The postcard-pretty town of Ouro Preto from one of several high vantage points.

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). 

A typical street in the centro district, with the Church of Our Lady of Carmel rising in the background

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.

Often called the Twin Churches, these beauties are the Igreja São Francisco de Assis and Igreja Nossa Senhora do Carmo. Both feature extravagant decoration by artists Aleijadinho and Mestre Ataíde.
Mariana’s leafy Praça Gomes Freire is lined with gorgeous colonial mansions.
The Igreja São Pedro dos Clérigos looms over Mariana.

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.

Other Tips

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

Upon arrival at Casa dos Meninos, we were greeted with a lovely note and homemade truffles.

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.

The elegant, yet rustic dining room of Bené da Flauta

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.

That’s a wrap for Brazil 2023! Coming up: Are we really moving to Spain or Portugal??

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22 Comments

  1. Glad you also fell in love with Ouro Preto. And nice to see the pictures from Mariana since we didn’t get to see it. 😊 Maggie

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Maggie. It’s pretty easy to fall in love with Ouro Preto. Mariana offers a lot of the same scenery, but it’s definitely worth a quick (morning) trip over.

  2. Gorgeous time in Ouro Preto! Another Brazilian city I haven’t heard about before, but its numerous churches really show the city’s deep faith, as well as working-class history with the mines. Looks like a wonderful visit!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Rebecca! Ouro Preto is a bit off the tourist track but so worth a visit.

  3. Since the first time I saw images of Ouro Preto, I had a feeling that this is such a special place. Your story and beautiful photos further confirmed it. I had no idea that the town is in fact Brazil’s first UNESCO World Heritage-listed site, which is another reason to visit. I hope your move to the Iberian peninsula will go smoothly (or have you already moved there?).

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Bama! That’s exactly how I felt after watching those YouTube videos – there was something about Ouro Preto that was really calling to me. And as far as moving, well . . . we’re staying in Colombia for the foreseeable future. Stay tuned for details!

  4. Well, we’re only eight weeks away from flying to Rio, so the route planning has begin. At this stage Ouro Preto isn’t on our schedule but maybe it should be, you’ve made it sound fantastic.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Oh, I hope you can see Ouro Preto! It’s pretty easy to get there, since Bela Horizonte connects with all the other major cities. We’re looking forward to following your Brazil journeys!

  5. You two just keep going. After my spending months in hospital, it delights me to learn you are still travelling. Continue enjoying your discoveries and taking me along with you. Cheers, Muriel

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      So great to hear from you, Muriel! And so sorry you’ve had some health challenges – we’re sending you lots of healing energy. You’re always welcome to come along on our journeys! Best wishes, Susan

  6. The old mine looks really fascinating! And I don’t think there is ever too many ornate churches to explore- they are all so different and beautiful in unique ways. I loved following along with you to this great place 🙂

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much for coming along! Ouro Preto was one of our favorite destinations in Brazil.

  7. I think we had the conversation about churches, cathedrals, etc., We are fascinated by them for the art and architecture, not for religious reasons. But, as much as I can’t pass one by, I am always conflicted with what I see. What, who, why behind the building of such incredible sites. Lovely post. South American is not yet on our radar (barely scratched the surface of Europe) so I travel vicariously with you.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      I hope South America comes onto your radar, Patti! I know some people you can visit in Colombia 🙂 And yes, the gorgeous architecture is also what keeps us fascinated by these incredible churches. It’s hard to feel spiritual in a place that was built by enslaved human beings. But they’re beautiful, nontheless.

  8. Ouro Preto looks amazing – like walking back in time. Mariana the same. Your story of the slaves reminded me of Trinidad in Cuba – another well preserved colonial town that exists entirely because of the slaves that worked the local sugar plantations.
    Your photos really bring both these towns, and BH, to life.
    Alison

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Alison! We spent a very memorable New Year’s Eve in Trinidad in 2016. Such a beautiful town. I think it’s an escapable (and tragic) fact that most, if not all of the colonial cities in the “new world” were built on the backs of enslaved people. I try always to be mindful of them.

  9. Wow it’s beautiful, and all those churches in one place is amazing!! The gold mine looks so interesting too, another wonderful place to add to my ever growing Brazil list!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Hannah! Ouro Preto really is special. It’s a bit off the tourist track, but so worth a visit.

  10. You two are sure finding some amazing colonial cities and churches! And, the weather looked lovely as well. Another town to put on the “to-visit list”! Looking forward to your next blog – and upcoming plans!

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks, Liesbet! Yes, Ouro Preto is a real gem. Hope you three can visit when you get to Brazil. I look forward to your perspective!

  11. Ouro Preto looks like a beautiful city in a stunning location. Thanks for sharing about it and including some of the history.

    • John and Susan Pazera Reply

      Thanks so much, Becky! Ouro Preto is one place in Brazil where I would consider living. I hope we get to see it again someday.

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