Boomtowns of the Brazilian Gold Rush Era

by Elzabeth Willoughby

Famous for its gemstones, the state of Minas Gerais (General Mines) has a distinctly different personality than other regions of Brazil. Try this scenic road trip through colonial Brazil's boomtowns of the gold rush era.

04 Sto. Antonio Tiradentes

In 18th-century Brazil, the prospect of rushing to Minas Gerais to eke out a living searching for gold or diamonds was a risky venture. It was a time when guns settled disputes, crime was rife and prostitution, gambling and drunken brawls were sources of entertainment. Heavily-taxed gold finds goaded discontented miners against the crown; hundreds of thousands of black slaves came into the country and died in the mines; the gold rush brought heartbreak and misery to untold fortune seekers. Yet, it also brought great wealth to the handful of settlements it established. It gave Brazil heroes, artisans and architecture, financed the British Industrial Revolution and fuelled Rio de Janeiro's economy.

Tiradentes and São João del Rei
Today, grey clouds, heavy with rain, loom over the train station, yet bubbling passengers hurry from the ticket booth and up the long platform, jumping in and out of cars in search of the bench. A long, piercing whistle blows and the steam train slowly hauls out of the echoing terminal. Travellers surrender themselves to a nostalgic, half-hour ride past the rural landscape between the old boomtowns of São João del Rei and Tiradentes, gazing over plains, grassy fields of giant termite mounds and forests stretching out to cliffs and the woody Serra de São José mountain range on the horizon.

Dom Pedro II, Brazil's last emperor, inaugurated the train lines running from São João del Rei in 1881, providing an important transport connection to the outlying farms. Today, the same steam train runs only this short leg on a restored track that follows the banks of Rio das Mortes. Arriving at the Tiradentes station, the locomotive detaches from the train, switches tracks and the engineer pushes it by hand around the turntable to reconnect in the opposite direction for the return trip. Here at the station, sightseers hire horse carts and coachmen for a tour of the tiny town.

03 Tiradentes steam train

Prosperity from 18th-century Tiradentes enabled the creation of elaborate baroque churches and stately public buildings and homes, many of which are now museums. The stunning Parish Church of Saint Anthony (1710-45) is one of the finest examples of Brazilian Rococo-influenced architecture with ornate, twirling, gilded ornamentation. As the gold yields diminished, so did the importance of the town, especially under the shadow of São João del Rei's flourishing commercial centre. Tiradentes clung to ranching, agriculture and a healthy artisan trade.

Today, colourful colonial houses, artisan studios, workshops and museums line the hilly, cobblestone streets; monuments and churches add to the rich character. Leaving the charm and grace of this beautiful hamlet by steam train, chugging once again past the rustic scenery, one can't help but feel a brief connection to the past.

Returning to Minas' biggest commercial trading centre of the early 1800's, São João del Rei's elegant manors and baroque structures are more numerous. The train gave the town an additional advantage by linking it to distant farmlands and coastal markets. Rich merchants' wealth financed industrialisation, but the town lost much of its colonial quality due to the ensuing urban development.

08 Sao Francisco de Assis. Sao Joao del Rei

Nevertheless, several landmarks have survived throughout the sprawl, including stone bridges, the train station (and trains), some colonial buildings, mansions and Baroque churches. Aleijadinho (Antônio Francisco Lisboa) left his signature sculpture on a few of the churches in town, most notably, the extraordinary Church of Saint Francis of Assisi (1774). His other masterpiece sculptures, The Prophets, lie about an hour and a half's drive north in Congonhas.

Famous native
The town was renamed to honour the martyred hero of the Inconfidência Mineira (revolt against the crown), Joaquim José da Silva Xavier (1746-1792). Nicknamed Tiradentes — literally, tooth-puller (his profession) — he and his conspirators devised a rebellion against the crown's ever-growing taxes on gold findings. This first independence movement was quashed in its early stages. Tiradentes was the only one who admitted his part in the conspiracy and thus received the harshest sentence: he was hanged, drawn and quartered.
Pink, blue and green floral designs are a trademark of the region, painted on wood and metal objects, small and large. Minas is also known for wood sculptures and furniture (natural and/or painted).
Tiradentes can get quite busy on weekends, rendering the quaint village not so charming.
All churches are closed on Tuesdays.

