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.


GingerV said...

Jim, very nice post. Exploring for small places was one of our favorite things to do. Our exploring tended to be close to Friburgo.... Were we could drive out and back on a Sunday afternoon. Here are a few.

Aryel Lanes said...

What a great post, Jim! I'm also planning on visiting Ouro Preto to see if I can come up with a good post for my blog. My parents have already been there (twice), and they never stop talking about how much history you can "feel" in this tiny city. It's good to see that you're having a good time here. :)