" If you reject
the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might
better stay at home."
- James A. Michener
Rio de Janeiro
- December 8 - 16, 2005
What comes to
mind when the words Rio de Janeiro
are mentioned? A tall art deco statue of
Christ with outstretched arms high on a hill overlooking the city below? Long sandy beaches circumscribing a brilliant
blue bay lined with modern high rise hotels and apartments? Hundreds of dancers draped in wild costumes
ranging from almost over dressed to barely there dancing to the hectic beat of
the samba drums? Or is it party, beach,
party, bikinis, party, party? True, this
is all part of Rio de Janeiro,
but there is also much more.
Lemos discovered the Guanabara bay on which the city of Rio, pronounced hee-oh by locals, in January
1502. He mistakenly thought the bay was
a river, hence the name Rio de Janeiro. It was the French who first inhabited the
area but by the 17th century the Portuguese had managed to expel and
exterminate both them and the local Tamoio, the area's first inhabitants.
days when Napoleon marched across Europe to invade Spain
the Portuguese prince regent, Don Joao VI along with 15,000 members of his
royal court packed into 40 ships and headed west. They landed in Rio and promptly set up a full
Portugal kingdom with
Rio de Janeiro as its
seat of government. This made Brazil the only New World
country to have been the seat of a European monarchy.
By the end of
the 19th century, Brazil had
been declared an independent republic with Rio as it's capital and by the 1920s
Rio was gaining its reputation as a swinging
city with a great beach scene. Casinos,
gambling dens, hotels, restaurants spread out across the Copacabana beach
attracted the rich and famous from all over the world. The city's population also swelled as the
poor from the outlying farm lands flowed into the city in search of jobs. This was when the famous favelas, or slums,
began to emerge. Squatters from all over
built shantytowns perched on the hills overlooking the city. So while the rich are relegated to the
lowlands, the poor get the hills with the best views.
In 1960 the political capital of Brazil was moved from Rio to the new, expressly
built for the purpose Brasilia. Four years later the country came under the
rule of a military dictatorship that remained in force until 1984. During these decades the infrastructure of Rio suffered. As
the politicians and military rulers fought for control money that could have
been used to construct vital infrastructure was withheld.
de Janeiro is
located on the eastern Atlantic coast of Brazil, about 1400 km south of that
large bulge marking the eastern most point of South America. In colonial times, the city was the main port
for shipment of wood from the pau Brazil tree. Pau Brazil, from
which the country drew its name, grows in a peculiar red shade that was used
for dye, furniture, and decoration.
Unfortunately the Atlantic
Rain forest suffered
greatly from tree extraction. Later,
when gold and diamonds were discovered in the surrounding mountains and a
direct road was built to the mines, these precious commodities replaced wood as
the primary export.
Today Rio is a huge city of some 7 million inhabitants. Virtually none of the old colonial character
remains having been subjected to the wrecking ball during the modernization
project of Don Pedro II in the 1800s.
Further modernization projects of the 60s and 70s even removed a lot of
Don Pedro's II early project as well.
Consequently much of Rio's architecture
consists of steel and concrete high rise buildings extending all the way from
downtown along the beach through the famous Copacabana and on to the newer and
more upscale Ipanema and Leblon beaches.
Only a few pieces of the fabulous 1800s architectural art remain
clustered around Cinlandia and Praca XV; the municipal theater, the library,
the Museu of Belas Artes, the justice building for example. So it's not the plethora of architectural
delights that draws the visitor.
Usually it's the beaches and party scene
that draws visitors. But we came simply
to see what there is to see. Arriving
early in the morning of December 8, we managed to figure out how to catch a
direct bus to Copacabana, found our way to our apartment, and get ourselves
checked in before dropping dead from a long night of zero sleep and too small
airline seats. We had booked a studio
apartment from a company called Rio Apartments.
We'd never tried a short-term apartment rental before, so this was an
experiment we weren't entirely sure would work well.
was by no means fancy or large, about the size of a large hotel room. But, it did have a bed, sofa, tiny kitchen,
small bathroom, and very important a washing machine. Later we would discover that getting clothes
washed in Brazil
is expensive.. There was no maid
service, no hotel desk, and no morning breakfast buffet. Just a guard to keep track of all those who
entered and left, a standard feature of all apartment buildings in Brazil. It felt a little like a cozy home away from
home. So comfortable, we wound up
staying three nights longer than
originally anticipated. The company was
professional and both personnel and the apartment lived up to
expectations. As our first experiment
with short-term apartment rental, we have to say it worked out extremely well.
Rio is world
famous for its beautiful environment, comparable only to San
Francisco, Sidney, and Hong Kong in one tour guide's opinion. It really does have an ambience that deserves
this reputation. While high rise
condominium complexes rise up from the valleys and rustic brick favela houses
hug the slopes of the hills, the hills themselves have been left covered with
vegetation, some of which was a reforestation project implemented by Don Pedro
II. Large expanses of hilly Atlantic
rain forest poke into the surrounding city producing a comforting mix of
greenery amongst city blight. One of the
world's largest urban parks, Parque Nacional Tijuca, sits among these
hills. You can go for hikes in the park,
but a guide is recommended as the trails aren't well marked and it's easy to
It is 800 m
high on one of these national park hills that the famous Cristo Redentor statue
was built. People had been making their
way to the top of this hill for many years just for the views. So, during that 1800s modernization era a
small cog train was built to make the climb easier. The statue was added in the 1930s when art deco
was all the rage. At 80 ft in height, it
was the largest art deco statue in existence and still is the largest statue of
Christ in existence. It's easy to spot
from almost anywhere within the city.
