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.
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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.
The cidades históricas
The cidades históricas of Minas Gerais – small enough really to be towns rather than cities – were founded within a couple of decades of each other in the early eighteenth century. Rough and violent mining camps in their early days, mineral wealth soon transformed them into treasure houses, not merely of gold, but also of Baroque art and architecture. Well preserved and carefully maintained, together the towns form one of the most impressive sets of colonial remains in the Americas, comparable only to the silver-mining towns that flourished in Mexico at roughly the same time. In Brazil, they are equalled only by the remnants of the plantation culture of the Northeast, to which they contributed much of the gold you see in the gilded churches of Olinda and Salvador.
Mariana is one of the major colonial towns, and in the first half of the eighteenth century was grander by far than its younger rival 12km to the west, Ouro Preto. Mariana was the administrative centre of the gold mines of central Minas until the 1750s and the first governors of Minas had their residence here and the first bishops their palace. Yet today Mariana’s churches are far less grand than its illustrious neighbour’s, and it’s really little more than a large village, albeit one that is steadily expanding. It does, however, have a perfectly preserved colonial centre, mercifully free of steep climbs, that is less crowded and commercialized than Ouro Preto. As Mariana is only a twenty-minute bus ride away, you might stay here if you can’t find a place in Ouro Preto.
São João del Rei
São João del Rei is the only one of the historic cities to have adjusted successfully to life after the gold rush. It has all the usual trappings of the cidades históricas – gilded churches, well-stocked museums, colonial mansions – but it’s also a thriving market town, easily the largest of the historic cities, with a population of just over 80,000. This modern prosperity complements the colonial atmosphere rather than compromising it, and, with its wide central thoroughfare enclosing a small stream, its stone bridges, squares and trees, São João is quite attractive. Come evening though, it’s a rather dreary place and overshadowed by Tiradentes, its much smaller and prettier neighbour, in terms of good places to stay.
Founded in 1699 on the São João River, the town had the usual turbulent early years, but distinguished itself by successfully turning to ranching and trade when the gold ran out early in the nineteenth century. São João’s carpets were once famous, and there is still a textile factory today. Among the famous names associated with São João are Tiradentes, who was born here, Aleijadinho, who worked here and, in more recent times, native son Tancredo Neves, the great mineiro politician who shepherded Brazil out of military rule when he was elected president in 1985. Tragically, Neves died before he took office and is buried in the closest thing the town has to a shrine in the cemetery of São Francisco.
São João’s colonial sections are complemented by some fine buildings from more recent eras, notably the end of the nineteenth century, when the town’s prosperity and self-confidence were high. The 1920s and 1930s were also good times – some of the vaguely Art-Deco buildings combine surprisingly well with the colonial ones. The main public buildings line the south bank of the stream, best viewed from Avenida Tancredo Neves on the north side; there’s a sumptuous French-style theatre (1893), and the graceful blue Prefeitura with an imposing Banco do Brasil building facing it. The relaxed atmosphere is reinforced by the number of bars and restaurants.
Igreja de São Francisco de Assis and Memorial Tancredo Neves
The most impressive of the town’s colonial churches, the Igreja de São Francisco de Assis, is one block off the western end of Avenida Eduardo Magalhães. Overlooking a square with towering palms – some more than a century old – the church, finished in 1774, is exceptionally large, with an ornately carved exterior by a pupil of Aleijadinho. The master himself contributed the intricate decorations of the side chapels, which can be seen in all their glory now the original paint and gilding has been stripped off. From the plaques, you’ll see the church has been visited by some illustrious guests, including former President Mitterand of France. They came to pay homage at the grave of Tancredo Neves, in the cemetery behind the church. Sunday at 9.15am is an especially good time to stop in, when eighteenth-century music is played to accompany Mass.
Tancredo was a canny and pragmatic politician in the Minas tradition, but with a touch of greatness; transition to civilian rule in 1985 is unlikely to have been so smoothly achieved without his skills. He was born and spent all his life in São João, where he was loved and is still very much admired. Eerily, to some, he died on the same day of the year as Tiradentes, who was also born in São João – their statues face each other in Praça Severiano de Rezende, on the other side of the Córrego do Lenheiro. Just around the corner from the Igreja de São Francisco, on Rua José Maria Xavier at the corner with Avenida Eduardo Magalhães, is the Memorial Tancredo Neves. This small nineteenth-century town house shelters a collection of personal artefacts and documents relating to the president’s life, and ex votos used to decorate his grave, thanking him “for graces granted” – only really of interest to those Brazilians for whom Tancredo was nothing less than a modern saint.
