When most people think of Brazil they immediately picture the sandy beaches of Rio de Janeiro, carnival and beautiful women. Having spent a year living in Brazil, I must say that Rio, Brazil’s most popular holiday destination, is somewhat overrated. During my stay in Brazil, I stretched out my time (and energy) over four states and 9 cities. All equaled in beauty, though the most fascinating place I had the pleasure of visiting was Ouro Preto in Minas Gerais.
I had previously seen examples of surviving colonial architecture in Rio, though when I found out that there are whole colonial towns scattered around Minas Gerais I had to explore them. My first visit to Ouro Preto is the most memorable. I flew into Belo Horizonte, the main city in the state of Minas Gerais and drove out to Ouro Preto. Along the way I discovered a different face to Brazil, one which I don’t think most travelers get to experience. I learnt about the Brazilian ‘sertão’, Brazil’s back lands and mountainous landscapes. It was fascinating to see the geography shift from tropical sunset to rich and green countryside within hours.
The drive to Ouro Preto was long and bumpy. I felt lost and disorientated as we ascended into the Serra do Espinhaço mountains and away from civilization. As the mountain roads became smaller and winding, I began to ask myself what exactly it was that I had gotten myself into. Finally I spotted the peaks of roof tops and church towers. It was more than I could ever imagine. Here was a town that had literally been frozen in time. Vila Rica de Ouro Preto, as it was called, translates to ‘the town rich in black gold’. It was founded in the seventeenth century when the Portuguese discovered the gold that lay hidden deep in the mountains. Soon after Ouro Preto began to produce an incomparable amount of wealth for the town and the Portuguese crown. I was excited.
The sheer wealth of this mining town was to be expressed in the care put into building exquisite Baroque churches. If you are, as I am, a big fan of history and architecture, you will fall in love with Ouro Preto. The first thing I noticed was the peace and tranquility in the town. Here are some features of the city that I discovered and loved:
Architecture: The only other city in which I have seen as many churches is Venice. Ouro Preto hosts some of the earliest churches in Brazil. My favorite is a small chapel by the name of Padre Faria. The chapel exemplifies the earliest architectural style for churches in Brazil. Padre Faria is located some 10 minutes away from the historical centre in Alto da Cruz. Nearby is my favorite church, the church of Saint Efigenia of the Blacks. It takes its name from the patron saint of the slave community that once populated this region. Legend has it that an African king, Chico Rei built the church with the gold he extracted when he was enslaved in the gold mines. The church may not be as rich in gold as the churches in the historical centre but it is rich in history. Other churches to visit in the historical centre include Nossa Senhora do Carmo, Saint Francis of Assisi and Nossa Senhora do Rosario.
The Museu da Inconfidência houses important religious artifacts including some rare slave material objects.
The Oratory Museum – I am yet to find another museum that houses as many religious artifacts in such a small space
Minas Gerais is famous for its cooking. There are various ‘pay per kilo’ restaurants that serve typical Mineiro food. Feijão tropeiro is the Mineiro interpretation of Brazil’s national dish feijoada. Qeijo Minas, a soft, white cheese from Minas Gerais is the most popular cheese in Brazil, it’s used to make pão de queijo (cheese bread) which is another typically Brazilian food that anyone who visits Brazil should taste! Try walking down Rua Conde de Bobadela, just off the main square for some authentic Mineiro restaurants.
My favorite restaurant is O Passo Pizza Jazz, a Brazilian-Italian restaurant that boasts balconies looking out over the town, live jazz music and the best pizza I’ve tried outside Italy!
Ouro Preto is the place to go for souvenirs. To the left of the Museum is the famous soap stone market, to the right are various jewelry stores where you can buy exquisite jewelry and precious stones. I would suggest visiting the Perola Ouro Preto boutique inside the local cinema where you can buy natural soaps and beauty products made by the students of the Federal University of Ouro Preto, all proceeds are donated to charity!
Ouro Preto can be reached by coach from Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais (a two hour bus ride) or from Rio de Janeiro’s main bus station (approx. 7 hour’s bus ride).
Other notable towns in Minas Gerais include: Diamantina, Mariana and Ouro Branco.