After my amazing Chapada Diamantina experience it was time to head further down south. I had heard many positive things about Ouro Preto (Black Gold) not only from travelers but also from the Guide Books.
I left Lencois on the night bus to Feira de Santana, the main cross roads in that area to other parts of Brazil, to change over to the bus for Ouro Preto via Belo Horizonte. Having not planned ahead, I was told the only bus to Belo Horizonte was not until 8:30 the next morning so I was forced to stay in Feira de Santana for the night. After about an hour milling around in the bus station I thought 12 hours more might be stretching my patience so I took a wander outside and spotted some really dodgy half broken hotel signs. I opted to start at the closest one, literally across the road from the Rodoviaria (bus terminal), I asked to see one of the rooms and at 25 Reais I thought Hotel Brasil was a bargain – considering I had paid roughly 30 Reais per night to share a dorm. It was really nice and clean. Had a hot shower, a TV and they even included a towel and a soap. Bonus!
So the next morning I was at the bus terminal bright and sparkley eyed with ticket in hand. I boarded the ConTijo and it was a nice bus with great wide seats. It was supposed to be a 10 hour bus ride with stops every 2 hours or so. We passed some small towns with run down houses and at regular intervals there were dead animals along the bad roads. At around 16:30 we arrived in Vitoria Conquista, the first proper city since Feirra Santana, a typical non-touristy Brasilian city, enough time to grab some supplies and a toilet break and stretch my legs. I tried to get some sleep but there was not much chance of that since the roads were too bumpy and the journey was during the day so didn’t feel like sleeping much anyway. the countryside got noticeably greener and lusher as we headed further down south with some stunning scenery among the rolling hills.
Arriving after 28 hours on the bus from Salvador to Belo Horizonte then taking a small bus up the mountains outside Belo Horizonte to Ouro Preto, a small mining village that only closed its gold mine in 1986. I was pretty exhausted, sitting next to kids poking you in the back doesn’t help sleep. it was about 11 when I arrived in Ouro Preto and I didn’t have a hostel lined up so I went along with the suggestion of the local info centre and went to the IYH Bruma just down the road. I managed to haggle the price down by 5 Reais to 30 per night for two nights. After I paid and checked into my dorm I got talking to a french guy and a portuguese guy and they said Ouro Preto was a nice place but didn’t seem too keen.
The weather had turned gradually darker and cloudier and not too long after I had some food it started raining, really hard. My first impressions of Ouro Preto were not that good. It was way smaller than I had expected and there didn’t seem to be the buzz or enthusiasm that there was with Lencois, for example. I knew it was off-season and it was raining but people just didn’t seem that interested. I came here to see the gold mine and some of the churches so I decided to head into the centre towards the information centre to get a map and explore the town a bit. I headed down the steep cobbled streets and arrived at the centre square which was actually very nice. I passed by the tourist office to get a map and some tips, it was sunday today and most of the attractions, consisting of churches and museums, were closed on Mondays, so I snuck in to a few before they closed at 5pm. I saw the two most recommended churches and read a little about the history of the city before meeting up for dinner with some Austrians and the Portuguese guy I met earlier. They were on their way to Rio tonight after three days here in Ouro Preto. They highly recommended the gold mine, which was good because it was the main reason I came here.
That night I walked to the bus stop to help the guys carry a really huge suitcase up the hill and by chance my Catalan friend, David, whom I had met in Chapada was there with a few Italians who I would end up accompanying down to Rio the following evening, we all agreed to meet the next day to go and check out the gold mine.
The gold mine was about 20 minutes by bus outside of town and in the drizzle and cloud it was hard to see the lovely landscape that surrounds Ouro Preto but as we arrived at the mine entrance it was quite a surprise that such a small quiet place was the hub of much of the areas gold mining trade until only 25 years ago.
We were guided down into the mine by a tiny wooden pulley cart which was powered by a pressurised air engine. We went down the mine for about 350 meters, it is a fun little journey because the cart heads down the tracks quite fast and you can see into the mining areas which are blocked off to visitors. The area open to visitors at the bottom is only a very small area, the rest is either too dangerous or flooded by ground water. There are now lots of underground lakes and caverns.
Among the real gold there is of course plenty of fools gold and lots of quartz. We were allowed to collect some on the way back up and as a final treat the guide showed us how they traditionally panned for gold. Because of the weight and composition of the gold and the shape and material used in the pan, eventually all the gold will remain in the centre of the pan with all the sediment filtering towards the edges. I touched real gold!
That afternoon David and I went for lunch and then went gem hunting. He needed to get some Alexandrite, a rare and expensive gem that changes colour from red to green in the light. We went in to one gem shop and managed to get an insight from the owner on the cutting and polishing process as well as his private collection of stones. Some were worth about 15000 R$ or 5000 Euros for a tiny stone. It was extremely interesting and not something that gets advised in the guide books!
That evening I was heading out to Rio with my Italian friends, Stefano and Martina. It was only a 7 hour bus trip so quite short by Brazilian standards.