Sunday, April 13, 2014

Room available in Rio for the World Cup

Those are the magic words so many people are trying to hear. As the World Cup approaches the frenzy to tie down suitable housing arrangements all over Brazil has reached a fever pitch. Take a breath. Cool down. I've got some practical advice to help you find the room you require.

There are still great rooms available (like this one, for example). And dare I say it: there will likely still be rooms to find even after the Cup has begun. Let me lay it out.

First things first. If you are looking for that nice hotel in the popular Copacabana/Ipanema/Leblon tourist-friendly beach side zone in Rio, well then, you probably should have had your people call their people a long time ago. Reports that “all” of the hotel rooms in Rio are booked started coming out weeks ago. The easy stuff in the nice locations are gone. Period. Let it go. Just going to a hotel website and booking a room is no longer an option. You can take a little solace in knowing that the folks who got those rooms paid through the nose for them. Hotels have been shameless in their inflated pricing and minimum stay requirements. Chances are great you will ultimately wind up with a perfectly suitable place for a lot less money.

So now what? What’s a Cup fan to do? Let’s get real, practical and specific – and get off the well-worn hotel path. Luiz and I have traveled to many corners of the globe during all seasons of the year. We generally travel on a limited budget prioritizing our safety while also not being shy about staying somewhere completely unexpected. Here are several approaches that have worked for us that may well help you secure your booking.

This is cute, but it is not a good map. Get a good map.

Before we get into it- get a map. Get a good map, not a tourist map that makes Rio look like just three rich neighborhoods with beaches plus outlying areas. Open up your map and locate where you need to go while at your location, where you prefer to stay, and where you would consider staying. Then identify the bus, Metro and taxi routes that weave in and around those areas. If there is a subway system (Metro), and of course Rio has one but there may be readers looking beyond Rio, then expand your “would consider” areas to include those areas around Metro stops that are perhaps further out than you had first considered. The subway will whisk you about very quickly, so being further out is compensated for. The larger your area under consideration the larger your chances of thoughtful, realistic success.

And don’t stop at city boundaries. Places like Niterói, for example, may be a neighboring city to Rio but travel times to and from matches will actually be faster from some areas in Niterói than from some (seemingly more desirable) areas within Rio. Traffic and transportation routes can easily warp travel times. And traffic within the city proper can be nightmarish. In the case of Rio and Niterói there is a ferry service between them that often trims 20 – 30 minutes or more off taking a car, taxi or bus between the same points.

Private rentals

Utilize the websites that post private homes and rooms within homes for rent. Places like Airbnb, HomeAway, and misterbnb, to name a few, are part of a growing number of “vacation rentals” websites growing in popularity. These sites are great for connecting you directly with people who have opened up their home/apartment or a room therein in locations in and around where you want to be. (Normally I would suggest checking out the couchsurfing website for more options, but I have heard again and again in recent weeks that this option is pretty well sewn up.) The vast majority of hosts and guests that utilize these services report having a flawless experience and guests often report enjoying the accommodations better than the typical (and typically more expensive) hotel room.

This looks pretty typical for a living and kitchen space in a regular one or two bedroom apartment.

This is a little more on the higher end of things.

The prices listed by hosts at these sites during the month of the World Cup vary from the ridiculously expensive, often posted by those looking to cash in on the “screw-the-tourists” WC fever going on here, to the great value room that offers more than a hotel for less money, to the VERY cheap opportunity that is perfectly doable but may be in a location or situation you had not previously considered - and is available if you just choose to give it a go.

Be sure to expand your search criteria on these sites to include any neighboring cities you have under consideration.

The great thing about these self-hosting sites is that just as you have been procrastinating to finally nail down your housing, so have home hosts been procrastinating to finally post their unit or room for rent, so new good stuff, often in great locations, continues to appear. If you don’t find anything one day, continue to visit the site and watch for new listings. Once a first-time host books their apartment they will tell their friends and get them on board for listing theirs as well, so another great place may open up soon thereafter. Monitor these sites over time. Luiz and I have a room in our apartment that is available. Check out our listing here.

