Ouro Preto – 18th century Gold Capital and Cradle of Brazil’s Independence

Few cities in Brazil are as rich in terms of historical, architectural and artistic patrimony as Ouro Preto. This former capital of the state Minas Gerais, formerly called “Vila Rica” (Rich City) had a very important role in the early history of colonial Brazil, and its independence in 1822, when the colony became an empire.

It all began in the late 17th century, when the epic adventure of exploring the interior of Brazil led to the discovery of gold in the region where Ouro Preto would emerge.

The gold rush that followed brought thousands of fortune seekers and adventurersto the region. Various mining settlements were formed, which grew larger and eventually merged in what would become Vila Rica. (1711).

The gold seemed to be in endless supply, and for the colonizer (Portugal) it was a great source of income. No less than 20% (a quinta) of all the gold that originated in and around Vila Rica, but also in all the other regions in the captaincy, went into the treasury of the Portuguese court. On top of the 20%, each mine owner had to pay a fixed amount of gold every year.

The statue of the former revolutionary leader, Joaquin José da Silva Xavier (“Tiradentes”) in the middle of Praça Tiradentes, in the center of Ouro Preto. Tiradentes was executed and had parts of his body exposed along the Estrada Real. In the background to the right of the statue, the former Governor’s Palace, nowadays the School of Mines and Metallurgy .

To control the collection of these taxes, so called “melting houses” (casas de fundição) emerged in Vila Rica, where all the gold had to be taken to be molten into bars bearing the royal seal. The transport of gold in the form of nuggets or dust became prohibited and to prevent smuggling, it also became illegal to open new roads, other than the roads approved by the Court. (Estrada Real)

Vila Rica thus became the financial center of the colony and epicenter of the Estrada Real. Discontentment with the situation led to a first revolt in 1720, which was quickly repressed by the hanging of its leader, Felipe dos Santos. In 1720, Vila Rica also became the capital of the Captaincy of Minas Gerais.

From 1730 to 1760, Ouro Preto had its period of glory. The gold production was at its highest and the city flourished. Several great artists found their way to Ouro Preto and had a great influence in the further development of the city. Baroque and Rococo churches and other buildings, but also schools and theaters were built. In those days Ouro Preto was one of the most culturally developed cities in Brazil.

An example of how the urban layout of Ouro Preto seems to follow the contours of the landscape

Another advantage that was brought on by the gold mining industry, was that the wealthy citizens of Ouro Preto were able to send their sons to Portugal to study and return as lawyers or doctors.

On the other hand, studying in Europe also exposed these more or less isolated Brazilians to the revolutionary ideas and developments in France and North America.Most of them returned to Brazil with the seeds of revolution and independence planted in their minds.

From 1763 on, it was all downhill. Gold mines ran dry and the owners were no longer able to come up with the taxes for the insatiable Portuguese Court. A conspiracy movement, “Inconfidência Mineira” emerged, aiming at the separation from Portugal and the proclamation of independence.

In 1789, most members of the Inconfidência Mineira movement were arrested and its leader, Joaquin José da Silva Xavier (known as “Tiradentes”) was executed in Ro de Janeiro, his body quartered and the pieces exposed in different cities along the Estrada Realto serve as an example. Tiradentes later became one of Brazil’s most famous historical heroes.

Igreja São Fransico de Assis in the center of Ouro Preto. considered to be one of the “seven wonders of the world of Portuguese origin”

With the independence of Brazil in 1822, Vila Rica’s status was elevated to “Imperial City” and its name was changed to Ouro Preto. All was well until in 1897 Belo Horizonte, which was a brand new city, became the new state capital.

Ouro Preto, regarded by the then elite of Minas Gerais as outdated, nearly became a ghost town when almost 50% of its citizens fled to the new and modern capital.

Ironically, it was exactly this development that greatly favored the preservation of the city’s historical, architectural and natural patrimony, which in 1980 was recognized by UNESCO as world heritage centre.

And what a rich patrimony it is… with its 10 Baroque or Rococo churches and 6 chapels, one more beautifully decorated than the next, but also various museums(including the Aleijadinho museum), the countless houses in colonial style and the mostly originally paved streets Ouro Preto has one of the richest collections of colonial art and architecture in Brazil.

Walking around in the (sometimes very steep) cobblestone streets of the historical center is like taking a trip back in time and I highly recommend it. The fact that all this beauty and grandeur was created in what was clearly one of the most rugged landscapes to be found in this part of Brazil, makes this place even more remarkable.

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9 day Motorcycle trip on the Estrada Real – Part 2 (days 5 to 9)

This is Part two of a longer post. Go to Part 1 (days 1 to 4)

Day 5: Exploring the area around Diamantina

Today we’re taking a day to see a little more of the region around Diamantina. The guy who does the night watch in our pousada turned out to be a guide as well and he was more than happy to show us around, see a few of the waterfalls and the little village of Biribiri, tucked away in the rugged hills north of Diamantina. After breakfast we took off, five of us in the Land Rover and Alex and me on our bikes…

First stop was the 5m high, concrete, illuminated cross on top of one of the hills (alto da serra) around the city, from where you have a great view over the entire city…

The view from the hill is quite cool… 
The other side wasn’t so bad either…

Looks like everybody was so busy taking pictures of the surrounding views, that we ended up with no picture of the cross itself 

After taking in the views, we went on to the “Caminho dos escravos”, a 9 km long road, paved with big stones, constructed in the first half of the 19th century by slaves. This road connected the fazendas and the diamond mines. Today it is used to do ecological hikes.


On the “caminho dos escravos”… Imagining how hard it must have been for the people who once constructed this road…

Biribiri was next on the list…
It is a small village, about 12 km north of Diamantina, founded in the 19th century near a cloth factory, to house the people that worked there. The factory isn’t working anymore and most of the people left. Only two families remain.

Located in a evnvironmental protection area (Parque ambiental de Biribiri), the small village is an oasis of peace and tranquility and definitely worth a visit. It was very nice meeting Antonio, a local descendant from a slave family, who was very gifted at telling the history of the place.