Getting up to
the statue today is a must-do on all tourist itineraries. This almost always involves taking the
recently updated and modernized cog railway up that steep climb. Since virtually everyone who comes Rio to
goes to the Corcovado, the name of the hill on
which the statue sits, the crush of humanity at the bottom of the train tracks
is almost overwhelming. Every day probably
a hundred packed bus tours arrive, disgorge their load of European, Asian,
South and North American, passengers into the cramped entry. The tour guides snatch up blocks of tickets
and it appears that some groups have to wait an hour or more just for their
turn. Being just a twosome we were
squeezed into a couple of leftover seats available on the very next train.
the Corcovado can be stunning, in the right
weather. Unfortunately, though it is
often covered in a cloudy shroud. We'd
been watching for days hoping that the spell of rainy weather we'd been having
would pass and the sun would come out.
But, alas, that was not to be. We
had only one day remaining which was supposed to be stormy, so we took our
chances and headed on up. We did get to
see some views between spells of misty fog.
Even the statue came out of clouds for a brief spell, or at least long
enough for a photo or two. Thankfully
being on our own schedule meant we could wait for the few patches of
clearing. Imagine being on one of those
group tours. If the statue or views
happen to be covered during your 1/2-hour visit, tough cookies.
Another must-do for Rio
is another high viewpoint. This one is a
rather conical looking hill that juts out into the bay. In the early days the French, who occupied Rio on a couple of occasions, called it the
sugarloaf. The Portuguese version, Pao
de Azucar, remains today. To get to the
top of this hill you take 2 cable cars with a little break on the top of Morro
de Urca on the way. Views from this spot
are quite different than from the Corcovado. You stand almost out into the bay and look
back at the city. You also have a great
overview of one of the twin forts that used to guard the city.
Back on the
city tourist trail, there are several small but interesting museums. Near the train going up to the Corcovado is the worlds largest museum of naive art. These are those colorful, out of perspective
paintings that usually bring a smile to your face. Figures in the paintings are often doing
common things in a comical manner and each painting is usually so full of
little details you could spend hours just picking out new bits and pieces. This museum has as its highlights the world's
two largest naive paintings. The first
is a huge depiction of Rio de Janeiro. Everything from fat little planes taking off
from the nonexistent runways of the two local airports to squat swimming bodies
on the famous beaches can be found. The
second large painting is a huge, panorama representation of the history of Brazil up until
around 1970 that covers 3 walls. With
the 50% discount we got for having Corcovado
tickets, the price of entry was well worth it.
Another museum, the Museu de Indio, had
some details on the normal life style of some of the northern tribes. The museum is supposed to present an overview
of tribal cultures, but it seemed to focus mainly on just a few of their
traditional rituals. A film showed excerpts
from a variety of their ceremonies. All
seemed to involve the men dressed in nothing more than red cloth draped over
their loins. They begin by blowing on
long, bamboo horns. Women, similarly
dressed in red cloth, keep plying the men with some sort of murky, white
liquid. The men keep drinking, dancing,
drinking, dancing, drinking, and dancing until they literally fall over either
from exhaustion or drunkenness or both.
It was interesting and well worth the price, free for our Sunday
visit. But, we would have preferred to
see more about how these people live today; what they eat, how they hunt, what
sources of income they may have, what gods they were trying to pacify,
etc. We would later discover that none
of the Brazilian Museus do Indios would present this level of detail. So we just had to make do.
The Museum of
Modern Art, or MAM, is housed in an
ultra modern, concrete structure that probably looked absolutely wonderful when
first built. Today, it looks woefully
dated and, as seems to always happen with concrete, the walls are stained and
the concrete appears to be rotting away from acid, rain, or something. The odd, conical shaped Cathedral
Metropolitana, also made of concrete, seems to be suffering a similar
malady. The MAM is supposed to house
many thousands of pieces of modern art.
When we visited, several of the display rooms were undergoing renovation
and revitalization. Consequently we only
saw a mere fraction of the museum's total inventory. And, we have to admit, modern art simply
leaves us shaking our heads wondering who in the world would pay for this
One room within the museum, however, was
just getting its finishing touches.
