Ônibus – the buses of Rio

I have been using buses to get around Rio since I moved here. I discovered early on that as well as being a good way to get to know the layout of Rio, they also provide a great way to get a feel for the inhabitants.

A typical Rio bus – you can see that this is an old photo as tickets are now R$2.75 (95p or $1.50ish)

Initially I was daunted by the fact that absolutely none of the drivers or ticket inspectors speak any English (at the time I had not started my Portuguese lessons). But it was simple enough to master – you simply stick your arm out when you see your bus coming, hop on and say hello to the driver, then give your money to the ticket inspector and find a seat. When you want to get off you pull the cord that runs along the ceiling and the driver will pull in at the next stop – not rocket science.

However, first you have to catch your bus! There are a lot of buses hurtling through the streets of Rio and often the driver of your desired bus shows no interest in stopping. It is very common to see a bus go hurtling past with a whole group of people futilely waving their arms in an attempt to stop it. As I have stood waiting I have noticed there is a form of ‘hailing sign language’:

To hail the nearest approaching bus, stick your arm out sideways, a little higher than horizontal.

To hail the bus that is behind the approaching bus, you need to raise your arm quite a bit higher, closer to vertical. This tells both bus drivers that you want the one behind.


Catching a bus that is in an outer lane is the most difficult and it is not unusual to see even seasoned professionals fail with these. The specialist hail also makes you look a little ridiculous – you raise your arm away from the bus and then ‘cast’ it over and drag it back, rather like hooking a big fish and then hauling it in. Sometimes it works…


Then there are the drivers. ‘Progressive driving’ is defined as driving in a way that avoids “rapid or harsh braking and acceleration”. Well, Rio bus drivers do the opposite of this. If there is a gap of 5 car lengths in front of them, they will apply maximum acceleration and then slam the brakes on at the last moment to narrowly avoid collision. Corners are an ideal opportunity to rapidly accelerate, meaning that anyone who isn’t holding on tight will fly across the bus until they hit something solid.

A few weeks ago I was on a bus when a little old lady boarded. As she walked down the aisle, the bus careered round a corner, sending her flying across the bus and into a guy who was sitting on his own. Everyone looked over in alarm, thinking she might be hurt, but in fact she was fine and looked a little embarrassed to be sitting in this middle aged man’s lap! The ticket lady cracked up laughing at her, then the lady herself started laughing, followed by the man and suddenly the whole bus was chuckling happily together.

Another time on my way home from a Portuguese lesson, a very drunk man got on the bus. He was singing and shouting at people and everyone was feeling rather annoyed with him. After some time he got up, shouting that we had gone past his stop. The driver was very happy to stop so that he would get off. The man continued to shout but he was walking the wrong way towards the front of the bus, unable to find the exit. Eventually he stopped shouting and meekly asked the ticket inspector how to get off! He then had to walk back past all the other passengers who by this time were screaming with laughter at him! Again and again, moments like this make me think of how the situation would be different if the same events played out in London (or many other cities around the world I’m sure). What could have turned into an ugly, aggressive episode, instead became a moment of happiness and laughter – even the drunk guy was chuckling and shrugging sheepishly as he finally left the bus.

Of course, the buses have plenty of negative associations too. Rio hit the headlines last year when armed forces went into a group of Rio’s most notorious favelas, collectively known as Complexo do Alemão. As revenge, the drug dealers set fire to buses in Rio’s Zona Sul (the rich South Zone) and these made arresting images on front pages across the world. 

Late November 2010 – although the images of burning buses made headlines, the operation to pacify Complexo do Alemão was largely seen as a success with far fewer casualties than expected.

And back in 2000 there was a tragic bus hijacking which ended with a bungled police operation, the death of a hostage (a 20 year old school teacher) and subsequent death by asphyxiation of the hijacker whilst in custody. A moving documentary, Bus 174 (original Portuguese name: Ônibus 174), was released in 2002 – it is an amazing film (see reviews here) and really worth hunting down. The bus route was re-numbered 158 after this incident as 174 had such negative associations.

But bad things happen on buses all over the world (I remember the events of 7th July 2005 in London and that iconic image of the bus with its roof blown off). And although sad/scary, these things have nothing to do with the people who travel on buses and shouldn’t dissuade you from using them. On my first day in Rio, my girlfriend and I took a bus which was busy enough that we had to stand. I felt a tap on my shoulder and a lady who was sat next to where I was standing starting saying something to me and trying to take my bag. I was confused and probably looked rather alarmed. Luckily my girlfriend explained that if you are standing on a bus in Rio then the people who have seats will offer to carry your bag for you until you can get a seat. What a lovely thing! Again, I tried to imagine this scene in London and chuckled*. I thought to myself “I’m going to like it here”.

*Incidentally, when my wife first went to New York, she actually tried doing this. Without thinking anything of it, she offered to hold a guys bag while he was standing on a crowded subway train! He moved away quickly and got off at the next stop…

2 replies
  1. Marina
    Marina says:

    hahahahahahahah!!!!! oh my goodness!! that`s really funny!! the way you describe the waiving it`s soo funny,,, and exactly how it is done! LOL
    Sometimes the buses don`t stop because they are really packed, but many other times, it seems the driver doesn`t want to stop, like he is in a hurry to go home.
    I live in Canada and I use the transit quite a bit. It really is amasing how the bus service is different from Brasil. I can`t help to wonder how a canadian bus driver would react riding a bus in Rio.

    • tomlemes
      tomlemes says:

      Hee hee – glad you liked this one Marina – this was one of my first ever posts! I also wonder about what foreign bus drivers would think if they saw the buses here. London bus drivers would get a big shock I think! 😀


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