I lunged forward, almost falling to my hands and knees but letting my other foot catch my fall, throwing me forward a few steps. Simultaneously gasping for air, squealing, and laughing at the top of my lungs, I regained my balance and looked around. If anyone saw my embarrassing tumble, it was a secret between us. No one was there to laugh at me, so I chuckled to myself once again. Although I am usually fairly klutzy, losing my balance no matter where I am, Ouro Preto’s uneven, cobblestoned streets surely threw me for a loop. Although they’d been renovated and reworked once cars were invented and brought to Brazil, the uneven, smooth stones are fairly hard to walk on – especially for me, someone with extremely small feet that barely bridge the gap between. And yet, as difficult as it was to place my shoes properly from stone to stone, the city’s winding streets and charming alleyways made every slip and slide worth the tiny surprise.
Ouro Preto By Sunrise
Just a few hours by bus from Rio de Janeiro or Belo Horizonte, the charming city of Ouro Preto is certainly one of Brazil’s hidden surprises. Situated in between grandiose rock formations and rolling hills, the air in this city feels much crisper than that of the polluted, traffic-ridden streets of Copacabana, where I am currently living. A sleepless, overnight bus over winding roads and steep highways finally brought me to the city, and as we disembarked I could still see stars shimmering amidst the blue and purple hues of dawn.
It sure had been a long time since I had seen stars in the sky.
I first arrived at daybreak, the city’s people not yet awake, with the exception of the bus station guards and a few runners jogging up the city’s steep sidewalks in the cool, morning air. The bus station is located above the central areas of the city, and a steep but fairly easy walk downhill took me to the central Plaza Tiradentes, where my hostel was located. On the way down, we stopped by a rustic-looking church located alongside a rock-lined terrace. From there, we got our first glimpses of Ouro Preto – a name which means “black gold” in Portuguese. Shivering in the breeze, the warm sparkle of this still town warmed me a little bit. This is the kind of town I love to explore.
After falling into a deep, still sleep at the hostel, I awoke to sounds I hadn’t heard since I was back in Ohio with my family, faint yet bold sounds of the glorious nature and vivacity surrounding me. Ouro Preto is an early city, the sun’s golden rays always leaking in through the open windows of our room as birds sing in the hundreds of avocado trees around the town. I instantly felt refreshed, as if I’d jumped into a cold river or drank a freshly-squeezed lemonade. Really, though, I think it was the air. Even later in the day, the transient, frigid breeze sweetly complemented the sun’s hot rays.
Yes, I thought, today will be a good day.
Later, I would find that I had greatly understated the beauty of this town – the ripe, blooming energy of the people and the charming colors laced in between art-filled cafes and local stores selling everything from flavored Brazilian cachaça liquor to precious gems. After eating a typical Brazilian breakfast of pão de queijo and coffee, I set out with some friends to explore the city on foot.
Hitting The Streets of Ouro Preto
As we walked through the city, it seemed as if the whole place was dancing, buildings and people included. An aura of happiness drifted around us carrying the scents of chocolate, wood, and mountain air. Cars as well as horses clamored through the streets, stopping to wave or call out to passers-by as they carefully treaded down the cobblestoned pathways. The cars stopped for us as we crossed, a gesture that would be considered nothing short of a miracle in the rushed streets of Rio de Janeiro. I’ll never truly be able to say I am a city girl, for the places I truly fall in love with are almost always the small, charming towns in the provincial areas. French-style windows and colorful doors caught my heart as I skipped through the town, pulse racing with exploration and excitement.
We made our way down towards the local open-air artisan market, which sits right next to one of the village’s 30+ historic churches, Igreja de São Francisco. This church, too, is perched on a hill overlooking some of the city’s beautiful rolling hills and European-style homes. Orange-tiled roofs are a character of these magical little cottages; contrasted with the stark whites of the walls, they stand out and glow in the midday sun. Surreal, magical, and vibrant – in the noontime swarm of tourists and residents, the town seemed to come alive, a panoramic mixture of buildings, nature, and a striking mountainous backdrop.
The artisan market is full of sounds – people chatting and bargaining and workers tinkering away at their crafts, the clink of stones and the sounds of footsteps scurrying to the next booth, hoping to find treasures for family members. Throughout the market, stone works and statues stand beside bottles of cachaça and beaded jewelry. It’s a mess, but it’s a market full of beautiful things. I couldn’t take my eyes off of the mosaic style vases and boxes, flowers painted and etched into grey stone.
And down the winding hillside we went, jumping over cracks in the sidewalk and stopping into hole-in-the-wall jewelry boutiques and clothing shops. Sparkling water in one hand and my wallet in the other, I was determined to make the most of this brilliant, beautiful day, no matter how hot it grew. We passed through school areas, plazas, churches, and pastoral pousadas overflowing with Brazilian and foreign tourists. The streets snaked through the city with seemingly no direction except to lead us to more hidden treasures. The more we got lost, it seemed, the more we found.
I wonder what it would be like to live in a town like this, I thought to myself.
Savory scents of grilled meats floating from the restaurants taunted us as we walked past signs advertising comida mineira, the style of flavorful cuisine rooted in this very area. We began to grow hungry and looked out for a place to eat. Finally we ended up at a restaurant, Café Cultural, where we sat down and enjoyed the laid-back, eclectic atmosphere of the place. Local paintings lined the walls and antique furniture was placed between colorful throws and ambient lighting. It was a perfect place for us to rest from our day of walking up and down steep, cobblestoned slopes.
And as our first day of exploration came to an end, we toasted to good friends and amazing opportunities here in Brazil, because there really will not ever be an experience quite like this again. On this first day, my eyes absorbed the stories of the city, with every detail, color, and design intertwined.