July 24, 2023: The Center
After a day in Ouro Preto, it was time to explore Belo Horizonte itself. Belo Horizonte is Brazil´s 3rd largest city (after Sao Paulo and Rio) but is completely off the radar for foreign tourists.
Beaga, as it is known colloquially, is a planned city, build in the early 1900´s to create a new capital for the state of Minas Gerais (as Ouro Preto was in too small of a valley for more growth). My hostel was in the large city center -specifically in the neighborhood of Savassi. This allowed me to reach everywhere in the center on foot. In general, south of the center is considered nicer than north.
I started my day at the iconic Mercado Central. Markets come in many shapes and sizes and this one had nice stalls of…pretty much everything. There were fruit stalls, vegetable stalls, cheese stalls (Minas is famous for its cheese), honey stalls, prepared food stalls, lamp stalls, aquarium tank stalls. You name it, they probably have it….except clothing. For some reason there were no clothing stalls. Somehow, they managed to squeeze a parking lot on the floor above the market too.
Next, I headed to the Praça da Liberdade. This central square 5 minutes north of my hostel used to house all the ministries of the state of Minas Gerais. However in 2010, the facilities were too small and outdated so the government decided to build a new Oscar Niemeyer-designed government complex north of the city. To fill the void, the government decided to convert the buildings into free museums. Of the seven museums around the square, I visited four.
My first stop was the Memorial Minas Gerais Vale, which showcases cultural and historical exhibitions on the state of Minas Gerais. Everything was in Portuguese, but these exhibits had very strong theming.
Next, I visited the mining museum. As its name suggests, Minas Gerais is built on the legacy of mining the countless riches from the ground here – most notably gold. The museum showcases minerals from all over the world and is very impressive. If you have seen a hall of minerals in a natural history museum (such as the one in New York), this one has the same number of minerals, but the specimens are not quite as impressive.
The third museum visited was the Culturo Centro Banco do Brazil (CCBB), the newest location of a national chain of cultural centers run by the central bank. The 6-story building used to house the Revolutionary Guard.
The CCBB also contained two free art exhibits. One was from the famous painter Candido Portinari who designed the interiors of many of Brazil’s most important buildings and the United Nations HQ in New York and the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. The other was a photography exhibition of indigenous communities. While the exhibits were free, patrons were required to “purchase” a ticket from two electronic kiosks in the entry hall. Annoyingly the process required me to enter all my personal info including a Brazilian identity number called a CPF. I was able to get around this by using a CPF number generator online, but I am certain the average foreign tourist would be confused.
After failing to enter the old government palace due to an unscheduled closure, I visited the Casa Fiat de Cultura. Billed as a modern art center, this museum stays open until 22:00. Unfortunately, the only exhibition running was on chairs. There were 3 medium-sized rooms of Brazilian-designed chairs. While chairs are great and all, I cannot imagine the public getting excited about this.
While it is hard to complain about free attractions, the only way to sum up my day is a DM from my high school classmate David who said, “Brazilian museums know what they are but are bad at it”. Certainly, much was lost by not knowing Portuguese, but in general I felt the exhibit quality was less than in other countries (including nearby Argentina).
At this point, I realized that my MBA friend Diogo lived in Belo Horizonte and was free (it is hard to know where everybody lives)! We decided to meet for lunch at the Mercado Novo. The first floor is a grungier Mercado Central, but the upper floors have chic restaurants and bars. We ate at a place serving elevated versions of comida mineiro (the regional cuisine).
Diogo is from Belo Horizonte and so is his wife, Luisa. They met and got married well before the MBA. After the MBA, they moved back and very quickly had a child. Their daughter is now 1 year old.
Diogo walked me around the city center, which is full of life. Compared to other Brazilian cities, Belo Horizonte felt safer. For the first time, I regularly saw locals using their cell phones openly on the street.
After checking out Diogo´s apartment and meeting his daughter, we got into his car and drove to the southern end of the city. We went up into the hills until we reached a viewpoint called Parque das Mangabeiras. From here, we could see the endless sea of high rises as well as the fancy homes in the hills.
Just below is the Praça do Papa where Pope John Paul II led mass during his 1980 visit to the city. Apparently 500,000 people attended.
Diogo then had to head to the bus terminal to head to Sao Paulo, so he dropped me back off in Savassi where I ate artisanal pao de queijo for dinner. The best one was stuffed with pulled pork, minas cheese and apple sauce. Goodness!
July 25, 2023: A Local Audible
My original plan today was to explore the Inhotim Museum, a gigantic outdoor art museum. However, due to the school holidays, the museum sold all 6,000 tickets for the day! This meant I had to find an alternate plan.
My next idea was to visit the town of Congonhas and its UNESCO-listed church which is considered the nicest in all of Brazil. However, at the bus terminal, I learned that I could not get a bus ride back until 8pm, meaning that I would have to be there for 5 hours including 3 hours in the dark. This did not seem like an ideal situation, especially since there is nothing else to see besides the church.
So, I decided to spend the morning to catch up on work. I then headed back into the center for lunch. As a lover of classic restaurants, I stopped at Café Palhares, founded in 1938. After waiting in the long line and sitting down at the 20 seat U-shaped counter, I ordered their signature KAOL which stands for Kachaça (yes the word is spelled with a c), Arroz (rice) Ova (eggs) and Linguiça (sausage). I decided to swap the linguiça for pork. Kale (which actually does start with a K) was added to the dish in the 1980´s. The KAOL was served with a spicy red sauce and it was delicious. I ended up seated next to a man who lived in New Jersey for 30 years but is now back in Brazil. He said the move happened because his kids were now out of the house, and he reunited with his high school sweetheart.