While we were having lunch in the only restaurant, there was a guy playing violin under a tree at a small distance from us… imagine the atmosphere of the place.

After entering the Biribiri park, where our license plates were registered, we had some 12 km of dirt road ahead to get to Biribiri, and along the way we had the chance to visit two waterfalls…


Cachoeira da sentinela… obviously with a small flow of water due to the dry time of the year…


…which didn’t stop Alex from taking a plunge 


Moving on to the next cachoeira…


An old bridge, leading to the cachoeira das cristais…
Cachoeira das Cristais…
And finally the village of Biribiri… Oasis of peace and tranquility.
We went for another hike to see yet another waterfall, called “escorregador” wich means “slide”
The river bed leading to Biribiri…
Lunch in Biribiri…

After having lunch in the village, we continued our exploration, visiting one more waterfall, and went back to the pousada, where our hostess Beatrice welcomed us with a delicious table full of minas gerais delicacies… no extra charge. I must say our stay at pousada Castelinho was delightful and Beatrice and her staff did everything to make us feel at home… The pousada has a main house and 4 cabins (chalets) but I do recommend to stay at the main house, which is a little more expensive but you feel much more part of the family, which is what pousadas are all about.

Our last night in Diamantina, we went down to the historical center and visited the Museu da diamante and the house of Chica da Silva, which was a very famous figure in Diamantina. A freed slave woman, and very beautiful, she had a relationship with the richest man in Diamantina for about 15 years. The house holds paintings of her, depicting the deadly sins…

After a walk in the historical center, we went to the old market place to get some dinner, and Alex discovered that there was a Vesperata going on… the vesperata is one of Diamantina’s attractions: a open air concert in the middle of the historical center. The orchestra’s musicians are posted in the first floor windows around the square, creating the perfect surround experience…


Unexpectedly, we were able to witness the famous Vesperata in the historic center of Diamantina…

Our Spanish friend José was very happy to be able to witness the Vesperata, because as a matter of fact, I called the day before we arrived in Diamantina, and was told that there wouldn’t be any Vesperata that weekend…

Diamantina was the Norternmost point of our trip, and tomorrow we start riding south again, tracing the “Caminho do Diamante” of the Estrada Real… More dust ahead

Day 6: Diamantina – Conceição do Mato Dentro (+/- 130 km)

Day 6 is about getting to Conceição do Mato Dentro, a small city about 130km south of Diamantina. Despite its size, it has managed to earn the title of “Ecotourism capital of Minas Gerais.To get there we would have to ride the authentic Estrada Real, which in this area is mainly dirt roads and means more dust ahead.Since it was a relatively short riding day, we wanted to get to our destination around noon, to have some time left to go hiking to the highest waterfall in Minas Gerais: the “Tabuleiro” waterfall.The first leg was from Diamantina to Serro, the city where we had lunch 2 days earlier. After that we would pass Alvorado de Minas and a few other small places. Most of the roads would be dirt roads, but, like I mentioned before in this report, here and there we saw the signs that more and more roads are being asphalted.


The road from Diamantina to Serro…

When I passed here in August 2010, this was still an authentic dirt road. As you can see, the nxt time we will pass here it will be a new, good quality asphalt road.


Arriving in Conceição do Mato Dentro…


Taking gas…


We arrived in Conceição do Mato Dentro around lunch time, so we found this typical “mineiro” restaurant…


Another table shot.


The riding was over, but we weren’t done for the day. Our pousada was located close to the entrance of the “Parque Estadual Serra do Intendente”, where we could do a hike to the Cachoeira do Tabuleiro. It was not the easiest of hikes, with a very steep and at times slippery section to get down to the river that leads up to the waterfall.


The waterfall in the distance… As expected, here also, there was a ridiculously small amount of water. In the rainy season, it looks like this:


I need to come back when the fall looks like this… must be awesome to rappel off of this one.


Once down at the river, it’s another few kms to the 18m deep “poço” (pont) at the foot of the fall…


No way to ride a bike here… Any bike


As I said… Ridiculously small amount of water… The almost 300m high wall was an impressive sight though. Alex, Maryel and myself went in for a swim (that usually was just a few seconds, due to the low temperature of the water :)).


After our hike, a well deserved relaxing moment at the pousada.

Day 7: Conceição do Mato Dentro – Ouro Preto (250 km – 140 km unpaved)

Today we ride to Ouro Preto, the city that was once called “Vila Rica” (Rich city) due to the fact that it was the place where all the taxes were collected. The gold and diamonds, coming from the north (Diamantina), but also from the surrounding area, had to pass through Ouro Preto in order to be melted and converted into bars that carried the seal of the Portuguese Court.

A tax of 20% (um Quinta – one fifth) of all the gold that passed here was taken and went straight to the Royal family.

Apart from the “Quinta” there was a fixed tax (+/- 1000 kg of gold) for the posession of a mine. Once the mines started to run dry, the owners of the mines were no longer able to pay these taxes and most of them lost their posessions. Around that time, Brazil was being kept kind of a secret to the rest of the world, but on the other hand, the sons of the richest land owners in Brazil were sent to Portugal to study, and that is where they learned about how things were changing, especially in France and the United States.

Many of them returned after their studies with ideas of an independent Brazil, and that is how Minas Gerais became the center of a movement for the independency of Brazil.


Here too, many roadworks to eventually put a layer of asphalt on the dirt roads…


Sometimes, passing these sections was a bit of a challenge… Seriously, it was harder than it seems in the picture…


Places like this, where you can fill your water bottle next to a small chapel are likely to disappear or at least lose some oif their charm…


This farmer will have a harder time taking his animals from one place to another when more cars will pas here at higher speeds…


For the time being, there are still lots of roads with beautiful viewpoints.


There used to be a bridge here, but it was burnt, The jeep would never be able to pass here, forcing us to make a detour, discovering a few great 4×4 roads…


Here, we were getting close to Itambé do mato dentro.


We finally arrived in Mariana, another historical city, about 15 km east of Ouro Preto.