Literally they were just nailing up the last of the signs. This was a very well done display on the life
of one of Brazil's
most famous personalities, Carmen Miranda. At first we did not recall who she was. But seeing the clips from some of her movies
quickly brought her back to mind. Think
about a woman in a long colorful, multi-layered skirt, huge platform heeled
shoes, and a turban hat mounded tall with one big fruit salad, especially
bananas. Now put her in the middle of a
bunch of banana clad dancers all holding up long rows of gigantic bananas in a
big circle turning the whole thing into one big banana xylophone. Carmen Miranda was playing this banana
xylophone while singing something about a girl in a tutti-frutti hat. This unusual "biana" dress was her
trademark throughout her short life. She
died in 1955 in her 40s of a heart attack brought on by overwork, too many
drugs, and way too much booze. But that banana
dance forever remains strong in world memory.
well-to-do suburb of Leblon, just behind the large horse track, are the large
botanical gardens. These beautiful
gardens originally were the location for a sugar cane mill. Later, when the Empire of Brazil needed
munitions, it was converted into a black powder factory. Subsequently gardens were built around the
factory buildings and the entire area turned into a royal garden and botanical
preserve. In the late 1800s the gardens
were renamed "Jardim Botanico" and opened to the public. Acres and acres of plants and trees from all
as well as other locals fill these huge gardens. In addition there are interesting statues
dedicated mostly to the various directors of the gardens, beautiful fountains
all fully operational, a small museum explaining how the old powder factory
worked, and an unusual "sensory" garden specifically built for the
handicapped. We spent an entire
afternoon wandering the quiet streets of the garden simply enjoying the chance
to get away from the hubbub of the city for just a little while.
it to the top of the two main tourist sites, strolled the famous Copacabana and
Ipanema beaches, visited several of the museums, toured downtown, ridden the
bumpy, jerky Santa Teresa trolley, and had a taste of a caparinha, Brazil's
defacto national drink, it was time to head on.
We'd spent 8 days in Rio de
Janeiro and could probably have found plenty to do for
several more. But, Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world
after Russia, Canada, China,
and the US. There was plenty more to do and see outside
of this famous city. Time to move on.
Paraty, December 17 and 18
South from Rio de
Janeiro mountains reaching heights of 6,000 to 7,000 feet covered
in the lush Mata Atlantico rain forest reach right to the coast and the bright
aquamarine Atlantic ocean. The coast is a rugged stretch of bays,
inlets, and islands and is absolutely stunning.
Brazileros call it the Costa Verde, green coast, and clearly are quite
proud of this gorgeous section of coastline.
this beautiful coast about 4 hours south of Rio along a winding 2 lane road
lies the small town of Paraty, sometimes spelled Parati. Originally founded in the 16th century when
Portuguese from Sao Vincente emigrated southward, it really hit its heyday in
the 17th century. It was then that the
mines of Minas Gerais region were in full swing. Miners would disembark at the port of
Paraty and make their way through the
dense forests up the rugged Serra do Mar following an old Guianas Indian
road. Gold and other precious minerals
would be packed back down the rough road to Paraty for shipment to Portugal. As a result, Paraty developed as a prosperous
port town guarded by no less than 7 small forts.
In the 1720s
a new road leading from Rio de Janeiro
to Minas Gerais was hacked into the Serra dos Orgaos thus cutting 15 days off
the travel time. Paraty, once a bustling
port, was bypassed and essentially forgotten, until recent times. Because it was so isolated, not even a road
connected it to Rio, the old colonial aspects
of the little town were left untouched and in near perfect condition. An old architectural grand dame just waiting
for a little make-up and face lift.
addition of the road to Rio in 1956 and the subsequent connection to
Sao Paulo in 1960, Paraty
was rediscovered, first by artists and then by tourists. The old town was completely renovated without
destroying the colonial character. The
town people moved to the outskirts and shops, restaurants, and hotels replaced
the residences. With several long
stretches of white sandy beaches, a beautiful bay with around 65 green studded
islands, and this gem of a colonial town, it's easy to see why Paraty now
attracts such a big following.
After checking into a small pousada with a nice, tropical
garden and pleasant swimming pool, we took off on a wander.
The old part
of town covers an area of about 4 to 5 square blocks. Streets are laid out in near perfect
rectangles all lined with one or two story colonial buildings. Usually the structure consists of a white
stucco front with rows of tall rectangular windows and an occasional door. Many windows and doors are topped with a
slightly curved frame and all are painted bright pastel colors, particularly
blue. Some buildings have second floor
porches with wrought iron railings. But
most are just a single story. Churches
also tend to follow a similar method of construction with the exception that
they are taller and have towers. It is
interesting that since Paraty lost its importance before the exuberance of 18th
century architecture, the churches in this town retain a much simpler decor.
The town was
actually built right at sea level.
Rather than try to wall out the incoming high tide seawater, the town
builders decided to use it to their advantage.
Twice a day, when the tide is in, some of the streets flood. In the old horse and carriage times this was
probably a great way to have automatic street cleaning. Although thinking about all that horse poop
and other wonderful stuff floating down the road is not exactly
comforting. It's possible that early on
most of the streets would flood and perhaps even today when there is a particularly
strong high tide they still would. But
we only witnessed about 1/2 block at the furthest corner covered with
water. So the effect was far less
dramatic than what we were expecting.
Up on a hill
just to the north of the town we found the remains of one of the forts built by
the Portuguese to protect the city and the gold shipments. Not much of the fort is left, just a few
walls, a reconstructed building with a tiny museum and in the courtyard there
are about 5 canon. Ironically this fort
built to defend the town against marauding pirates who were usually British,
e.g.; Sir Francis Drake, were made in the British foundries as evidenced by the
British insignia on each. We wondered if
the Portuguese bought the canon or took them from ships they captured. Did the British know they were being hit by
their own technology?
