Brazil: Minas Gerais state May 30, 2010 7:54:32 GMT
Post by ilbonito on May 30, 2010 7:54:32 GMT
The next state inland from Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, is quite different in personality. Cut off from the coast and circled by rocky hills and mountains, its people (called mineiros) have a (relatively) more introspective personality, and a strong, almost spiritual connection to the land. They are the descendants of the slaves and settlers brought in to work the gold mines that provided this area (and Brazil) with a huge economic boom in the 17th century.
And that was to be just the start. A French geologist famously described the state (whose name, after all, means “General Mines”) as having a ” heart of gold and a breast of iron”. Minas is still being mined today, for both these metals, diamonds and managanese. Centuries of digging have left the once-dominant rainforest all but gone, with grassy mountains now studded with palm trees and dramatically cracked and eroded to reveal red soiled cliffs. But they have also left the state with an incredible legacy of 17th century boomtowns, that later dwindled into perfectly preserved villages – the one big attraction Minas Gerais has for tourists today.
Ouro Preto (black gold) is the biggest of these cidades historicas (historic cities). I arrived on the overnight bus from Rio, and pulled up 8 hours later with the sand from Ipanema still in my underwear, to a youth hostel next to Ouro Preto’s bus station. I opened the window to see this:
The town was spread out before me in a little valley between bare, steep hills cloaked in morning mist. Hummingbirds were fluttering about feeders in the hostel’s garden. It was a promising start.
After breakfast I walked down the hill, past donkeys grazing and couples intertwined at what seemed to be the local “makeout” spot – a hilltop church, with condoms littering the cobblestones and grafitti like “Thiago 4 Marillia 4eva” carved into the heavy baroque doors.
Like other colonial towns I have seen in Brazil, Ouro Preto is preserved perfectly. I remember exactly one 20th century building in Ouro Preto, and it was tucked discreetly out of view.
The town is littered with churches. This one is the Igreja da Santa Efigenia dos Pretos, ( Church of Saint Efigenia of the Blacks). It was built by slaves, who smuggled out gold dust from the mines in their hair and under their fingernails to finance the shrine to Saint Efigenia, a Nubian princess.
This case is called an oritorio, used to a house sacred image. According to the Lonely Planet guide, it is one of many built all over Ouro Preto at the beginning of the 18th century to ward off the ghosts that had lately plagued the town, springing out of the walls of the church of Santa Efigenia above.
Later, the oritorios became infamous for their part in a cunning plot. The town’s gold caravan – loaded onto donkeys and headed over the mountains for ports at Rio and Parati – was being robbed in the wilderness. Each time, the authorities chose a different route, but each time the caravan was attacked. It was later discovered that it was an “inside job” with a local townsperson signalling to the bandits by pointing the images in the oritorio in the direction the gold was heading. Perhaps as a result, they were almost all removed, but this one remains.