After leaving the proto-freeways of Brasilia, the roads quickly devolved into a blacktop ecosystem where apex predators battled to be first in a line of cars with no beginning and no end. The few who refused to take part in the futile struggle were quickly overtaken by bottom-feeders like us.
For several hundred kilometers the landscape was monotonous savannah. The earth was iron rich and as red as African soil because of it. Once we reached the state of Minas Gerais the land started to buckle in great waves and savannah scrub thickened to become forest. The once flourishing colonial towns we’d visited, the tarnished palaces of Rio de Janeiro, the financial heart of Sao Paulo, all have Minas Gerais to thank for a flow of riches pouring out of the mines here down to the Portuguese galleons headed back across the sea. The source of the flow was a city called Ouro Preto.
During the 17th century, a fifty years before America’s war for independence, Ouro Preto was one of the richest towns in the Americas. It was a center for baroque art and architecture and a magnet for European artists and intellectuals. Ouro Preto’s success both doomed then saved it. As the mines of Minais Gerais became more prosperous and important to Brazil, the state moved its capital to the flatter, more accessible Bella Horizonte leaving Ouro Preto behind. But while Bella Horizonte became a 20th century industrial hell-hole, Ouro Preto retained its baroque charm and was the first city Brazil realized was worth preserving.
We could see why Minais Gerais moved its capital, we reached Ouro Preto via a precarious road cutting through the Serra do Espinha Mountains, past abandoned mines and steep drops. The city has in fact been well preserved, but not to the point of being frozen as a museum. It was thrumming with life as our tires grumbled over 18th century cobblestone streets. Today it is a university town, accompanied by the little cafes and clubs that university life attracts.
We found our pousada after winding through steep narrow streets, watching to make sure our mirrors weren’t ground off by the close stone walls.
The Chico Rei Pousada is in a beautiful old home with a view of the town and the green valleys beyond. Giant old-growth beams and hand-carved floorboards creaked with history underfoot. It had retained some of its original furnishings, and the new owners had painstakingly collected more antiques to recreate the look of an ancient mining baron’s home. The window in our tiny room looked out at the mountains and a cascade of red tiled roofs stepping down into the valley. From the common room in the front of the house, we looked up at the Church of Our Lady of Carmo, with perfectly preserved baroque flourishes glowing against a clean blue sky.
We roamed the steep, uneven streets for two days, listening to the drums of local musicians reverberate off of the old walls at night. As the citizen of a fairly young country where we venerate old lamp-posts, it is astounding that this 16th century European style city is here tucked away in the South American jungle, as beautiful as any Italian hill town. We considered staying longer but the clock was ticking on our little rented Chevy. Rio was somewhere at the end of an old winding road once crowded with donkey carts full of ore, now taken over by a frenetic race to the bottom.