Museu de Arte Sacra and Rua Getúlio Vargas
Over on the other side of the stream, one block north from Avenida Tancredo Neves, lies the main street of the other colonial area, Rua Getúlio Vargas. The western end is formed by the small, early eighteenth-century Igreja da Nossa Senhora do Rosário, built for the town’s slave population, which looks onto a cobbled square dominated by two stunning colonial mansions. The one nearest the church is the Solar dos Neves, the family home of the Neves clan for over two centuries, the place where Tancredo was born and lived.
A couple of buildings east along from the Solar dos Neves is an excellent Museu de Arte Sacra, contained within another sensitively restored house. The collection is small but very good; highlights are a finely painted St George and a remarkable figure of Christ mourned by Mary Magdalene, with rubies representing drops of blood. As you go around, you’re accompanied by Baroque church music, which matches the pieces perfectly. The museum also has a small gallery for exhibitions by São João’s large artistic colony.
Catedral Basílica de Nossa Senhora de Pilar and other churches
Almost next door to the Museu de Arte Sacra on Avenida Getúlio Vargas is a magnificent early Baroque church, the Catedral de Nossa Senhora de Pilar, completed in 1721. The interior is gorgeous and only Pilar in Ouro Preto and Santo Antônio in Tiradentes are as liberally plastered with gold. The gilding is seen to best effect over the altar, a riot of Rococo pillars, angels and curlicues. The ceiling painting is all done with vegetable dyes, and there’s a beautiful tiled floor.
There are further churches to visit in this part of town, if you’re enthusiastic, though none of the same standard as either São Francisco or Pilar. The Igreja de Nossa Senhora das Mercês, behind Pilar, dates from 1750 and is notable for the variety and artistry of the graffiti, some of it dating back to the nineteenth century, etched into its stone steps, while the elegant facade of Nossa Senhora do Carmo dominates a beautiful triangular praça at the eastern end of Avenida Getúlio Vargas.
The Museu Regional
Near the cathedral, just off Avenida Tancredo Neves on Largo Tamandaré, is the excellent Museu Regional, housed in a magnificently restored colonial mansion. Perhaps the most fascinating pieces here are the eighteenth-century ex votos on the ground floor, their vivid illustrations detailing the trials both masters and slaves experienced: José Alves de Carvalho was stabbed in the chest while crossing a bridge on the way home in 1765; a slave called Antônio had his leg broken and was half-buried for hours in a mine cave-in. On the first floor, look out for the several figures of saints – crafted with a simplicity and directness that makes them stand out – made by ordinary people in the eighteenth century.
Although it was founded as early as 1702, by the 1730s Tiradentes had already been overshadowed by São João and is now little more than a sleepy village with a population of only 5000. The core is much as it was in the eighteenth century, straggling down the side of a hill crowned by the twin towers of the Igreja Matriz de Santo Antônio. Begun in 1710 and completed around 1730, it’s one of the earliest and largest of the major Minas Baroque churches; in 1732 it began to acquire the gilding for which it is famous, becoming in the process one of the richest churches in any of the mining towns. The church was decorated with the special extravagance of the newly rich, using more gold, the locals say, than any other church in Brazil, save the Capela Dourada in Recife. Whether this is true – and Pilar in Ouro Preto is probably as rich as either – the glinting of the gold around the altar is certainly impressive. You can tell how early the altar is from the comparative crudeness of the statues and carvings: formal, stiff and with none of the movement of developed Minas Baroque. The beautifully carved soapstone panels on the facade are not by Aleijadinho, as some believe, but by his pupil, Cláudio Pereira Viana, who worked with the master on his last projects.
From the steps of the church you look down an unspoilt colonial street – the old town hall with the veranda has a restored eighteenth-century jail – framed by the crests of the hills. If you had to take one photograph to summarize Minas Gerais, this would be it. Before walking down the hill, check out the Museu Padre Toledo, to the right of Santo Antônio as you’re standing on the steps. Padre Toledo was one of the Inconfidêntes and built the mansion that is now the museum. He obviously didn’t let being a priest stand in the way of enjoying the pleasures of life; the two-storey sobrado must have been very comfortable, and even though the ceiling paintings are dressed up as classical allegories, they’re not the sort of thing you would expect a priest to commission, featuring, as they do, so much naked flesh. The museum comprises the usual mixture of furniture and religious art, but the interesting part is the old slave quarters in the yard out back, now converted into toilets. A more substantial reminder of the slave presence is the Igreja da Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos, down the hill and along the first street to the right. There could be no more eloquent reminder of the harsh divisions between masters and slaves than this small chapel, built by slaves for their own worship. There is gilding even here – some colonial miners were freed blacks working on their own account – and two fine figures of the black St Benedict stand out, but overall the church is moving precisely because it is so simple and dignified.
