Ouro Pret(ty)o

After our first day of travelling north to see the cave of the Forest King, we spent the second day heading south of Belo Horizonte in search of the famous and beautiful city of Ouro Preto. The name of the city translates as “black gold” and isn’t a reference to the current “black gold” that is oil, but rather a much more aromatic and delicious drink known as coffee. The town was once called Vila Rica (Rich Village) as it was the focal point of the gold rush that happened during colonial times. The town is steeped in history and this post will attempt to convey some of that to our dear readership.

The town sits over a 1000m above sea level in the Southern region of Minas Gerais and the views around are simply breath taking.

It is one of those quaint little towns with cobbled streets, independent stores selling unusual items, and a plethora of old buildings to gaze at through a camera lens. We visited a museum called Museu do Oratório, which displays religious art and is located in the central plaza. We weren’t sure what to expect and neither of us are fans of the dead Jesus style of artwork. However, it was interesting enough to keep us occupied for forty minutes and the air-con during the midday heatwave helped as well.

The town really reminded us of Tuscany and a small place near Florence called Fiesole. The style of architecture and the rolling hills were similar and it really was very peaceful and easy on the eye.

We spent a very relaxing day wandering along the cobbled streets and admiring the many, many churches and old colonial buildings. At one point we stumbled across something that made us extremely happy, and anyone who knows our travel-habits will understand why. Just off the main square was a small but extremely interesting market. Ooo we love a good market we do! We must have spent half an hour weaving between the blankets of goodies; vases, photo frames, jewellery boxes and candle sticks carved out of soapstone and delicately painted with bright, intricate designs. Naturally, we bought a couple of things and tried not to think about the practicalities of transporting a few kilograms of stone back home!

We ate at a restaurant that had a queue along the pavement, which is always a good sign, and sampled some Minas delicacies. These will, of course, be discussed in a later food post. As will the ice creams we enjoyed for dessert.

Before the sun started to set we decided to head back to Belo Horizonte. As comfortable as Dave was with driving, we thought it best to do it during daylight as much as possible. On our way back to the car we stopped and sat on the pavement with an espresso, and were treated to some beautiful busking while we took in our final view of Ouro Preto (and a much needed hit of caffeine).

Museu do Oratório
The Main square that includes a portal to another dimension as displayed by the car
This lovely market where we spent ages considering the size

Motourists in Minas Gerais

It seems like we have barely explored Rio, having been here for less than three months. We recently had a three-day weekend (cheekily boosted to four thanks to my annual leave) so naturally we...decided to leave the state of Rio de Janeiro for the first time and head north to Minas Gerais. We would be spending four days exploring the foodie hotspot of Brazil. Trust Katie to pick our first holiday based around food – she is only doing it for blog material.

It is about an hour's flight from Rio to Belo Horizonte's Confins airport, which is spelled suspiciously close to the word coffins. Seeing a sign for the Comfort Coffins Hotel was an amusing trick of the mind as we drove past it. What was that you say? Drove?!...Yes, this 27 year old maverick ticked off another activity from the “Are you a fully fledged adult?” list and hired a car. It was a Volkswagen Gol(f). The F was missing because Brazilians have trouble saying the letter. Somewhat ironically the airline we flew with was also called Gol and Katie effed the whole way through the journey. That last sentence wasn't irony but a coincidence…and a joke.

Anyway enough semantics, I want to talk about renting a car with a left-hand drive. Us Little Britains (probably) invented driving, roads, and the concept of left and right. We chose to drive on the left-hand side and therefore (rather ironically I might add) it is the right side of the road to drive on. Just because the majority of the world disagrees, it doesn't make us any less right, or left. But nevertheless I had to do it the Brazilian way. Here are some interesting things about driving on the other side:

1. I kept looking over the wrong shoulder when reversing.

2. Katie (i.e. the SatNav woman) was always saying “turn left – remember that’s the difficult one.”

3. My cute little glance to the left to check my back mirror had to be switched to the right as well.

The road surfaces we encountered weren't as bad as everyone had warned me, nor the traffic as heavy as Rio. But here are a few curious observations:

1. Brazilian road architects love the old "retorno". A somewhat frustrating system that involves driving passed a left turn you want to take until there is a designated point to do a u-turn into the opposite lane, after which you can return and take the turning, which is now on your right. It might not sound that bad but it sometimes took five minutes to complete the manoeuvre.

2. Speed cameras saying 60 km/hr means everyone would suddenly slow down to about 30 km/hr. Maybe they know something I don’t about camera accuracy in Brazil.

3. Signs don’t like to give you too much warning. I flew over a few speed bumps because of this. Thank god it was a rental.

There were also signs warning us about crossing ant eaters
Anyway enough waffle, let’s talk about what we did on that first day. It started with a journey north of the Coffin airport to a place called Sete Lagoas (literally Seven Lagoons, although we only counted five!) We stopped at a kilo restaurant for lunch and were served by a very friendly man who knew exactly how to speak to foreigners new to a language: slowly and repeating things with a smile. How I wish more people had this man’s awareness.

