Belo Horizonte - Gateway to Minas Gerais, the Gold-Rush Towns and National Parks
Belo Horizonte is the capital of Minas Gerais, the interior state set amongst the hills and mountains where precious metals and minerals were found in abundance, beginning with the 18th Century gold-rush. The city itself is a thriving, modern metropolis of 2.5 million people, expanding to the mountains which surround it, the view of which gave the city its name, literally 'Beautiful Horizon' in Portuguese. The city was built to host the new capital of Minas Gerais in place of Ouro Preto, whose location deep in the mountains made access much more difficult. While Belo Horizonte is mainly used by tourists as the arrival point for visits to the old Gold-Rush towns such as Ouro Preto, Tiradentes and Diamantina, it does have attractions of its own as well.
Inside the city, parks such as the Parque Municipal are full of paths, tropical plants and lakes. Museums depict the history of Minas Gerais and the Curral del Rey village which was removed to make way for the new city. The Pampulha district was designed by Oscar Niemeyer as Belo Horizonte expanded, some of his earliest work that led to the commission to help design Brasilia, the new capital of Brazil. There are many more museums in BH, and more opening all the time covering science, mines and metals, and a Brasilian Man museum. Perhaps the most famous of them all is the recently built Inhotim Centre of Contemporary Art around 50km outside the city near Brumadinho, with modern art galleries and sculptures littered throught the extensive gardens, all surrounded by tropical plans, with peacocks and swans providing natural decoration.
Around Belo Horizonte, there are various cave systems to visit, including Gruta de Maquine whichhas seven chambers to visit, Gruta Rei do Mato which has petroglyphs and prehistoric cave art, and Gruta de Lapinha which contains interesting crystal formations.
These can all be visited as part of a journey through the Minas Gerais gold-rush towns. Ouro Preto and Tiradentes are the most popular of these to visit, being two of the three best-preserved towns. Along with Diamantina to the north, these three were perhaps the colonial towns that were hardest to reach, so when the gold-rush died down in the late 19th Century, and the opening of large mineral mines led to industrialisation of many of the towns, those three were largely abandoned and remained unchanged from the colonial times. The baroque architecture of the churches especially, but also the colonial public buildings and mansions plus the sacred art and sculptures of the region, especially those by Aleijadinho, can also be found in various other towns that don't have quite as much charm these days as when they were some of the richest places on earth. Sabara, Mariana, Lavras Novas, Congonhas and Sao Joao del Rei are all worth a look as part of an extended visit. Of course, the riches of all these places were built on the deposits of the mines, and on the backs of the men who worked them, who were usually Africans sold into slavery. Most of the booming population of Minas were slaves during the gold-rush era, and you can visit mines, some still working, to gain some kind of idea of working conditions.
Minas Gerais also has various parks which are rich in the flora and fauna of the hills, although not quite so well visited by foreigners, and somewhat lacking in tourist infrastructure, they certainly don't lack anything in natural beauty and diversity, and the mineiros are perhaps amongst the most active people in Brazil in terms of hiking, horse-riding, biking, rafting, climbing and flying, possibly because the state has no coastline and therefore no beaches. The Serra do Cipo National Park is part of the huge Serra do Espinhaço mountain range which crosses the state, home to unique orchids, jaguar, and ant-eaters and also a UNESCO biosphere reserve. The Caratinga Biological Station has one of the few remaining populations of the woolly spider monkey, the largest primate in The Americas. The Caraça Natural Park at the Santuario do Caraça varies between Atlantic Rainforest and the Brazilian high-plane cerrado savannah, and is home to a population of maned wolves . The Serra da Canastra National Park is another area of cerrado, containing the headwaters of the Rio Parana and Rio Sao Francisco, two of the most important waterways of South America. Many endemic plant species and endangered animals are found here.
The final two parks worth a mention do also have abundant wildlife, although they are mainly popular for hiking, both containing some of the highest peaks in Brazil. The Caparao National Park has the 2,892m Pico da Bandeira, while Itatiaia National Park has 2,787m Agulhas Negras making the border with Rio de Janeiro.
Minas Gerais is full of surprises for people who think of Brazil in terms of beaches and Amazon Rainforest. Any visit can uncover some of its many treasures, both historical and natural, with many varied and wonderful experiences, including for the cuisine which is amongst the best in the country.
Suitable Destination For: Those who like a little colonial history and scenery; Wildlife-Lovers
Best Time to Visit: April to August provides the clearest skies, although this is also the Minas Gerais winter so nights can be cool. November to early March is the wet season.
Essential Sights & Activities:: The Gold-Rush Towns; the Prophets Sculptures in Congonhas; Wildlife in the National Parks and the Santuario do Caraça, especially the maned wolf