The one thing
nearly everyone does in Paraty, besides soaking up sun at one of the many
beaches, is to take one of the boat trips.
Everyday at 10, 11, and 12 a whole bunch of these rather galleon looking
boats head out across the bay for visits to the islands and beaches. Despite having 3 masts, booms, and full
rigging, none of these ships ever raises a sail. It is all show. They all go out at the same time, make
exactly the same stops at the same places for the same amount of time. But, who cared. It was a chance to get out on the water for a
We picked one
of the larger boats and, since it was low season, it had only about 15
passengers total. It was quite
spacious. In addition, being a slightly
more expensive trip, we got free use of snorkel equipment. At each stop we'd jump right in and
immediately snorkel around. The fish
weren't nearly as plentiful as we'd seen on other snorkel trips, but it was
still cool. Yellow and black striped
tiger fish were the main staple. The
beaches and islands were beautiful and the whole trip really relaxing. After so much time in the city, this was a
perfect way to spend a quiet day. It was
quite touristy, very commercial, and packaged, but we really enjoyed it. It was well worth the approximately $11 per
person for the 5 hour trip.
- December 19 - 22
To go just
about anywhere from Paraty other than Sao Paulo requires taking that 4 hour
return bus to the Rio bus station, buying another ticket, and getting back on
another bus to where ever you're headed.
There's no way around it. So
after a couple days getting ourselves totally overdone with sun exposure, we
climbed aboard an early bus to make this two step journey. This time we were headed to the mountain
retreat city of Petropolis.
hour by bus on the westerly route 40 out of Rio and high in the Serra dos
Orgaos mountains, Petropolis today is a hustling, bustling city of about 1/4
million. Seeing the crush of humanity
working their way up and down the main shopping streets in the city center
makes it's easy to believe the reported population estimates. In fact, it almost feels busier and more
chaotic than a town of 250,000 should.
But, that's because the main shopping district is relegated to just 2
main streets paralleling the river for only about 4 to 5 blocks in length. It's a lot of shopping packed into a little
space and in these few remaining days before Christmas absolutely everyone was
chaotic hubbub we suddenly found ourselves.
Coming into a city for the first time, suitcase in tow, is always a
nerve wracking experience. You're
disoriented. You're not entirely sure
about security especially near the bus station.
You've got some idea as to which hotels you want to look at, but no idea
as to where you are in relation to them.
And you've got to go off dragging, rolling, pulling, or carrying your
suitcase or pack through dense crowds from place to place until you find
something acceptable. It is such a
relief when you finally get settled into a room, your belongings securely
locked behind a door. Then is the time
to take a deep breath, pull out a map, and begin leisurely exploration.
Prior to the
reign of the rather nutty Dom Pedro I, Petropolis
was nothing more than a large farm.
Pedro I discovered that he rather enjoyed the cooler climates of this
3000-ft elevation, so he bought the farm, literally. Soon he set to work building what would
become the royal family's summer residence.
When he abdicated, his son took over and proceeded to institute the same
modernization effort he'd been working on in Rio. Pedro II took office when he was 15 years old
and he lived a very long life. In fact
today he is credited with being the longest ruling leader of Brazil
ever. Of course that's because in the
became a republic and switched to presidents with shorter terms.
Don Pedro II
parceled off the farm and sold lots to European immigrants, mostly
Germans. They'd been enticed into moving
to Brazil specifically to
help in building the new and first paved road connecting Rio to
Petropolis. The first telegraph cable was also laid
between Rio and Petropolis and the first
telephone was installed at the Petropolis
seat of power, i.e. the emperor, spent so much time in Petropolis, anybody who was anybody in 19th
century Brazilian politics just had to have a residence there as well. Consequently beautiful mansions were built
all around the palace. Absolutely
wonderful 19th century architectural treasures can be found on virtually every
street in the main downtown area. These
are houses and not the enormous business buildings found in major cities. They are of varying size ranging from huge
many roomed mansions, to tiny cottages.
The mansion owned by a fellow named Maua, a big investor and instigator for the
Brazilian railway is an example of the very large. It is not open to the public. Yet the house owned by Santos Dumont, the
father of Brazilian aviation and the inventor of the wristwatch is but a tiny
cracker box in comparison. This one is
open as a museum to Dumont's honor. Most of the other older houses are now used
as offices for lawyers, doctors, or other business enterprises.
ended in 1889 with a military coup and the declaration of a republic. Hence there was no longer a need for a royal
family retreat. The palace was converted
into the Imperial museum and opened to the public. Although it's nothing comparable to the
palaces of monarchs in Europe, it is still
quite an impressive building to tour nevertheless. After handing your paper ticket to one of the
many employees manning the door and pushing your way through the ever present
turnstile, you are instructed to put your feet, shoes and all, into a pair of
felt bottom slippers. Rather than trying
to control the visitors by making them stay behind ropes and on top of carpets,
this museum chose to essentially put the carpet on people's feet. Thus you can slip and slide your way around
just about anywhere you want to go. Just
don't fall as the museum clearly states it is not responsible for any injuries
due to slippage.
palace are many beautiful pieces of antique furnishings original to either this
palace in Petropolis or moved from the main
palace in Rio.
