With Rio de Janeiro being the big tourist magnet, visitors tend to forget there’s more to the region than Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. Let me introduce you to some of the most beautiful towns in Brazil. In this post we will visit Ouro Preto and Mariana in the Brazilian province of Minas Gerais. These are former gold mining towns, founded in the 17th century at the start of the Brazilian Gold Rush (more about that later). Unesco Heritage site Ouro Preto and its smaller version Mariana are situated close to each other and are definitely worth the inland trip!
Spectacular Iguazu Falls in Brazil
Ouro Preto means “Black Gold”, a clear reference to the Gold Rush era of the 17th and 18th century. Portuguese adventurers discovered gold in the hills surrounding the present town of Ouro Preto. The good news traveled fast and the actual Gold Rush began. People from all corners of Brazil and abroad traveled to the Minas Gerais area. Such was the growth that by 1725, half Brazil’s population was residing in Minas Gerais with Ouro Preto at the center of it all.
Founded at the end of the 17th century, the city quickly grew to become the biggest city in Brazil. In 1750 around 80,000 people lived in Ouro Preto. At that time, the population of São Paulo only reached 8,000 and that of New York only half of Ouro Preto’s!
The gold mines exhausted in the 19th century when also the city’s influence started to decline. Officially, 800 tons of gold were sent to Portugal while the rest circulated illegally or was used in the many churches. One of the most famous ones is the St. Francis of Assisi church (just south of the square) with its interior bathing in gold. Nowadays the glorious period is reminded by the beautiful baroque and colonial architecture of the old city.
Wander around Ouro Preto
Walking the winding cobbled streets, you will be amazed to see how much of the beautiful old city has been kept in perfect state. From the central Tiradentes square (which I hope will be a car-free zone eventually) you can wander around and visit the city’s many churches, art markets and viewpoints.
From the Tiradentes square you can either walk to the left or right. Be prepared for some steep descents and consequently some steep climbs! On and around the square you will find many shops and cafés. Don’t miss out on the special ice cream shop at the very southwest corner of the square; the variety of flavors is impressive. From the ice cream shop turn the corner and walk towards the Nossa Senhora do Carmo for (what I think) is one of the best viewpoints in town.
How to reach Ouro Preto
You can reach Ouro Preto by flying from Rio to Belo Horizonte (1 hour) and take the bus to Ouro Preto. Another option is to take the bus (prepare to travel for 8 hours) from Rio de Janeiro. If you have your own (rental) car, you can even drive to Ouro Preto via Tiradentes (another colonial town). Read all about Tiradentes on Jenna Francisco’s travel blog.
Mariana can be seen as the smaller sister of Ouro Preto. Far less touristic and honestly speaking that’s what made Mariana more (or at least equally) interesting. Compared to Ouro Preto, finding useful travel information online is a bit difficult. Search results in Google are dominated by a catastrophic mine dam disaster that happened near Mariana in 2015. Although an environmental disaster, it didn’t harm the old city’s baroque colonial architecture.
Just wander around town a bit. Make sure to walk upwards for a beautiful panoramic view of Mariana. For sure you will bump into yet another beautiful church, a relaxing square or one of those Brazilian restaurants with tasty food. Take your time. In Mariana, the old city is still part of daily life where Ouro Preto’s center is more geared towards tourists.
From Friday to Sunday it’s possible to board a special train that runs a scenic route between Ouro Preto and Mariana. We have not used it during our visit, but I read in many blogs that this train ride is definitely worth it. Make sure to check the website or ask your local contact.
Are you excited to discover some of Brazil’s hidden gems beyond Rio de Janeiro? Do you have more travel destinations in Minas Gerais to share? Please leave a comment below.