Through our open windows we could hear the chirping of the Maritaca parrots over the rattling of cars on the cobblestone streets. The summer rain pelting off the tiled roofs, the clanging of church bells and the chatter of university students out carousing added to the ambient noise of the town. Ouro Preto, the Brasilian gold rush town, is a perfectly preserved version of its former glory. It had to be thanks to the UNESCO world heritage status it received in 1980. From our hotel room in the historical centre of town, I can tell you the city is pretty but it’s definitely not quiet.
Ouro Preto (which means black gold) was at the epicentre of the Brasilian gold rush. Founded in 1696, Ouro Preto is the oldest town in the state of Minas Gerais. The areas gold is a distinctive darker colour thanks to the deposits of palladium and iron ore in the area.
In the 17th century, the Portuguese considered Brasil a somewhat hellish place. They stuck to settling the coasts and imported slaves from Africa. These slaves though tended to run away (usually into the forested interior of the country). The interior had any number of dangers – wild animals, disease and indigenous tribes of cannibals.
Slave hunters (bandeirantes) were dispatched to retrieve escaped slaves. When the slave hunters got to Ouro Preto though they discovered gold. This gold, much more profitable than slave hunting, was plentiful and easily accessible. Pretty soon Ouro Preto became a Brasilian gold rush town.
People would show up, pitch their camp and start digging. The town grew haphazardly because people were just out for gold. No thought of town planning came into play. The houses were mainly in the valley because the gold would be brought downstream by the water.
The capital at the time may have been Rio de Janeiro but the money came from Ouro Preto. The Portuguese King when he fled Napoleon in the 19th century settled in Rio. The King made a point of visiting Ouro Preto though. He had been escorted to Brasil under the protection of the British Navy. Britain was paid for their troubles with Ouro Preto gold. In fact, Ouro Preto gold paid for a lot of the Portuguese crowns debts.
To this day every April 21st, Ouro Preto gets to be the capitol of Brasil for a day.
Always religious, the Portuguese built chapels and churches to thank God for their luck. Ouro Preto has 13 churches and 8 chapels. Hence, one of the prevalent sounds in town are church bells. I was told that the people of Minas Gerais are still more religious than the rest of Brasil.
All those churches and chapels needed to be decorated. No minimalist Protestantism for the Portuguese!
This work brought in master craftsman and artists to the town. They painted, carved and spackled gold leaf like nobody’s business. The Portuguese traded with the Spaniatds for silver because Brasil doesn’t have silver resources of its own. They traded 2 kilos of gold for 1 kilo of silver!!!
The old town is perfectly preserved. The newer buildings are hidden out of site to maintain the 19th century ambience.
We found a lot of Volkswagon Beetles in town. They are cheap (about US $1000), sturdy and easy to fix. There are plenty of spare parts available. Even though the cobblestones are pretty, they are tough on cars. I thought the VW bugs fit in perfectly with the town’s old-fashioned charm.
You can see how steep these hills are. Walking through the town is actually pretty good exercise especially in the heat!!
The pretty colours of the buildings are set by the authorities to reflect period colours. I guess they don’t want a yellow and green Brasilian flag house!
The town is also home to a university with the distinction of having the first engineering school in the Americas. (After the initial easy pickings, the Portuguese used slaves to mine for gold). All that money brought culture too. Ouro Preto has the oldest opera house in the Americas too. It’s beautifully maintained and still in use today.