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Minas Gerais

Brazil was discovered in the early 1500's by the Portuguese, whereby they quickly established colonies along the coastline. The colonists' intentions were to exploit as much wealth as possible. The native inhabitants of Brazil had not set up such organized societies as other native peoples  of South America, like the Incas and Mayans, and consisted of smaller tribes scattered throughout the land. Because of this, the wealth accumulated with the Incas and Mayans was not found. The initial value of Brazil to the Portuguese was in Brazil wood for its red dye and the cultivation of sugar, and later with the development of the coffee industry in the region of Sao Paulo.

The coffee growers of Sao Paulo developed considerable wealth and influence. With this, they began sending out explorers to the wild and uncharted interior of the country. This proved to be an arduous task, due to the mountainous terrain of modern day Minas Gerias, lying north of the state of Rio de Janeiro. Minas Gerais is translated as general mines in English due to the wealth found in gold and precious gems, which also includes diamonds.

These explorers were named bandeirantes. In 1674, the area was reached by bandeirante Fernão Dias Paes, but gold was not actually discovered until 1693. A mad gold rush ascended on the area with a huge influx of men to work the mines, whom mostly came from Rio de Janeiro and Bahia. The feud over whom had rights to the mines ensued in the War of Emboabas from 1708 to 1710 between the bandeirantes and the Portuguese government. The Paulistas of Sao Paulo lost, and the Portuguese setup a seat of government and named it Mariana. It was later moved to Vila Rica, which later became known as Ouro Preto.

The control of the gold supply proved more difficult for the Portuguese than sugar, much to the fact that so many hands were involved in the operation, thus allowing for easy smuggling. In 1763, the first capital of Brazil, Salvador da Bahia, lost its status to Rio de Janeiro. This was done in order to be closer to the distribution of the wealth of Minas Gerias. A route was established from Vila Rica to Parati, and then to Rio de Janeiro, which had the port utilized to ship the gold to Europe.

Members of the elite classes of the region were increasingly educated abroad in Europe, with many returning with revolutionary notions. In 1789, the over-taxed Mineiros organized to form the Inconfidencia Mineira. Tiradentes became the legendary leader of the movement and he now lives on as a national hero and martyr, even though the man and his rebellion went on to be crushed by the Portuguese government. Tiradentes (teeth puller) was hung by order of the Queen Maria I of Portugal and a national holiday remains in his honor on April 21.

The movement was of significant importance by demonstrating that there was a large majority of Brazilians that were not satisfied with life under a monarchy. 100 years later in 1889, Brazil obtained sovereignty from Portugal.

The gold reserves dried up and the industrious Mineiros adapted to the challenge by pursuing other alternatives. The green and rolling hills of the region proved to be ideal for cattle and coffee farming, which in turn helped to develop the dairy industry. Cheese from Minas is enjoyed all over Brazil.  Cachaça is Brazil's trademark alcohol made from sugarcane and it's famous for its quality in Minas Gerias.

Ouro Preto no longer had the prestige and wealth after the decline of the gold industry, and the new capital of the state was planned, inaugurated and called Belo Horizonte (beautiful horizon) in 1901.

In 1908, the mother lode of iron ore was discovered, and international interests in Britain moved in to help with construction of the first large-scale iron plant. The hills of Minas Gerias are loaded with the stuff and Brazilian automobile production has been a large benefactor in this find.

Today the Mineiros are still known as somewhat of isolationists and slow to trust, having much to due with the way in which they were exploited by the Portuguese in colonial times. They continue to value education, and many of the children from the higher classes study abroad, speaking various languages.

Some of the wealth that remains today is in the form of its historic cities, namely Ouro Preto, Sabera, Diamantina and a few others. Ouro Preto was actually designated an world heritage site by UNESCO in 1980, due to the outstanding baroque architecture constructed there during its heyday.

Much remains unchanged in Ouro Preto due in large part to the abrupt pullout of the state government, much to the benefit of locals and visitors alike. One gets the feeling that they have been transported back in time strolling down it's cobble-stoned streets. A real treasure that's for sure, and one that lives on long after all the gold and diamonds have faded away.

A must-see destination in Brazil





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