Diamantina itself, scattered down the steep side of a rocky valley, faces escarpments the colour of rust; the setting has a lunar quality you also come across in parts of the Northeast’s sertão. In fact, at Diamantina you’re not quite in the sertão – that begins roughly at Araçuaí, some 300km to the north – but in the uplands of the Serra do Espinhaço, the highlands that form the spine of the state. Almost as soon as you leave Belo Horizonte, the look of the land changes to the stubby trees and savanna of the Planalto Central, the inland plateau that makes up much of central Brazil. Roughly halfway to Diamantina, the road forks – left to Brasília and the Planalto proper, right to Diamantina and the sertão.
You hit the highland foothills soon after the town of Curvelo, and from then on the route is very scenic. The well-maintained road winds its way up spectacularly forbidding hills, the granite outcrops enlivened by cactus, wild flowers and the bright yellow and purple ipê trees, until it reaches the upland plateau, 1300m above sea level. The plateau heralds yet another change: windswept moorland with few trees and strange rock formations. Look carefully on the left and you’ll see traces of an old stone road, with flagstones seemingly going nowhere. This is the old slave road, which for over a century was the only communication line between southern Minas and the sertão.