Explore More Rich History in Minas Gerais
The mountains of Minas Gerais hold some fascinating history and preserve pockets of beautiful nature. In this post I would like to show you some highlights of the region. This is a continuation of our post from Ouro Preto: Black Gold and Baroque Opulence . If you have read it, you will have noticed that we recommend spending at least a week in the region because there is so much more to see and explore.
The historic centre of Mariana
Only 18 kilometres from Ouro Preto is another beautiful historic town called Mariana. Commonly it’s also known as Primeira Cidade (First City): Mariana was settled a little before its neighbour and it was the first state capital of Minas Gerais; it quickly lost the position to its neighbour because more wealth was generated there.
Initially, the town was named Nossa Senhora do Carmo and the river, where the first gold of Minas was discovered, carries the same name. The town was renamed by one of Portugal’s kings to honour his wife. By then Mariana also held the first seat of a bishop in Minas Gerais.
Unlike its neighbouring rival, Mariana grew around a planned layout, so all streets run more or less parallel and form proper town blocks. Most architecture is from the same period as, and very similar, though not as opulent, to Ouro Preto.
There are numerous historic buildings to see: churches, a theatre (which is still the main entertainment centre of the historic town) and the old administration building. Mariana’s Casa da Câmara e Cadeia is not as richly decorated as the one in Ouro Preto.
Overall, it’s a pleasure to explore the old part of town. It’s easier to walk and there is less traffic than in nearby Ouro Preto. A large central plaza is nicely shaded and inviting for a rest, with a yummy self-serve ice cream from the nearby sorveteria.
Nowadays, Mariana is a modern city which has grown around the historic part. It gained media attention in 2015 when a holding dam of a nearby mine burst and poisoned the local river . Iron mining has replaced gold, and this open-cut mine is the biggest employer in town.
Practical Information about Mariana
Entry to most historic churches is Rs2  and you are allowed to take photos. The entry to the Casa da Câmara e Cadeia is free; some rooms still contain the old furnishings. Climb the bell tower of Igreja de São Pedro dos Clérigos for an excellent view across the roofs of the protected old city.
We have read that you can visit the local iron mine (please research first as it might have changed since the disaster in late 2015).
Overlanders: we stayed at the parking lot of Igreja de São Pedro dos Clérigos [listed on iOverlander]; it was Saturday night and certainly not quiet. An open restaurant and a bar across the road compete with their music, and there’s some coming and going all night; it might be quieter on weekdays…
Quirky Lavras Novas in the Mountains
Roughly 20 kilometres from Ouro Preto, and a good 250 metres higher, is the small village of Lavras Novas. People come here on weekends mostly for the cooler climate, ATV tours through the hills, a waterfall, to eat and to drink plenty of beer.
On weekdays it’s a pleasant getaway from the busier towns nearby. There are a number of quirky little things to see. For example, all rubbish containers are made from 44-gallon-drums and are fancifully decorated as cows. The local church was freshly renovated  and painted in bright white, with a strong purple for the outlines (instead of the ever-so-common ochre or yellow). You can browse through interesting craft shops or take a hike to the nearby waterfall.
The road into this village is mostly asphalted, except for a creek crossing and the last 2 kilometres, which are rough dirt. But normal cars can easily get through. The dark red rocks along the dirt section are interestingly eroded and make for stunning photo motifs.
Most of the way to Lavras Novas is along the old Estrada Real, the slave built road to transport the gold to the waiting ships in Rio and Paraty . A little past the turn-off into Lavras Novas you can stop at one of the historic arched stone bridges of the original road. If you continue towards Ouro Branco, you will pass more such structures. Part of the mountain range before Ouro Branco is protected as a nature reserve with native forest.
Practical Information about Lavras Novas
There are plenty of pousadas (guest houses) in town, so you should have no problem finding a suitable room on weekdays. We suspect that there is no regular bus service from Ouro Preto (but ask at the tourist information!), so you might have to hire a car to get to Lavras Novas. It will be a nice excursion!
