Ouro Preto (“Black Gold” in Portuguese) is a historical town located about 600 km northeast of São Paulo, Brazil. Spread across an area of about 1,300 sq km at an elevation of 1,100 metres, the city is home to a population of 70,000. For much of its history, it served as the seat of government of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais. It is believed to be the origin of Brazilian culture. The city was inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980 for its unique and picturesque cityscape. It has since become an attractive tourist destination, with tourism as a major source of revenue for the local economy.
Within a decade of its founding in the late 17th century as a mining settlement, Ouro Preto became the center of the gold and silver rush in South America. The earliest adventurers, who came in great numbers, made a fortune from gold and silver exploitation. Among gold/silver diggers were many prisoners of war and slaves. With the fortune they made out of the gold rush, they not only redeemed their freedom, but were also able to live a prosperous life. At that time, Ouro Preto was the richest of all the cities colonized by Portugal in South America.
Today, the town is far less famous than Rio de Janeiro, the second largest city in Brazil, and is by no means comparable to boisterous São Paulo, the largest Brazilian city. Perhaps it is because of its location surrounded by the mountains of Minas Gerais that has helped preserve its 18th century-like cityscape.
As Ouro Preto does not have an airport, to get here, one has to first fly from São Paulo to Bolo Horizonte, the capital of Minas Gerais, followed by another 100-km bus or car ride. The city's sinuous old cobblestone streets are lined with a variety of old buildings constructed during the colonial period, all well preserved and maintained, including simple homes and imposing official residences. In the city, you do not see even the slightest sign of oblivion or dilapidation. Despite their centuries-old history, these ancient buildings still exhibit great functionality. However, the tourism boom has given birth to many street-front shops. They sell locally produced gemstones that come in various shapes and colors, ranging from emeralds to imperial topaz, aquamarine and crystals. You will find yourself stunned by all these gifts of nature, though ordinary people will balk at their prohibitive prices.
The most attractive of all historical buildings in Ouro Preto are those exquisitely decorated Baroque churches of varying sizes. Their lofty bell towers add a unique charm to the old town's skyline. During the Portuguese colonial rule, people often built a church as a way to express their gratitude to God for blessing them with power and fortune. For this reason, Catholic churches began to spring up across the city in the early 18th century. The planning of Ouro Preto was also modelled on European cities, whose skylines were then dominated by Baroque architecture. This is how this artistic style, which generated the most profound impact on post-Renaissance European art, was exported to this continent, where it was further fused with local elements to become a unique variation. Baroque architecture is often characterized by elaborate decorative sculptures and a colorful but majestic ambience. The Church of São Francisco de Assis and the church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel are both architectural masterpieces created during the colonial rule of the Americas.
In the late 18th century, the exhaustion of precious metals such as gold and silver led to the rapid decline of Ouro Preto, but its name, which means Black Gold in Portuguese, has been used until today and fortunately, its rich architectural heritage and old look are also well preserved. In 1980, the entire town was inscribed by the UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Among the 17 Brazilian sites on the UNESCO list, Ouro Preto is the first of this kind, earning it a very unique position in the history of South American architecture.