I feel sad that the majority of tourists in Brazil will never know the magical beauty that is Ouro Preto. Most travelers, especially those with woefully short vacations, will pop into Brazil for one week, see Rio de Janeiro and maybe Iguazu Falls, before hopping a plane home. And listen, I get it. You have a short break and it’s the best you can do. However, I beg of you: If you have at least 10 days in Brazil, put Ouro Preto on your list. You will not be disappointed.
Located in the Serra do Espinhaco mountains, the city’s steep hills put San Francisco to shame. Cobblestoned, quaint and crammed with Baroque architecture, Ouro Preto is teeming with churches and charm. As a former Portuguese colonial mining town, its name means “Black Gold,” and it was at the crossroads of the Brazilian Gold Rush, which you can see evidence of inside many churches. In the mid-1700s, the population of Ouro Preto was DOUBLE that of New York city!
Having lived in Brazil for a few years already, I have learned to manage my expectations when it comes to tourist locations, as there usually seems to be a lot of opinions about places that are usually not based on facts or personal experience. Rumor travels far and wide here! However, we were pleasantly surprised by how beautiful and affordable it was.
We stayed in a newly-built hostel, Jose e Maria Hostel e Bar. As with most lodging in Ouro Preto, Jose e Maria is housed in an older structure, which means lots of strange angles and bizarre nooks and crannies. Since Ouro Preto is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, most buildings can’t be altered, and thus, must work around existing oddities. Still, the hostel is cute and comfy, with mostly good wifi and a fabulous covered terrace where you can enjoy a stunning view while eating breakfast or just waiting out some rain.
Two days are enough to see the highlights, but you could easily spend four days here. If you see just one church, make it Church of Sao Francisco de Assis, although you really should try to pop into a few more. If you like to shop for hand-made crafts, leave at least 30 minutes for the Craft Market nearby, where artisans are chipping away and painting soap stone to create decorative boxes, vases, and other knick knacks. However, Ouro Preto’s best feature is the town itself and wandering around the perpendicular, twisty streets reveals hidden cafes, ornate door frames and little shops.
The food is pretty tasty and affordable here as well, which is different from most tourist towns in Brazil, where average rice, beans and pizza are on all the menus at ridiculous prices. We ate at two different buffet joints serving Tipico Minerio cuisine, which is food from the state of Minas Gerais. We celebrated our anniversary at O Passo, a funky yet classy restaurant that has several rooms decorated in completely different styles, a lovely terrace with an even lovelier view, and delicious Italian-style pizza and nice wine. It was a pricier than our other meals, but not obnoxiously so.
Our third day we spent on the historic train to Mariana. I’m not into trains, per se, but even I loved the old-timey feel as we chugged through lush mountains and past roaring waterfalls. Sadly, the two biggest attractions in town – two churches – were closed for renovation. A visit to the adjoining religious jewels and artifacts museum didn’t disappoint, but other than that, Mariana didn’t surpass Ouro Preto in charming cuteness. Still, we didn’t find the trip a waste because of the scenic train ride, so if nothing else, take the train for the views.
HOW TO GET THERE:
Ouro Preto is in the state of Minas Gerais. The easiest way to get there from Sao Paulo or Rio de Janerio is by quick flight to Belo Horizonte, followed by a one hour bus ride. I know it sounds like a schlep, but so goes it in South America. Flights during low-season can be as low as US$50 roundtrip, and the bus is about US$15 one-way.
(We drove there from Uberaba, which is located 350 miles west of Ouro Preto. You can read more about our road trip my motorcycle here.)
Our hostel, Jose e Maria Hostel e Bar, was US$110 TOTAL for 3 nights (2 people), with a shared bathroom, including breakfast. It was excellently located one block from the city center. (Be aware that it’s common for some Brazilian hotels and most restaurants to not have a website; Facebook is more common here.) Ouro Preto has a wide variety of low-to-high-end lodging choices, and the closer you stay to the center, the happier you will be.
Meals ran about US$15 TOTAL for 2 people (not including our anniversary dinner.)
Most museums and churches were approximately US$3.00 – 5.00.
The train to Mariana was US$ 35 roundtrip