It was Sunday, and the central square was the scene of a lot of musical activity…


And then there was Ouro Preto… Enjoy the following pictures of this beautiful city… This building is the Museu da inconfidência. The “inconfidência Mineira” was the movement, led by “Tiradentes” for the independence of Brazil.


Praça Tiradentes… With the statue of the Brazilian hero


One of the many beautifully decorated churches.


Another Church..


And another…


Steep cobblestone roads… And another church…


A small Artisan market, principally selling soapstone artifacts…

Day 8: Ouro Preto – Ibitipoca (+/- 250 km)

Today’s ride is going to be a breeze… only 250 km and only the last 20 km will be unpaved…
Leaving Ouro Preto, we stopped at the local artisan market, where they sell primarily artifacts in soapstone… It opens at 7.00 am, which I thought was pretty unusual … Anyways.

From Ouro Preto, we made our way up to the BR040, which is known to be a dangerous road, due to the sometimes poor condition and the heavy traffic. Once on the 040, we rode about 70 km further south to Barbacena, which was the only section of “major highway” we did during this trip…


Quick stop at one of the “Pão de Queijo” places on the BR040

In Barbacena, we had to find our way through the city to get on the MG338, leading south west for about 62 km, to Santa Rita de Ibitipoca, where the asphalt runs out. The last 20 km to Conceição de Ibitipoca was unpaved, but nothing too difficult to ride.


The small, winding MG-338, from Barbacena to Santa Rita de Ibitipoca.


In Santa Rita de Ibitipoca Evandro’s GPS and mine were not on the same page… which had already happened a few times before… This time mine was correct 


These things are very common in the rural dirt roads… they are called “Mata Burro” (Donkey Killer) and are used to keep cattle from wandering off. apparently, cows and other farm animals are afraid to cross one of these… this one was a very easy one, but sometimes the space between two beams is bigger than the width of our tires… The thing to do is to cross them diagonally… that is , if you see them in time. I don’t have to draw a picture of what would happen when your front wheel gets caught in one, right? 

We arrived in Conceição de Ibitipoca around noon, as expected, and were planning to have another afternoon hike in the park, but we heard from the local people that the park closes on Mondays… bummer.


The first restaurant we tried in Ibitipoca was closed… only opens during weekends and “Feriados” (holidays)


But we managed to find some food anyway…


After lunch, we checked in at the pousada (Canela de Ema) and since the park wasn’t open, everybody had a free afternoon…

The park was not the only thing that was closed… The mall, where they have a LAN house (internet café) wasn’t open either… I love these small, remote places, but you need to take the good with the bad… Since there is no bank in town, people need to have a “day off” to drive down to Lima Duarte (about 25 km of unpaved road) to go and do their bank stuff…

So, the only thing resembling a LAN house that I could find, was a prehistoric PC in the back room of a clothing store. The screen image disappeared every 30 seconds and the lady had told me that I had to give it a good whack to bring the image back… that seemed to work, but also some of the keys on the keyboard weren’t coming back up after pushing them… All in all an interesting internet experience.

Meanwhile, Alex and Evandro were having a good time at the pool of a hotel near our pousada, and José, our Spanish friend apparently found a few hiking trails a little outside of the town center and had a great afternoon walk…


Alex and Evandro made a few new friends here … They are called “Mico Estrela” or “Black ear tufted Marmosets” and are pretty much endemic for this part of Brazil – Basically the State of Minas Gerais.

Here too, there were not a lot of options when it came to having dinner… the only restaurant/pizzeria that was open, had very good food though…

Oh… and Ibitipoca has a marvelous sunset… Check it out

Final Day: Back to Volta Redonda…

Normally, we would ride to Rio de Janeiro on day 9, and back to Volta Redonda on day 10, but for practical reasons, our Spanish friend José decided that it would be better to ride to Volta Redonda on day 9, and take him to Rio de Janeiro with the jeep on the same day. This way he has one extra day in Rio de Janeiro before flying back to Spain…


It was a fantastic morning in Ibitipoca. Evandro and I were up very early to see the sun appear over the horizon.


The breakfast at Pousada Canela de Ema was one of the best of the entire trip, especially in combination with the location and the view you have from the dining room windows…


Getting ready for the last leg of the trip to Volta Redonda…

Leaving Conceição de Ibitipoca, we had to do a last section of unpaved road of about 25 km in order to get to the BR-267 in Lima Duarte, where we took gas…

We took the BR-267 direction west until Bom Jardim de Minas, and from there it was further south to Santa Rita de Jacutinga and Santa Isabel do Rio Preto, from where it was only about 50 more km’s to get to Volta Redonda…


Somewhere on the road between Bom Jarim de Minas and Santa Rita de Jacutinga… This region is called “As montanhas Mágicas” (The magic mountains…)


I remember this being a dirt road back in 2009… Here too, more and more roads are getting a blacktop coating…

In Volta Redonda, we had lunch and Alex and me took off to Rio de Janeiro with the jeep, to drop off José at his hotel… the hotel was in the historical center of Rio, in Cinelândia, where Obama held a speech when he last visited Brazil (at least I think the speech was PLANNED there)


Riding on the “Elevado da Perimetral” one of the busiest access roads to the center of Rio… after 9 days of relatively easy and tranquile traffic, this is a very unpleasant change of scenery 


Passing the port area, we spotted a docked submarine… I didn’t know Brazil had these… Pretty fancy chopper in the foreground too if you ask me…


After dropping off José in one of the most hectic traffic situations I have ever seen in Rio de Janeiro, Alex and me headed back to Volta Redonda… Alex would be back in a few days to see the Metallica concert…

Thus ends yet another trip through one of the most important historical regions of Brazil… Thanks for sticking with me through this long post… I hope you enjoyed reading it and get inspired to come and ride in Brazil yourself.

Safe travels.

9 days on Brazil’s Estrada Real – A mix of History, Culture and Natural Beauty (Part 1)

On day 3, we’re really getting into the heart of Minas Gerais and the Serra do Espinhaço.

