A Few Days in Historic Ouro Preto, Brazil

“There’s gold in them thar hills!”

Well, actually not so much anymore but there are still many other minerals and stones that continue to be mined in the region.

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Originally founded in 1698 as Vila Rica (rich village), Ouro Preto (black gold) is a picturesque, extremely hilly (bring good walking shoes), gold rush town in the mountains of Minas Gerias. The town’s historic center is well preserved and Ouro Preto was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1980.

The famed Estrada Real, the route used to transport gold to waiting Portuguese ships on the coast in Paraty, began here.

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I recommend hiring a guide to see the many churches and hear the local history and legends. Ours pointed out so many details that we would never have known the significance of on our own. If you’re planning a trip, send me a message and I’ll pass on the number of our guide.

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A few sprinkles but no complaints, the temperature was delightfully cooler than Rio.

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Praça Tiradentes is named for the Brazilian hero and leader of the failed 1789 revolution for independence, called the Inconfidência Mineira. Tiradentes and his fellow revolutionaries were betrayed, caught, and stood trail for three years. The ten men involved were convicted and sentenced to death. However, Queen Maria I of Portugal commuted the death sentences of nine, exiling them to Africa as punishment. Tiradentes was made an example of, the Portuguese were majorly pissed off (and obviously scared he might inspire others). He was hung, chopped into pieces, with head displayed on a pike in this square. His house was burned to the ground and salt was spread over the ashes.

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Neighborhood chapels

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Up, down, up, down – Ouro Preto is a workout.

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Our guide Dim and my hubby.

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Watch your head! Mina du Veloso

Gold was first discovered in stream and river deposits. When they began digging, they found gold encrusted with palladium, iron oxides, and other minerals, giving the gold a distinctive black color, hence the eventual name change of the town from Vila Rica to Ouro Preto. Fortune seekers poured into the region from Portugal and other parts of Brazil but the slave trade provided most of the miners. Our mine guide explained that the Portuguese initially had little mining knowledge, so they decided to enslave people specifically from the mining regions of Africa. From 1720-1888, thousands of slaves worked 15 hour days, surviving off poor food and cachaça, digging and many times dying to satisfy other men’s greed.

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Igreja Matriz do Pilar

The Baroque churches of Ouro Preto are what some consider the jewels of the region. Every direction you look you see spires. Why are there so many grand churches in the historic center? Well, back in the town’s early days people didn’t mix it up and worship together, each social and racial group had their own church.

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The fortress looking Igreja de São Francisco de Assis, is the masterpiece of Brazilian sculptor and architect Antonio Francisco Lisboa. His dad was Portuguese and his mom, his dad’s African slave. Antonio is more commonly known as Aleijadinho (little cripple) because he suffered from the crippling effects of leprosy. Local legend says that when Aleijadinho lost some of his fingers he had his assistants tie the chisel to his hand so that he could keep working.

None of the churches allowed photography so I can’t show you the beautiful interiors, sculptures, carvings, paintings, and religious statues with real, centuries old, human hair wigs (kind of creepy).

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The church I found most interesting was the slave church, Igreja Matriz de Santa Efigênia. It took around 50 years to build and was completed in 1785, funded in part by the legendary Chico Rei, an African king sold into slavery to an Ouro Preto mine owner. Chico Rei eventually bought his freedom and purchased his own mine, becoming a hero among the slaves. Legend also says that slaves filled the church coffers by smuggling gold flakes from the mines in their hair and washing it out in the baptismal fonts. 

Inside this Catholic church you’ll see the expected effigies but also African religious symbolism in the carvings. The colonial priests at the time assumed the slaves were converted to Christianity but many secretly prayed to their own gods. It was easy to take the attributes of Mary, Jesus, and various saints and associate them to their own deities. To this day there are religions in Brazil with African and/or indigenous influences.

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The town’s slave market once stood here in Largo de Coimbra. Humans were bought and sold almost on the doorstep of Igreja de São Francisco de Assis. Now there is an artisan market selling carved soapstone wares.

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Who could resist this face?

Baco (named for Bacchus, god of wine) watches from the window of 300 year old Casa de Aleijadinho, the house is said to have once belong to the famous architect’s father. We took a tour of the the historic abode and then did some cachaça tasting in their store. Safra Barroca is aged in a special type of wooden barrel that naturally sweetens the cachaça.

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I like that it comes in soapstone bottles.

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Other fun shopping options – folk art and chocolate

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Praça Tiradentes in the sun and the Museum of Science and Technique at the School of Mines (my son was impressed by the mineral exhibit).

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Walking to dinner

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Trem da Vale – scenic train to Mariana

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We purchased round trip train tickets so our time in Mariana was limited to a couple of hours. If we had it to do over we would take the train one way, explore longer, and hop a bus back.

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Mariana’s Minas da Passagem gold mine tour.

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Our three day getaway was 5 and a half hours from the beaches of Rio but we felt a world away. It was a lovely Thanksgiving holiday escape from the hustle and bustle of Rio.

I’ll leave off with a few recommendations.

Our charming hotel, Solar de Maria, was walking distance to Ouro Preto’s historic center and they had a nice breakfast spread. We put a pin in San Diego on their world map.

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Our #1 restaurant pick is O Passo. It was so delicious we ate there twice.

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Rena Cafe is a chocolate lovers dream.

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