The road to Everywhere takes us away from the coast, into the state of Minas Gerais. This state presents us with a myriad of experiences as we visit a couple of colonial gems. We also check off place 63 of 92, Diamantina.
Thursday, July 26th (cont.)
With Rio in our mirrors, we began heading away from the coast. North we go!
The goal for the day was to reach the classically colonial city of Ouro Preto.
The roads were more fun than anticipated. They wound along the sides of a valley as we headed inland. For awhile I was on one of the most “divided” highways I’ve ever seen. The southbound lanes were miles away, on the other side of the valley.
Before long we crossed out of the state of Rio de Janiero and entered into the rocky terrain of Minas Gerais (“General Mines” is probably about the best English translation).
This state is quite large in scale, almost as large as Texas and about four times the size of Nebraska. (Have I mentioned that South America is huge recently?) Historically, this region is known for the wealth of mineral deposits hidden in its stony hills.
Minas Gerais is also known for its cultural richness and diversity. A vast overgeneralazation about the culture of Brazil might read as follows: The South is mostly European influence, the North is mostly African influence and the Interior is mostly Indigenous influnce. Minas Gerais is the epicenter where these cultures collide most vibrantly. This state is sometimes called “Deep Brazil”, as it is a microcosm of the country as a whole.
Sounds like a great place to visit, right? The true icing on our cake is that Minas Gerais is also home to our next song place, number 63 of 92: Diamantina.
First up was Ouro Preto (“Black Gold”). Multiple Brazilians had recommend that I visit this city on my way up to Diamantina. I knew right away that I was going to like it, despite the roads that hadn’t been repaved since the 18th century.
I arrived close to dusk, with no real lodging plan. Though I was scrambling to find a home for Annie and myself, a photo jumped up that was too good to miss.
After a couple of failures, we eventually found a home at Buena Vista Hostel. The staff didn’t speak much English, so it was a good workout for my Portuguese. I had a room to myself with 14 beds (low season, I guess).
They even decorated in anticipation of my arrival.
They charged a little extra for parking, so total damages were about $15/night (breakfast included). The internet was really fast, so I spent the evening getting lots of work accomplished.
Friday, July 27th
After breakfast I was off to see the city. To get a better sense of perspective, I hiked up to an overlook spot on the north side of town.
By the time I reached the top, I was exhausted. This town was perhaps the steepest I had seen since I was in Guanajuato, Mexico (THIS POST). Coincidentally, that place was a gold boom town as well.
“Steepness” is something that is very difficult to photograph, but I did my best.
Ouro Preto is a classic colonial gold rush town. Over 800 tons of gold was shipped to Portugal from the surrounding hills. I did the math. That’s about $28 billion in today’s value. At the height of the boom, there were more than twice as many people living here than in New York City.
One of the main attractions of Ouro Preto are the churches. There are 23 of them in this community. Indeed, it is difficult to take a picture of one of them without another one “photo bombing” in the background.
First church up was Nossa Senhora do Carmo:
The most famous church is probably the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi. It was designed by legendary Brazilian architecht, Aleijadinho.
It features a famous painting of Mary with mixed-race features. Wait…the Bible isn’t all white people?
(I should start carrying a hammer around….)
The final church that I wanted to see was on the far end of town. It was a long, uphill climb to Igreja Matriz de Santa Efigenia, the church of the slaves.
An unfortunate part of Ouro Preto’s history that must be acknowledged, is that this beautiful city was built almost entirely by slave labor. At one point, almost 2/3 of the population were slaves. But even though they were the ones to construct these beautiful churches, they were not allowed inside.
But that didn’t stop them.
As the story goes, the slaves that worked in the mines would smuggle out gold dust in their hair and beneath their fingernails, then they would go “wash up” to consolidate their day’s haul. Eventually, this dust added up enough for them to build their own church.
I’d say that they did alright.
I’m sure that there was a lot more to see, but I returned to my hostel to escape the afternoon heat.
I got pretty sucked into my work and ended up not venturing out again. Ouro Preto was a great appetizer, but my main course in Minas Gerais was going to be Diamantina.
Saturday, July 28th
I had a nice hostel breakfast and left my name on the wall.
