Separated from the Atlantic by the small state of Espírito Santo, Minas Gerais in particular attracts visitors to its beautiful colonial-era towns, to its spa resorts created in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and to Belo Horizonte, its thriving capital. The state’s pre-eminent administrative, industrial and cultural metropolis, Belo Horizonte lies in the centre of the rich mining and agricultural hinterland that has made the state one of the economic powerhouses of Brazil, running from the coffee estates of western Minas to the mines and cattle pastures of the valley of the Rio Doce, in the east. The largest cities of the region apart from Belo Horizonte are Juiz de Fora in the south, Governador Valadares to the east, and Uberaba and Uberlândia in the west – all modern and unprepossessing; only Belo Horizonte can honestly be recommended as worth visiting. All mineiros would agree the soul of the state lies in the rural areas, in the colonial-era hill and mountain villages and towns of its vast interior. North of Belo Horizonte, the grassy slopes and occasional patches of forest are swiftly replaced by the stubby trees and savanna of the Planalto Central and, in northeastern Minas, by the cactus, rock and perennial drought of the sertão – as desperately poor and economically backward as anywhere in the Northeast. The northern part of the state is physically dominated by the hills and highlands of the Serra do Espinhaço, a range running north–south through the state like a massive dorsal fin before petering out south of Belo Horizonte. To its east, the Rio Jequitinhonha sustains life in the parched landscapes of the sertão mineiro; to the west is the flat river valley of the Rio São Francisco, which rises here before winding through the interior of the Northeast. The extreme west of the state is known as the Triângulo Mineiro, a wealthy, but for visitors uninteresting, agricultural region centred on the city of Uberlândia, with far closer economic ties with São Paulo than with the rest of Minas Gerais. In the southwest of the state, in fine mountainous scenery near the border with São Paulo, are a number of spa towns built around mineral-water springs including the small and quiet resorts of São Lourenço and Caxambu. Minas Gerais’ cidades históricas, “the historic cities”, represent some of the finest examples of Portuguese colonial architecture, and are repositories of a great flowering of eighteenth-century Baroque religious art; arte sacra mineira was the finest work of its time in the Americas, and Minas Gerais can lay claim to undisputably the greatest figure in Brazilian cultural history – the mulatto leper sculptor, Aleijadinho, whose magnificent work is scattered throughout the state’s wonderfully preserved historic cities. The most important of the cidades históricas are Ouro Preto, Mariana and Sabará, all within easy striking distance of Belo Horizonte, the state’s modern capital, and Congonhas, São João del Rei, Tiradentes and Diamantina, further afield. Espírito Santo is the kind of place you rarely hear about, even within Brazil. With the exception of its coastal resorts, it’s almost completely off the tourist map. This is hard to understand, as the interior of the state has some claim to being one of the most beautiful parts of Brazil. Settled mostly by Italians and Germans, it has a disconcertingly European feel – cows graze in front of German-looking farm houses, and, if it weren’t for the heat, palm trees, coffee bushes and hummingbirds darting around, you might imagine yourself somewhere in the foothills of the Alps. Vast numbers of mineiros head for Espírito Santo for their holidays, but are only interested in the beaches, the one thing landlocked Minas lacks. This has the fortunate effect of cramming all the crowds into an easily avoidable coastal strip, leaving the interior free for you to explore. The only places of any size in Espírito Santo are Vitória, a rather grimy city saved by a fine location (on an island surrounded by hills and granite outcrops) and Vila Velha, its equally uninspiring twin city. During colonial times, these were amongst the few spots on the coast that could be easily defended from the Botocudo Indians. This is one of the reasons the interior is relatively thinly settled; the other is the sheer difficulty of communications in the steep, thickly forested hills. The semi-deciduous tropical forest that once carpeted much of the southern coast of Brazil still survives relatively unscathed here – and is what southern Minas would have looked like before the gold rushes. The best way to view the region is to make the round of the towns that began as German and Italian colonies: Santa Teresa, Santa Leopoldina, Santa Maria, Domingos Martins and Venda Nova – the last near the remarkable sheer granite face of Pedra Azul, one of the least-known but most spectacular sights in the country.
Top image: Baroque churches Igreja de Sao Francisco de Assis and Santuario de Nossa Senhora do Carmo, Mariana © Uwe Bergwitz/Shutterstock