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Service Puts Brazil Within Easy Reach

July 28, 2002|LUCY IZON

Brazil, the land of samba and soccer, rain forests and magnificent beaches, can be a challenge for independent budget travelers.

"If travelers don't speak Portuguese or have Brazilian friends," says Brazilian Joao Pedro Borges Badue, "it can be hard to get around Brazil with just a guidebook." Add to that a fear of crime in popular tourist sites and shantytowns. (During my visit, I saw a T-shirt making fun of Rio's crime rate: "I left my heart in Rio--and my ring, and my watch, and my camera.")

But Badue found a way to make independent travelers more comfortable in his native country. In 2001 Badue launched the South America Experience, the newest expansion of the popular backpacker bus service Kiwi Experience and Oz Experience (based in New Zealand and Australia, respectively). Down Under, the two companies carry 80,000 passengers each year. The budget-priced transportation services enable travelers to maintain flexible schedules but provide assistance with information and accommodations, and are a good way to meet other like-minded adventurers.

The South America Experience is operating four modern, air-conditioned buses in the states of Rio de Janeiro and Bahia. Nine different passes are available for routes from one to 12 days long. You can hop on and off as you choose, stretching your trip for as long as six months. Each bus has an English-speaking guide accredited by Brazil Tourism who will explain the culture and history along the route, help arrange activities from hang-gliding to rock climbing, and book accommodation. Passengers are dropped off each evening at local pousadas and hostels. The pousadas average $12 to $15 per person per night for a double or twin private room. Hostels average $8 for a bed in a dormitory room. If you decide to stay more than one night at any stop, you can catch the next bus. Stops are served three times a week.

The most popular pass is the Route Copacabana, which you can purchase before you leave the United States, for $109 at STA Travel; (800) 781-404, www.statravel.com.

The route takes a minimum of four days to travel, but to enjoy it the company recommends you plan on at least eight days. It starts in Rio's popular beach area, Copacabana. The first stop is a walking tour of Rocinha, the largest favela (shantytown) in South America, then the bus travels a coastal route past rain forests. After a lunch at Angra dos Reis, travelers can break away for a few days and catch a ferry ($1) to Ilha Grande to hike, relax and enjoy the beaches. The bus continues to Parati, where there's time to explore its beautiful historic center and spend the night. Then there is a visit to a coffee farm, and the opportunities to climb, hike or rappel and enjoy the spectacular mountainous scenery inland. The next stops are the historic city of Petropolis and Buzios, which has cobblestone streets, 17 beaches and restaurants and nightlife. Buzios is a favorite weekend getaway for Rio residents. The final leg is another coastal run, with stops at swim and surf spots on the way back to Rio.

If you're not sure if South America Experience is right for you, try the company's one-day Rio city tour. Rio can be intimidating to explore solo, and the $26 tour provides a good introduction. Its first stop is in Tijuca National Park, where passengers can take an easy 40-minute hike to a lookout to watch or try hang-gliding (for an extra charge). Then, it's back to town for lunch in one of the city's historic districts, Santa Teresa; the last stop is at the Christ the Redeemer statue high above the city.

South America Experience has offices in Sao Paulo, Salvador and at 36 Rua Raimundo Correa in Rio de Janeiro's Copacabana district; 011-55-21-2548-8813, www.southamericaexperience.com. Its Rio office also has 10 computers for travelers to use. Special promotions give pass holders some free Internet time.

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Lucy Izon is a Toronto-based freelance travel writer and author of "Izon's Backpacker Journal." Her Internet site is www.izon.com.

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