Want to discover what many travelers to Brazil miss? Get away from Brazil's popular tourist trail and explore the riches of Minas Gerais. This landlocked state in the southeast region of Brazil has colonial towns and the country's most extensive collection of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Blessed with immeasurable natural beauty, Minas Gerais’s treasures range from the coffee plantations of the west to the central mountains and the verdant landscapes of the Rio Doce Valley. The region also has a handful of fascinating museum trains which you should not miss.
One of these train journeys starts at the Ouro Preto train station, which dates back to 1888. It's worth going there even if you don’t plan to take the train. The station is close to the city's historic center and, in addition to being quite visually appealing, houses a cafeteria installed in a train car.
The relatively slow train, traveling at an average speed of 20 km/h, needs nearly an hour for the 18 km railway journey that connects Ouro Preto with Mariana. Along the way, a guide provides tourist information over a loudspeaker, providing details about trains and the various regions through which the train travels. The journey includes beautiful stretches with tunnels and villages. Highlights are the Cachoeira da Usina, a gorge, and the "Curva do Paredão." Unfortunately, the train is currently pulled by a diesel engine instead of a steam locomotive as it used to be.
You can buy train tickets at the railway stations in Ouro Preto or Mariana, or order them online. There are both "Conventional" and "Panoramic" carriages: The difference between the two is the size of the windows and the fact that the Panoramic carriages are air-conditioned. The "Conventional" class is cheaper and, in my opinion, has more charm, as long as you don't mind sitting on a wooden bench for an hour.
Ouro Preto, located just 93 km from Belo Horizonte, is one of the most important baroque centers in the world. Founded in 1711, Ouro Preto at some point became much more important than Rio de Janeiro in this regard.
At present its population barely exceeds 60,000 inhabitants, but it has an unusually high number of Baroque churches, oratories, and chapels. Its name means “black gold” and has its origin in the metal's color when it was found in the Tripui river, covered with palladium.
In 1980, Ouro Preto became the first city in Brazil to be declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. In the 18th century, wealthy citizens embellished the city with the work of artists such as the Portuguese sculptor Francisco Xavier de Brito.
Mariana is 12 km away from Ouro Preto and was built in the middle of a picturesque mountainous setting. Visitors immediately experience the charm and unique artistic character of this city when strolling its streets and plazas.
Mariana is one of the oldest cities in Brazil and is part of the so-called "Gold Circle" located in the vicinity of the well-known World Heritage Site Ouro Preto. Like Ouro Preto, the Brazilian baroque style strongly influences Mariana's appearance.
Mariana has a population of around 50,000 inhabitants and is far more tranquil and less touristy than Ouro Preto. Mariana was founded in 1696 on the banks of the Ribeirão do Carmo River, being the first substantial settlement and first capital of Minas Gerais. In 1712, the city was named Vila Real de Nossa Senhora, but the name was changed to Cidade Mariana in 1745. The latter name originated from Maria Anna of Austria, the wife of the Portuguese King Dom João V.
Mina da Passagem is one of the largest gold mines open to visitors worldwide. The Mina da Passagem holds secrets and mysteries that delight every visitor. Passengers enter the mine via a 315-meter-long funicular railway which travels 120 meters beneath the surface. Inside the mine, visitors encounter a large underground lake with crystal clear water. The lake was formed by groundwaters that flooded kilometers of tunnels when the mining company shut down the gold mine and stopped pumping the water out.
The mine’s interior galleries, halls, and columns are quite impressive sights. The temperature inside the mine is stable all year round, oscillating between between 17° and 20° C.
A specialized diving company organizes diving expeditions for experienced divers throughout the underwater portion of the mining complex.