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Ouro Preto, or Black Gold, is aptly named for the Brazilian gold rush which swept through Minas Gerais during the 1700s. The wealth discovered here flooded Portuguese coffers for over a century and led to Ouro Preto becoming the capital of Minas Gerais Province for more than 150 years. As a one time centre of political, philosophical and religious thought, the legacy of this town’s physical and intellectual wealth can be observed by today’s traveller at every turn.
Beautiful Baroque churches, intriguing museums and a picturesque central square are the highlights of Ouro Preto, making it a fascinating retreat from the hustle and bustle of Rio de Janeiro 400km to the South. With its cobbled streets, winding lanes and quaint restaurants, it's not difficult to see why this pretty little town has been a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1980.
The weather here is much cooler than the coast, although the resulting compromise is higher rainfall. And while the rolling green hills which surround Ouro Preto may be beautiful, they do mean that the town centre is also incredibly hilly. You could be forgiven for thinking you were in the Peak District, just with better weather!
As a result of its wealthy colonial past, Ouro Preto is home to some fantastic examples of Baroque and Rococo architecture. The best way to see it is by exploring the many churches which are dotted about the town.
Two of the most beautiful are the Church of St Francis of Assisi (Igreja de São Francisco de Assis), which was designed by famous Brazilian architect Antônio Francisco Lisboa, and the Church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel (Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Carmo). Stepping into the cool, vaulted interior of either is a welcome break from the heat, but also an opportunity to admire some absolutely exquisite sculptures and frescos. Brazil remains a very religious country, so it’s important to be mindful of services and worshippers when visiting the churches, and to be respectful of any restrictions on photography.
The Museum of Betrayal, or Museu da Inconfidencia, is the place to visit if you only want to explore one or two museums. Found at the end of Praça Tiradentes, this museum contains a great selection of art and artefacts from the colonial era and has English translations on the exhibits. The building itself is particularly beautiful and is noteworthy in its own right, having served as both a town hall and a prison. Its rather dramatic name comes from a failed revolutionary movement to gain independence from Portugal, which had its origins in Ouro Preto. The leading figure of this attempt, Tiradentes, gave the square in which the museum is situated its name.
For a look at the darker side of Brazil's colonial history, Casa dos Contos is an absolute must. The main body of the museum is given over to displays of coins and exhibits showing how the minting process has changed through time. Slip into the basement, though, and you will see the instruments of torture and slavery which were used to fuel the production of such wealth. It is easy to forget that the runaway success of the gold rush was reliant on slave labour, and this museum gives a sobering glimpse into how Ouro Preto's beautiful churches were made possible.
When you've had enough of sightseeing, Praça Tiradentes and the surrounding streets are full of lovely little coffee shops and restaurants. Wander around here at your leisure, perusing locally made souvenirs and enjoying live music from the buskers.
A truly unique way to explore the area around Ouro Preto is by taking the train to nearby Mariana. This historic railway line has been recently renovated and settling into one of the painstakingly recreated carriages is like stepping back in time. You can choose between standard or panoramic carriages, the only difference being that the latter have larger windows. Sit on the right hand side of the carriage on your way out of Ouro Preto to get the best views as the train winds its way through the gorge and along the river.
There isn’t a huge amount to do in Mariana other than to explore the main square and churches; for most people the train journey itself is the main attraction. One way to explore further is to catch a bus or taxi to Minas da Passagem. This old gold mine is now decommissioned, but you can go down the mine shaft and explore some of the hollowed out passages.
Being lowered into the cold, damp tunnel is an eerie experience, as is making your way through the dimly lit caves at the bottom. Take your time to soak up the spooky atmosphere, and make sure you get to see the underground lake.
Other than the mine shaft, there is some gold mining equipment to have a look at and a souvenir shop specialising in soap stone carvings.
The mine is actually on the road back to Ouro Preto from Mariana, so you may like to catch a bus or taxi from here rather than getting the train. Otherwise, remember to sit on the left hand side of the carriage on the way back for the best views. Make sure to check the timetable carefully, as trains only run a few times a day.
Reaching Ouro Preto means taking a two hour bus from Belo Horizonte, which is a seven hour bus or short flight from Rio de Janeiro. The town itself is small enough to explore on foot, though a car to take you from the bus station to your hotel is a good idea to avoid carrying your suitcase over the cobbles.
Pousada Minas Gerais
This charming inn of colonial style is conveniently located in the historic centre of Ouro Preto. The pousada has 18 spacious and simply decorated rooms all with comfortable beds, heating and air-conditioning, safe and TV. The buffet breakfast is tasty and varied in its offerings.
Solar Do Rosario
This colonial style ex-mansion has been renovated to form today's 41 room boutique hotel, Solar do Rosario. The decor throughout is of a modern rustic style, with elegant french doors opening on to small balconies from many of the guest rooms. There are also gorgeous gardens, heated indoor pool, an outdoor pool with wonderful views and a popular restaurant open to the public. Solar do Rosario enjoys privileged views of churches St. Francis de Paul, Our Lady of the Rosary, St. Joseph and Pico Itacolomi.
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