If you’re in São João between Friday and Sunday, don’t miss the half-hour train ride to the colonial village of Tiradentes, 12km away. There are frequent buses too (8 daily from São João’s rodoviária), but they don’t compare to the trip on a nineteenth-century steam train, with immaculately maintained rolling stock from the 1930s. You may think yourself immune to the romance of steam, and be bored by the collection of old steam engines and rail equipment in São João’s nineteenth-century station on Avenida Hermílio Alves – the Estação Ferroviária (museum open Tues–Sun 9–11am & 1–5pm) – but by the time you’ve bought your ticket you’ll be hooked: the booking hall is right out of a 1930s movie, the train hisses and spits out cinders and as you sit down in carriages filled with excited children, it’s all you can do not to run up and down the aisle with them.
Built in the 1870s, as the textile industry took off in São João, this was one of the earliest rail lines in Brazil, and the trains were immediately christened Maria-Fumaça, “Smoking Mary”. The service runs only on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and holidays, when trains leave São João at 10am and 3pm, returning from Tiradentes at 1pm and 5pm (w http://www.city10.com.br/efom; R$25 return), or you could get one of the many local buses back to São João. Sit on the left leaving São João for the best views, and as far from the engine as you can: steam trains bring tears to your eyes in more ways than one.
The half-hour ride is very scenic, following a winding valley of the Serra de São José, which by the time it gets to Tiradentes has reared up into a series of rocky bluffs. The train travels through one of the oldest areas of gold mining in Minas Gerais, and from it you’ll see clear traces of the eighteenth-century mine workings in the hills. In the foreground, the rafts on the river have pumps that suck up alluvium from the river bed, from which gold is extracted by modern garimpeiros, heirs to over two centuries of mining tradition.