OK, so that was an obvious option. Here’s another route that produces fresh results that may be off the organized room-rental grid.

Social networking

Duh… Capitalize on the networks you have in place for work and your personal life. Utilize those online social networking sites. I am a member of several Facebook Groups in the Rio area that connect gringos, including groups related to cooking and dining, “garage sale”- stuff for sale, employment networking, bloggers, expats, etc. These groups are comprised of folks on the ground in Rio and beyond that can quickly expand your eyes and ears when searching for a place to rent. Just last week one group member mentioned that they had a couple friends from Europe looking for a place and within a few hours a half dozen group members posted that they had rooms or entire apartments for rent. Drill down into these sites. Search for relevant groups and politely post your needs. If they are closed groups see if the administrator will let you make a one-time post. Be friendly and fun – don’t be an ugly troll. Match the vibe of the group you are poking your head into. Many of these groups prohibit posting solicitations, so consider reaching out to members to make a personal connection and then make your request for local assistance in a private message.

Simple room on the higher end.

As usual, asking everyone you know to ask everyone they know will do wonders for your search.

Utilize forums on travel sites

Sites like Lonely Planet, TripAdvisor. Fodor’sTravel, VirtualTourist, etc. have forums (discussion boards) where travelers ask questions of each other and self-appointed helpful locals. The people who frequent these forums as helpers are usually very eager to offer advice to others. Locate the forums section and key into the city you are targeting (I've linked to Rio above). You can post your need for a room or an apartment to rent there. Also request any insider tips folks may have for those off-the-grid options in those cities.

Pretty typical efficiency kitchen.

Newer two or three bedroom apartments may have a kitchen like this.
I have seen multiple posts lately, at several of the forums I haunt, from World Cup visitors who have already booked space but their travel companions have bailed on them. So now they are looking to hook up with other travelers at the last minute to fill out the space and share the costs already incurred. So it is worth checking in at these sites periodically to see if fellow travelers are looking for you. If you post a request for help or reply to a comment already on the board you can have notice of subsequent comments sent to your email, so you can post requests at multiple sites and not have to circle back and check them all the time.

Consider staying in a favela community

Rio’s favelas (usually defined as poor, slum areas) get a pretty nasty rep in the international press. Heck, most of the time they get a wicked nasty rep in our local press. To the uninformed person looking from the outside in most favelas can look like pretty intimidating, nasty and dicey places. That may be, in fact,  an accurate description for many, many such areas. But there are exceptions. For good or for bad there have been municipally organized incursions into several of Rio’s favela communities by police forces to “pacify” these areas. The stated intention is to win back control of these communities for law-abiding residents and to deny that control to drug traffickers and their minions. This effort has been met with mixed reactions by residents and mixed results by police. Let’s just save that discussion for another time.

For our purposes here it is worth noting that there are indeed some areas in some favelas in Rio that offer very good and relatively safe accommodation opportunities during the Cup. Many poor neighborhoods are just neighborhoods with poor folks living there. Not much drama. And those folks often have perfectly comfortable housing which some are opening up to visitors to rent during their stay in Rio.

Check out Favela Experience’s World Cup Accommodations website for some unlikely yet terrific options. I will remind you that most of the rich folks in Rio live down by the water/beach. The poor folks live in the favelas that have been climbing up the steep hillsides for decades. That means the favela residents have all the killer views.

Book a room in a favela and prepare to have your preconceptions shattered.

Work it out on foot

Yep. That’s right. Just show up and figure it out. It can be done. It works. But it is not for everyone.

This is where I offer my pep talk about the power of personality: your self confidence that allows you to go this route; your gregariousness that enables you to speak to practically everyone you meet to ask for their help; and your gut feeling that keeps you calm and safe in situations that you may not have planned to be in. 

This fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to traveling is not new or all that rare. But it is not for everyone.

