Ouro Preto: "Black Gold"
Ouro Preto is a spectacular 18th century colonial mining town situated in the Serra do Espinhaço mountains located seven hours north of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Designated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, Ouro Preto has been preserved in its original state and has escaped irrevocable signs of modern urbanization. No skyscrapers or fast food chains can be found in this relatively undiscovered university town; a treasure heavily guarded by the Brazilians themselves and by a handful of intrepid off-the-beaten path European tourists.
The star attractions in this Minas Gerais town are the colorful gemstones and jewelry found in virtually every boutique lining the main square, Praça Tiradentes. The Imperial Topaz in its ideal condition, is a rare golden-tangerine color stone, discovered and mined only in the Minas Gerais state of Brazil. Nowhere else in the world can they be found. Readily available and more common are smoky & blue topazes, amethysts, citrines, peridots, opals, tourmalines, aquamarines, and emeralds in assorted colors, shapes and styles. Carat for carat, the prices are approximately 30% less in Brazil’s retail shops than elsewhere in the world. In addition, the American dollar with its strong exchange rate, makes these gemstone purchases even more alluring.
It was my great fortune to meet my Brazilian friends Nilda, her 12-year old daughter Luiza, and their Portuguese guide Luis, at the Minas do Ouro (gold mine) just outside the city limits. Along with my own driver Vicenze, the five of us crossed paths in this idyllic location and toured the mine together.
Perched precariously on a 30-degree incline, the rickety, open-air cart designated to whisk us into the depths 315 meters below, looked completely unsafe. Everyone stared at it with skepticism until the guide reassured us that the cart was perfectly reliable. It didn’t occur to us that this archaic means of transport actually had a braking system. Our worst fear was that we would accelerate into the bottomless pit without knowing what would be awaiting us at the other end of this 30-km long mine.
Once we reached the bottom however, we walked a portion of the dim, endless hallways to reach a clear subterranean lake. The cool, damp environs screamed pitch silence as there were only five of us in this immense mine attempting to absorb its ambiance. It was an incredibly eerie feeling, even claustrophobic at times, being so deep in this cave-like dwelling. The mine tour was informative, although a tad brief for my taste. To me, the ride in and out of the mine was the actual highlight of this outing.
The stunning 18th century European Tudor-like architecture, beautiful baroque Catholic churches, and quaint hilly cobblestone streets captivated my heart and soul the minute I set foot on its soil. No one is ever in a rush here, living life in the slow lane. Ouro Preto is the quintessential colonial mining town – perfect for rest & relaxation. Realistically 2 days/1 night would be adequate to see the major attractions. However, if you want to savor the essence of Ouro Preto, a few more days would be ideal.
In order to enter Brazil, Americans require tourist visas, which are good for 5 years from the date of entry. There is a $45 processing fee and only money orders are accepted. Visa processing takes 2-days at the Brazilian embassy in New York, and the 24-hour recording is available at (212) 827-0976. Bring a completed application form, passport, one current passport photo, and your plane ticket. Click here for other nations’ visa requirements.
The hours are stringent. Documents must be dropped off between 10am-12pm (there is a maximum daily quota, so the earlier you arrive, the better); pick-up is on the following business day between 1-3pm Monday – Friday. The Brazilian Embassy is located at 1185 Avenue of the Americas (6th Ave.) on the 21st Floor. Information about all other U.S. offices, visa application forms and detailed instructions can be downloaded from their web site. Please note that VISAS WILL NOT BE MAILED.
The official currency is the reai (pronounced hay-ow; plural: hay-ice). In July and August 2000, the exchange rate was $1 U.S. = 1.85 reais. Due to its recent devaluation, Brazil is now a budget destination with our strong American dollar. Check exchange rate now.
The international CIRRUS system is NOT accepted in Ouro Preto, and I was unable to use my ATM card at any bank branch in town. The best means of currency are cash and traveler’s checks. Credit cards are only accepted in select establishments.
Brazil is a Portuguese-speaking country. English is not prevalent except in select tourism settings, and surprisingly enough, neither is Spanish. If you use Spanish, most likely some of the locals will understand, however they will respond in Portuguese. Better yet, save yourself the trouble by arming yourself with a Brazilian Portuguese-English dictionary. Believe me, it will be your best investment!
Brazil’s bus system is excellent since the vehicles are equipped for long-distance travel. Always travel first class because the ticket price difference between first and second class is nominal. However the comfort level is significant. First class provides luxury coaches with ample reclining seats, foot rests, air-conditioning, and bathroom facilities on board.
There are two direct buses via UTIL daily (7:30am; 11:30pm) from Rio de Janeiro, and via Vale de Ouro (9am; 9pm) from Sao Paulo. All other buses go through Belo Horizonte, and require an extensive detour. The bus provides a comfortable, scenic ride through the Serra do Espinhaço mountains. It takes 7-hours from Rio, and the cost for adult bus fare is 26.49 reais ($15 US). From Sao Paulo, it is a 12-hour ride and the cost for adult bus fare is 40 reais ($22 US). Bus transportation is the most economical means of traveling throughout this vast country, averaging anywhere between $2-4 per hour depending upon the distance.