The São João del Rei–Tiradentes train
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 – 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, 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.
Getting to São João del Rei
The centre of town is fifteen minutes’ walk southwest from the rodoviária, or you can take a local bus in. Local buses enter the old part of town along Avenida Tancredo Neves, with its small stream and grassy verges to your left. There’s a tourist office, across from the Catedral, where you can pick up a tourist booklet with a helpful map.
São João is divided into two main districts, each with a colonial area, separated by a small stream – the Córrego do Lenheiro – which runs between the broad Avenida Tancredo Neves, on the north side, and Avenida Hermílio Alves, which turns into Avenida Eduardo Magalhães, to the south. Relatively small and easy to find your way around, the districts are linked by a number of small bridges, including two eighteenth-century stone ones and a late nineteenth-century footbridge made of cast iron.
On the south side, the colonial zone is clustered around the beautiful Igreja de São Francisco de Assis, at the far western end of town. On the other side is the commercial centre, usually bustling with people, cars and the horse-drawn trailers of rural Minas. This commercial zone sprang up in the nineteenth century and shields the colonial area proper, several blocks of cobbled streets that jumble together Baroque churches, elegant mansions and the pastel fronts of humbler houses. For once you have the luxury of wandering around without losing your breath, as São João is largely flat.
Accommodation in São João del Rei
Finding somewhere to stay is rarely a problem as accommodation in São João is plentiful and good value, though hotels and pousadas here are not nearly as attractive as those in neighbouring Tiradentes. Bear in mind, however, that the town is a popular spot to spend Carnaval in, and Easter celebrations also attract huge numbers of visitors; at these times advance reservations are essential.
The Pousada Grande Hotel at Rua Manoel Anselmo 22, right in the centre overlooking the Lenheiro stream, is a favourite budget choice, though its basic rooms are rather noisy and lack air conditioning. Of the medium-range places, best value is the Hotel Ponte Real, a wonderful converted mansion near São Francisco church, with the added attraction of a small swimming pool. At a similar price, the Quinta do Ouro, towards the western end of Avenida Tancredo Neves on Praça Severiano de Resende (t 32/3371-2565; R$121-180), has four lovely rooms, three with salons (reservations essential). Top of the range, but excellent value and with a very good pool, is the comfortable Pousada Villa Magnólia, just outside of the historic centre at Rua Ribeiro Bastos 2.
São João del Rei and around food and drink
On the north side of the Lenheiro stream, on Praça Severiano de Rezende, you’ll find two of the town’s best restaurants: the Churrascaria Ramon, which does a good-value churrasco, and the Quinta do Ouro, whose mineiro food is the best in São João, though fairly expensive at around R$50 per person. On the same praça is the perfectly adequate and cheaper per kilo Restaurante Rex. Alternatively, a very pleasant place for light meals and excellent afternoon teas is the Sinhazinha, directly across from the Igreja de São Francisco.
The best places, however, combining good food with lively atmosphere, are on the south side, where tourists, young townsfolk and families flock to drink, eat and go to the cinema. Many of the bars have live music at weekends and get very crowded later on when people start spilling out onto the pavements. Almost all of the action is concentrated on Avenida Tiradentes, which runs parallel to Eduardo Magalhães, the avenue that runs alongside the stream. The bars are bunched both at Tiradentes’ western end near São Francisco – where Cabana do Zotti at no. 805 is always packed and does good snacks – and halfway along Tiradentes at the junction with Rua Gabriel Passos (the road that runs in from the blue Prefeitura). For a meal, the Restaurante Villeiros at Rua Padré Maria Xavier 132 offers very good comida mineira – a por kilo buffet at lunch and à la carte in the evening.