In our experience, between Luiz and I, we have found perfectly suitable and quite reasonably priced rooms upon arrival in P-Town, Massachusetts during the 4th of July weekend, in Cabo Frio, Brazil during Carnaval and in Venice, Italy the day before Carnavale. ALL of those situations are simply written off as a fool’s errand by armchair travelers who insist on booking ahead.

The thing to keep in mind is that there are most certainly more rooms available than most people know how to access. I once found a room in the Latin Quarter in Paris upon arrival and paid less than half of what I would have paid for most anything available online in advance. I had to walk down a few side streets and inquire at a number of unlikely places, but it panned out in less than a few hours.

Many, many local hotels do not have a website or are not even on consolidated business association websites. So searching for space via the internet shows only a portion of what’s out there. You need to walk up and down every street in your (prioritized) “preferred” or “would consider” neighborhoods and stop at every hotel and inquire. If they are full, ask where they might suggest you look. Just because a hotel is relatively invisible beyond its front door does not necessarily mean it is not worth staying at. Certainly preview the rooms, but keep an open mind. You may be very pleasantly surprised. The available room may have a balcony overlooking a magical hidden garden area. Many family owned hotels are just not working the business networking thing. There are scores of these types of hotels in Rio.

The trick behind making this pressured search work is: a) trust you will find a room, b) travel light so you can search without lugging around multiple pieces of luggage, c) give yourself some time to search before it gets dark. Don’t arrive at 5 p.m. and expect success before the sun goes down. d) speak to EVERYONE you come in contact with and ask for help, e) if you find a place that is fully occupied, question everyone there about their ideas for where else to look (once a clerk at a small hotel in Cusco, Peru agreed to call her brother at another hotel which lead us to a tip that paid off), f) include in your requests for help a friendly suggestion that you would pay to be a home guest at their place or the place of someone they might suggest (again, this has worked out well for us in the past), g) don’t give up easily. Enjoy the hunt. Rather than get all stressed, know that it is going to take time and effort and just pace yourself. Take in the neighborhood feel and notice the architecture around you. Stop for lunch or a coffee, etc. It’s only a fool’s errand if you give up too easily and act the fool while looking.

One of our best week long stays came about by meeting someone at an ice cream parlor who, after chatting for a bit, offered to move her and her baby out of her home and into her mother’s place to then rent us her house. She needed the money and we needed a place to stay. Win, win. Plus we had all the conveniences of home. Then there was the time in relatively rural Turkey where our inquiring around for a great place for dinner resulted in a guy giving us a ride (to and from) his brother’s restaurant a few miles away. The food was excellent. People who need the money will help you find a solution. Wear a smile and talk to everyone. And have fun with it.

If all else fails consider spending the night in one of Rio’s hundreds of “love hotels,” generally labeled motels. These establishments are in most areas and can vary from pretty fancy setups where all the magic happens to seriously funky flop houses where you should probably use your own sheets. But seriously, many of these motels can be a reasonable place to spend a night to get a fresh start on your neighborhood search in the morning.

Perhaps I digress. Admittedly most folks going to the World Cup did not pay all that money for air travel and game tickets to find themselves sleeping in a temporarily-converted children's room and doubled up with three generations of residents in a private home or in a room adjacent to a sex worker’s home base. I guess my point is to think outside the box and know that a solution is out there for those willing to put in the shoe leather to find it.

So to wrap up… 

The bad news (which you already know) is that if you have read this far you probably have plans to be in Brazil for the World Cup but you have yet to secure all the housing you need during your stay. The good news is that you still have a lot of time to sort things out. But don’t delay any further. Get to work putting some of these tips into action. People with extra cash in their possession can usually pay someone to solve their problem for them (and in the case of the World Cup they will get very expensive accommodation, for sure). The rest of us have to produce some personal magic, otherwise known as hard work.

