Claires travel pages
Claires travel pages

Minas Gerais was formed mainly by colonists who searched for veins of gold and gems, and later diamonds (the name literally means general mines, a shortening from Minas dos Matos Gerais, or mines of the general woods, this being originally the hinterland to the incipient colonies of São Paulo dos Campos de Piratininga and São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro). These gold and diamond rushes helped to boost occupation of the inner lands, and led to the foundation of several new towns and villages. The first capital was the city of Mariana; it was later moved to Vila Rica. In the late 18th century, Vila Rica was the biggest city in Brazil, and one of the biggest of the Americas in population. As the gold mines were exhausted over the 19th century, the city lost its importance; it was lately renamed to Ouro Preto and remained as capital until the construction of the all-new, planned city of Belo Horizonte, at the turn of the 20th century.

The gold cycle left its mark in cities as Mariana, Ouro Preto, Sabará, Tiradentes and São João Del Rey. The relative isolation from european influence, added to the huge influx of gold and other valuable minerals helped the local people to develop their own art school, that became known as Barroco Mineiro. Prime examples of this period are the richly decorated churches at the colonial cities, some of them preserved today as museums. The most important artist of this period was Antônio Lisboa, that became known as Aleijadinho.

Ouro Preto and Mariana

Ouro Preto is a hilly little town full of charm. If there is one thing the citizens of this part of the country are not short of then it is churches. We spent a day wandering round its steep little streets, counting and visiting the numerous churches and learning all about the different social, racial and hierarchical technicalities which defined the godly affiliations of the local population. Some of the churches were incredibly ornate and wealthy whereas others were incredibly simple and poor in design. I can’t recall exactly how many of them we visited in total but it was definitely a lot. During our wonderings we also got conned into visiting a gold mine in the town, for which we were charged an outrageous fee, provided with a hard hat and told to walk on in (no guide). Mina do Chico Rei, as it was called, was founded in 1702, barely seven years after gold was first struck in Sabará, the mine had a working life of nearly two centuries. It was quite an amusing trip in the end and provided us with a non-adventurous memory of this day.

However, our search for decent gold mines was satisfied later that day when we got on a local bus and visited a large gold mine slightly out of town. The mine in question, was called Minas Passagem and was very interesting to visit. It incorporated an interesting museum of the history of the mine and a trip, on a little carriage, down a track, into the mine. This mine was absolutely huge and we were provided with a very good guide who took us round the place and explained all about its various construction phases and the amounts of gold that were extracted from it.

Following our trip to Minas Passagem, we decided to continue our local bus trip on to the town of Mariana. Here we were delighted to find a very helpful tourist office which organised a guide to take us around the city and out of town to see one of the world’s largest and last open air Imperial Topaz mines as well as a Quilombo (A place in the countryside where escaped slaves used to go and hide). Mariana, which was a little flatter than Ouro Preto, was a delight to visit. We visited the most important governmental buildings and several churches in the town, including one that boasted the largest and heaviest gold decorations in the world. Following this we set off in a rather sedate clapped out car towards the Imperial Topaz mine.

The Topaz mine was stark and bleak, the miners working in the open-air pits under the heat of the midday sun, looking for topaz but mostly only finding the occasional piece of quartz. All the work was done by hand with wheelbarrows and spades. The workers were very friendly and welcoming and took the time to explain about the dangers and difficulties of open-air mining. We learnt that Imperial Topaz was becoming increasingly rare world-wide and that this particular mine was possibly one of the last remaining mines that actually had any decent reserves.

Evening sun reflecting on buildings

Sao Joao del Rei and Tiradentes

From Ouro Preto we headed a little further along the road to Rio and stopped off in Sao Joao del Rei. Sao Joao itself was quiet and not really touristy and all the churches seem to be closed. We found a very nice little family Pousada to stay in and decided to spend a couple of days here to catch up on things and have a rest. On our first day here, we took the old steam train out to the nearby town of Tiradentes. We spent a day divided between the train journey and visiting Tiradentes which is a very small and very pretty and touristy little village full of churches. We enjoyed a pleasant afternoon stroll along the little streets which had visibly benefited greatly from the large influx of tourists brought there by the train.

After out day in Tiradentes, and having by this time spent the best part of a week visiting churches and baroque villages, we decided to opt for a change in style and chose to spend out last day in Tiradentes rock climbing and abseiling in the nearby mountains. We set off in a land rover with our guide at the crack of dawn and started the day with a steep climb up a mountain. The hardships were well worth the views we got from the top.

Following our subsequent descent, we then headed out to another mountain to try out our luck with abseiling. I had never done this before and must admit that to start with I was absolutely petrified of taking that step over the edge. However, after trying it out a few times, I was starting to get a taste for the sport. We rounded up our strenuous day by trekking out to a nice little river and spending the remainder of the day lying by the water and swimming in pools of cold water. We had a really cool day with a really cool guide!

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