There are musical instruments, pieces of dishware and silver used at the
royal dinner table, antique lamps, household utensils, some clothing, the crown
jewels and formal royal attire, and a vast array of paintings of the royal
family, in particular Pedro II. Not much
is spoken of Pedro I except for an allegorical painting of his "give me
liberty or give me death" speech.
Hmmm sounds awfully familiar. It
isn't all that eager to brandish the exploits of their first rather wild,
womanizing emperor. Pedro II, on the
other hand, seems to have been quite popular.
Or at least they nowadays remember him with kind words.
portable audio guide for R$3 was well worthwhile as it explained the importance
of some of the thousands of items contained in the museum. Best of all it was in English spoken by an
American. So there weren't any of the
typical grammatical slips that can take a perfectly normal Portuguese sentence
and turn it into something wholly comical or totally incomprehensible. With the recording in tow, you can easily
spend 1 to 2 hours sliding your way around the 20 or so rooms, 28 audio
stops. Then you can go down to the tranquil,
shady royal gardens to relax and wait out the remainder of the hot steamy
afternoon. The hubbub of the shopping
street seems far, far away.
We also stopped in at the cathedral. With its gothic construction and large
stained glass windows, the similarity with many European churches we've seen is
quite striking. There was also the
crystal palace. This is an all glass and
steel construction that was manufactured in Europe
and shipped in pieces for reconstruction here.
It's very similar in concept to the Crystal
Palace in Curitiba, although it's not used as a green
house. Rather it houses temporary
exhibitions. At this time it was all
dressed up for Christmas. Wrapped
presents hung from the ceiling, huge candy canes and Santas stood all about, and
fake snow draped from the roof. All this
is in a country that sees snow in only a few places and at a time when it was
at the start of the summer season. Oh
well, it's the passion of the season.
One last climb up to a statue of Trono de Fatima for an overview of the
entire city, and we felt we'd seen all we came to see in Petropolis itself.
Not far from
Petropolis, at least as
the crow flies, lies another mountain retreat town named Teresopolis. While Don Pedro liked to hang out in
Petropolis, the Do as
Empressa Maria Tereza preferred Teresopolis.
Getting there entails a 1 1/2-hour bus ride over a narrow, winding
mountain pass road, not great for those of us who are prone to
carsickness. Teresopolis is the highest
city in the state of Rio de Janeiro and is about
1/2 the size of Petropolis. It appears to be slightly more affluent than
Petropolis; at least
there are some mighty nice houses on its outskirts.
Other than a
church or two, the main reason to go there is to visit the Parque Nacional de
Orgaoes. Brazil's third oldest national
park, this one was created mainly to preserve the natural beauty of the unique
peaks and rock formations of the area.
It's been a popular destination for rock climbers and peak baggers since
before its very inception. We came
because we wanted to do some hikes in one of the few pristine sections of Matta
Atlantica and to get away from city touring for a while without having to hire
a guide, rent a car, or take horrendously long and difficult bus rides. Accessibility was a big attraction for us.
aspect of this park was how usable it was.
Signs pointed out all the trails, maps were posted in many locations,
bathrooms were quite nice, trails were in very good condition, and even the
visitor's center had some interesting displays on the climbing history in the
park. Not many South American parks are
this easy to negotiate. We found that a
visit to this park was a day well spent.
December 23 - 25 Sao Joao del Rei
Brazil, or at least southern Brazil,
is probably the closest to being a full fledged car/airplane country than any other
we've seen in S. America so far. The main way we judge this is by looking at
their bus terminals, bus schedules, and bus quality. In Argentina,
for example, the main bus terminal in Buenos
Aires has round 75 embarkation platforms. In Rio there
may be only around 40 or so. In Argentina if
you want to go to a particular city you usually find not one, but at least two
or maybe even 3 to 4 different bus companies vying for your patronage. Each one of these companies will usually
offer several departures of different class buses every day. In Brazil there seems to be only one
bus company per destination, normally, and typically only common or semi leito
(that's partial bed) service. The full
luxury leito service is only rarely found.
the huge double decked buses are very common.
they're quite rare which is surprising considering they are made there. Finally in Ouro Preto we found the hotel
touts tend to focus their efforts around the main plaza where the autos usually
pass. There were virtually none up at
the bus terminal. It was little things
like that told us that in Brazil
the car is rapidly becoming king of transportation.
other interesting differences between the Spanish and Portuguese Latin American
countries. The central plaza that
becomes the center of social life at night in the Spanish countries is almost
nonexistent in Brazil. Spanish colonial law, a law that did not
exist for Brazil,
decreed this plaza concept with its church on one side and seat of government
on the opposite. Consequently in
Brazilian towns and cities it's more of a stretch to find that special place
where families gather in the evenings.