Don’t panic. You still have time. Now get to it. Being in Brazil for the World Cup is going to be amazing and worth all your efforts. Good luck!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Cooking spanakopita 6,000 miles from its home

I am not Greek, although Luiz and I have had the joy of spending a couple of weeks exploring several cities in Greece, as well as several Greek islands in the Mediterranean. I have also been to Greek Cyprus and Luiz and I have been to Turkey as well. While the Greeks and the Turks have not gotten along very well in recent history (given that whole unresolved Turkish invasion of Cyprus thing starting back in the 1970s) they share some common ground in their culinary traditions. But – I don’t want to poke a stick at that sleeping lion. I just want to share my recent adventure cooking spanakopita, a delicious spinach pie that I have eaten in various forms over many years and in many countries. This time – in Brazil.

Cooking ethnic foods at home is an ongoing theme among expats in Brazil. So many of us have cravings for international dishes that we just can’t find in restaurants. (Those living in São Paulo have better luck in this regard.) About a week ago I was combing the aisles of Pão de Açúcar, a high-end supermarket near our apartment, looking for Sriracha hot sauce. I didn't find the hot sauce but I did spot phyllo dough (or philo, or filo; fillo in Portuguese) in the freezer section. Eureka!

Living the strategy of getting while the getting is good, I bought a box and started dreaming up the possibilities.

I still use the cookbook I bought in the early 1980s. I've had to put it into a binder but she still gives me what I need.

Spanakopita was the obvious choice. I’ve got a super delicious recipe I learned over 30 years ago and have been pleasing crowds with ever since. Time to break it out and introduce some folks to a Greek favorite.

Like I said, I am not Greek. My recipe, which I LOVE, is not one passed down to me by someone’s Greek grandmother nor was it coaxed out of a family restaurant chef after a three hour meal with new friends on the Greek island of Samos. This gem of a recipe is a proven fabulous Greek spinach pie suitable as a main dish published in the Moosewood Cookbook (plus my personal tweaks). Given the realities of shopping in Niterói I had to make a few modifications. But the end result was just as I remembered it and EVERYONE loved it.

Here we go. Heads up – you will need a pastry brush to get the job done.

This recipe takes about 1.5 hours to prepare (incl. baking) and makes 8 adult servings as a main dish. It is a generous, “double-decker” pie. It could be halved, made in a single layer, and be served as a side.


- 2 cups (about 275g) crumbled feta cheese. [I have only once seen feta cheese in a store in Niterói and it was sold in a tiny quantity packaged as a crumbled salad topping. Price prohibitive. Others in Rio have had better luck and mention Apetina feta made by Arla (imported) as an affordable and tasty option when it can be found in finer grocery stores. It runs about R$95 per kilogram. The less affordable Brazilian-made feta runs more than R$225/kilo. So – no surprise here – I substitute a firm but smooth ricotta. Choose wisely. Some Brazilian ricottas can be very dry and firm beyond what is right for this recipe. Pick a ricotta that gives a bit when you gently squeeze it.]
- 5 medium eggs, slightly beaten
- 2 Tbs. flour (as needed, to help make a dryer filling mixture)
- 3 Tbs. butter for sautéing
- 1.5 cups chopped onions
- 1.5 cups chopped fresh mushrooms (I know, nobody puts mushrooms in their spanakopita… but I do.) Cremini would be great if you can find them. I cannot. So I used shitake.
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 cups cottage cheese (500g)
- one bunch of scallions, chopped
- 2 lbs. fresh spinach (1 kilogram) Frankly, you could double the spinach and it would still look like too little after you gently steam it down. I err on the side of going overboard. It is a spinach pie after all, not a cottage cheese and feta/ricotta pie. But there is the cleaning and stemming thing you have to deal with. So just make sure you use at least the minimum. Note to the cooks in Brazil – I’m sure you have noticed the spinach here can be significantly tougher than what you may have had elsewhere. That means you really do want to remove the stems. So if you are buying handy bags of ‘cleaned’ spinach (which here is another silly over statement) you want to go through it and pinch off those tough stems.
- Some fresh basil, chopped [I also added some chopped mint, not too much, to bring a bit of zing. I was worried the lack of feta was going to make things too bland.]
- ½ tsp. oregano
- 1/4 tsp. nutmeg (my secret ingredient when making things like this with ricotta)
- Salt and pepper to taste [Note: I added a bit more salt than usual because I did not have the salt in the filling coming from the feta. Be sure to taste.]
- 1/8  cup sesame seeds (25g or so)
- 1 lb package of phyllo dough, defrosted – Note that the package I found was a 300g quantity, so you will need two of them. More about this early mistake on my part later…
- 1.5 lb melted butter (a 200g pkg will do the trick) for assembly


