The town of Ouro Preto was once the state capital of Minas Gerais- before it became too crowded by the surrounding mountains and it was moved to Belo Horizonte.
Today, Ouro Preto (meaning “Black Gold”) retains all the grandeur and trimmings of that gilded age. It’s cobbled streets and baroque churches match those we found in Diamantina, Tiradentes, and Congonhas.
We arrived late in the evening, as usual with no idea where to stay, after our trip through the mountains from Tiradentes. Being the good military strategists we are, our aim was to capture the high ground, and form a strong base at Morro São Sebastião. We had everything. A vantage point on the main square, a clear route down, and full-strength 3G on our phones. A furious battle with Google ensued. The victor was Buena Vista hostel. Big, spacious and comfortable, we had the place almost to ourselves, being midweek.
The main square was turned completely upside down with scaffolding construction, having that day hosted the famous “Inconfidencia Medals” ceremony. They’re awarded by the Minas Gerais state government to prominent local and international figures, for their services to society. In 2016, one of the recipients was the ex-president of Uruguay, José Mujica. He’s quite a popular figure amongst the youth of South America, after his government’s liberal and pragmatic approach to issues such as drug legalisation.
Ouro Preto has churches. Lots of them. After Tiradentes and Congonhas, I was all churched out, to be honest. Marina still had some energy left, but there are only so many religious relics one person can take. Time for a change of scenery. Into a hole in the ground!
Ouro Preto, and the nearby town of Mariana, have some of the oldest accessible mines in Brazil, we visited one up the hill from the city centre. It was by no means a life-changing visit, but it does give you a sense of the cramped, damp and dangerous conditions. The unfortunate slaves that were forced into servitude here would only last a few years, before the risk of collapse, or the inevitable affliction of silicosis put an end to their lives. Many tens of thousands died like this. And now we take selfies in their place.
Back in town, back in the late 1700’s, some of the local upper class were very unhappy with the way the Portuguese empire had been treating their earnings from these mines. Financial difficulties back in Europe necessitated levying higher mining taxes on the colonies. In the years after the American and French revolutions, this was a risky course of action! Something was bound to break.
A group of revolutionaries planned to seize the town on 1789, the day tax payments to the authorities were due. Their goal was an independent republic, free of domination from old Europe. Unfortunately for the conspirators, they were betrayed and arrested before they got their chance. Surprisingly, not all were executed. Several were exiled to other parts of the Portuguese Empire, to Angola in particular. Much like the Irish republicans in 1916, their attempt failed, but the memory of their effort inspired later generations to free the nation. Today, this conspiracy, the “Inconfidencia” (the Betrayal) is a seminal event in Brazilian history, recognised as the first attempt to form a national identity separate from that of the colonial power.
The Inconfidência Museum dominates the main square in Ouro Preto. It holds a pantheon to the executed heroes, and a regional history museum. Unfortunately it’s a bit short on detail as to what the revolutionaries wanted, or planned to do, so I had to follow up online to understand it more fully. The pantheon however is very well put together, impressive and respectful.
Well worth a visit, and just down the hill, is the monetary Museu Casa dos Contos, run by the Central Bank of Brazil. If you enjoy seeing a country’s history as demonstrated through decades of hyperinflation, devaluation and currency changes, it’s the bee’s knees. Luckily since 1994 the modern currency, the Real, only lost 25% of it’s value vs the US$, so it’s doing really well, in comparison. It’s housed in a building which was also formerly part of the colonial adminstration, used for measuring and counting gold produced in the region.
Our peaceful night in the hostel dorm was ended at 6am, by a bunch of very drunk French girls returning from their night out. There’s no better alarm clock than the giggling of drunks, screaming “SSSSHHHH!” at each other, at full volume. They’d been out at one of the “Republica’s“, which are university drinking clubs, very popular in Brazil. Similar to American fraternities or sororities, they each own a house in the town, have a symbol, colours, and lengthy histories. During carnaval, they run parties, parade blocks, and sell drink on the streets. They make so much money from this, they run their parties for free the rest of the year. Anyone can join in, if you know the right people!
After our rude awakening, we took off on the train to Mariana. This is a smaller, also church-filled town in the next valley from Ouro Preto, only a few kilometers away. Although undeniably charming, it’s not particularly interesting if you’ve already seen Ouro Preto. The train journey is pricey, but worth it to see the views along the way:
We’ve encountered quite a few chickens during our travels, it’s not at all strange to see them rambling about, pecking at stuff as you pass by. In Mariana, one of the locals has a habit of bringing his to the bar, whenever the local team plays. Naturally, the team’s symbol is that of a chicken.
I’d love to have been a fly on the wall, the day his owner decided to take Mr. Squawk down to the bar that first day. Even better, the day he took the time to sew a little football jersey for him, and make him wear it for the trip. God bless you, you crazy bastard.
Last night in town, we wandered around the square looking for a pub. While Ouro Preto has a great selection of upmarket gourmet restaurants, wine bars and invitation-only rock clubs, it does not have shitty cheap pubs. We found ourselves in a pizzeria, where a fairly inebriated, but well-dressed black man invited himself to join us at the table. He looked like he’d fit in well as a bass player in a smoky jazz club somewhere. Originally from Ouro Preto, but living for years in Switzerland, France, and now Argentina, he’d sort-of forgotten how to speak Portuguese properly. Now a foreigner in his own country, he told us he runs a small hotel in a famous ski resort in the Argentine Andes. Naturally, since that’s on our future route, I asked him for a job! Let’s see if that pans out, when we arrive there in 6 months.
Always good to keep our options open!
- Hostel Bela Vista – R$40 / €10 person / night
- Mina du Veloso – R$25 / €6.50
- Museu da Inconfidência – R$10 / €2.50
- Churches – R$10 / €2.50
- Mariana Train – R$40 / €10 return