We thought we’d had our fill of ornate Catholic churches. And then we got to Ouro Preto.
After spending an unforgettable week in Salvador, Bahia, we flew to Bela Horizonte – the dynamic capital of Brazil’s Minas Gerais state. From there, we took a two-hour bus ride through the heart of Brazil mining country to the magical town of Ouro Preto (Black Gold).
Ouro Preto was founded in the late 1600s when rich veins of gold were found in eastern Brazil’s Serra do Espinhaço mountains. With the ensuing gold rush, Ouro Preto became so prosperous and influential that the city was named the capital of Minas Gerais Province in 1720. At its peak, Ouro Preto had more than 100,000 people, more than the population of New York City at the time – but sadly, a large percentage of those residents were enslaved Africans who were brought there to toil in the mines.
By the late 19th century, the gold was mostly played out and Ouro Preto was on the decline, so the provincial government was moved to the brand-new city of Belo Horizonte. Ongoing preservation work that began in the 1930s has ensured that Ouro Preto looks pretty much as it did back in those golden glory days. For this reason, the entire city became Brazil’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.
We spent four nights in Ouro Preto, which seemed just about right for getting the essence of the town. Here are our highlights. As usual, some of the photos are in galleries – just click the first one to click through larger versions of each.
There’s this church . . .
With all the ranting I’ve done about the injustices of colonial-era Catholicism, you’d never think I would fall in love with a church – but I did. I first saw the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi in a YouTube video about Ouro Preto, back when we were in the planning stages for this trip. It struck me as uniquely beautiful, somehow otherworldly. I knew we had to see Saint Francis; in fact, it’s one of the reasons we put Ouro Preto on our list of towns to visit.
Experiencing this church in person, we realized why it’s so special. The Church of Saint Francis has been billed as one of the finest examples of rococo art and architecture in the Americas and is listed as one of the Seven Wonders of Portuguese Origin in the World. Completed in 1794 after almost 30 years of construction, this church is alive with color and whimsy – so different from the staid baroque churches we were accustomed to. There’s gold aplenty, for sure, but the vivid decoration is almost like folk art.
But wait – there are eight other major churches in Ouro Preto (and scores of minor ones). And many more gorgeous buildings.
You could spend days walking the the cobbled streets of Ouro Preto and simply gazing at the gorgeous buildings. But eat a good breakfast – you’ll be climbing some STEEP hills. From the churches to the bridges, fountains, squares, and public buildings, the town is a showcase of 18th- and 19th-century art and architecture.
Exploring a Gold Mine
To truly appreciate Ouro Preto’s gilded history and the role that enslaved people played in the town’s fabulous wealth, you need to visit a gold mine. We toured these three:
- Mina Jeje, dating back to 1714 and featuring a 20-meter tunnel dug through the rock with slave labor.
- Mina do Bijoca, a friendly family-run operation with a pretty stream flowing through it.
- Mina da Passagem, the granddaddy of the area’s mines that are open to the public. More than 35 tons of gold were extracted from Passagem over its two centuries of operation. Today the mine is important for researchers and attracts cave divers from all over the world.
Take a Day Trip to Mariana
The hamlet of Mariana is about a half hour’s drive from Ouro Preto and well worth a visit. The oldest city in Minas Gerais state, Mariana boasts gorgeous baroque churches of its own and a laid-back, less touristy feel.
A Quick Look at Bela Horizonte
We didn’t really expect to like Bela Horizonte, so we only scheduled two nights there before flying home to Colombia. But BH, as the locals call it, surprised us with its cultural offerings. The city was planned and built in the 1890s to replace Ouro Preto as the capital of Minas Gerais state. As such, BH is a showcase for many beautiful classical and contemporary buildings – including several designed by famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, the visionary behind the ultra-modern capital city of Brasilia.
One BH must-visit is Praça da Liberdade (Liberty Square), a lushly landscaped plaza bordered by well preserved 19th-century buildings that once housed various government ministries. Today, many of the buildings have been converted to museums. We had a museum marathon there one afternoon, visiting the Governor’s Palace, the Museum of Mines and Metal, the Bank of Brazil Cultural Center, and the Memorial Minas Gerais Vale museum. All were outstanding, with free admission.
We LOVED our lodging and our innkeepers in Ouro Preto. From the moment we stepped through the 300-year-old front door of Casa dos Meninos, we knew it was something special. Romulo and Fabrício were fantastic hosts and
welcomed us as if we were house guests, not customers they had just met. We’ll never forget their kindness in picking us up from the bus station after a long day of travel. And that BREAKFAST! I’m still dreaming of all of the delicious goodies Fabricio served up every morning.
Walking tour. We had an excellent tour with Sueli Rutkowski. An Ouro Preto native, she has a wealth of knowledge about the area’s natural, colonial, and modern history, and her pride in her hometown shows through. Sueli really outdid herself and spent extra time with us. When we were done, we really had a deep understanding of how the different social classes have helped shape Ouro Preto through the centuries.
Food and Drink. Our favorite restaurant in Ouro Preto was Bené da Flauta. Housed in a beautiful colonial building that’s reminiscent of a New England whaling cottage, Bené da Flauta is cozy and creative. We also really enjoyed our lunch at Opasso, an Italian spot with a nice outdoor seating area.
Getting around. Uber worked well in Bela Horizonte – especially the ride from the airport to the bus station. Catching the bus to Ouro Preto was easy and took about 2.5 hours (traveling by car cuts at least half an hour off the trip). Uber is not available in Ouro Preto, but taxis are plentiful and relatively inexpensive.