By Lisa Flueckiger, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – For those who favor history and culture over beach for a weekend away, Ouro Preto and its neighboring towns have plenty to offer. The colonial town lies around six hours by car from Rio in the lush green hills of Minas Gerais and has the feel of an open-air museum.
Ouro Preto, named after the by iron oxide blackened gold found in the region, was Brazil’s first city to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage in 1980. It was the center of the gold rush in the 18th century and also main spot of the Inconfidência Mineira (Uprising in Minas Gerais), an attempt at independence from Portugal when the gold rush was dying down.
Ouro Preto’s main attractions besides the entire colonial old town are its many churches. They are lavishly decorated inside and often feature statues by Aleijadinho, a famous sculptor on the outside. The main ones São Francisco de Assis and Nossa Senhora do Carmo lie just off the main square Tiradentes.
Also at the square one finds a museum dedicated to the “Inconfidência”, explaining the history of the uprising against the Portuguese crown that was led by Tiradentes and giving a great impression of what life was like in 1789.
“Ouro Preto is fascinating, because it’s an entire colonial town… not just a city with some colonial buildings in the center. You feel as if you take stroll through the past,” Mariana Alves, a Carioca who recently visited, told The Rio Times.
A great side trip is a ride on the steam train Maria Fumaça (Maria Smoke) to neighboring colonial town Mariana. Mariana is known as the oldest city in the state of Minas Gerais and also features a picturesque old town with cobbled streets, colorful one-story houses and gold-decorated churches.
In one of Mariana’s churches, Catedral de Nossa Senhora da Assunção, in the old town’s center stands a beautiful German organ which was built in 1701. Concerts are regularly given on Fridays and Sundays.
Furthermore, Minas Gerais is not only known for its colonial buildings, green hills and red soil, but also its great cuisine, such as tutu à mineira and feijão tropeiro. A visit to one of the many local restaurants is a must when in the state. Many good ones just lie of the Tiradentes square in Ouro Preto.
A visit to the region can also be combined with trips to Tiradentes, another very well preserved colonial town, Congonhas, famous for its Aleijadinho statues or with a trip down an old gold mine, as there are several well-preserved ones around Ouro Preto.
Getting to and around Ouro Preto is easiest by car, but there are also night buses from Rio’s main bus station Novo Rio. The buses will leave at 11:30 PM and arrive at around 7AM the next day and cost around R$120 one trip. Another option would be to fly to Belo Horizonte and take a bus from there (around two hours).