Hiring a car (or arranging for a private tour) is certainly the best choice if you would like to continue to the third place we want to recommend. With your own transport you enjoy more freedom to stop, for example, in the before mentioned nature reserve or at several of the slave-built stone bridges. And of course we highly recommend that you visit Inhotim, an unexpected fusion of botanical garden and art!
For more information visit one of the official websites for Lavras Novas [in Portuguese only!].
Another World Heritage Site in Congonhas
Only 60 kilometres from the UNESCO World Heritage listed Ouro Preto is the Santuário do Senhor Bom Jesus de Matosinhos, which is also included in the World Heritage List.
The construction of this sanctuary was funded by a wealthy Portuguese businessman, Feliciano Mendes, to fulfil a vow made when he was desperately ill. Its main church, with its Rococo interior, was built in the mid-eighteenth century. The compound is most famous for the works of Antônio Francisco Lisboa, also known as Aleijadinho, an architect and artist from Ouro Preto.
Aleijadinho’s most outstanding work are the statues of the 12 prophets standing in front of the church, produced between 1800 and 1805. These are considered the pinnacle of his achievement, his first and only completely free-standing soapstone statues (before he had made carvings for other churches which were always against a wall or a column). Even more amazing is that by then he was severely crippled and unable to hold his tools – so he had them strapped to the ends of his arms!
Outside, arranged in a zigzag line, are six chapels leading up the hill towards the church. These house various scenes from the twelve ‘Stations of the Cross’, the almost life-size wooden figures were also carved by Aleijadinho.
The Sanctuary quickly became an important religious destination in Brazil. As early as 1939 it was protected by the federal Brazilian government as an Historical Heritage site. To this day “the Sanctuary remains intact and continues to stand as a focus for pilgrimage throughout the region.” [quote from the UNESCO World Heritage Site ]
Nearby you will find the ‘Romaria‘, a nearly circular compound of small rooms around a large courtyard. This was built to house poorer pilgrims who came to visit the site. The Romaria you see today has rather a bizarre history: the original historic Romaria, dating from 1770, fell into disrepair and was demolished in 1966. Only a few years later, somebody must have realised the grave mistake, so in 1993 the town of Congonhas repossessed the site and rebuilt the entire complex in its historic style and scale. The new buildings house various council offices and host cultural events.
Practical information Santuário do Senhor Bom Jesus de Matosinhos
This is a lovely site to visit, high up on a hill overlooking the town of Congonhas. Some signs stated that it’s closed on Mondays – we were there on Sunday/Monday and found no evidence of any closure.
The main church is currently undergoing major renovation work, so unfortunately you can’t see much of the beautiful hand-painted wood work on walls and ceiling. Renovations started early 2016 and are scheduled to finish in June 2019. Despite that, we still recommend a visit if you are in Minas Gerais! Plan to spend at least 3-4 hours, more if you visit the museum too.
The ‘Romaria’ is, 100 metres down a palm-lined side road, to the right of the corner hotel. Half way along, behind the hotel, is the modern Museu Congonhas (which we didn’t visit).
Links with more information
3D Aleijadinho, a Brazilian site in English
The UNESCO World Heritage site
Wikipedia about Aleijadinho, with more photos of the Congonhas wood carvings
Wikipedia page only dedicated to the 12 Prophets
A Brazilian site dedicated to the ‘Romaria’ [in Portuguese only!]
Finally, if you are into hiking, there are several National Parks and Reserves within easy reach of Ouro Preto. In Brazil, we have often experienced difficulty getting into these parks with our ‘Berta’ – so this time we didn’t even try… (Later, on our way to Diamantina, we passed the important ‘Parque Nacional da Serra do Cipo’ where it was once again the case that the access road was too narrow for us.)
I hope that after reading this, you agree with us: it’s certainly worthwhile to spend a little longer in and around Ouro Preto!
Brazil’s “winter” is the best time to visit Minas Gerais. It’s cooler, but not really cold, and it doesn’t rain. Towards southern summer the rain season sets in. Some towns (like Diamantina) hold seasonal tourist events only between May and the end of September.