São João del Rei
Famous native
Tancredo de Almeida Neves (1910-1985) was the first elected president of Brazil after a twenty-year military dictatorship. His unexpected election was celebrated by millions but cut short by his untimely death on the eve of his inauguration. He is buried in the graveyard behind the impressive Church of Saint Francis of Assisi.
John Somers, the British pewter specialist, has an operating factory here, with a pewter store and museum attached. A factory tour can be charmed out of the sales girl for those interested. Minas is rich in tin deposits.
Churches are closed on Mondays and with otherwise erratic hours.

14 pewter factory. Sao Joao del Rei

Congonhas and Ouro Preto, UNESCO World Heritage Sites

There is but one reason to come to Congonhas and it is well worth the detour: to see The Prophets, Aleijadinho's great masterpiece. Over his lifetime, the architect and sc

ulptor contributed his designs and talent to numerous works throughout the colonial towns of Minas Gerais. These twelve Old Testament prophets are outstanding. Aleijadinho, old and mutilated, carved the life-sized statues out of soapstone between 1800 and 1805. They sit about the stairway leading to the Sanctuary of Bom Jesus de Matozinho, an impressive, Baroque church.

At the base of the stairway lies a sloping plaza that is bordered by six small chapels. These chapels contain splendid wooden sculptures by Aleijadinho and his students, depicting the Passion of Christ. Standing in the clean, quiet square in the scentless air, one can't help but appreciate the assemblage of signal work. The Prophets above are silhouetted by the hot sun shining down from beyond the church, the chapels below with the tranquil mountain backdrop, the aura is reverend.

18 Prophet Oseas. Congonhas

Leaving Congonhas on a leisurely drive east through the Serra do Espinhaço mountain range, the show is one scenic display after another. Twisting roads wind through lush mountains, and dirt roads and stone bridges, abandoned long ago, cross over rocky streams. Then, Ouro Preto, nestled in a valley surrounded by the same opulent growth.

The state capital until 1897, Ouro Preto has in abundance what all the other boomtowns offer amass. Somehow, while harbouring a lively and animated population of locals and tourists, the town's colonial flavour has survived in tact. Stone sidewalks fringe the front walls of colourful colonial houses; the tidy homes follow the clean, often-steep cobblestone streets that weave throughout the city. Well-preserved government palaces, municipal buildings, churches, houses and homesteads — many converted into museums, stores, restaurants and bed and breakfasts — connect the visitor to Ouro Preto's exciting history. By merely strolling the streets, the past permeates one's senses. Evidence abounds of rich merchants, the Inconfidência Mineira, the prosperity brought from mining, the struggle of slaves and other unfortunates.

And then there is the market. Incredible deals on soapstone sculptures and artefacts — plain, painted and/or etched — await the eager buyer. Friendly artisans will carve a name or make an alteration to any vase, cup, frame, plate, jug or fountain as you watch. Also available are gems, jewellery and gem-embellished items. The soapstone marketplace sits in front of the Saint Francis of Assisi Church, another of Aleijadinho's more impressive works, famous for the mulatto Madonna painted on the ceiling by Manuel da Costa Ataíde.

20 Ouro Preto market

Satiated with souvenirs, there is a gold mine just past the city limits, and then Mariana, a tiny town with an atmosphere very different than Ouro Preto.

Congonhas and Ouro Preto
Famous native
Antônio Francisco Lisboa (circa 1730-1814), popularly known as Aleijadinho, was Brazil's foremost Baroque sculptor. The son of a Portuguese architect and an African slave, he was born in Ouro Preto. Aleijadinho (the little cripple) was given this nickname after contacting a debilitating disease as a young man. Some say it was syphilis, others say leprosy. Whatever it was, it left him without fingers, toes and the use of his lower legs. However, he continued to work by having his own slave bind tools to his arms.
Along one side of the plaza where The Prophets stand in Congonhas is a string of artisan shops selling soapstone carvings and dishes, rugs, gems and other souvenirs — surprisingly good buys. Though the products are repetitive, each store has its own style of carvings so compare before buying.
In and around Ouro Preto's centre square are several souvenir shops and gemstone stores. Compare gems before buying and ask for a certificate. The crowded marketplace can be overwhelming at first, but the artisans are patient, friendly and bargain.
Minas cuisine is delicious but heavy. One common dish, tropeiro (cowhand), was the fast food of the 1700s: beans mixed with manioca flour, with roasted pork loin on the side. Tropeiros used this as a pre-made food for the trail when they were running mule or cattle trains. Tutu, another common dish, is a bean mash with sausage and cabbage. "Romeo and Juliet" — Minas cheese with goiabada, a very thick guava compote — is popular all over Brazil, as are Minas fruit preserves, rich desserts and fruity pingas (sugarcane rum).