Whether on sand, asphalt or gravel, motorcycle adventure is always guaranteed on the Estrada Real. Every other road offers new discoveries. The many colonial villages with their typical colorful houses and churches, but also the rugged mountain scenery and the rivers with their countless waterfalls, make up what can be called one of the most important cultural and natural heritages on the planet.

Riding a motorcycle through this unique region offers a once in a lifetime opportunity to relive (to a certain extent) the experiences of the ancient bandeirantes, drovers, officers and other travelers that once roamed these parts.

In 18th century Brazil, there was only one legal way to transport goods, gold and diamonds, but also slaves, tools and other supplies, and that was via the Estrada Real. Opening new roads was considered a crime of lese-majesty, and there were severe punishments for smugglers.

The great importance of this road gave birth to countless towns and cities, some of which, like Ouro Preto or Diamantina, are today listed as World Heritage Sites.

Setting the historical stage:

Few people are aware of the fact that about 70 percent of the gold currently in use all over the world originated in Brazil.

Ouro Preto was the financial center of Brazil during the time of the Gold cycle

For Portugal, these gold deposits were a new and welcome source of income. During the 18th century, there was a big migration (call it a gold rush) from the North east (where the sugar plantations were hit hard by the competition of the Dutch) to the heart of Minas Gerais. Existing cities (like Ouro Preto, Diamantina, Mariana, Tiradentes and São João del Rei) knew rapid growth while numerous new cities emerged.Near the end of the 17th century, the early explorers (Bandeirantes) of Portugal’s new colony discovered gold in the region that would later be called Minas Gerais.

The Portuguese crown imposed heavy taxes, and severe penalties for those who weren’t able to pay, which gave rise to revolutionary groups like the “Inconfidência Mineira” led by Brazilian hero Joaquim José da Silva Xavier (also known as Tiradentes – or toothpuller), which formed the base of the independence of Brazil in 1822.

The Trip

In September 2011, Mirantes Mototravel Brazil set out with 4 riders and a support vehicle on the +/- 2.200 km trip (“Historical Trails & Cities”) along the two parts of the Estrada Real. The trip starts in Volta Redonda, down to Paraty from where we follow the “caminho Velho” (old road) north to Diamantina, and then back south to Rio de Janeiro via the “Caminho Novo” (new road)

Day 1: Volta Redonda – Passa Quatro

Headquarters of Mirantes Mototravel in Volta Redonda – Rio de Janeiro … Ready to hit the road.

We left Volta Redonda around 8.30 am, riding south and after about 20 minutes, the city was behind us and we found ourselves riding through the rural interior of the State of Rio de Janeiro with the Serra da Bocaina in the distance. The weather provisions were very good for the coming 10 days so with no rain to be expected any time soon, we were in good shape.

Once past Rio Claro, the BR155 starts to turn and twist its way up the Serra do Mar, and after a while we found ourselves surrounded by lush forest. The recently renewed, good quality asphalt enabled us to ride at a good pace. Only the steep curves in the mountains kept the speed down.

In Angra dos Reis, we took the BR101 (Rio Santos) direction Paraty, the historical 18th century port town from where the gold and diamonds were shipped to Rio de Janeiro.

Paraty was the most important port in Brazil, until the “caminho novo” was discovered. The new road to Rio de Janeiro reduced the travel time from Diamantina to Rio de Janeiro from three months to one, and also made the trip a lot safer because the last section y to Rio over sea was no longer necessary. Lots of shipments were lost to pirates in the period prior to the discovery of the “Caminho Novo”

On the BR155 leading to Angra dos Reis – rain forest in the serra do mar

We arrived in Paraty around noon and had our first lunch of the trip in “Ristorante O Sole Mio”, the only restaurant in Paraty that is run by a real Italian Chef.

Delicious Penne a l’arrabiata in “Ristorante O sole Mio”, near the historical center in Paraty

Since we were in the dry season this time, I assumed that the road would be in reasonably good condition, but we could already see the clouds hanging over the mountain, which didn’t promise a lot of good.We didn’t have a lot of time to hang around in Paraty, because we had one of the heaviest sections of the trip ahead of us. The ascent of the Serra do Mar to get to the city of Cunha. It is a steep, rocky and usually muddy climb from sea level to over 1500 m in just over 8 km. The two times I had already passed this road, both going up and down, I dropped my bike at least once.

I was especially worried about our Spanish participant, who was almost 70, and not very tall, riding a Honda Falcon, which we already lowered about 5 cm.

The initial part of the ascent was pretty ok, but once we hit an altitude of 500m, the mist set in and visibility dropped considerably. The mist was so thick that it felt like a drizzly rain, soaking us in no time.
Luckily, the mud was not nearly as bad as I saw the other times, and everybody made it to the top in one piece. About halfway up the ascent, we met a couple in a normal car riding down. The woman was driving. She stopped and I could see that she was kind of panicking, thinking that they were lost in the middle of nowhere.

Almost crying, she asked if this road was going to Paraty and if it would eventually turn into a “normal road”… I told her that she was on the correct road and already had the worst part behind her, which seemed to calm her down a bit. The guy next to her (Boyfriend, husband…?) didn’t look too happy either.

Top of the ascent from Paraty to Cunha. Still misty, but everybody made it in one piece and without dropping the bike. (photo: Alexandre Hernandez)

We filled our tanks in Cunha and continued along the BR459 to Guaratinguetá, where we took the BR116 direction east for about 30 km to reach the access to Passa Quatro, our goal for the day.Once on the top, the road was asphalted again and we continued to Cunha, descending back to about 1000m. Much to our relief, the mist subsided and the sun came out, drying our clothes very quickly.

Passa Quatro is a little town in the Serra da Mantiqueira that like many others was founded by the bandeirantes from São Paulo as a resting point during their expeditions into the interior of Brazil.

Today, Passa Quatro is starting to discover its potential as a destination for ecotourism.The natural riches in the region (native forest, rivers, caves, waterfalls…) offer many options for people looking for an adventurous vacation. The city also has various eclectic 19th century houses (casarões) of Portuguese and French origin.

