South of Diamantina, the main point of interest is the sleepy colonial town of Serro, a two-hour bus ride away. From Diamantina, there are two ways of getting there: on the main, asphalt-covered road or on the unpaved (but fairly good quality) road. One daily bus runs along the latter, passing through rugged, wide-open spaces with the almost lunar appearance occasionally interrupted by patches of vegetation where a stream flows through. Even in these conditions cattle can somehow graze and patches of land can be cultivated. Twenty-three kilometres from Diamantina in a lush valley there’s a very simple working fazenda where the nineteenth-century casa grande has been turned into a pousada. The Pousada Rural Recanto do Vale (t 31/3271-0200, w http://www.pousadarecantodovale.com.br; R$71-120) provides an opportunity to experience everyday life well off the beaten track. While pretty basic, the rooms are perfectly comfortable and the simple meals (entirely from the fazenda’s produce) are delicious and of great value at R$15. Horseriding can be arranged and there are easy walks to natural swimming spots.

Nine kilometres further along the road is SÃO GONÇALO DO RIO DAS PEDRAS, a delightful village in an oasis-like setting of palm trees and intensely green fields. Apart from an eighteenth-century church, and a few houses and bars, there’s very little to the place, but São Gonçalo’s tranquillity and its natural pools and waterfalls – good for bathing – make for an enjoyable break. There are several simple but extremely nice pousadas here, the best of which is undoubtedly the Refúgio dos 5 Amigos (t 38/3541-6037, w http://www.sgriodaspedras.com/refugio5amigos; R$71-120 half-board), located right in the centre of the village. While very simple, the pousada is tastefully furnished and impeccably maintained, and the owner, originally from Switzerland, knows every trail hereabouts. If that’s full, try the Pousada do Pequi (t 38/3541-6100, w http://www.pousadadopequi.com; R$71-120), with comfortable rooms and a friendly atmosphere.

Serro

Situated 90km south of Diamantina, SERRO is set in beautiful hill country, dominated by the eighteenth-century pilgrimage church of Santa Rita (Sat 3–7pm) on a rise above the centre, reached by steps cut into the slope. Little visited, this is not so much a place to see and do things as it is somewhere peaceful to unwind and appreciate the leisurely pace of life in small-town Minas. There are six colonial churches, but most are closed to visitors and the rest open only for a few hours on either Saturday or Sunday; a spate of thefts has made the keyholders reluctant to let you in. Founded in 1702, when gold was discovered in the stream nearby, Serro was at one time a rather aristocratic place. Across the valley, easily recognizable from the clump of palms, is the Chácara do Barão do Serro (Mon–Sat noon–5pm, Sun 9am–noon), which now houses the town’s Centro Cultural. The old house is a fascinating example of a nineteenth-century casa grande, and you are free to wander through the main building and the former slaves’ quarters outside.

Just along the road from here on Praça Cristiano Otoni, the Museu Regional (Tues–Sat noon–5.30pm, Sun 9am–noon; R$1) has a reasonable collection of period drawings and paintings, kitchen equipment and furniture. From the front of the museum you get a good view of the finest buildings in the village, namely the enormous Casa do Barão de Diamantina, clinging to the hillside, beautifully restored and now a school, and the twin Chinese towers of the Igreja da Matriz de Nossa Senhora da Conceição (daily noon–4pm). Dating from 1713, the church forms one end of a main street that is completely unspoilt; at the other end, up an extremely steep incline, at the historic centre’s highest point, is the very pretty eighteenth-century Igreja de Santa Rita from where there are fine views across the village and towards the surrounding countryside.

The Pousada Vila do Príncipe, just down from the Igreja de Santa Rita on the main street, Rua Antônio Honório Pires, at no. 38 (t 38/3541-1485; R$41-70), is the best place to stay; rooms are small and simple, but the views are fantastic. Also very central is the fairly basic Pousada Serrano, Travessa Magalhães 55 (t 38/3541-1949; R$41-70). There are few places to eat but try the simple Restaurante Itacolomi at Praça João Pinheiro 20, which has a good por kilo buffet of regional dishes at lunch and an à la carte menu in the evening. While here, be sure to sample the cheese, considered the best in Minas Gerais; the cooperative at Praça Ângelo Miranda 6 (Mon–Fri 7am–6pm, Sat 7am–1pm) has an excellent selection. The rodoviária (t 38/3541-1366) is almost in the centre, so ignore the attentions of the taxi drivers and walk uphill for some thirty metres to the heart of the village.