Mariana and Diamantina, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Situated only a few kilometres outside of Ouro Preto is a gold mine from 1719. A decrepit old cable car carries a dozen or so passengers down into the mine like a time machine, transporting guests into the cool, damp, darkness that was the life of a miner. A guide waits at the bottom to walk visitors along some of the tunnels, describing the mine's history and what life was like for the slaves who worked it.

Just beyond the mine is Mariana, a colonial town from the late 1600s. It lacks the urbanisation of São João del Rei, the richness of Tiradentes and the bustling activity of Ouro Preto. A quiet town high in the mountains, daily life seems unaffected by time or tourism. Besides the 18th-century churches, the tidy period streets are a pleasure to stroll along. The Basílica de Sé has a restored German organ from 1701 (with concerts most Fridays), and more Aleijadinho and Ataíde works are on display in the Sacred Art Museum of the Archdiocese.

30 Mariana

Half an hour north of Mariana, in Antonio Pereira, is a surface gemstone mine. For anyone interested in spending time haggling over small gems with the actual miners who unearthed them, this is a fun pit stop (they send their finds to Belo Horizonte for cutting). Mining is limited to the dry season due to the danger of landslides in the rainy season, but the garimpeiros (miners) are ready to sell their various qualities of gems anytime. Escaping from the scorching sun into simple dwellings alongside the dig, they spread their wares out over the table. Each pushing to sell his own pieces, they interrupt, tease and jest with one another, yet in their easy manner they enjoy the barter and know their stones. But if it's diamonds you're after...

Tour books claim that due to its isolation (four hours north of Mariana), the town of Diamantina has hardly changed in hundreds of years. Years into Brazil's gold boom, Diamantina's boom began in the 1720s with the discovery of diamonds. Not 100 kilometres (62 miles) from reaching Diamantina, the lush, rolling terrain rapidly decays into strata, stone outcrops and badlands. The stark contrast augments the anticipation of landing in a colonial city frozen in time and the expectation of wealthy merchant affluence interspersed with rugged common workers. Except for the many cars, you won't be disappointed.
This is the prettiest (former) boomtown yet.

35 downtown Diamontina

The restaurants, stores, B&Bs and town offices of Diamantina's lively centre are all housed in historical buildings. Beyond the restored homes and mansions that line the steep cobblestone streets, the greater Diamantina area is also quite interesting and well worth a turn. The poorer folk live in greener, more natural surroundings, with ready smiles and typical Brazilian friendliness.

Visiting Diamantina during high season celebrations (like New Years) is not recommended. A youthful conglomerate attracted to heavy drinking, bottle smashing and public urination renders streets most offensive, especially the morning after — not everyone's cup of tea, including many locals.

Famous native
Manuel da Costa Ataíde (1762-1837) is one of Brazil's greatest Baroque painters. He worked with Aleijadinho on many colonial masterpieces, including the Saint Francis of Assisi Church in Ouro Preto.
Minas Gerais supplies about 95 percent of Brazil's gemstones and half of the country's mineral production. The surface gemstone mine in Antonio Pereira is a fun place to spend time bartering with local miners — they take cash or Brazilian cheques. Bring a pocket magnifier. Ask for a guided walk around the dig. Learn Portuguese.

Famous native
Juscelino Kubischek, a former Brazilian president (elected in 1956), is most famous for building the new capital, Brasília, to jump start development in the interior. He was also responsible for road building, hydroelectric projects and the beginning of the automotive industry in Brazil, deficit spending and high inflation.

49 Dona Isabela statuetteShopping
There are no diamond mines open to visitors in Diamantina, but plenty of jewellers and the famous ceramics from Vale de Jequitinhonha are plentiful and varied. If ceramic head and torso statuettes are your thing, look for works by Dona Isabela, whose superior style incorporated three-dimensional features into her beauties rather than just painted-on eyes, etc. Copycats, also fine, are more prevalent. Artisans from outlying areas come into town for the Saturday morning Municipal Market to sell their handicrafts.

Images ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2002

This article was published in the Sunday News, Brazil ©Elizabeth Willoughby 2002, and at © 2008

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