The Surprisingly Diverse World Heritage of Brazil

On our travels through South America, we have developed quite an interest in World Heritage Sites. During our recent time in Brazil we had a list of Brazilian sites, which we constantly checked to see if there were any nearby. Sometimes we would take a detour from our planned route to visit them.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites are tagged as Cultural Sites or Natural Sites, and some even as a combination of the two.

Here are the Brazilian World Heritage listed sites that we have visited.

Historic cities, modern urban design, threatened wildlife and natural environments: these are all part of Brazil's diverse range of UNESCO World Heritage listed sites.

Historic cities, modern urban design, threatened wildlife and natural environments: these are all part of Brazil’s diverse range of UNESCO World Heritage listed sites.

Cultural Sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List

1. Jesuit Missions of the Guaranís

San Ignacio Mini, Santa Ana, Nuestra Señora de Loreto and Santa Maria Mayor (Argentina), Ruins of São Miguel das Missões (Brazil)

The Jesuit Missions first came to our attention in Paraguay during our 2008 visit to that country. We were surprised in 2015 by the Jesuit presence around Cordoba in Argentina and became fascinated by that story.

Later in 2015, when trying to escape the rain season in Brazil, we found ourselves on a route west that would bring us past the Ruins of São Miguel das Missões. So, we detoured slightly to visit the site. The church was surprisingly intact and gave a clear idea of its former glory. There were enough ruins of other buildings to see how the mission might once have been.

The ruins of São Miguel das Missões in Brazil are part of the World Heritage listed Jesuit Missions of the Guaranís. The other 4 missions are in Argentina.

The ruins of São Miguel das Missões in Brazil are part of the World Heritage listed Jesuit Missions of the Guaranís. The other 4 missions are in Argentina.

We were so impressed by what we found that when we crossed the border into Argentina, we took in three of the other ruin sites in this combined world heritage site . They date from the 17th and 18th centuries, and are all in different states of conservation, but original design and layout is usually obvious.

2. Historic Town of Ouro Preto

The state of Minas Gerais was always on our radar. We knew that it had a lot of history connected with mining. However, we were a bit surprised to find that there are 4 World Heritage listed sites in that state.

Ouro Preto was developed around gold mining. From 1720-1897 it was the capital of Minas Gerais Province. Its historical centre is impressive , although difficult to walk around in because it is a city which grew up around the gold mines, on the very hilly terrain of the Vila Rica (Rich Valley). There a many churches and it was our first experience of the Baroque sculptor, Aleijadinho.

We spent several days there, and even went inside one of the original mines.

Rooftops of the World Heritage listed Historic Town of Ouro Preto. It was the gold mining centre of Minas Gerais and Brazil.

Rooftops of the World Heritage listed Historic Town of Ouro Preto. It was the gold mining centre of Minas Gerais and Brazil.

3. Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Congonhas

This site is not far from Ouro Preto and we didn’t miss the opportunity to visit. It is unique in that the forecourt of the church displays soapstone sculptures of the 12 Prophets, wrought by Aleijadinho. They deserve notice because they are free-standing, rather than standing against a wall or column.

His work continues in 6 chapels, down the slope in front of the church. They house life-size, painted, wooden figures, which are an unusual representation of the Stations of the Cross, an important part of Catholic symbolism and devotion.

This sculptor’s work is one of the main criteria for The Sanctuary’s inclusion on the UNESCO World Heritage list. You will find more photos from this site in our post Explore More Rich History in Minas Gerais .

The Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Congonhas showcases the “thoroughly original and expressive work of the Baroque style transported to the tropics” by Brazil’s Aleijadinho – part of the reason it's a World Heritage site. [quote: UNESCO World Heritage List website]

The Sanctuary of Bom Jesus do Congonhas showcases the “thoroughly original and expressive work of the Baroque style transported to the tropics” by Brazil’s Aleijadinho – part of the reason it’s a World Heritage site. [quote: UNESCO World Heritage List website]

4. Pampulha Modern Ensemble

This site is a very recent addition to the World Heritage List. It was added in July 2016.

Unfortunately, we were ill-prepared for this important body of Niemeyer’s work. We knew that we needed to pass through Belo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais. We also knew there were some buildings designed by Oscar Niemeyer in that city. What we didn’t know was that the site was on the World Heritage list. We had found a GPS reading for the area on a website, which was unfortunately in Portuguese. Using that, we found ourselves at the Museu do Arte. It’s a good example of a Niemeyer building but we thought there would be more.

