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Ouro Preto: City of Black Gold (and Baroque Architecture)

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One of the best parts about being a former circus employee was getting to know all the different people from around the world who were also working on the show, and the show I worked on had a lot of Brazilians. I’d never thought much of Brazil before working with all of them, but it turns out it is a really amazing place with a lot more to see than just Rio.

One of these spots is Ouro Preto, a former mining town up in the mountains. Ouro Preto is a World Heritage site, and its name translates to Black Gold.

Ouro Preto is an excellent example of Baroque Portuguese colonial architecture. Why Portuguese? Because Brazil was actually under Portuguese rule for three and a half centuries, starting in 1500 A.D. An interesting tidbit of history is that in 1789, about 35 years before independence was achieved, a failed attempt to rise up against the Portuguese started in Ouro Preto. It didn’t work out, and the leader, Tiradentes, was beheaded as a warning.

Translated as "Black Gold," Ouro Preto, Brazil is a former mining town and UNESCO World Heritage Site. Come for Caraval, stay for the Baroque architecture!

All that gore aside, several of the churches in the city are built in the Baroque style and are equally famous for their religious art. Honestly, the churches are the highlight of the city. Two churches not to miss areMatriz NS daConceicao de Antonio Dias and the smallerCapela do Padre Faria. However, Brazil’s most important piece of colonial art, The Prophets in Congonhas, found in Igreja de Sao Francisco de Assis, and the church of Igreja Matriz de Nossa Senhora do Pilar are the area’s crown jewels.

Ouro Preto also has several mine tours. As the center of Brazil’s gold rush in the 18th Century, this isn’t surprising. The most popular of these tours in the Mina do Chico Rei near the sanctuary of Nossa Senhora de Conceicao. The tour there is self-guided and not for the faint of heart. You have to wind your way through several very tight passageways, but you’re rewarded with a stop in the mineral room where you can see what hides under the ground in Ouro Preto.

The mine is named after a local folk tale about a slave from the Congo, Chico Rei. He worked in the mine, trying to buy his freedom, and snuck gold out of the mine every day by hiding it in his hair. He would then go to the Church of Santa Iphigenia and wash his hair in the font, retrieving his gold and appearing extremely pious to the town folk. Supposedly, near the end of his life, he managed to save up enough money to buy his freedom but also to buy the mine. From that point on, the mine thrived.

Mining continues to be a way of life in Ouro Preto even today. Although the gold has largely been exhausted, the mines still hold impressive stores of minerals like marble, iron, pyrite, topaz and soapstone. Ouro Preto is also the only place in the world where you can find imperial topaz.

While most people think immediately of Rio for Carnaval, it’s actually a countrywide celebration. Ouro Preto is no exception. Starting the Saturday before Lent and ending on Ash Wednesday, the streets of Ouro Preto become overrun with costumes and music, featuring parades by two different groups: the samba schools and the blocos.

So head if Rio is a bit too crowded for you, head to Ouro Preto for Carnaval…and stick around to check out the fine examples of Baroque colonial architecture and their mines!

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