Pousada São Rafael – Passa Quatro

We stayed in Pousada São Rafael in the center of the village. It was my first stay there and I must say I was very pleased. The rooms were perfect, and there is a really nice “living room”, tastefully decorated (inclusive a guitar that I just HAD to try out. :). The pousada also has a pool, which would be great in warmer periods of the year.

The good thing about not-yet-very-touristy places like Passa Quatro, is that they are still very authentic, but the other side is that on a Monday evening in low season there are not a lot of options to find something to eat.

We were told that most of the restaurants in Passa Quatro open only during the weekends, which is understandable, and the only place that we would find open was a small pizza place called “La Motta”.

The great thing about this place was that the chef prepared all the food right in front of us.

Chef preparing our food – Restaurante La Motta – Passa Quatro (photo: Alexandre Hernandez)

All in all it was a fantastic first day of our exploration of the Estrada Real.

Day 2: Passa Quatro – Prados (+/- 280 km)

Today we are headed for Prados, a small place about 25km from Tiradentes, one of the major attractions when it comes to historical cities…

I started the day with an early walk through a still sleepy Passa Quatro, because the day before, we arrived when it was already getting dark… which wouldn’t be the last time that happened…

I noticed a strong smell of something burning in the air and was asking myself whether this was such a healthy place after all. I couldn’t pinpoint where the smell came from, so when I returned to the pousada, I asked the guy at the reception. Turns out the smell was coming from the steam locomotive that they are still using around here…

The guy told me that the “Maria Fumaça” (that’s how most of the steam locomotives are called in Brazil) needed to be fired up early in the morning to heat up the water to produce steam… Made perfect sense to me.

After breakfast we rode down to the old train station to take a few pictures before really hitting the road.


The Maria Fumaça in Passa Quatro, going about it’s daily business. It’s a great sight out of the days of yorn (hope I spelled that correctly) but the smell of the burning cole hangs over the entire village center especially when it’s misty.


After some pictures of the steam train, it was off to Caxambu

We followed the MG158 north until the end, where it merges with the BR354 which goes all the way to Caxambu.

Like most typical back roads around these parts, the roads were very twisty and the asphalt of very decent quality. The only downside of twisties like these is, when you get stuck behind a truck, and oncoming traffic makes it dangerous to pass… When I’m alone I usually floor it and pass the truck in 2 seconds, but if there are 3 other riders and a land rover following, it’s better to take the safer approach…

After only one bathroom stop we reached Caxambu, which is especially famous for its 12 water springs, each with a different and unique medicinal quality… Caxambu was one of the favorite holiday spots of the Brazilian Imperial family. Especially Princess Isabel was counting on the forces of the water to help her get pregnant. The “Parque das Aguas”, which is the largest hydromineral complex in the world, is the main attraction in Caxambu… Besides that it is a charming little city with a few churches and other 19th century buildings.


Colorful horse drawn carts in front of the waterpark.

We had to press on if we wanted to get to our lunch destination, which was Carrancas. To get there, we had some 60km of dirt road ahead of us, and we were all looking forward to see the dusty side of the Estrada Real…


And dust we got… this is truly adventure riding at its best. I must add that for me it was pretty easy, riding in front…


And of course a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do…


One of the Thousands of “totems” along the Estrada Real, indicating your approximate location


the serra da Carrancas is in sight…


The beautiful church in the center of Carrancas… You really have to be there to feel the peace and quiet of this place… The only real sound we heard there were the birds singing in the trees…

Carrancas is a very nice little rural town on the Estrada Real, principally living from agriculture, but eco tourism is growing here too… I liked the laid back athmosphere of this place a lot. 100 times better that the hectic situation in cities like Rio de Janeiro. I’m sure you could leave your wallet on top of your bike and nobody would touch it… Try that in Rio.


And then there’s the food… This is a PF (“Prato Feito”)… A full plate of food for 10R$. Meat or eggs are also included but are served separately. We all loved it


After lunch… a short nap.

We left Carrancas to the north and followed the road out of the Serra da Carrancas. After about 26 km, in Itutinga, we took a right on the BR265, direction São João del Rei and Tiradentes. Together with Ouro Preto, these two cities are probably the best known in touristic circles. They have a large patrimonium of beautifully preserved 18th century churches and other buildings.


The center of São João del Rei.. an example of preserved 18th century architecture, but very touristy.


The other side of the square…


São Francisco de Assis… The second most decorated church in Brazil. Its interior holds a treasure of sculptures of Brazilian artist Aleijadinho.


Between São João del Rei and Tiradentes: The first “Mark” (primeiro marco) of the Estrada Real…


Then it was on to Tiradentes… here my GPS kind of flipped and we lost some time driving around in circles…


Steep cobblestone roads and, here too, beautiful 18th century architecture… smaller than São João del Rei, but just as touristy.


We arrived in Prados when it was getting dark


You guessed it… another 17th century church… They all look the same, but they are not, trust me


Our place for the night… Pousada “Recanto da Guará”. Simple and pure.


there were a couple of these cabins, each with 2 rooms… Great place to wake up in. nothing but nature around and plenty space to park our wheels

PS: For day 2, I worked with more and larger pictures… Let me know what you prefer for the coming days…

Day 3: Prados – Caeté (+/- 240 km – 95 km unpaved)

Day 3 was going to be a day of dusty dirt roads. We made our entry into the heart of Minas Gerais and the “Serra do Espinhaço”, a 1000 km long mountain range that connects the mining region of Minas Gerais with the Chapada Diamantina in Bahia, which is another great place where once diamond mining was the top economical activity.

These Espinhaço (Spine) mountains are home to cities like Ouro Preto, Mariana and Diamantina, some of the most important historical cities in Brazil. The gold and diamond mines have long dried up, but these mountains are still a rich source of iron ore and manganese…

It was a chilly morning when we woke up in pousada “Recanto da Guará” in Prados. There were some clouds, keeping the sun from coming out, but the previsions said that it wouldn’t rain and so we were looking forward to another great riding day.