There is! The site was created around a large, artificial lake in the 1940s. It is a part of suburban city life rather than the public buildings we had already seen of his. As well as the Art Museum, the Niemeyer designed buildings include a casino, a church, a yacht club and more. It was one of his earliest projects when he was still a young man in his thirties. He collaborated with Roberto Burle Marx for the landscaping. (Marx was also responsible for the landscape design of Inhotim ; and collaborated again with Niemeyer in Brasilia.)

By the time we had resorted to Google for more information, and realised it was much larger than we had anticipated, it was getting late. It was also difficult to find a park for Berta in the suburban environment. So we drove out of the city and missed most of this important site.

It is sometimes good to plan a bit better than we usually do.

The Museu de Arte is part of “a visionary garden city project created in 1940 at Belo Horizonte” - Brazil’s newest addition to the World Heritage List. [quote: UNESCO World Heritage List website]

The Museu de Arte is part of “a visionary garden city project created in 1940 at Belo Horizonte” – Brazil’s newest addition to the World Heritage List. [quote: UNESCO World Heritage List website]

5. Historic Centre of the Town of Diamantina

Diamantina was the diamond mining centre of Minas Gerais and Brazil in the 18th century.
The value of this site is based on its creation in the surrounding harsh, barren environment.

Diamantina, a colonial village set like a jewel in a necklace of inhospitable rocky mountains, recalls the exploits of diamond prospectors in the 18th century and testifies to the triumph of human cultural and artistic endeavour over the environment. [UNESCO World Heritage List website]

The historic centre is somehow simpler than that of Ouro Preto. It has more of a frontier feel. But there is beauty and style integrated in the simplicity. Like Ouro Preto, it is built on hilly terrain that requires a lot of walking up and down to see it thoroughly. You will find a couple more photos from Diamantina in our post 10 Unique Colonial Towns we found in Brazil .

A simple church in the most remote of Brazil’s historic mining cities. Diamantina is recognised on the World Heritage list partly because of the environment it was created in.

A simple church in the most remote of Brazil’s historic mining cities. Diamantina is recognised on the World Heritage list partly because of the environment it was created in.

6. Brasilia

A capital city built, more or less, in the middle of the country – this is Brasilia, capital of Brazil . It resulted from the visions of a saint, a president, a city planner and an architect: St John Bosco dreamed it in 1883; President Juscelino Kubitschek (known everywhere in Brazil as JK) initiated it in 1956 as part of his ‘fifty years in five’ push for modernisation, and then employed the talents of Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer to bring the dream into reality.

Brasilia is a definitive example of 20th century modernist urbanism. [UNESCO World Heritage List website]

It had been recommended to us by fellow travellers and local Brazilians as a place not to be missed. We hadn’t thought it would fit into our plans, but finally it did. And it was one of the highlights of our time in Brazil.

The National Congress, just one of many remarkable Niemeyer designed buildings in Brasilia – Brazil’s World Heritage listed Capital.

The National Congress, just one of many remarkable Niemeyer designed buildings in Brasilia – Brazil’s World Heritage listed Capital.

7. Historic Centre of the Town of Goiás

Sometimes I wonder what makes a site worthy to be added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. We visited Cidade de Goiás mostly because it was on that list and our route took us near it. It didn’t really seem to be that outstanding to us – we stayed only an hour and a half. So I looked to the UNESCO website to find the answer:

Goiás testifies to the occupation and colonization of the lands of central Brazil in the 18th and 19th centuries. The urban layout is an example of the organic development of a mining town, adapted to the conditions of the site. Although modest, both public and private architecture form a harmonious whole, thanks to the coherent use of local materials and vernacular techniques. [UNESCO World Heritage List website]

Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte: just one of many original buildings in the Historic Centre of the Town of Goiás, Brazil. It is World Heritage listed as a good example of an 18th Century mining town.

Igreja de Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte: just one of many original buildings in the Historic Centre of the Town of Goiás, Brazil. It is World Heritage listed as a good example of an 18th Century mining town.

Natural Sites on the UNESCO World Heritage List

1. Iguaçu National Park

We visited this UNESCO World Heritage Natural Site in 2008 . It is difficult to find words to describe the awe and wonder it evoked.

The park shares with Iguazú National Park in Argentina one of the world’s largest and most impressive waterfalls, extending over some 2,700 m. [UNESCO World Heritage List website]

It was such a wonderful place to visit that I sometimes wish we could do it all over again – but there is so much more to see…

World Heritage Natural site, Iguaçu National Park, is a magnificent example of the power of nature. Not to be missed when travelling to Brazil & Argentina.