Preheat your oven to 375° F (190° C or more depending on your oven)

Clean, stem and tear or chop the spinach. Salt it slightly and cook it, adding no additional water, for just a few minutes to wilt it. This is brief. Do not cook it down to a dull green mush. Let it cool some and then squeeze out the excess liquid. Carefully fluff it back to individual bits of spinach (do not leave it in clumps).

Sauté the onions and garlic in butter, salting lightly. Add the chopped mushrooms and cook minimally, but get their wonderfulness into the mix. When it looks and smells perfect remove from heat and combine with the rest of the ingredients. Add the fluffed up spinach. Stir lovingly.

See how that spinach cooks down dramatically?
Mix it all together.

So now you have a big bowl with the sautéed stuff, the spinach, the cheeses, beaten eggs, herbs and spices all mixed together and ready to go. Taste it and correct the seasoning to your preferences.

Here’s my pep talk regarding the use of phyllo dough: Be brave. Be confident. Don’t freak out. It’s all gonna be OK. This stuff looks like a pain (and it is, a little) but it is not as delicate as it looks. It can take a little manhandling. Yeah, it can tear a little and straight-out-of-the-box dried edges which were not your fault can make your job harder than it should have been. Just put on some music, pour yourself some wine, and take it all in stride. Ultimately, in terms of the final product, this dough is VERY forgiving. The layers can be a mess, but with just one intact leaf on top you have a picture perfect spanakopita. How you got there can be your little secret. And who knows – maybe you will get a really cooperative batch and sail through the whole procedure glitch free. It happens.

After your dough has returned to room temperature, open the package and unfold the sheets/leaves of dough so you have one stack. Lightly and evenly wet a tea towel squeezing out all the water. This is your humidifier that is going to keep your dough from drying out while you assemble this amazing pie. Place the towel over the stack of dough leaves when you are not otherwise fiddling with them. If your towel is too wet and you fear it will add moisture to the dough place a sheet of parchment paper (papel manteiga will do) over the stack first, then the towel.

Arrange your work space so the dough, the melted butter and brush, your filling, the 9x13 baking pan and your wine are all close at hand. Breathe. You can do this.

Brush some melted butter on the bottom of your pan. Place one leaf of the dough, centered, in the pan. It will outsize the pan, just let it climb the sides. Brush this layer of dough with butter, including up the sides of the pan. Repeat this placing of layers and spreading with melted butter until you have 6 or 8 layers down. I say 6 or 8 because you want to use a little more than 1/3 of them on the bottom, then the same amount in the middle and then a few less for the final, top layer. So if you are having trouble with the dough and have had to scrap a leaf of so – don’t panic, just adjust your number of layers so as to keep enough to complete the task.

When your first set of dough leaves is complete spread ½ of the luscious filling all around. Continue with another 8 or so layers of dough. Don’t skimp on the melted butter and don’t worry about the corners that are now getting a little crowded with pleated dough – they are going to be the super-buttery areas of the pie for those who like that sort of thing.

Sometimes the dough will begin to tear when you try to separate one sheet. This is usually because it hits a dry spot/edge or a spot where one layer has been pressed too firmly into the other and they are stuck together. Stop pulling immediately and try to work around the spot from various angles to free it. Tears will only continue and get worse once they start. If separating the layers is impossible without things tearing into two or more pieces – no sweat. Just remove the sheet in bits and reconstruct the sheet in your baking pan. Spread it with butter, sip your wine, and carry on. No harm done.