We started with a simple breakfast, prepared by the owner of the pousada, and after a long goodbye ceremony (the little daughter of the owner wanted to go with us) we took the road that would lead us to the BR383, which we had to follow north until it merged with the BR040.

After a few km on the 040, we took the MG-443 for about 3 km and then the fun was about to start… We entered the MG-030 and now we were back in the dirt roads.

This was a whole other kind of dirt road than the one to Carrancas. It looked like there had been some rain here, since the dirt was certainly not dry. I remembered seeing some lightning flashes the night before when we were in Prados, so probably this was where that thunderstorm had hit.


A short stop in the first part of the 95km of dirt roads of the day… here, the road is still large and used by lots of trucks…

The first 20 km or so, we encountered a lot of trucks, and that meant road works, or mining activities. The last time I was on the Estrada Real, I already had noticed that many of the dirt roads were in the process of being asphalted.

For me as a tour operator, that’s a negative thing, because I really like these dirt roads, and asphalting them takes away some of the authenticity of the Estrada Real. On the other hand I also think about the many people LIVING in these roads. For them, an asphalt road means faster and safer traffic, and not getting isolated during the rainy season… I guess you can never do good for everybody, but it would be sad to see all the dirt roads disappear.

Anyways… I don’t think they will be able to put aspalt on all the dirt roads for a while, so for now, we still have many kilometers of them and during the ride to Caeté we had to cover about 95 km of dirt and dust.


Dirt and dust indeed


What more do you need?

We passed several little places like Miguel Burnier and Amarantina, which all had this quiet, laid back feel to them. Most of the time however, it felt like we had the whole world to ourselves, and that is a pretty awesome feeling.


Still smiling


I really don’t remember what this was about… so don’t ask me…

At one point, we were at the summit of a mountain at +/- 1750m and the view there was something else. We took some pictures and fooled around for a while.


Sometimes we need to take time for some deep self reflexion…


Or to drink something… water of course… Where would we be without water?


Or to ruin a picture of a perfect landscape, by putting a few dirty bikes in front of it


Or only one bike…


If you think riding a motorcycle through here is hard, try building a bridge like that one…

José and me wandered off a little and we noticed this strange phenomenon. Part of the hillside was covered with these beautiful pinkish flowers that were not to be seen anywhere else around there.


The pink flowers were only on that patch of the hillside… There were no flowers like that anywhere else in sight, which I thought was kind of odd

Getting closer, it looked like the hillside had been burnt, and the flowers were growing on the burnt stomps of the brush that was growing there before. I took a closer look, but given the fact that I am far from being a biologist, it was very hard for me to see if the flowers were the actual flowers of the original plant, or parasites. I would really like to find out. If someone reading this has an idea, please let me know.


Anybody know these plants? Looks like the flowers emerged from the stomp of the burnt brush, but it can also be some kind of parasite… 

From there, the road started going down and, as we noticed, getting smaller and bumpier and harder to ride.

The dust, that up to now was pretty… well… normal, became finer and was in some places like a layer of almost liquid talcum-powder, making it very challenging to stay on two wheels sometimes, especially going downhill in steep curves.

Riding through this “talcum”, even at low speeds created an explosion of dust, which is a real PIA for the guy behind you, because he will have zero visibility for a while…

As we are all (ahum) expert riders, we managed to make it in one piece to Caeté around 3pm, just in time to grab a bite to eat in the only “kilo” restaurant in the center.


Our group riding into Caeté… finally…


Well, looks like Alex is happy…


Look mommy… no hands.


Look mommy… nobody

Alex and me went out to look for a place to stay and found a pousada (Adega Estoril) a little outside the center, where we could rest our weary bones for the night…

Day 4: Caeté to Diamantina… (345 km – all paved)

Yesterday it was a dustbath for most of us (the guide – me – who rides in the front doesn’t have that problem  ) and today will be the first “all asphalt” day of the trip…

We left Caeté after an early breakfast. the air was humid and there was a light drizzle, but we knew that there was no real rain forecast so it didn’t really bother us.

We took the MG-435 out of Caeté, riding north to connect with the BR-381, where we took a right, going east. After another 30 km, we turned left and took the MG-434 to Itabira.
From there it was on to Guanhães and Serro, where we stopped for lunch…


After getting out of Itabira, we stopped at this Lanchonete to have a quick bite and a “Caldo de Cana”

By the time we reached Serro, we had already done about 250 km, so we could take our time to have lunch… which we did.


Main street of Serro… Notice the chuch on top of the hill to the left.


Lunch in the historical center of Serro… At one point the wind blew a bunch of mannequin dolls (right side) to the ground. After lunch I took off without my backpack…

Serro is a city about 30 km south of Diamantina, founded in 1701. Once the administrative and juridical center of the region, today, the people of Serro make their living with cattle farming and production of the famous Serro cheese. The city is also starting to explore its potential for cultural and eco tourism. Lovers of the Brazilian 18th and 19th century architecture will find the historical center a nice place to explore. Various churches, chapels and houses that once belonged to noblemen make up a rich patrimony.

The last 90 km to Diamantina were “tranquilo” as well, and we arrived around 4pm. Well in time to freshen up and get ready to go out for dinner…


Almost military discipline… exact same distance between two riders


Headng for Diamantina…


The landscape in the Diamantinais area is very different than for example in the serras of Rio de Janeuro state. The terrain is a lot more rugged here


Our entrance in the city of Diamantina…


Pousada Castelinho… Our home for the coming two days.


And this is how we look in casual clothes. My friend Renata (on the left), who lives in Diamantina was so kind to show us around and take us to a great restaurant near the cathedral (Deguste dressing)

Bananal: São Paulo’s most influential 19th Century City

Bem vindo em Bananal – Welcome to Bananal

Bananal started In 1783, when a small chapel was erected in the rough lands along the Bananal River in the old Captaincy of São Paulo. It became one of the richest and most influential cities of the region during the 19th century “coffee cycle”.