World Heritage Natural site, Iguaçu National Park, is a magnificent example of the power of nature. Not to be missed when travelling to Brazil & Argentina.

2. Pantanal Conservation Area

The Pantanal is one of the largest wetlands in the world – 14 000 000ha. The protected part which makes up this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a fraction of that – 187 818ha. But it is considered to be large enough to have a significant effect on maintaining the integrity of the wetland, and protecting the wildlife within it. And there are always plans for increasing the protected area.

We have only visited the North Pantanal and our visit was a little disappointing. It is a beautiful place with water, lots of birds and some wildlife to be seen. But we visited in peak season – jaguar season. So the hunters with their substantial equipment arrived to shoot jaguars. Don’t get me wrong – nobody actually shoots to kill jaguars in this part of the world. They were carrying cameras with lenses that needed super human strength to hold, in order to get that one perfect shot. Our boat trip was one of racing along the river until someone would share the location of the sought after subject over the radio. Then we would about turn and race in that direction. We got to see a jaguar – with about 80-100 other people spread over at least a dozen boats, and the constant click-click of more cameras.

Several worldwide threatened species are present here, including the giant armadillo (Priodontesmaximus), the giant anteater (Myrmecophagatridactyla), giant otter (Pteronurabrasiliensis), marsh deer (Blastocerus dichotomus) and the hyacinth macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus), the largest species of parrot. A healthy jaguar population (Panthera onca), a species almost threatened with extinction, is also present. [UNESCO World Heritage List website]

It is nice to know that the jaguar has returned from being threatened with extinction in this area, but we would like to have had the opportunity to see some of the other remarkable animals that call the Pantanal home. We did get to see some hyacinth macaws on a daily basis and they are really stunning.

Threatened species like this Jaguar bring visitors to the Pantanal Conservation Area in Brazil. Its World Heritage listing increases the protection and chance of survival of this wildlife.

Threatened species like this Jaguar bring visitors to the Pantanal Conservation Area in Brazil. Its World Heritage listing increases the protection and chance of survival of this wildlife.

3. Atlantic Forest South-East Reserves
4. Discovery Coast Atlantic Forest Reserves

I’d never heard of the Mata Atlântica (Atlantic Forest) until I came to South America.
Now I find that strange, because this once huge forest is equally as threatened as the more familiar Amazon.

We passed through these 2 World Heritage listed sites, but were unable to gain access to the protected areas. Usually we were told that the only way was with a guide. We would have loved, for example, to see the Golden Lion Tamarins in the state of Rio de Janeiro .

The Brazilian Atlantic Forest is one of the most threatened biomes in the world. It is now a collection of protected areas whose vulnerability is recognised by the World Heritage listings.

The Brazilian Atlantic Forest is one of the most threatened biomes in the world. It is now a collection of protected areas whose vulnerability is recognised by the World Heritage listings.


This personal list tells an important story: just because something has been recognised as having worth to be listed as a World Heritage, doesn’t mean it will necessarily make an impression on you. There are also places you visit that you wonder at them not being on this prestigious list. And then there are the sights, which very obviously belong there. Whatever your experience or opinion, the list can be a valuable asset when travelling, as it helps you find things that you may not otherwise have happened upon.


If this post sparked your interest in Brazil’s World Heritage Sites please visit the UNESCO World Heritage website for more information .
Have you visited any of the above mentioned or any other World Heritage Site in Brazil?


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World Heritage sites of Brazil include historic mining towns, the biggest waterfall in the world, threatened jaguars in one of the biggest wetland areas, a whole new city built by men not afraid to dream. Next time you travel, consult the list as well as our travel posts.

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Yasha

dare2go's human navigator (we're not lost because there's nowhere particular we have to be) alongside our Nexus 7 tablet, writer and editor of our blog, first cook and loving wife. Teaching English as a second language when possible.

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5 Responses

  1. Boyce says:

    Wow, capturing Jaguar would be a kind of dream for me and Iguaçu National Park would be interesting to explore. Thanks for sharing

  2. I knew there was a lot of history and cultural heritage to explore, but I had no idea there were so many world heritage sites in Brazil. It’s high on my wishlist, and now I have more reasons to go.

    • Juergen says:

      Right now is a good time to go to Brazil. The Real is fairly low in value, only just getting little stronger. A couple of years ago Brazil used to be much more expensive due to exchange rates…

  3. Monica says:

    Even if you weren’t the only ones there, the jaguar photo is so impressive! Brazil has such a rich history, and the architecture looks so inspired by Spain. It’s true what you say — not all World Heritage sites are equally impressive, and that’s okay :)

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