After your second set of leaves spread the remaining filling over the whole thing. Continue placing layers of dough and butter until you have three sheets left. IMPORTANT: that last one or two layers in the stack are probably NOT going to be flawless. They have been offering up their perfectness to the benefit of the entire stack since the factory. By now they are likely to be a little worse for wear. So – remember I suggested you save a perfect leaf for the top? Plan ahead, because it is not likely to be your last leaf in the stack.

Ready to bake.

When you are about three or four layers from the end, carefully fold over all that excess dough you have spilling out over the top/edge of the pan. Use your butter brush to wet it down. Now use your last few perfect leaves to delicately finish off the pie. Trim to the outside pan size if necessary. Brush butter over the whole top and sprinkle evenly with sesame seeds.

Place the pan into your preheated oven and bake for about 45 minutes – until golden.

Smile. Sip you wine. You did it.

My particular tale this time around, on the other hand, took a bit of a left turn halfway through. Not noticing that the box of phyllo dough contained only 300g and seeing as I bought only one package, I had only enough dough to make one layer of the pie. It’s all good – one layer is probably more common a format anyway, plus my Brazilian friends and family didn't know the difference. But I was stuck with ½ of my filling mixture.

So I returned to the store the next day and bought another package of the dough. This time I made those cute little spanakopita triangles you have probably seen at cocktail parties. Easy-peasy.

Just pull off one leaf of the dough, cut it into three strips, brush the dough with butter, place a small spoon of the filling off to one side at the end of a strip and then fold in triangles like a flag. Place on a baking sheet, brush the tops with butter and bake for about 20 minutes. It’s a little bit of work – but they are so cute! And they taste just as wonderful as the whole pie version.

In addition to those I baked immediately, I put 8 triangles in two layers separated by parchment paper into Ziplock bags and placed them in the freezer for later use.

There you have it. Let me know what you think. Tell me your secret tips for success with phyllo dough. And definitely give this a try on your own.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Two hidden mountain towns near Ouro Preto

Workers on break enjoying the view in Catas Altas.

Taking the back roads is hands down our favorite way to see Brazil in all its humble glory. Discovering tiny towns with their simple beauty, historic architecture, local pride, living history – and occasionally some fresh cheese or fresh sausage drying in the air to round it all off, count me in.

During our recent visit to Ouro Preto (OP) in Minas Gerais we identified two nearby towns worth exploring: Lavras Novas and Catas Altas.

Just 17 kilometers outside of Ouro Preto is the little town of Lavras Novas. It is sufficiently tiny and located sufficiently close to OP that for governmental purposes in modern history it has been incorporated as a “district” of OP, essentially a far flung neighborhood. But its history tells a much more rich and interesting story.

Founded in 1717 this mountain village served to shelter early gold miners. Historical reports indicate that gold was discovered in this area prior to it being discovered in neighboring Ouro Preto. The central chapel was erected in 1740. Over the years the gold supply dwindled and most folks relocated to nearby towns such as OP. But many stayed behind and worked farms and honed crafts like basket weaving and wood carving. Town representatives would take fabricated goods to Ouro Preto for sale and return with purchased essentials for living. Word is that the town was a rather insulated, hard to reach village living out a rather socialist/collectivist communal strategy.

One tale about the town that many dispute is that by the late 18th century the town operated as a quilombo. Quilombos were towns and villages (even some cities) in Brazil that were refuges for freed and escaped African slaves and their allies. Most were located in remote, defensible locations that offered maximum safety and security for residents from those who would seek to capture and re-enslave them. Given the (then) remote and difficult to access nature of Lavras Novas and its long-time majority black population this tale took root. But others suggest that it was simply too near to Ouro Preto to have been an effective location for a quilombo and that its black residents were freed slaves choosing an alternative, more appealing community to OP.

Whatever the case may be, this present day town of about 1,500 people remains a majority black community that still sports a ridiculously, seriously rugged access road (which, unbelievably, sees daily bus traffic to and from Ouro Preto).