I managed to roll out of town without falling on the steep bumpy roads. That actually felt like a substantial accomplishment.
There is a lot to see in Minas Gerais, but I was focused on my next song place. I decided to pass right through Belo Horizonte, the capital city.
Between Ouro Preto and Belo Horizonte there were tons of groups of bikers. As it was Saturday morning, I imagine this is a popular day trip for those that live in BH. There was a stretch where I probably saw more 1,000+ cc bikes in five minutes than I saw in four months between Mexico and Chile.
The riding was great this day.
It’s always a special moment when I see the first sign for one of the song places. This one was especially welcome.
Diamantina (diamante means diamond in Portuguese) is one of the most “exclusive” song places, at least for North Americans. There are a couple of places by this name in Brazil and (maybe) one in Bolivia. It is one of the places that verifies that the song definitely contains locales in South America (Barranquilla and Tocopilla are two other good examples).
It is also one of the places that I was pronouncing most inaccurately. In Portuguese it is pronounced like: DJEE-muhn-CHEE-nuh. My pronunciation had already been corrected by the time I reached Foz do Iguaçu. 🙂
But Diamantina is not that obscure of a place. It has rich history, Baroque architecture and is a UNESCO world heritage site. Even if it were not in my song, it would have been well worth visiting.
The surrounding countryside is pretty rough. There’s very little agriculture. It’s mostly rocky hills and scrub-land.
As I reached the edge of town, my face was creased with a perma-smile. I was so happy to have reached this place. It seemed like everyone else I saw was smiling too. I think I counted ten smiles in a row before I saw someone staring at Annie and me with a look of pure confusion. 🙂
My hostel in Diamantina was the aptly-named Diamantina Hostel. It was $13.50/night and had a nice view from the balcony….
…and safe parking for Annie. Apparently in Diamantina they just leave huge, shiny crystals lying around:
I made in instant friend with the guy working the desk, Renato. He thought my trip was pretty neat.
Even as I peeled my off my riding clothes in my room, I could hear him, outside of the window, reciting my statistics to others (70,000 kilometers, 13 months). He introduced me to one lady by telling her my stats then proudly adding, “…and he speaks Portuguese!” (It’s still not good, but it’s getting better.)
But Renato was not the only friend I would make this evening. Only an hour or so after I arrived, he excitedly came to my room and told me that there was another American here. It is a real rarity to meet other Americans, except at the most popular tourist destinations. (Think: Machu Picchu, Foz do Iguaçu, Rio….)
My new friend Lauren is originally from California, but it is probably easier for her to just say that she is from “Earth.” She has traveled and lived in lots of places and had hitch-hiked her way into Diamantina.
As we swapped stories, someone asked, “Are you guys Americans?” This question was posed by the group whom I will refer to henceforth as my Minafamilia. It’s a bit hard to explain how they were connected. Their family is originally from Minas Gerais but half of them live in New Hampshire. Tatiana and Rafael, the siblings with whom I spent the most time, were raised in the US. They really epitomize the term “dual citizen” as they were fully American and fully Brazilian.
Just to put some faces with names, here’s a picture of most of the group from the next day:
In addition to having lots of new friends, we also had something to do tonight. I had just happened to arrive on the night of a big music festival in the historic center of town. ….all together now:
We met up in the evening to head out. Lauren, Tatiana, Rafael and I walked down the steep, bumpy cobblestones; passing one of the most recognizable sights of Diamantina.
Don’t worry, you’ll see it again.
As we walked, Rafael told me a lot more about the history of Diamantina and Minas Gerais. It was great to hear it from him, as he really has a deep love for Brazil.
We reached the old center of town and met up with the rest of the Minafamilia. The crowd was already buzzing and packed into the central square.
Suddenly, a marching band appeared:
(You always have to be ready for anything in Brazil.)
They played for awhile on the ground before dispersing and entering the buildings around the square. The concert continued from the second floor windows that surrounded the crowd. It was such a neat experience!
I was also impressed with how well the band stayed in time with each other. Playing so spread out is a tough task.
Afterwards we went out to an Italian restaurant. We had so many great conversations that shifted back and forth between English and Portuguese. Tatiana actually works as a translator between these languages, so she was able to help me understand some of the more confusing concepts.
