The State of Minas Gerais has one of the largest railroad networks in the Country. However, most of the trips are short and performed in old locomotives, more for tourism than for passenger transportation purposes.
Some of the most well-known and charming routes in the state unite the historic cities of Minas Gerais: from Ouro Preto to Mariana and from São João Del Rei to Tiradentes. Boarding one of these locomotives is more than letting yourself be carried from one place to another. It is traveling in time.
Before we begin, two important pieces of advice. Firstly: take good shoes, as in the historic cities you will need to walk a lot and the ground is very irregular, as most of it has been preserved since the founding of the cities. And secondly: check the schedules of the trains before the trip, as some of them only work from Friday to Sunday. Therefore, we recommend that you start your tour on Thursday to enjoy the first destination and board the train the next day, in the morning.
That said, time to explore Ouro Preto and its impressive churches, Baroque works and creations of one of the greatest Brazilian artists of all time, Aleijadinho. All of it framed by the mountains and the beautiful nature of the place.
The best way to discover the city is to walk around it, letting yourself be attracted by its wonders. But if you want to understand the importance of Ouro Preto to the history of Minas Gerais and Brazil before exploring the streets, it would be interesting to start at Museu da Inconfidência, which tells in detail one of the most important episodes of Brazilian history, the Inconfidência Mineira. The conspiracy was intended to release Brazil from Portugal and it was harshly contained by the Portuguese Crown. One of its mentors, Tiradentes, was sentenced to capital punishment, and became a martyr of the movement.
Nearby is another important building, Casa dos Contos, where gold used to be weighted and smelted, and which also served as a hideout for members of the Inconfidência. It's a big house in the colonial Baroque style. The top floor tells a little about the history of money in Brazil. And the ground floor houses a senzala(where enslaved people used to live) and various objects from the time of slavery.
However, you can't go to Ouro Preto without visiting some of the churches there. So, start with one of the greatest masterpieces of the Brazilian Baroque, the Nossa Senhora do Pilar Mother Church. Covered in 400 kg of gold, its interior also houses statues and images of angels. In the sacristy you will find the Museum of Religious Art, with many works from the 18th century.
Then go to the Church of São Francisco de Assis, one of the most important creations of Aleijadinho. Inside, there are also works by Mestre Ataíde, a famous painter and decorator from the period, the master of perspective.
At the end of the day, the best destination is the Aleijadinho Museum, with works by the artist and by others who lived at his time, in an important collection of religious art.
The most charming way to go to Mariana is on Trem da Vale, which traverses in 1 hour the 30 km between the two cities. Pay attention: the train only works from Friday to Sunday. It first leaves at 10:00 in the morning and the ideal is to get to the station early, because there may be a large number of people there. We recommend you sit on the right side of the wagon, since from there you can see the waterfalls, rivers and the exuberance of the Atlantic Forest.
In Mariana, start the tour at the historic center. Be sure to visit the Minas Gerais Square, which is limited by two churches and has a pillory in the center, reminding us of the period of slavery. From there, go to São Bento Church’s viewing spot, from where you can have a beautiful view of the city.
Landmarked by Instituto do Patrimônio Histórico e Artístico Nacional, Iphan, Catedral Basílica da Sé was built in the early 18th century, by Baroque artists José Pereira Arouca and Manuel Francisco Lisboa Aleijadinho's father. There are no words to describe the beauty of the building. Make sure to visit it.
After lunch (which includes specialties from Minas Gerais, of course!), take a bus to Mina da Passagem, a mine which has high walls and, therefore, is accessible even for those who don't like tight spaces. Visitors enter the mine on a cart, which is similar to a roller coaster wagon. But, don't worry, it moves slowly, without any danger or scares. The cart goes 120m deep and reveals the impressive interior of an old gold mine.
From Mariana to São João del Rei there are no trains. The best way to get to the next destination is by bus. There are many which connect the two cities, so inquire about their schedule when making the travel arrangements.
Also known as the City of Bells, São João del Rei maintains the tradition of ringing the bells of its churches to announce the beginning of the masses and the Angelus. The main church of the city is Catedral Basílica de Nossa Senhora do Pilar, an important work of Brazilian colonial art. It has the same name and is as beautiful as the one found in Ouro Preto. Another one that is worth the visit is the one of São Francisco de Assis, with its sculptures in soapstone, located in a square ornamented with imperial palms.
To take a break from the religious attractions, it is worth it to visit the Tancredo Neves Memorial, named after the famous politician who was elected President of Brazil but never took office because of an illness. In the collection, documents, photographs, newspapers from the time and lots of information provide facts about his life and career.
Today we travel by train again! But not just any train. The one which connects São João del Rei and Tiradentes was manufactured in the 1930s and is entirely made of wood. For this trip, choose the left side of the wagon, from where the view is more beautiful.
Tiradentes is small, you can visit the entire city in a single day. So, don't be afraid to move away from the center to visit the São José Fountain. Built in 1749, it used to be the main source of water supply in the city. According to a local legend, those who drink from one of its taps are bound to marry soon.
The Mother Church of Santo Antônio is one of the most beautiful Baroque works in Brazil. Its entrance, with silver chandeliers, impresses all, as well as the amount of gold in its interior and the old Portuguese organ, which has eight ranks of pipes of all sizes. The structures on its front were made by Aleijadinho. This all means one thing: that the visit is mandatory!
After the end of such a beautiful journey, riding old trains, visiting masterpieces of the Baroque, learning more about the history of Brazil, you can even say that "traveling is an awesome trem!" (“trem”, in Portuguese, means “train”, but in the dialect from Minas Gerais, it also means “thing”).