All inner-city buses require boarding from the rear of the vehicle. Each passenger pays upon entering the turnstile. Exceptions are made for small children, elderly and handicapped, whom may board from the front of the bus. Bus fare averages around 90 reais (50 cents).
Fly into Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais state. From the airport, it is a 1½ to 2 hour drive from Belo Horizonte to Ouro Preto.
In order to orient yourself, purchase the colorful town map from the Tourism Information office in Praça Tiradentes for 3.5 reais ($2 US). The map lists the major sights, in particular the 13 beautiful churches in town. General admission to all churches is 1-2 reais.
Escola de Minas (School of Mines)/Museu of Mineralogica (Museum of Mineralogy)
Houses an extensive rock and mineral collection within the school grounds; Praça Tiradentes 20. There is an Internet CafÃ© located on the premises.
Museu of Inconfidentes
Excellent collection of Brazilian history. This 18th century prison was also a one-time city hall; Praça Tiradentes 139.
Nossa Senhora do Pilar Church
The second richest church in Brazil, and in my opinion, the most beautifully intricate from an interior perspective. There are 12 other fascinating churches in town. This one is, by far, my favorite.
Minas do Ouro (Gold Mine)
Located just outside of Ouro Preto’s city limits. It is a thrill ride on a rickety cart down the dark, narrow passageway 315 meters into the mine. This 1890 gold mine was the very first one discovered in Brazil. The mine has long ceased producing gold, and therefore closed in 1985. Admission: 15 reais.
Founded in 1696, it is the oldest city in the state of Minas Gerais, located seven miles from Ouro Preto. Check out the 45-minute Organ Concert on Fridays and Sundays in the Catedral da Se de Mariana located in the main square. Admission: 6 reais.
Cachoeira do Bromado
Located approximately 30 km SE of Ouro Preto, this quaint little waterfall offers a peaceful respite far away from the masses. In the vicinity are local artisans who weave tapestries and produce soapstone artwork.
All area codes are (31) unless otherwise noted.
All room rates are negotiable. Always ask for a better price upon check-in even if reservations have already been made. Pousadas (small inns) are scattered throughout Ouro Preto, and they are the most economical means of lodging.
Pousada dos Inconfidentes – Praça Tiradentes n-134; 551-5276
5-room inn with clean, cozy rooms and private bath for 40 reais ($22 per night). Cash only.
Pousada do Mondego – Largo de Coimbra 38; 551-2040
Decorated in period furnishings, this upscale inn caters to a more sophisticated, well-heeled clientele. Off-season rate: 100 reais/night for a double room.
Located across the street from the pousada is an open-air market where wood and soapstone artwork can be purchased.
Restaurante Casa do Ouvidor – Rua Direita 42; 551-2141
A favorite amongst the tour group crowd. Lunch entrees range from 12-20 reais ($7-12 US).
Restaurante Chafariz – Rua Sao Jose 167; 551-2828
For 14 reais ($8 US), they offer a tasty all-you-can-eat Brazilian lunch buffet.
Self-service restaurants are the best bet for budget travelers. Although presented in a buffet style fashion, the food is weighed by the pound. An average meal will set you back 5 reais.
Recanto Do Pao do Queijo – Praça Dr. Tancredo Neves 117, Ouro Preto 551-2561/Mariana 557-2061
Specializes in cheese bread, sweets and salty snack foods.
Booze Bar CafÃ© – Rua Direita 42; 551-1482
Trendy stained glass/hardwood decor. Excellent tortes such as chocolate mousse, strawberry cheesecake, etc.
Beijinho Doce – Rua Direita 134A; 551-2774
Beautiful floral English tea room setting in the back. Specializes in sweets, especially melt-in-your-mouth brigadeiros (similar to chocolate truffles) and other sweet/salty snacks.
Bargaining is expected even in retail establishments. Depending upon your negotiation skills, expect approximately 20% off. Be willing to walk away if they can’t meet your asking price.
The following boutiques offer certificates of authenticity for all gemstone purchases.
Grupiara Pedras – Praça Tiradentes 124; 551-1917
Casa das Pedras – Praça Tiradentes 95-115; 551-1648
Both of the above mentioned boutiques are owned by the same proprietor. Ask for Jose. Although he is Brazilian, he understands Spanish.
Minas Gemas – Praça Tiradentes 62; 551-1551
In my personal opinion, Hervicio Alves Jr., the proprietor, has the best quality jewelry set in 18K gold, however his prices are not for the budget-minded. Incidentally he speaks English very well, and is very knowledgeable about the gemstone industry.
Locals offer to sell loose stones in the streets at significantly lower prices. More often than not, the quality tends to be inferior. Do your research beforehand and check out the jewelry in retail stores prior to buying from street vendors.
Luis Miranda (Portuguese speaking only)
Rua 13 de Maio #639B
Bairro Alto da Cruz
Phone #: 551-3772
Rates are negotiable. A native of Ouro Preto, Luis is proud of his hometown and it shows in his extensive knowledge of the town’s history. More importantly, he has a great, easygoing personality, and is well-known and well-respected throughout the community. Luis also sells loose gemstones at competitive prices below retail value because his family has been in the jewelry business for generations.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our South America Insiders page.