If there is a beach or river promenade, that'll be where people go. Otherwise it almost seems that everyone
congregates at the shopping malls. Food
courts often provide live entertainment in the evening and the tables are
packed. It's a good way to draw
this central part of Brazil
have an unusual shape. There is no form
of the crucifix in the structure. Rather
churches mostly have one large rectangular room where the main congegration
sits and then a very long rectangular annex on the end opposite the main door
where additional parishioners, choir, alter boys, padres and whatever sit. This is where the main altar is found.
altars line the larger room and are usually made from very elaborately carved
wood sometimes covered in gold leaf. A
novel feature for Brazil are the chandeliers held by a wall mounted holder
carved in some elaborate form hanging just in front of each alter. In several of the churches these wall-mounted
chandeliers are accompanied with 1 to 2 rows of ceiling hung chandeliers all
floating at the same level. Add to that
the extremely elaborate alters both on the sides and up in the long annex and
you find the whole affair overwhelmingly busy.
Sometimes it seems these church designers got far too carried away.
aspect of Brazil
is the variety of races you find all living and working side by side. There is a strong mixture of indigenous and
European, which can be found in other Latin American countries. But, added to the mix is a very large black
population. Portugal imported a huge number of
blacks as slaves to work the mines, sugar cane farms, and in all other
fields. Hence it's quite common to see
Brazilians of African decent all over the place.
very, very few elsewhere in the other S. American countries we've visited. It's not that they weren't imported to these
countries, they were and in great numbers.
Either they just did not survive or they emigrated elsewhere after
gaining freedom. There are supposed to
be a few full black towns in Ecuador,
but we did not get to visit any. So
we're not entirely sure where they all ended up. In any event, in Brazil, at least, you do see the
descendents of those millions of slaves.
Further west of the royal retreat of
Petropolis lies the state
of Minas Gerais, literally translated as general mines. This was the region that brought wealth to
the Portuguese crown in the form of silver, gold and industrial diamonds. Two colonial routes to the coast
existed. One went from the town of
Paraty on the coast to the gold town of
The second went from Rio to Ouro Preto. The second route chopped 15 days off the time
to travel and, consequently, overtook the first as the favorite way to go. Along both routes several colonial towns
developed as stopping points for travelers.
Along the original path from Paraty lie two towns that today have
managed to retain much of their old colonial charm, Sao Joao del Rei and
the second route to Ouro Preto completely bypassed Sao Joao del Rei the town
managed to continue to grow and flourish.
Today it is a city of around 75,000 that absolutely buzzes with traffic
and pedestrians. With continued
development much of its colonial charm is completely surrounded by 20th century
creations, often not in a very harmonic manner either. But, wander enough and you can find spots
where you can still feel that old colonial charm.
As with every
colonial town, churches abound. Also
there are at least a couple of interesting museums for visiting. But, perhaps one of the best reasons for
visiting Sao Joao is to ride the steam train.
Early in the morning of Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, the train engineers
arrive and begin the long process of preparing their precious treasure for a
day's work. The engine is a small,
narrow gage steam locomotive converted to burn oil rather than coal or
wood. The Baldwin locomotive company of
it in 1908. It has been carefully
restored and is now absolutely lovingly maintained. All joints are oiled, the bell and other
brass polished. Everything is clean and
spotless before each day's work.
perfectly maintained passenger cars are attached to this little engine to make
up the tourist train. Brazilian
companies manufactured all the cars and we found dates ranging from 1904
through 1939. Early cars had only small
wood benches facing one direction. As
the years progressed, benches with reversing backs were implemented, padding
was added, and the number of passengers in each row reduced from 4 to 3. As with the engine, each car is in perfect
aboard this rolling bit of history for a 10AM departure from the immaculate and
historic Sao Joao train station. Once
this must have been a very active station.
It had 6 platforms, a large number for almost any train station and
certainly a reasonable number for a major transportation hub. Now there's just those 6 departures and
arrivals per week.
down our spines as that sound of the steam horn blowing, the bell ringing, and
the first chug-chug rolls across the rails.
There's something about it that hits home, a sound no modern form of
transportation can quite replicate. Yet
it is a sound that almost exclusively represents riding the rails. Next and
final stop, Tiradentes.
located about 14 km, or one day's travel for a mule caravan, from Sao Joao del
Rei has been left mercifully untouched by most modern development. It's a tiny town that has taken great steps
to retain its colonial character. The
town was originally named Arrail da Ponta do Morror (Hamlet on a Hilltop) but
was changed to Tiradentes in honor of the Inconfidencia hero who was born
there. Naturally with the train and all
the restaurants, craft shops, and pousadas servicing the town, it now mines the
tourist to great profit.
climb off the train, the first thing to do is watch the engineers turn the
engine around. We've seen the familiar
circular pit of locomotive turntables throughout the world, but rarely is the
turning equipment still in place and never have we seen it still in use. What was impressive was that the turntable
was so well balanced that it took just two men to manually turn that many ton
engine. There's no motor assist. It only took a few minutes and the train was
ready to go on its return trip. The
fellow acting as combination conductor, train hand, and ticket seller then
opened the ticket booth for business.
was any real reason the engines had to be turned around and reattached to the
opposite end of the train for a return run.
No reason except the comfort of the passengers, the need for the
cowcatcher to be up front and the firemen in back, and to keep unnecessary
jobs. After all the engines already run
backward to attach to the front car anyway.