Getting to Tiradentes
Tiradentes might have a placid and timeless air during the week, but it gets lively at weekends, as the bars and guesthouses fill up with visitors from Rio and Belo Horizonte. For such a small place, Tiradentes is well connected to other cities, with several buses each day to both Rio and São Paulo, seven buses to Belo Horizonte and an hourly service to neighbouring São João del Rei. The efficient tourist office at Largo das Forras 71 provides helpful advice with accommodation, excursions and bus schedules.
Eating in Tiradentes
Given that eating out is promoted as being one of Tiradentes’ great attractions, it’s surprising that few of the restaurants are particularly good. Viradas do Largo, at Rua do Moinho 11, is considered the best in town for comida mineira but the food and general ambience are hardly exceptional, although the price, around R$50 for a meal for two, is good. Four kilometres from the centre along the Estrada Bichinho, amidst beautiful countryside, is the Pau de Angu, a wonderful rustic restaurant serving mineiro food at its best. Tragaluz, at Rua Direita 52, makes a brave – and sometimes successful – attempt at modernizing comida mineira by producing lighter dishes; expect to pay around R$70 per person.
Sports and outdoor activities in Tiradentes
Tiradentes is surrounded by hills, but as the trails aren’t marked you’re best off going with a guide if you want to explore them. Caminhos e Trilhas lead small groups on fairly easy hikes, stopping at spots where there are natural pools and picnic areas and views of Tiradentes. Hikes last about four and a half hours and cost R$35 per person including a picnic. The same agency also arranges two- to three-hour horse-riding trips and rents out mountain bikes.
South to Serro
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 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. 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, 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, with comfortable rooms and a friendly atmosphere.
Situated 90km south of Diamantina, Serro is set in beautiful hill country, dominated by the eighteenth-century pilgrimage church of Santa Rita 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, 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 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. 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.
Where to stay in Serro
The Pousada Vila do Príncipe, just down from the Igreja de Santa Rita on the main street, Rua Antônio Honório Pires, at no. 38, 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. 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 has an excellent selection. The rodoviária 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.
Southern Minas: The spa towns
The drive from Belo Horizonte south to Rio turns into one of the most spectacular in Brazil once you cross the state border and encounter the glorious scenery of the Serra dos Órgãos, but there is little to detain you in Minas along the way. The route passes Juiz de Fora, one of the larger interior cities, but it’s an ugly industrial centre, best seen from the window of a bus.
The route southwest towards São Paulo, however, is altogether different. The hills rising into mountains near the state border make this one of the most attractive parts of Minas. Six or seven hours from Belo Horizonte, to the south of the main route, there’s a cluster of spa towns – the Circuito das Águas, or “Circuit of the Waters”, as the spa resorts of Cambuquira, São Lourenço and Caxambu are collectively known. They are all small, quiet and popular with older people, who flock there to take the waters and baths. Each is centred on a parque hidromineral, a park built around the springs, incorporating bathhouses and fountains.
Just beating São Lourenço for the title of nicest of the smaller spas, Caxambu was a favourite haunt of the Brazilian royal family in the nineteenth century. The Parque das Águas, in the centre of town, is delightful. Built in the last decades of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, it’s dotted with eleven oriental-style pavilions sheltering the actual springs and houses an ornate Turkish bathhouse that is very reasonably priced – you get a bath in early twentieth-century opulence, and there are also various kinds of sauna and massage available. The bathhouse has separate facilities for men and women.
If Caxambu is the last word in Edwardian elegance, São Lourenço rivals it with its displays of Art-Deco brilliance. Its Parque das Águas is studded with striking 1940s pavilions and has a stunning bathhouse which looks more like a film set for a Hollywood high-society comedy. The most upmarket and modern-looking of the small spas, the town is popular with young and old alike.
São Lourenço is built along the shores of a beautiful lake, a large chunk of which has been incorporated into the Parque das Águas, and during the day it’s where everything happens. Much larger and more modern than the one in Caxambu, the park is kept to the same immaculate standard, making it a lovely place for a stroll, with its brilliant white pavilions, forested hillside and clouds of butterflies and birds – though steer clear of the ill-tempered black swans on the lake. There are rowing boats for rent, and an artificial island in the middle of the lake.
The Balneário itself offers baths, saunas and massages, and it’s worth paying for the elegant surroundings of marbled floors, mirrored walls and white-coated attendants. There are separate sections for men and women.
Top image: Baroque churches Igreja de Sao Francisco de Assis and Santuario de Nossa Senhora do Carmo, Mariana © Uwe Bergwitz/Shutterstock