Diamantina, home town of Juscelino Kubitschek, the president responsible for the creation of Brasília, is the only important historic city to the north of Belo Horizonte and, at six hours by bus, is by some way the furthest from it. Yet the journey itself is one of the reasons for going there, as the road heads into the different landscapes of northern Minas on its way to the sertão mineiro. The second half of the 288-kilometre journey is the most spectacular, so to see it in daylight you need to catch a morning bus from Belo Horizonte.
Juscelino Kubitschek, one of Brazil’s great postwar presidents, was born in Diamantina in 1902 and spent the first seventeen years of his life in the town. His enduring monument is the capital city he built on the Planalto Central, Brasília, which fired Brazil’s and the world’s imagination and where his remains are interred (he was killed in a road accident in 1976). The house where he was born and his later home, Casa de Juscelino, is preserved as a shrine to his memory, on the steep Rua São Francisco, uphill from his statue at the bottom.
Juscelino had a meteoric political career, fuelled by his energy, imagination and uncompromising liberal instincts. You can understand his lifelong concern with the poor from the small, unpretentious house where he spent the first part of his life in poverty (Juscelino was from a poor Czech-gypsy family). Restoration has rather flattered the house, as the photos of how it was when he lived there make plain; with the exception of Lula, no Brazilian president has come from a humbler background. The photos and the simplicity of the house are very moving – a refreshing contrast to the pampered corruption of many of his successors.
Juscelino and his wife, Julia, are still sources of considerable pride for the inhabitants of the town he clearly never left in spirit. September 12, his birthday, is Diamantina’s most important festa, featuring music of all kinds performed in the town’s praças late into the night. Many of the bars still display photographs of him, largely dating from before he became president in 1956. And many still don’t believe his death was a genuine accident, just as few mineiros believe Tancredo really died of natural causes. The massive turnout for Juscelino’s funeral in Brasília in 1976 was one of the first times Brazilians dared to show their detestation of the military regime.
Unless approaching by car, by far the easiest way to get to Diamantina is by one of the six buses each day from Belo Horizonte, although there is also a daily bus from São Paulo. Although the rodoviária is not far from the centre of town, it’s on a steep hill, and the only way back to it once in the centre is by taxi (around R$10), unless you have the legs and lungs of a mountain goat. You can get free maps from the tourist office, tucked away at Praça Antônio Eulálio 53. You’re unlikely to find anyone who speaks English, but the staff will point you towards hotels and offer advice on excursions.
Hotels in Diamantina are plentiful and generally inexpensive. Although most are perfectly fine, none rival the atmosphere and levels of comfort that the best pousadas of Ouro Preto and Tiradentes offer.
The streets around the cathedral are the heart of the town, and there’s no shortage of simple bars and mineiro restaurants here, though the food on offer is rather monotonous; the area around Diamantina is almost entirely unsuited to agriculture, so traditionally almost all food had to be brought in from afar. Local dishes include little in the way of fresh ingredients, with the staples being beans, rice, salt pork, carne seca and bacalhau (salted cod). The Apocalipse Point, across from the market at Praça Barão do Guaicuí 78, is a popular por kilo restaurant (lunch only) with a good selection of typical mineira dishes; expect to pay around R$10–15 per person. Opposite the cathedral, the Restaurante Cantina do Marinho, at Rua Direita 113 and open daily for lunch and dinner, specializes in bacalhao dishes but also serves quite reasonable pizza. Along Beco da Tecla (an alleyway off the Praça Barão do Guaicuí), there are a few nice places to eat and drink: at no. 39 there’s the Recanto do Antônio (closed Mon), which has the appearance of a country tavern and serves beer, wine, sausage and carne do sol; at no. 31, lighter meals as well as good coffee and cakes are available at Espaço B, a small bookshop and internet café with a relaxed, bohemian atmosphere. This is one of the few places in town that remains open late: until midnight Monday to Thursday and 2am Friday to Sunday.
Diamantina goes to sleep early but, in addition to the Espaço B, there are several very popular bars on Boca do Mota, an alley off the cathedral square, and others on Rua Direita.
If you want to get a clearer idea of where the Jequitinhonha artesanato comes from, you have to head out into the sertão proper, and Diamantina is the obvious place to start your journey. Travelling into the Jequitinhonha Valley is not something to be undertaken lightly; it is one of the poorest and remotest parts of Brazil, the roads are bad, there are hardly any hotels except bare flophouse dormitórios, and you almost certainly won’t find anyone able to speak English.
If you need reasons, though, you don’t have to look much further than the scenery, which is spectacularly beautiful, albeit forbidding. The landscapes bear some resemblance to the deserts of the American Southwest, with massive granite hills and escarpments, cactus, rock, occasional wiry trees and people tough as nails speaking with the lilting accent of the interior of the Northeast. Here you’re a world away from the developed sophistication of southern and central Minas.
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.