Eventually backward running engines became the norm and you won't see
such a turning maneuver on any modern train.
In fact, modern cargo trains run with hardly more than 2 people in
train is a whole cadre of horse carriages.
You can hire them just to deliver you to town, only about 1 km
away. Or you can hire them to give you
the complete tour. We chose to stroll as
with a 5 PM return we had nothing but time on our side. So why hurry along in a horse carriage.
to Sao Joao on Christmas Eve, Tiradentes was almost dead quiet. On this day most people just travel to visit
family or do last minute shopping. The
rush to the tourist sites wouldn't begin for a couple more days. So we found Tiradentes to be a downright
pleasant and peaceful place to spend the day.
The main part of town is quite small, only about 6 to 7 streets at
most. There are a few churches, one
museum, and an interesting fountain to visit.
or chafariz, has been mostly restored.
It has 3 separate water pools, one for drinking, one for clothes washing,
and the third for horses. Only the
drinking pool remains in operation being fed by a stone pipe from the hillside
above and behind the fountain. The wash
basin gets water, but it is now drained immediately. Of course the horse carriage tours make the obligatory
stop at the fountain, but otherwise it's a relatively quiet place.
the sites, ate a nice lunch, wandered the streets, and still had time left to
relax in the plaza. Unusual for much of Brazil town
actually has one that is the center of social life. Then back to the train for our far too short
1/2-hour ride back.
day we left the nearly deserted streets of Sao Joao del Rei and headed to more
eerily deserted streets in the big city, Belo
Belo Horizonte has little
to offer the traveler and all were closed on Monday, which happened to be the
day after Christmas. But it was a good
place to make further travel plans and arrangements. After that, on to what is supposed to be the
biggie to see in Minas
December 27 - 29 - Ouro Preto
Joao del Rei and Tiradentes were way stations along the travel route to Paraty,
Ouro Preto was the actual destination.
In 1698 Antonio Dias de Oliveira discovered the gold in what was to
become the largest deposits in the Western Hemisphere
at that time. As word spread, fortune
seekers flocked to the region and the city grew. Portuguese King Dom Joao V quickly slapped a
1/5th tax on the gold and weighing stations were posted throughout the
region. Miners found to be skipping on
the taxes were sentenced to the dungeons.
itself was founded in 1711 and quickly rich and extravagant goods from the
world over were finding their way to this isolated local. At the height of the boom, the town had a
population of over 110,000, nearly twice what it has today.
most important aspect of its history is it is the place where, in 1789, the
famous Inconfidencia was hatched. The
Inconfidencia was Brazil's
first and failed attempt at freedom from Portuguese rule. As the gold boom tapered and royal taxes
grew, a group of men spurred on by the ideas of the French Revolution, decided
to declare independence for Brazil. They were lead by 3 men, Claudio da Costa,
Tomas Antonio Gonzaga, and Joaquim Jose da Silva Xavier. The later was nicknamed Tiradentes (teeth
puller) because he practiced dentistry.
The plot failed, the men were caught and exiled, and Tiradentes was executed.
reduction in the gold output left Ouro Preto a less important city on the
Brazilian landscape. In 1897 the state
capital was moved to Belo Horizonte. This rather fortuitous event means that the
colonial Ouro Preto was preserved for today's newer boom, tourist.
gold mines in the hills around the town have mostly played out, evidence of the
town's former wealth abound. Steep
cobblestone streets lined with beautiful colonial style buildings climb up and
down the hills. Twenty-three well
appointed churches are scattered throughout town, far too many to see in one
visit. The well restored old Casa dos
Contos, counting house, and the building housing the Museu de Inconfidencia are
prime examples of wealthy architecture of the time. It's no wonder this town has become known as
the gem of Minas Gerias.
early afternoon, we had just enough time to establish ourselves in a hotel and
visit the Casa dos Contos. The old
counting house was, originally, one of the mints for the Portuguese crown. Over time it subsequent uses has included
slaves quarters, a prison, and a library.
Today, the massive collection of historical documents about Brazil's golden
era has been moved into archives to be installed onto the Internet. The building has been converted into a
4-story museum housing a history of Brazilian currency, some rare and
historical books, and in the basement odds and ends of household goods from
On the main
floor one room holds temporary exhibitions and at this time it was a display of
old scientific equipment used in the classes at the nearby
School of Mines. Students all meticulously restored a
fascinating array of microscopes, chemistry lab equipment, electronics lab
pieces, model internal combustion engines, and even some aerodynamics
instructional devices. They all now
function and were available for us most curious visitors to play with. Great toys for a couple of engineers.
The next morning we headed out to visit
just a few of the 23 churches and a couple museums. The first church, Nossa Senorha Efigany, has
an interesting history. It was paid for
and built for the black slaves. They
raised money for the construction by washing gold dust from their hair in the
baptismal font or by secreting bits of dust in tooth cavities and under
fingernails. They must have done quite a
job at collection as they wound up building a substantial structure. Outside it has a wonderful location on a
hilltop with a commanding view over the entire city. Inside it has a moderate amount of carving,
very little gold, but a very nicely painted ceiling. It's clear that this particular church
doesn't get quite as much visitation as some of the others as the interior
looks like it could use some restoration work.
