São Paulo Airport Guide

São Paulo's 2 airports -- Guarulhos and Congonhas -- are irksome at best and sheer transportation hell at worst. Here are tips to minimize the pain of using either airport.
Show: The Layover
Episode: Sao Paulo

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Photo by: istock


Considering that São Paulo is Brazil’s largest city and a world financial powerhouse, its 2 airports -- internationally-focused Guarulhos (GRU) and domestic-only Congonhas (CGH)  -- are dispiritingly crowded and irksome at best, and sheer transportation hell at worst. Decrepit, inadequate facilities and frequent labor disputes mean unpleasant experiences can happen quickly and without warning, but as the major hubs of virtually every Brazilian airline, it’s best to accept your fate and learn to minimize the pain of using either airport.

Coming and Going
São Paulo Guarulhos International Airport

Officially named Aeroporto Internacional de São Paulo/Guarulhos-Governador André Franco Montoro, but more commonly referred to by the satellite city in which it is located, Guarulhos (pronounced gwa-RULE-yoos) sits 16 miles northeast of central São Paulo. A semi-direct public bus runs from the airport to the Tatuapé subway station (about $2.15 each way, journey time is 30 to 40 minutes). One-way subway trips cost about $1.50 each way. The specialized Airport Bus Service (www.airportbusservice.com.br, about $17.50 each way, journey time is 1 to 2 hours, depending on traffic) connects Guarulhos with major hotels, the main bus terminal, São Paulo’s various business districts and Congonhas airport.

Taxi cabs can be obtained easily at the airport, at pontos de taxi throughout the city, or by telephone service. All cabs have meters and most now come with GPS monitors that the passenger can see from the backseat. Most drivers, however, speak very little English. Taxis between Guarulhos and central São Paulo cost about $70 to $80 one way, regardless of traffic (journey time is somewhere between 45 minutes to 2 hours). Guarucoop is the exclusive provider of taxi services from the airport, but any cab company may drop passengers off at Guarulhos. Luxury car hire services, provided by companies such as VIP Prime Executiva and Airport Transfers, are also available between Guarulhos and destinations in São Paulo.

Keep in mind that one of the world’s most mind-boggling evening rush hours coincides with check-in times for night departures to North America and Europe. At present, Guarulhos operates 2 passenger terminals, connected pre-security, where all international and domestic departure and arrival procedures take place.

São Paulo/Congonhas Airport
São Paulo’s domestic-only airport is the Aeroporto de São Paulo/Congonhas (pronounced con-GONE-yas), only 5 miles south of downtown São Paulo. Congonhas is connected to the São Judas subway station via bus 675I-10 (about $1.50 one way, journey time is roughly 20 minutes). Taxis from Congonhas to São Paulo’s hotel zones and business districts cost anywhere from $15 to $40, depending on traffic.

The Overnighter
Within the airport itself, Fast Sleep offers small sleep cabins with an external shower (if you need just a few hours to nap and freshen up), as well as “suites” with private bathrooms. For full-service hotels in the area, both the Marriott and the Caesar Park are located on the airport’s periphery, with free shuttle service to the terminals. Less expensive options, such as the Mercure and the Hotel Mônaco, can be found in the neighboring city of Guarulhos.

As Congonhas is located within a densely developed area of São Paulo, you have a choice of several nearby hotel options, including the Blue Tree Premium, the Ibis and the Transamérica.

Killing Time
The uninspiring concrete architecture (Terminal 4 is a refurbished hangar) and mediocre-but-expensive shopping and dining options make Guarulhos the perfect place for you to finally finish War and Peace. Wi-Fi is only free for departing passengers, who can get the password from any of the information kiosks in the terminal by showing their boarding pass. As in most places in Brazil, the people-watching is great.

Opened in 1936, the well-kept main terminal building at Congonhas still maintains a touch of the glamour of early air travel, and the stunning mural of Brazil on the departures level would delight any Art Deco aesthete. Watching planes zoom down the airport’s single runway can be fun for a little while as well. That said, the food options are merely adequate -- mostly overpriced coffee and snack bars -- and aside from a few newsstands and small boutiques, there isn’t much to shop for.

Nearby Attractions
Being so far outside of town, Guarulhos isn’t really an optimum launching pad for incursions into the city. Still, a 45-minute jaunt into downtown São Paulo means a mean mortadella sandwich at the Mercado Municipal, as well as a spectacular view of the entire metropolis from atop the Banespão -- São Paulo’s Empire State Building -- or a few hours of free culture at the ornate Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil.

For exercising body and mind, hop a cab over to nearby Parque do Ibirapuera, a verdant 545-acre outpost of fresh air in the middle of the city. Aside from its extensive hiking and biking trails (rent bicycles at Portão 3), the park’s marvelous Oscar Niemeyer-designed museums and exhibition spaces draw visitors in for hours as well.

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