijuca) and Zona Norte
If you are going to a BRS1 location, you have to be at a BRS1 bus stop in order to get picked up. If you see your bus coming and you know it is the right bus, but you are at the wrong bus stop, the driver will not stop no matter what you do.
Fortunately, each stop contains the BRS number system and a legend of all of the locations you can get to from that bus stop.
Why did they do this?
Well, the short answer is to cut down on all of the stopping and starting of buses which was clogging traffic. With major events such as the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics coming, they had to get control of their traffic problems around the city and to a certain extent, it has worked.
Before the change, sometimes a bus would only go a block before having to stop to pick up one person waiving their hands. And often times, they had to pull over a lane or two to get there, further clogging the lanes.
At last check, the bus fares were $R3,00 now, but to put that in perspective, it’s about $1.35 right now with the current exchange rate on the dollar. It is by far the cheapest way to get around town if you need to go somewhere the metro does not go.
Buses typically run about 15 minutes apart to the same locations, but that depends on traffic. You could be standing there during rush hour times for 30 minutes or more. Also, during those times, lines will form to get on the same bus, so even if you see the right bus coming, you might not be able to get on it since you are too far in the back of the line.
When you enter the bus, you will pay a cashier sitting to the left and go through a turn style.
Once you are in a bus, be aware that there are certain seats reserved for elderly, disabled and pregnant women. These are typically yellow seats.
When you arrive at your destination, stand up and pull the wire that runs the length of the bus to let the driver know you want to get off. You always exit the bus through the back on the right side.
Major Bus Routes by Numbers
As I said, there are over 800 bus routes around the city, but it is not as daunting as it sounds. All bus routes are numbered and displayed prominently on the front of each bus along with the final destination on a lighted board above the windshield. The signs are visible from up to 50 yards away, even at night, giving you time to raise your hand to stop the bus.
Since most tourist stay in Zona Sul, or the south zone, in places like Copacabana and Ipanema, some of the bus numbers you might want to jot down are the 583 and 584 which run from those touristy areas to the base of the Christ the Redeemer statute on Mount Corcovado where you can take a train to the top.
If you plan on going up to Sugar Loaf mountain, you need to look for buses number either 511 or 512 and they will drop you off at the base of the cable cars.
Another touristy spot is the Maracana stadium where they recently played the final to the 2014 World Cup. If you are in Zona Sul, look for bus numbers 435 or 464. Either one will take you to the stadium. Again, not only will the bus be numbered but it will have Maracana lighted above the windshield.
If you make your way out to the west of the city near Barra de Tijucca and are trying to get back to Ipanema or Copacabana, look for bus number 557 which runs through the both up Avenida Atlantica.
Finally, there is a private bus that goes to both airports. To catch it, stand on the beach side of Avenida Atlantica. It is not numbered, but it will have the International Airport name on the front in lights. It also looks different from the other buses so you will not be confused.Look for a blue coach liner type bus and flag it down. They are very aware of people standing on the side of the street with suitcases so don’t panic if you see it coming.
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Safety on Buses
Generally speaking, buses are safe in the daytime, but you want to keep your valuables close by and store your wallet or money in various pockets. Do not stick your wallet in your back pants pocket as you normally would guys. I am not trying to scare you off from riding buses, but you just need to be aware of your surroundings. Rio de Janeiro is not Disney World and there are predators lurking around sometimes. I personally have never had an issue on a bus, but there are certain routes I would not take and I try to avoid taking any of them at night, other than the one that goes to the airport .
Speaking of which, if you take a bus out to Barra de Tijucca and try to come back late, you will have a hard time finding a bus as many of the routes shut down. In fact, you need to make sure you are in a populated area so there are taxis in the vicinity or you might have trouble getting back to your hotel.
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Buses are a great way to save money getting around Rio de Janeiro but there will be a learning curve. However, study the bus routes and start out on short routes and work your way up until you feel comfortable.
Safety really is not an issue in the day time through the touristy areas in Rio. However, some of the drivers will test your patience and nerve as they tend to drive too fast for conditions, and brake suddenly.
Once you learn the system, you can save a lot of money on transportation costs if you are going to be in the city for a while.
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