We spent something crazy like £5 for both of us to a lot of delicious food and drink fresh juice. We hopped back into the VW Gol and went to a cave called Rei Do Mato, which means Forest King. This forest king was apparently a fugitive that lived in the cave many moons ago. Inside this cave were a lot of interesting formations and it brought back memories of our previous adventure to the world’s largest cave opening with all the bats.

The cave uninterestingly didn't have any animals because there was no nutrients for an ecosystem to thrive. My limited knowledge suggests that when bats use caves as dwellings, other animals can thrive by living off the bat guano, the bats themselves, or the guano eaters! As no bats live in the Cave of the Forest King, there were no other animals. Except a rock lion, which the photo didn't really capture.

Some of the formations in the cave, such as the apparently globally unique double column, were fascinating. There was also a squeaky water drip coming from a stalactite, which was unusual. Check out the rock formations below:

Cauliflower Rock
Cool Dripping Rock
Mysterious Rock
Carrot Rock
Ceiling Alien Rock
The Rock
Pillar Rocks
We thought this looked a rock flipping someone off...
The guide called it the Pope Rock
Cavalier Horse Rock
Creepy Hand Falling from the Sky Rock
World Unique Double Column Rock
Rei Do Mato / Forest King Cave in all its Heavenly Glory
The best thing about the tour was that we did it alone with only our tour guide for company. It was the middle of a working Thursday and no-one else was about. What a great way to visit a cave. We decided we would be keeping a low profile on this trip and used our aliases when we signed the guest book, to ensure that we didn't attract too much attention.

We obviously did a lot more over the four days than just visit the cave so join us next time and hear all about Belo Horizonte and Ouro Preto.

Flights from Rio-Confins = £78 return pp
Car Rental = £30 per day
Cave = R$15 pp (half price for students)

Let's Go Green!

Who knows how many weekends we have left in Brazil? Seriously, who? It would be great to know. This uncertainty has added some haste and commitment to the sightseeing cause. We recently spent a weekend going to the Parque Lage and then the Jardim Botanical – two major green areas of Rio de Janeiro. Everyone goes to Parque Lage for breakfast and we woke up nice and early to get there.

And then the unthinkable happened. The restaurant cafe was closed and was staying closed for two weeks until they sorted out their refurbishment. Those who know me well will agree that keeping me fed is essential to keeping me happy. A hungry Dave is an irritated Dave. My goal for the next couple of hours (before we picked up some sandwiches) was to maintain a modicum of human civility. A difficult task when you haven’t eaten for nearly 12 hours. In a way I understand Jeremy Clarkson’s anger as I often feel like punching someone when hungry. However I have always refrained from doing so and this day was no exception, therefore I still have a job and I am not a complete tool.

Marilyn Monpascoe
This is the breakfast area. Isn't it beautiful?

There was a small aquarium with screaming kids (I don’t think they are a permanent exhibit) and a man made cave. It was a beautiful place to (nearly) have breakfast and go for a little stroll.

Parque Lage was lovely but really it was a warm-up act to the Jardim Botanical. These beautiful botanical gardens are situated in the heart of Rio de Janeiro and are home to some fascinating wildlife. We’ll start with the trees, shall we? We saw the smoothest trunks I have ever seen / remembered. One was absolutely huge and put Katie in her place.

A lot of roots!
This was smoother than cadbury's chocolate (pre-Kraft)
Smoother than a baby's bum that has been wiped using sand paper.
Palm Island
The most laid back trees in the world
One of the largest trees in the world.
I just wanted to push this tree over.
I imagined it bouncing back like a punch bag.
My best tree impression.
Interesting pine trunk skin
This was a branch and not rope.
It was something out of Tarzan.
The Twisty Cactus
The most evil Christmas Tree in the world. A Hellmas Tree if you will.

With all these trees and stuff, there was also this other kind of nature. You know what I mean? It’s the moving kind that eats and poos, otherwise known as animals. We finally (2 months in) got to see a bird we were both very excited about: a toucan. It was very beautiful and colourful.

Ariel Toucan

Marmoset! Known in Portuguese as a Mico

There were some beautiful views to be had as well.

In fact these views were so beautiful that they attracted a new type of animal to the gardens. This bloated and easily irritable creature was to be found posing in front of such views with its overly protective mate.

Yes, pregnant women. This is slowly becoming a theme in Brazil... When there are beautiful places, there are pregnant women and the apparent fathers. They normally come with a photographer who is happy to snap away at their protruding bellies. These unusual photos are eventually used to embarrass the children decades later during their weddings.

Even Thiago dreams of having a baby one day.

The day ended with lunch at the lagoon, which Katie will talk about in an upcoming food blog. And then a drive back to Barra where we got stuck in traffic by Rocinha, the largest favela in Brazil. A little reminder of the poverty and another sight that puts your life on a more adjusted scale.

Rochina - Brazil's Largest Favela