6 out of 7 faces? I call that a win. 🙂
This was such a great evening. There have been few song places where my stay has begun so enjoyably.
Sunday, July 29th
Our group headed downtown again. This time we stopped at the museum that was housed in the Gloria House, the building with the covered footbridge.
Joy of joys, we actually got to walk through it!
I’m not sure why this made me so happy.
We spent a little more time exploring together before my Minafamilia had to depart. It was such a pleasure to meet them. Like so many Brazilians before them, they made me feel so welcome.
Lauren and I wandered around a bit longer before returning to the hostel.
I spent most of the rest of the day getting some work done.
Monday, July 30th
I was in a bit of a conundrum. I felt like I had experienced Diamantina well, but still felt there was more to do. I wanted to visit some of the various museums in town, but they were closed for the day. Lucky for me, there’s a beautiful State Park connected to the north side of town called Biribiri. This was the perfect day to go.
The waterfalls in this park are really picturesque. First up was Cachoeira Sentinela
Even though these places weren’t very busy, I still made lots of new friends. I experienced a phenomenon that I’ve experienced a few times. I would like to call this peculiarity “The Brazilian Chain Conversation.”
This process begins with talking to one Brazilian. But when the next Brazilian shows up, the first one excitedly tells them about what I am doing and they join in the conversation. In this way, a single conversation may involve any number of Brazilians, cycled through progressively. Indeed, this phenomenon may be one of the prime examples of Brazilian friendliness. 🙂
The second waterfall was Cachoeira dos Cristais.
The water here was really cold, but I had to jump in, right?
I had about ten minutes where I was the only one there. It was a such a tranquil time.
As I was leaving, I met a couple who had hiked back up the trail just to meet me. They were fellow bikers and had been intrigued with my rolling monstrosity (sorry, Annie) in the parking area.
It was getting late in the day, but I decided to continue down the road.
At the end of the road is an old, abandoned town called Biribiri. It has been converted to be a tourist attraction and was well maintained. Each of the buildings were painted in the same blue/white motif.
I wanted to grab a bite in one of the restaurants there, but I was too short on sunlight. I decided to bounce back over the rough road before I was out of daylight.
Tuesday, July 31st
Since I was still lacking my quintessential Diamantina picture, I was up at sunrise.
Renato opened the gate for me and I headed down the bumpy cobblestones to the Gloria house. I thought that sunrise would produce an interesting backlight and give me less traffic to work around.
That’ll work! I also tried a new technique to take some “rolling selfies.”
I did a little more work to Annie. This time it was a front brake pad replacement.
It is not necessary to remove the front wheel to do this, but I wanted to do an inspection of the bearings too. The pads I was replacing were ones that I bought for $5 in Queretaro, Mexico, with the help of my friend, Enrique.
I don’t know what they are made of, but they still didn’t show too much wear.
I walked back to the centro to visit some museums and take some more pictures. This city is so photogenic.
Below was one of my favorite items at the museum. It is a music box that uses organ pipes. I’ve never seen anything like it before:
I had a splurge meal (still only about $9) at a local place. Feijoada is the classic Brazilian bean-based dish.
Wednesday, August 1st
Time to go. 😦
I asked Renato if he’d do the honor of striking Diamantina from my sign.
I gave him one of my old brake pads as a keepsake.
All in all, we communicated really well. But when he really needed to make sure I understood something, he used Google.
The universal sign for “call me if you need anything.”
Just one picture was still lacking: One with a Diamantina sign. There were a few options on the edge of town.
Hmmmm….it’s a little sideways, isn’t it?
One more for good measure:
Oh boy, this was a long post. How do I even sum this up? Once again, this random song led me to a place that was absolutely spectacular. I don’t know if I ever would have visited here on my own volition. I left this place with new friends, new experiences and waaaay too many new photos. Thank you, Diamantina.
Stay composed of carbon, everybody!
Realtime update: I’m still savoring Salvador. I want to feel really ready before I leave this place. I have a long ride ahead of me. Thank you to all of you who stick with these posts all the way to the realtime update! As always, it’s an honor to have you joining me on my journey.