To spruce up for the upcoming wedding, I decided to get a haircut. I have found haircuts abroad to be much cheaper than in the US. I always tell the barber to “make it shorter” and I usually get the same (good) result. This time, the barber cut my hair like normal. I thought he was making the final touches with the buzzer, but it turned out that he shaved off all the hair on the right side of my head! At this point, I was in for…something, and there was no going back.
He ended up giving me a fade, a very popular hair style in Brazil. It took some getting used to, but I ended up really liking the look.
I then walked to a couple more sights in the center starting with the city park, which had a lake and small amusement park.
I also visited the cathedral, which pales in comparison to the centuries-old churches elsewhere in the state.
At this point, I got a message from my friend Vivila, who I met more than 10 years ago in St. Louis. She is from Belo Horizonte and suggested I visit the neighborhood where she grew up. The area was about 20 minutes northwest of the center. I hopped in an Uber and arrived in the suburban (by Brazilian standards) area.
Viv grew up in a high rise building on a steep hill.
Her schools were associated with a large church 800 meters away down a decently busy street.
I really enjoyed getting to see the neighborhood and learning a little bit more about my friend.
For dinner, I went to a traditional place in Savassi called Dona Luchinha. I ordered an obscure dish called costillas ora-pro-nobis (pray for us ribs) which has a sauce made from a local cactus.
When walking back through the upscale neighborhood, I was approached by a man trying to sell me things. Like always, I crossed my arms in a X, looked ahead and quickly walk away. However, this man started following me. Before he could get too close, I started running. He started running after me for about 10 steps before stopping. Once I realized he was not going to catch me, I looked back and he laughed at me with his friend. I will never know if he was trying to mug me or was just joking around, but this is a fact that I didn´t care to learn that night. Spooked and worried he might pop up later, I headed back to the hostel.
July 26, 2023: Pampulha
For my final day in Belo Horizonte, I headed north to the upscale suburb of Pampulha. In 1940, Juscelino Kubitscek (aka JK), then mayor of Belo Horizonte commissioned the construction of a large artificial lake. Surrounding the lake are numerous modernist buildings by a young Oscar Niemeyer that together comprise a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The construction of Pampulha is, in some ways, a trial run of the construction of Brasilia 20 years later.
My first stop was the Igreja de Sao Francisco de Assis (yes, the same name as the nicest church in Ouro Preto). The exterior is designed by Niemeyer, the interior has a mural by Candido Portinari, the guy from the exhibit in the CCBB, and the exterior grounds were done by Roberto Brule Marx, Brazil´s most famous landscape architect. The mural, with its unorthodox depictions of Jesus and St. Francis, upset the conversative Catholic leadership so much that they refused to consecrate the church until 15 years later once the church had become iconic.
Down the street is Casa do Baile, another small cultural center. This one had an exhibit with photos of itself.
The surrounding neighborhood also has some of the fanciest houses in the city. They looked like fortresses with their formidable fences and individual guard gates. Besides other cities in Brazil, the only place where I have seen such intense home security is Cape Town, South Africa.
I then walked over to the Mineirão, Belo Horizonte´s beloved football stadium. After the Maracanã in Rio, this is probably the second most famous in all of Brazil. The stadium offers public tours in Portuguese that take 1.5 hours. Luckily the guide was so animated that I generally understood everything he said.
The stadium was built not only to serve as a home for the city´s 3 football teams who played in undersized stadiums, but also to highlight the construction skill of the Mineiros, as mining and minerals are such a key part of the state´s identity. Therefore, they decided to build an architectural masterpiece. Construction took 6 years with 3 shifts and it opened in 1965.
While the stadium has served as the home for all three local teams, it currently only hosts Cruzeiro. The record attendance was 132,832 for a game between Cruzeiro and Villa Nova.
The stadium was completely renovated for the 2014 World Cup, where it played host to the infamous semifinal game where Germany defeated Brazil 7-1. Despite all of Brazil´s hardships in the last century, this might go down as the worst day in modern Brazilian history. The guide mentioned this match briefly but tried hard not to bring it up.
The tour took us through the concourses, the stadium´s football museum, into the locker room (surprisingly equal in quality to a US high school) and finally onto the field. I very much enjoyed the tour.
Before heading to the airport, I took the opportunity to eat at one more traditional restaurant. This one is in the middle of the fancy homes and is meant to evoke a traditional village. The kitchen is open-air, and they used a gigantic log for fire. While the menu was very large, all but 2 of the dishes were for 2 or 3 people. I ordered a fried fish with passionfruit sauce (the other choice was a soup). I then caught an Uber to the airport to fly to Cabo Frio for the wedding.
Outside of India, Belo Horizonte might be the largest city I have ever visited where I did not see a single other tourist. This is probably because most people associate Brazil with beaches and Minas is in the interior. However, Minas shines as a center of traditional culture and unique regional food.
There is enough in the center to keep anybody occupied for at least a day and Pampulha is another half-day excursion. Belo Horizonte is also the jumping off point for exploring the rest of Minas Gerais. Ouro Preto is the obvious top highlight, but there are countless other day trips/half day trips/overnight trips in the region that one could easily spend a week here and not get bored.
One other piece of advice: I got unlucky because of the school holidays. Some of my issues could have been avoided had I done research and pre-booked when needed. I still enjoyed my time and was able to audible, but I would have liked to visit the Inhotim Museum.