The valley of the Paraíba River has always been one of the main travel routes in Colonial Brazil, for the transport of gold and diamonds from the mines in Minas Gerais to the port town of Paraty, from where everything was shipped to Rio de Janeiro and further to Portugal. Towards the end of the 17th century, small villages emerged all along this gold and diamond route, providing lodging for travelers and drovers.

In 1708, a new route, that connected the mines in Minas Gerais directly to Rio de Janeiro, was opened. This new road (known as “caminho novo”) was not only less precarious, but also reduced the travel time to Rio de Janeiro from three months, to only one month. Because of the opening of this new road, the small villages in the Paraíba Valley lost their reason of existence and almost disappeared, but thanks to the cattle trade, coming from Rio Grande do Sul, to supply the mining region, the valley again became an obligatory passage.

In 1770, the road connecting Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo was completed, and to populate the region along this road, Sesmarias (grants) were given to people who were engaged in the construction of the road. This is how a man called Joao Barbosa Camargo and his wife, became the owners of the Sesmaria of the Bananal River, and the city of Bananal was born.

One of Bnanal’s most important townhouses – former city getaway of one of the rich 19th century Coffee Barons

During the first decades, the agricultural activity in the region was predominantly subsistence farming (Growth of crops only for consumption by the farm family), but the situation started to change with the arrival of the coffee culture, with its much bigger farms, fuelled by slave labor.The name Bananal is believed to be derived from the indigenous word “Banani” which means “with lots of curves” referring to how the Bananal River makes its way across the landscape. Another explanation of the name refers to the many banana plantations that existed in the region.

The profits from the coffee trade were used to buy more slaves and expand the farms up to the point that the fazenda homes had become large estates surrounded by workshops, senzala’s (slave quarters) and a coffee terrace (large open space to dry the coffee).

Around 1840, Bananal had become the second largest coffee producer in the province of São Paulo and a lot of the richest farmers of the Paraíba valley were concentrated in the region around the city. These farmers began to refine their way of life and the fazenda’s main houses were transformed into palaces, decorated with imported furniture and frescoes of European painters on the walls. They also started to use slaves in domestic service.

one of the top attractions in Bananal: the metal train station, imported from Belgium as a sort of building package, which was very revolutionary in that time.

The “coffee barons” of Bananal formed the elite of the Empire, and with their money deposited in banks in London, they extended loans to the emperor to finance the war in Paraguay. They also financed the construction of a railway that passed through most of the fazendas and went all the way to Barra Mansa in the Province of Rio de Janeiro.Since 1822, Brazil was no longer a colony of Portugal, and the influence of the presence of the emperor in Rio de Janeiro made that the farmers, who were also given noble titles, started to adopt the way of life of the French court. They erected luxurious houses in the city to spend time during festivities or between harvests. At one point, Bananal even had two orchestras, consisting of slaves, specialized in European opera music.

For some time, the city had its own currency, and one of the most powerful landowners in the city, Vallim Manoel de Aguiar, had when he died in 1878, only in public debt bonds, almost 1% of all paper money issued in Brazil.

But the prosperity based on the “green gold” didn’t last very long. Towards the end of the 19th century, the land began to show signs of exhaustion and the opening of another railway (Santos-Jundiaí) facilitated the flow of products from further inland to the coast, allowing the expansion of coffee plantations in western Sao Paulo.

This is said to be one of the most beautiful architectural “ensembles” of Bananal, consisting of three early 19th century townhouses, facing Pedro Ramos square

In the 1950’s, the region suffered yet another setback: the construction of the “Via Dutra” highway from Sao Paulo to Rio de Janeiro. This new highway replaced and deactivated the old “Estrada dos tropeiros” passing through Bananal, Arreias, Silveiras and São José do Barreiro, which became almost like ghost towns. (According to the writer Monteiro Lobato, who lived in Areias and witnessed the decline of the region)The final blow came with the abolition of slavery in 1888. The children of the landowners could not keep the wealth inherited from their parents and pastures for cattle took the place of coffee. The power, influence and wealth of the families of Bananal and the rest of the valley, was forever lost and all that remains are memories of this glorious period.

Today, Bananal is becoming more and more a touristic hotspot, attracting tourists from all over the world, not only to learn about its history, whose testimonies are the beautiful townhouses in the city and the many preserved and restored coffee farms in the region, but also to enjoy the natural beauty of the Serra da Bocaina (Bocaina mountains), holding the largest Atlantic rainforest reserve of Brazil.

Happy as a pig in shit – Serra da Mantiqueira Motorcycle Weekend

Our international trio: Robert (Dutch) – George (brazilian) – Osman (British/Turkish)

In June 2011, we went on a weekend motorcycle trip through the Serra da Mantiqueira, with its endless dirt roads, gorgeous landscapes, waterfalls, rivers and small rural villages.On the second day we crossed the “Vale Histórico do São Paulo“, also known as the “Estrada dos Tropeiros” one of the historically most important regions of Brazil during the Coffee era. It was along this route that the first emperor of Brazil (Dom Pedro I)  traveled from Rio de Janeiro to São Paulo to declare the independence of Brazil in 1822.

Our small, yet international group (Turkish, Dutch, Brazilian) took off around 8.30 on Saturday morning and the weather channel promised sunny and dry weather the whole weekend…

Main square in Santa Rita de Jacutinga with the Igreja Matriz.

Our next goal was Passa Vinte, another little village situated at the confluence between the states of Minas Gerais and Rio, where the Mantiqueira mountains form a valley that looks like the concave shell of a large oyster. the initial inhabitants of Passa Vinte gave the place the name “Cedro” (cedar) due to the large amount of these trees in the region.We rode north out of Volta Redonda and shortly after leaving the city, we were on the RJ153 that winds through a hilly landscape towards Nossa Senhora do Amparo, one of the first small villages we would pass along the way. From Amparo, we continued north on the RJ153 and crossed the state border with Minas Gerais, to arrive in Santa Rita de Jacutinga, where we stopped briefly to admire the Igreja Matriz.