Our casual day trip took us to town just to look around a bit. The town has developed a pretty good tourist infrastructure with pousadas and several eco-tourism adventure services. The surrounding area is great for hiking and includes several beautiful waterfalls.

We just wandered around the central area and took pictures.

Always on the lookout for the unexpected, I spotted an artisan basket studio where we stopped in and bought a few dried gourd cabasa plant holders that Luiz envisioned as creative containers for flower arrangements. Out of the car window while leaving town I caught a glimpse of a sign on the front of a rather worn house that advertised fresh goat’s milk for sale.

Carlos was good enough to stop so we could inquire if they might have any goat cheese for sale. There was a little bell thingy at the front gate with a sign that read: “Ring bell and wait!” Luiz gave it a go and we waited. Rang it again. Then again. We were just about to return to the car when a young man appeared at an open window and called out. After some friendly chatter he offered to take a look in “the laboratory” to see if they had anything firming up.  Then… bingo – we scored. He only had one cake of cheese but he offered to sell it to us for R$15, a quite reasonable price. The next morning over coffee we discovered it was really yummy, a bit too fresh and mellow perhaps, but yummy all the same.

It was thanks to a tip from a fellow back roads traveler on a gringos Facebook group I frequent that I discovered the other nearby town of Catas Altas.  He had posted a link to these terrific images of the town. Carlos assured me it was a brief 70 kilometers drive from OP to get there, so we planned another day trip of discovery.

This place was/is beautiful. It’s plunked on top of the mountains with views in every direction. Typical for the region, Catas Altas was originally an outpost housing gold miners working lucrative mines (or rather, excavations) way up at high altitudes. Thus the name Catas Altas (high excavations). Local records date the original settlement to 1694. The first baptism recorded at the original town chapel was dated in 1712. Construction of the larger church that replaced the original chapel began in 1729. That building, occupying the main town square, still functions today and (in typical showy church fashion) sports a glorious interior that outstrips any other structure  in town in terms of extravagance.

The historic church in the central square.
Dogs in repose at church entrance.

Once we arrived in town we parked near the church and walked to various points in search of further exploration information. You know, the typical stuff: we talked to the lady at the bakery, chatted up the woman at the register at the little market, tried to get some useful information from the woman guarding the church entrance (and insisting on R$2 to enter – even if you just wanted to say a prayer), asked a few questions of the man selling aluminum pots and pans on the curb around the square, checked in with the gals at the pharmacy, and eventually spoke with the woman cleaning the local school library.

As the tourist office was unexpectedly closed (folks said they were surely exhausted from the Carnaval weekend and probably would be open again in a few days – haha), we had to shake down the locals for directions to the nearby waterfall we had heard of. With just one false start out of town and then two wrong turns past the water pipe filling the cows’ drinking pond we finally found the dirt trail of a road that took us to within a short walk of the waterfall.

The view back down to town from the waterfall spot.

 Aside from the waterfall, the town was pretty stingy with its treasures. I am often accused of chasing rainbows when I insist on looking around every corner in these small towns. But my experience has resulted in way more hits than misses in this regard. The really cool stuff (like the fresh goat cheese place) don’t just jump out and grab you. You gotta do some work, especially in places that don’t have a big tourism budget to help visitors find the residents’ art studios or the local historical society (if it even exists).

Public water fountain.

I did find a fresh loaf of sweet coconut bread sitting at the grocery checkout counter for just R$3. That counts as a good find in the absence of more obvious bits of interest.

After a thorough going over, a splash in the waterfall, picture taking and a fine Minas style lunch at a wood fire buffet we called it a day and headed back to Ouro Preto.

This is the delivery entrance to the town's appliance store.

If you plan a visit I must warn you that the mountain area surrounding the town is pretty torn up by big mining companies gouging into the hillside for iron ore. It’s pretty nasty. But fear not. Once you get close to the town the mining fades into the background and you are transported back in history.