Exploring Minas Gerais: Tiradentes

South American Handbook author Ben Box on the quaint colonial town of Tiradentes in Minas Gerais.

The Estrada Real was the route by which the Portuguese colonists, from the 17th to the 19th centuries, transported precious metals and gemstones by mule train from the mines of what is now the state of Minas Gerais. It had three main sections, the Old Road from Paraty on the Atlantic coast to Ouro Preto, the New Road from Rio de Janeiro to Ouro Preto and the Diamond Road which continued north from Ouro Preto to Diamantina. From Ouro Preto to Paraty originally took 60 days; today the journey is much quicker, but the modern roads follow different trajectories. The Estrada Real has been recuperated as an adventurous tourist route, mostly open to four-wheel drives, but some sections are paved or cobbled.

Whether you travel along the Estrada or not, it remains both the thread which binds together some of Brazil’s most delightful colonial towns and beautiful landscapes and the link between the Portuguese colony and Brazil’s imperial and republican eras.

Ouro Preto, one of the Estrada Real’s hubs, is undoubtedly one of Minas Gerais’ premier tourist attractions. It can be visited as a day trip from the state capital, Belo Horizonte, but its churches and museums deserve much more of your time. The distance between many of the towns is not great, so you can visit several in a few days. An exception is Diamantina, which is five hours north of Belo Horizonte by bus, but well worth the detour. 

The community of Santo Antônio do Rio das Mortes was founded in 1702 after gold was discovered in the Serra de São José. It later became São José del Rei and, like its near neighbour São João del Rei, became an important place on the Old Road. Portugal was intoxicated by the riches coming out of Brazil, but the mines were not limitless and in the 18th century the crown began to impose ever greater demands on the producers of its wealth. Eventually, a group of conspirators started a movement towards independence that became known as the Inconfidência Mineira. They were betrayed, but only one of the plotters was ultimately sentenced to death, Joaquim José da Silva Xavier, who was hanged and his quartered body displayed at various points on the Estrada Real in 1792. At the end of the 19th century, São José del Rei was renamed after da Silva Xavier, now recognised as a national hero, but his proper name was not chosen, only his nickname, the Tooth-puller, Tiradentes.

Tiradentes today is a small colonial town with nine colonial churches and chapels, 12 shrines for the stations of the cross, a river still called The Dead and a little steam train, lovingly maintained, that puffs along the 13 km of narrow-gauge track to São João del Rei each weekend. The Estrada Real still meanders from São João del Rei, rather a back road compared with the paved highway that joins the two towns. Instead of precious metals the Estrada is now lined with a new commerce, tourism. Shops in the tiny municipality of Santa Cruz de Minas sell furniture made from timber reclaimed from old houses.  Pousadas have opened along the road all the way to Tiradentes and beyond, to the village of Bichinha, which has even more shops specialising in furniture and household decorations. 

The steam train in Tiradentes

The main focus, though, is Tiradentes itself, which lives by and for tourism alone. It has a population of about 7,000 and it has over 200 pousadas, dozens of restaurants and cafés and many souvenir and handicraft shops. To accommodate all these services the colonial heart is now surrounded by a cluster of new streets, ribbon developments and condominiums beneath the rocky wall of the Serra de São José. On a quiet midweek day you may wonder how all these businesses survive, but at weekends, holidays and festivals (of which there are plenty), the whole place is packed. Visitors come for a few days away from the cities, to eat, drink, shop and relax. Pony-drawn carriages take visitors around town for US$18 to see the sights, but it’s easy enough to stroll around. It’s a bit pricey, but the standard of the pousadas is high; many are purpose-built, but others are in converted colonial buildings in the centre. If the holiday-making gets too much, you can retreat to one of the churches to get an impression of why Tiradentes exists at all: gold. 

The Igreja Matriz de Santo Antônio (first built around 1710, but redesigned over a long period) has some of the finest gilded wood carving in Brazil, its Portuguese organ is beautifully decorated and some of the carvings of angels and other figures are decidedly idiosyncratic. From the parapet in front of the church, you look down the steep Rua da Câmara, paved with stone slabs and cobbles, lined with whitewashed, tiled-roof houses, their doors and windows picked out in blue, buff or maroon. Another interesting refuge is the Antiga Cadeia (old prison) now housing the Museu de Sant’Ana. A grand, modern entrance leads to a lift which rises through the prison stonework to a well-displayed collection of 291 figurines, some tiny, some quite large of Saint Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary – the image of motherhood and protection, the Christian representation of the Great Mother, the intimate of the collective unconscious.

Santo Antonio church

How to get there: 19 daily buses run the 15 km between São João del Rei and Tiradentes (9 on Sunday and holidays) for about US$1. There are also taxis for about US$11. 

The Maria Fumaça steam train on the line between São João del Rei and Tiradentes (13 km) has been in continuous operation since 1881, using the same locomotives and rolling stock, running on 76 cm gauge track. The maximum speed is 20 kph. 

i Ticket office T032-3355 2789, Wed-Thu 0900-1100, 1200-1745, Fri-Sat 0900-1300, 1400-1700, Sun 0900-1400 or at  Museu Ferroviário in São João del Rei. 

It runs on Friday and Saturday, 1000 and 1500 from São João del Rei, returning from Tiradentes at 1300 and 1700, Sunday and holidays 1000 and 1300 from São João del Rei, 1100 and 1400 from Tiradentes, US$15 return.

Tiradentes tourist office is in the Prefeitura on the main square, Largo das Forras 

i R Resende Costa 71, T032-3355 1212, www.tiradentes.mg.gov.br and www.tiradentes.net, open 0900-1700 daily. 

There is also a useful App: Achou Tiradentes.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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