Ouro Preto – The Most Breathtaking Historical Town in Brazil
Ouro Preto is a unique place, the true jewel of Brazil’s collection of colonial towns. The crazy location – clinging to the steep sides of a narrow valley; the beautifully preserved churches, houses and squares of the town; vast and varied collection of minerals and jewels found in the rivers and hills that turned Vila Rica de Ouro Preto (Rich Town of Black Gold) into a boom-town; the history of gold-rush, colonialism, slavery, mining, rebellion, independence and eventual bust which put Ouro Preto at the centre of most major stories in the early centuries of Brazil – all this wealth of history in a stunning natural setting goes into making Ouro Preto the finest historical town in Brazil and, quietly, one of the most fascinating places to visit in South America.
The riches were discovered when a bandeirante expedition searching the interior for slaves and gold discovered a black metal in one of the small rivers descending the valley. The town was founded only later, after the discovery that the black metal was in fact gold, and once the largest gold deposits in The Americas had been rediscovered by Antonio Dias de Oliveira in 1698. He thought that he had found the mythical El Dorado. The ensuing gold-rush brought in people from all over the world, including men from Africa forced to work as slaves in the mines.
The boom-town also attracted fine artisans and architects, looking to take their share of the riches of the mountainous interior of Minas Gerais State, including Aleijadinho, the local sculptor responsible for much of the finest sacred art in the area, despite losing his arms to disease. The stunning buildings rising up the hills and the 23 churches strategically located on them, including the opulent Nossa Senhora do Pilar and the masterpiece of Sao Francisco de Assis, all showcase the magnificence of the period, while the Santa Efigenia dos Pretos church built by and for the slave community is a reminder of whose work actually made it all possible...
In the mid 18th Century, Ouro Preto was mainly populated by African slaves out of the 110,000 people who made their home in the hills. This was double the size of New York City in 1750 and five times the size of Rio de Janeiro. It was due to Ouro Preto and its gold-rush that the coffee and sugar plantations of Bahia (the original colonial boom) declined along with the capital of Brazil, Salvador. The capital was transferred to Rio de Janeiro, the major port for shipping out the gold of Minas Gerais to Europe. Ouro Preto is also responsible for Paraty and Angra dos Reis, the two historic ports at the coastal end of the Caminho do Ouro (Old Gold Trail). The Portuguese Crown putting a tax of a fifth on every sale of gold in was responsible for fomenting the first revolutionary wave of independence movements in Brazil (the Inconfidencia), which began in Ouro Preto. The town is the hub of almost all the major events in Brazilian history, and became the Imperial City after independence.
The state capital of Minas Gerais moved to Belo Horizonte long after the gold boom had bust, and Ouro Preto retained its heritage, unlike many of the other Gold Towns of Minas Gerais. That crazy location in the steep valley ensured that industrialisation and expansion were impossible, decline was absolute, and the centre of town remains perfectly intact until today, not a single modern building exists in the centre! All have been beautifully restored to their former splendour, with the Aleijadinho, Inconfidencia and Minerals Museums, the oldest theatre in Brazil, plus the Chico-Rei Mine giving you some idea of how life may have been like centuries in Ouro Preto.
So if colonial and slavery era history, sacred art and architecture, minerals and jewels interest you, then there is no better place to visit in Brazil. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Ouro Preto has it all.
Suitable Destination For: We believe that anybody would be amazed by Ouro Preto, but especially those with an interest in colonial art & architecture; history and historical towns; the slavery era; jewels and gems and minerals; natural scenery. Ouro Preto does require lots of walking up and down steep hills, although there is a reward for this – in the shape of the chocolate fountains found in the town!
Best Time to Visit: Ouro Preto can be visited any time of year, with late December until after the crazy Ouro Preto Carnaval weekend being High Season, with lots of Brazilian tourists. Easter and all other public holiday weekends are especially busy too. Winter nights in June, July and August can be cool, although the daytime weather can still be very agreeable.
Essential Sights & Activities: Ouro Preto itself is an essential and magnificent sight. All of it! In particular though, the Nossa Senhora do Pilar, Sao Francisco de Assis and Santa Efigenia dos Pretos Churches; the Chico-Rei Mine Museum; the Escola de Minas Palace in the main Praça Tiradentes square which houses a eye-opening collection of gems, minerals and jewels from all around the world.