In Rio, the bus is the way that everyone gets around. There is a metro system but there are few lines and it is not very extensive. Each time I have traveled somewhere, I have relied on the bus to get me there.
While there are many bus lines in Rio, the busses often get extremely crowded. And taking the bus can be pretty confusing…I have to admit that, the last several years, I have been a bit spoiled by the European bus system, where all of the bus stops are equipped with timetables for when the busses will arrive (and it’s usually very accurate), the bus stations are all marked (so you know that you are getting on and off at the right stop!) and the busses themselves display all of the stops taken and often even show what the next stop will be.
No timetable? No problem
In direct contrast, the bus stops in Rio have no timetables, so you have no idea when the bus will be arriving. Sometimes they can be quite frequent and other times, I have heard of people waiting for an hour and a half for the bus to arrive (reminder: we are on carioca/Rio time here!). Fortunately, there are a lot of busses running and there are often several busses that you can take to get somewhere. But it makes it a bit of a gamble, especially if your options are more limited.
Where in the world am I?
In addition, none of the bus stations in Rio are marked (with the street name or whatever the stop may be called), so unless you know the route, you have no idea if you are getting off at the correct stop (or if you are getting on at the right station). The only real solution to this is asking the bus driver what the stop is. I have also relied on the maps feature on my phone to see if I am getting off at the right spot.
And where am I going?
Also, none of the bus stops or busses themselves display the stops that the bus will take. The bus stations often come displayed with a board that displays the numbers of the bus lines that stop at the bus stop and the main stops they make – but not all of the stops are displayed and it does not say what the exact route is.
I often have no idea (until asking the bus driver) if the bus goes to where I want to go. The bus itself often doesn’t seem to know either…there have been several instances where I have gotten on the bus thinking that it’s going to where I want to go because it is displayed on the bus, only to get on and end up the last person on the bus in a place far from my destination. Makes me feel like such a gringa! Facing such frustrations, I’ve found it’s necessary to always ask the bus driver before getting on if the bus is going to where you want it to go. Also, the website Vá de Omnibus is helpful for that sort of thing.
I also found it interesting how nearly all of the busses in Rio come with a ticket person, who you have to pay before you can sit down or ride the bus. In Europe and the U.S., you simply pay the bus driver directly. Similarly, in elevators, there are people whose sole job is to press the buttons of where one needs to go. Sadly, such professions are a direct result of the cheap labor in Brazil; the government can afford people like this because they are paid almost next to nothing.
Petty crime and danger
I have also heard from numerous people not to take the bus at night (after say 9:30pm) because theft and other crime is more rampant. This can happen at any time of the day, however. I have heard that armed robberies are not that unusual on the busses….that sometimes, someone will slide next to a passenger and hold a gun to their side, demanding them to hand over their belongings. While there is no way to really avoid this type of thing, you can minimize your risk of being a victim by limiting the valuables that you bring out (this can not be overstated), holding on tightly to your belongings, not sitting in a place on the bus that is too isolated and definitely not flaunting what you have or the fact that you are a gringo/a (if you are one). And for heaven’s sake, if someone does hold a gun to you, of course do not put up a fight!
Another tip: be sure that the bus you are on does not ride through the favelas – because while some favelas (like in the Zona Sul) are relatively safe, others are extremely dangerous and the busses that ride through them can make its passengers victim to random gunshots (rare, but it happens).
Despite the fact that they can be unsafe and a bit confusing to use, the bus is definitely still the easiest and best way to get around Rio. In many ways, I prefer it to the metro because you actually get to see the city! Plus, the people-watching and surrounding landscape make for a much more interesting ride than the subway.
Bus or rollercoaster?
But do prepare yourself for a bumpy ride – the bus drivers drive in such a way that on various occasions, I have legitimately feared for my life (no joke). They whip around corners so fast that it makes me wonder how there are not more accidents. The only thing I can really compare it to is a rollercoaster – one in which there is no certainty of making it off in one piece! I have found that sitting up in the front, by the windshield, is much scarier — because I am actually aware of how the driver is driving! So, unless you want to endure an anxiety-ridden journey, my advice is to sit down in the second or third row back, close your eyes or direct your gaze out the passenger window, and not think about it.
Needless to say, riding on the bus in Rio is always an adventure!