Why Ouro Preto:
I was in Brazil for the wedding of my MBA friends Andrea and Antonio in Buzios. When looking for somewhere to visit before, I decided on Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais for 2 reasons: 1) it was the cheapest city to fly to in Brazil and 2) there was a direct flight to Cabo Frio, the closest airport to the wedding.
I had 3.5 days to spend in Minas Gerais. My first day was a Monday when everything in Belo Horizonte is closed. I decided to take a day trip to the colonial city of Ouro Preto, considered the most beautiful town in Brazil, because the churches were open.
July 24, 2023: Black Gold
I arrived at Belo Horizonte´s Confins airport just after midnight. The airport is inconveniently located 44km (27 miles) north of the city. While there are busses that run to the center, I did not feel comfortable taking one late at night and got an Uber for $20. The driver spoke no English, but we both spoke enough Spanish to have a broken conversation. He told me that the girls are “degrado” which I assume means toxic. This made me laugh.
At 2:00, I made it to my hostel which thankfully had a 24-hour reception. I went to bed and rested up for the next day.
I woke up around 8:30 am and took an Uber to the bus terminal to purchase my ticket to Ouro Preto. Only 1 company offers the route and unfortunately the next available bus was not until 11:00. With no other options available, I bought the ticket. During my 2 free hours, I ran errands including exchanging money and eating pao de queijo (a type of cheese bread that originated here in Minas Gerais). I also had to run back to the hostel to pick up my passport (a requirement to both change money and board the bus).
At 10:30, I returned to the bus terminal, checked in for the bus and headed downstairs to board. We were on a double decker bus. It left more or less on time.
The ride was supposed to take 2 hours but ended up taking closer to 3. That is because the bus got stuck behind large trucks moving at a glacial pace. It was often too difficult to pass on the windy 2-lane mountain roads, so we spent a considerable amount of time going no faster than 20 km/hour.
While I thought it would never happen, we did eventually make it to Ouro Preto at 13:40. Immediately, I could sense that this town was different.
Ouro Preto was founded by the Portuguese in the late 1600´s. It quickly became the center of the Brazilian gold rush. Over 800 tons of gold mined here was shipped to Portugal – mainly to cover the churches. The name Ouro Preto (black gold) comes from the gold being covered in iron oxide.
In 1720, Ouro Preto became the capital of Minas Gerais, a title it would hold until 1897 when the planned city of Belo Horizonte was built. While gold mining is no longer the main industry in Ouro Preto, it is a popular tourist destination for Brazilians who know it as the prettiest colonial town in the country. Additionally, the town is dominated by students of Universidade Federal de Ouro Preto, an engineering and pharmacy school founded in 1839.
My first stop was for lunch. Minas Gerais has a unique regional cuisine that is considered one of the best in Brazil. The best restaurant in town for traditional food is supposedly Contos de Rei. After waiting 15 minutes for a table, I was seated and ordered a feijao tropeiro, a bean dish with fried pork belly and collared greens. It was rich and delicious.
It was now 15:00 and I have yet to see a single sight in town. Luckily, everything was close by. Ouro Preto´s most famous sites are the Portuguese colonial churches. I visited four. First, I went into the Igreja de Nossas Senhora do Carmo, located on a small hill above the main square.
Next, I visited three churches built by the legendary architect Aleijadinho, who lived in Ouro Preto. All of the Aleijadinho churches could be visited on a single entry ticket. The first church was the most famous in the city: Sao Francisco de Assisi, voted as one of the Seven Wonders of the Portuguese World.
Down the hill was the less impressive Nossa Senhora das Merces e Perdoes.
Finally, at the bottom of the hill was the Santuario de Nossa Senhora da Conceiçao which had more baroque baby statues than I have seen in the rest of my life combined.
None of the churches were very big – the largest one here was probably 1/3 the size of the smallest church in Goa.
Besides colonial architecture, one of the main attractions in Ouro Preto is to see the gold mines. There are numerous that can be toured- with a variety of prices. I settled on the Chico Rey mine because it was reasonably priced (50 reals/$10 USD) and had an English-speaking tour guide. His English wasn´t great, but the guides in the other mines spoke literally nothing. The tour was a group tour with Portuguese speakers.
Most of the miners in Minas Gerais were African slaves. Working conditions were horrible – workers could expect to live just a couple of years working in the mines. Child laborers as young as 8 were also regularly used to reach into the smaller passageways. Really makes you think about those Portuguese churches differently.
The tour itself was quite…athletic. I had to duck nearly the entire way. For some parts of the tour, I was crawling and climbing rock. This was night and day from the very civilized tour in Butte, Montana.
This mine has a special story related to the mythical figure Chico Rey whose actual existence is uncertain. The story goes that Chico Rey was a Congolese king enslaved by the Portuguese and brought to Brazil along with his entire tribe. Eventually he worked hard in the mines and was able to hide enough gold in his hair that he purchased his son´s freedom. Later, he purchased his own freedom. Together they were able to purchase the mine. Using the gold from the mine, he purchased the freedom of his entire tribe. Chico Rey would wear traditional clothing and would hold court in Ouro Preto, just like he used to in Congo.
After the tour, I was given some homemade cachaça, a sugarcane liquor that originated in Minas, but is now Brazil´s most popular spirit. Cachaça is similar to rum, another sugar-based liquor. The difference is that cachaça is made from fermented sugarcane juice, while rum is typically made from molasses, a syrupy byproduct of the sugar refining process. While I have never done a side-by-side taste test comparison, I believe they taste similar.
It was now 17:00 and the sun was setting (it´s the winter here). With nothing left to do, I headed back to the bus station to charge my phone and wait for the bus. I had to wait over an hour for the bus, but luckily the drive back was faster and took 2 hours as promised. I then got dinner in Belo Horizonte and went to sleep to start my exploration there on Tuesday.
Outo Preto is the real deal and is a very well-rounded destination. It has a lovely town center, beautiful churches, the mine tours, delicious unique food, and a lively bar scene anchored by the student population. I spent a half-day and did not see it all: I missed the largest church and all the museums. Additionally, the nearby town of Mariana also has beautiful colonial architecture and the largest active gold mine in the world. For these reasons, I believe that 2 days is the optimal amount of time to spend in Ouro Preto.