We quickly passed Passa Vinte to push on to Fumaça, home to the famous “Cachoeira da Fumaça” a cascading waterfall of approximately 1,5 km long, that we  couldn’t pass by without stopping to take a few pictures.

On route to Fumaça, we had to cross this shallow stream. Maryel is following in the Land Rover with the luggage and in case any of the bikes would have a problem.

Osman had clearly done this before.

At the cachoeira da Fumaça, we rested for a while, shot a few pictures and removed a few layers of clothing because by then the sun was starting to heat up things. From there, the road became more rugged as we commenced a long climb, following the Rio Preto, which forms the border between Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais states, to arrive in Bocaina de Minas around 14.00h. We decided to have lunch in a typical “mineiro” restaurant, where you take your plate into the kitchen, where all the food is on the stove and load up all you can eat for about 10 R$ (5 USD) per person – inclusive drinks.

The Fumaça waterfall. One of the longest cascading waterfalls in Brazil.

A simple but tasty lunch at the restaurant of João Grandão. Typical Mineiro food and all you can eat for about 10 R$ per person.

After lunch, we had another 60 km of Dirt roads ahead, with a few more technical stretches, but our group seemed to have the necessary experience to pull it off.

Lying ahead: the Mantiqueira mountains which we would have to cross to get to Itamonte. We climbed to about 1.750m

We spent the night at Pousada Riberão do Ouro, a rural pousada located about 5 km south of Itamonte. For 100R$ per person Single room) or 136R$ (double room) for a shared room we enjoyed great hospitality in a pleasant setting. The pousada has a swimming pool, a children’s playground, a fishing pond and a restaurant serving typical cuisine of Minas Gerais.We reached Itamonte, our place for the night around 17.00h, just before it would start to get dark. Probably the only thing I miss about Europe, are the long days in the summer. Here in South east Brazil, in the wintertime it is dark by 18.00h, but in summertime it also gets dark pretty early, around 20.00h.


This is one of the more rugged roads leading through the serra da Mantiqueira, Some off road experience comes in handy here…

The next morning, after a delightful breakfast, we started the second day of our trip. After the many kilometers of dirt roads of the day before, today would be a day with more asphalt roads, starting with the 50 km descent out of the Mantiqueira mountains, from Itamonte to Engenheiro Passos,where we would take the Dutra highway for about 10 km, take the exit in Queluzand from there push on to Silveiras, the first of the historical cities of the Vale Histórico.

Our place for the night: Pousada Riberão do Ouro just outside Itamonte. an oasis of peace and tranquility in an open green setting.

The descent from Itamonte to the Dutra highway is almost 50 km of twisties, winding through the fabulous Mantiqueira landscape, littered with spectacular views of the Itatiaia park region. The quality of the asphalt starts out to be excellent when leaving Itamonte, which is tempting to open the gas a little more, but once across the São Paulo border, the road quality decreases significantly and we had to keep the speed down to avoid accidents.

We made it to the Dutra highway, then to Queluz and started our next leg to Silveiras which would take us through a stretch of dirt road that I had never taken before, but since it was indicated on my GPS, I figured it would be ok. Turned out that this road, after a few kilometers, became a private road and so we started  following another road that seemed to go in the direction of Silveiras, but was not on my GPS. At one point we came at a T-section and took a right turn. After a few kilometers, we encountered a local man and I asked for directions. Apparently, this road would eventually become too bad for the bikes and even for the Land Rover, and according to him, we should have gone to the left at the T-section. We backtracked the short distance and eventually got on the right road, which connected to the Estrada dos Tropeiros, and we arrived in Silveiras.

Silveiras is the place where the headquarters of the National Foundation of Tropeiros was established. The tropeiros were the people who traveled long distances with a pack of mules to transport goods from one big city to another. Usually from Rio to São Paulo or vice versa. Tropeiros also used to transport gold and diamonds from the interior of Minas Gerais to the coast.

Silveiras: First city of the Estrada dos Tropeiros and Headquarters of the National Foundation of Tropeiros. The fountain (Chafariz) at the central square was the place where all the citizens came to get their water.

In Silveiras, a local guy who introduced himself as Toninho came up to us and started telling us about the horseback tours that he organises. They go with a group of people on horseback, traveling through the region the way the ancient Tropeiros used to do. Seems to me like a great way to spend a few days.

A short stop in Areias, once one of the richest cities of the state of São Paulo

Our support vehicle: “Big Blue”

We had a drink in Areias and decided that we would not stay on the Estrada dos Tropeiros, but take another route that would lead us back north to the Serra da Mantiqueira and the dirt roads. I found a dirt road leading to Resende, from where we could get to Penedo and from there further on in the direction of Visconde de Maua.After taking in the atmosphere in Silveiras, we moved on to Areias. The cities here are all located around 25 km from each other. This is the distance a tropa could generally travel in one day. Areias was once one of the richest cities of São Paulo state, thanks to the coffee industry that was flourishing here. It was also the preferred weekend getaway for the coffee barons of the region.

We pushed on to São José do Barreiro, which is the place from where you can get access to the Bocaina National Park, and found the entrance to the dirt road to Resende about 14 km further. It was the first time I took this road and was pleasantly surprised with its condition. We took Gas in Penedo and started the climb towards Visconde de Maua. Halfway to Visconde de Maua, we turned right to get to Pedra Selada, from where we went on to Fumaça. The last leg of the trip took us to FalcãoQuatisAmparo and finally Volta Redonda.

More dirt roads to Pedra Selada.

And the road to Fumaça

After almost 500 km of motorcycling, we needed a suitable closing of the weekend, so after everybody had the chance to clean up and have a snack, we gathered at the International Karting track of Volta Redonda. where we gave in to our need for speed for one last time. Osman gave everything he had and turned out to be the fastest one of us.

Ready to take of on the Karting Track

Osman finished first, but we are all winners here… FLTR: Robert, me, Osman, Maryel and George.

Osman, George and Robert, thank you for a fantastic weekend. You guys are welcome to come back any time.