The crystal chandeliers in particular need a serious cleaning and some
repair work. But all in all, this is a
great introduction to the treasury of churches in Ouro Preto.
Next up was
the church of San Fransisco de Assis.
This particular structure was almost wholly the work of a famous
Brazilian artist affectionately known as Aleijandinho, or little cripple. He was an artist that just wouldn't quit
despite losing his fingers and the use of his lower legs due to some
illness. He strapped chisels onto the
stubs of his arms and just kept on going.
Most noteworthy of his style are these odd looking cherubs with fat
cheeks and a funny boggle look on their eyes.
The church of
San Fransisco de Assis is absolutely
full of prime examples of these funny looking cherubs. There are full baby size cherubs holding up
the columns of the side alters, larger than life cherubs scattered around the
ceiling, and even mini cherub heads and faces all over the place. Cherubs, cherubs, cherubs everywhere. That's not to say there weren't many other
interesting statues and carvings. It's
just these little baby face creatures are so prevalent.
we headed for a Brazilian favorite lunch pastime. In Brazil one of the most common
lunchtime restaurants is a por kilo place.
At first glance it looks like a typical all-you-can-eat buffet but it
has a little twist, you pay for your meal by weight, so many Reais per 100
grams. These por kilo restaurants range
in price from somewhere around $.50 to $1.00 US per 100 grams. The more expensive, the more exotic the
dishes. You simply grab a plate, circle
around the cold and warm tables loading up your plate as you go, and in the end
put the whole mess, plate and all, on a scale.
For a foreign tourist it's an interesting way to try bits and pieces of
the local dishes without getting loaded down with far too much to eat. We typically found that after eating at one
of these joints for lunch, a small snack is plenty for dinner.
On to the
church of Nossa Senhora de Pillar, the most expensive church to visit and
probably the most famous. This one is
supposed to be second most opulent church in all Brazil,
second only to one in Salvador. Once again we found ourselves inside staring
at amazingly intricate carvings winding up one wall, across the ceiling, and
back down the next wall. There's so much
going on in each altar it's almost too much to take in. We admired gold covered swirls, leaves,
grapes, and angels. We wondered just how
they got the gold leaf to stick to the wood.
Did they use glue or paint it on.
How in the world could anyone pay attention to any sort of sermon when
there was so much visual noise going on in the church itself? Yet, this wasn't even the busiest Brazilian
church we'd seen so far.
small spots where, over time, bits and pieces of the decoration had fallen
off. Missing fingers, a broken crown,
the missing scroll pieces had us wondering just what might have caused this
piece of wood, far above the reach of a normal person, to fall off. Cleaning, perhaps, or maybe the slip of a
candle or altarpiece. Only the walls
Up one a very
steep, slick cobblestone hill is the Museu de Oratorio. Oratorios were sort of miniature chapels
designed for use within a person's house or for travel. Another use was to scare away evil
spirits. Once upon a time, in old Ouro
Preto there was a rash of ghost sightings.
Late at night when the streets were deserted, ghosts would approach
miners who may still be out wandering.
Upon seeing the ghost the pedestrian would be so startled he'd drop his
bag of gold and run. Gold and ghost would
with half a brain would recognize that this so called ghost was no more than a
common crook and demand the police do something. Back then the locals resorted to a religious
solution. They asked for and got
permission to place oratorios on various street corners. The idea was to scare off the ghost. Obviously it didn't work that well as one of
the statues contained within these very oratorios was used by a band of bandits
for clandestine communication. The
statue was pointed in the direction the gold caravan was to head alerting the
crooks as to where to hide out.
Only a few of
these street corner oratorios remain and that most infamous one now contains
just a cross. The statue of the saint,
Virgin Mary, or whatever is either long gone or in some museum somewhere.
Museu de Oratorio can be found all kinds of other oratorios. Oratorios are small enclosures, usually in
the shape of a house but sometimes shaped like a bullet, with little front
doors. The doors open outward like wings
to reveal a painted interior and statues of one or more various saints. In the basement of the museum are oratorios
made to be mobile, for use by traveling priests, cattlemen out on the range, business
men, or just to wear around your neck.
Sizes range from just an inch or so across to up to a few feet. The first floor has oratorios that were used
in the common folk's houses and chapels.
These are made of simple materials and have little decorations beyond
painting. Finally on the top floor are
those found in more wealthy environs.
Naturally these show quite a bit more splendor, fancy carvings, more
gold and silver, and use of exotic materials such as ostrich eggs and
seashells. Yet the same basic theme
remains, a small house usually with two front doors housing a saintly statue.
stop was at the Museu Inconfidencia housed in what was a large prison. Surprisingly this prison is located on the
main plaza, now parking lot, in a location you would think would have been reserved
for more prestigious buildings. The most
famous articles housed in the museum are not actually on display, the remains
of 18 of the Inconfidencia. Granite
slabs mark their location. Otherwise
there just was not that much to see.
Perhaps 4 or 5 articles per room.
We felt as though the museum really wasn't worth the $1.70 entry. Although, the second floor was under
renovation, so perhaps when it's open the value of the museum will increase,
although want to bet the price increases accordingly.