A Diamond in the Rough

Once an important mining hub, now a relic of Portuguese colonialism, the city of Ouro Preto is nestled proudly between mountains in what was once known as the ‘Vila Rica’. This gorgeous town, famed for it’s quaint cobbled streets and Baroque architecture, went from being the centre of Brazil’s gold rush in the 18th century to a small town that relies mainly on tourism. Meaning ‘Black Gold’, Ouro Preto was the state capital of Minas Gerais until 1897, before industrialisation and development saw Belo Horizonte take over.

A cat stares me down

Ouro Preto undoubtedly reached its apogee in the mid-18th century. By 1760, Brazil was responsible for almost half of the world’s gold and wealthy European aristocrats flocked to the city. It seems remarkable to think that as little as 250 years ago, the Vila Rica was Brazil’s largest city, especially considering it is now outside the top 300! The Baroque architecture, influenced by European immigration, is evident throughout the town, most notably at São Francisco church and in the main square, Praça Tiradentes.

Tiradentes led a revolutionary movement that sought to win Brazil’s independence from Portugal, in 1789. Living and working in the wealthy city of Vila Rica, Tiradentes was a witness to the lavish lifestyles of European aristocrats, but unable to break into their fold due to his lower class. The ‘revolution’ was poorly organised and lacked coherent leadership. Tiradentes claimed full responsibility for the attempted upheaval and was hanged in Rio de Janeiro, before his remains were scattered throughout the city of Ouro Preto. A century later, Brazil did gain independence and the anniversary of his death, April 21st, has been an annual holiday ever since.

The history and architecture of Ouro Preto might suggest that this is a city clinging onto former glories. While the city is not quite living in the past, it fair to say that the pace of live is slow. Elderly couples shuffle along the cobbles; rustic, old cars trundle and sputter up the streets’ treacherously steep inclines; and the vibrant samba beats, so recognisable throughout Brazil, are replaced by the irresistible charm of bossa nova. This is certainly a place for meandering. 

However, though Ouro Preto may not be the hub of golden exuberance that it once was, there are still plenty of reasons to be positive. A few mining projects and a healthy flow of tourists support the local economy.  Good roads and relatively short distances to São Paulo, Belo Horizonte and Rio de Janeiro ensure that the city remains far more accessible than most rural, Brazilian towns. And the wealth of history weighing down on the city’s now modest shoulders, means Ouro Preto certainly won’t be forgotten.