The narrow guage Estrada de Ferro Oeste de Minas railway was begun in 1881 and eventually linked the state capital of Belo Horizonte to the Rio Grande. Once 775 km long, the route is now confined to a stretch between Sao Joao del Rei and Tiradentes that operates as a heritage attraction using a steam locomotive known as Maria Fumaça ("Steaming Mary").
Fact Check – Minas Gerais

A locomotive ride through Brazil's Golden Age

Photo by Kevin O´Hara

Fact Check – Minas Gerais A locomotive ride through Brazil's Golden Age

The major draw of Tiradentes – a city in Minas Gerais, Brazil’s large southeastern inland province oozing with colonial history – is without doubt the old steam train of the Estrada de Ferro Oeste de Minas which trundles its way between the station and the nearby town of Sao Joao del Rei.

Andy Jarosz
Andy Jarosz Travel Writer

The 19th century “Fuming Maria” steam locomotive attracts hundreds of passengers daily for the 40-minute trip in 1930s carriages through the farmland that separates the two towns. Both Tiradentes and São João del-Rei grew up on the back of the Gold Rush that rocked the region in the 18th century and were important staging posts along the Estrada Real (Royal Route), The first road through the mountains to Paraty, built by African slaves to facilitate direct transportation of mined gold to the harbor, from where it would be shipped to Portugal.

The train winds slowly enough along the 18km route to allow passengers to snap photos from the sliding windows. At São João del-Rei there is an opportunity to dress in period costumes to relive the journeys of the early travelers along this line, when it provided a critical route towards the coast.

Atila is one of the men behind a long-running project to create an Estrada Real tourist route and he describes how he started the project together with a friend. “Most people in Brazil were already familiar with the Estrada Real story from their history classes in school,” he says. “But there was no joined-up plan to promote the region or to offer a coordinated tourist package.”

“Tourism brings benefits to all and the Estrada Real is not only a tourism product but also a tool for cultural transformation and a way of exorcising old fears.”

Old fears? This is not something I have encountered so far so I ask Atila to explain. “Minas Gerais was never really a tourist place because people tried to hide what happened there,” he says. “There is a dark history of slavery and before that of the Inquisition and of Jewish oppression. People in the region are still suspicious by nature and don’t open up easily to strangers.”

To follow the Estrada Real is to undertake a journey with two endings. Paraty was the original end of the route, offering the shortest distance between mine and ship. Today it is a pleasant coastal town, attracting weekend visitors from Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, both of which are around five hours’ drive away. My journey there takes seven hours along the winding mountain roads and I think of those early pioneers for whom the journey would have been far more of an ordeal.

I wander along Paraty’s punishing cobbles, finding the Baroque remains of the 18th century among the white-washed houses and restaurants that serve the crowds of international and Brazilian visitors. The gold which arrived here by horse power was shipped to Rio, from where it traveled to Portugal. This trade brought great riches to this small bay, but now the horses pull only tourists around the town in colorful carts while boat trips to the beaches of the nearby islands are very popular.

While Paraty was the original end point of the Estrada Real in the early 18th century, there was a pressing need to find a safe route from Minas Gerais directly to Rio de Janeiro to speed up the process of getting the gold to Portuguese homeland and once the road was completed in 1725 Rio experienced a rapid boom.

Today Rio still has Baroque treasures built up over those golden years and it is well worth exploring on a walk through the city’s downtown district, although these grand churches and civil buildings are largely squeezed between the modern 20th century towers. The magnificent 18th century Igreja de Candelaria takes this bow to Rio’s modernization a step further, finding itself stranded on a busy traffic island.

The Imperial City of Petrópolis serves almost as a postscript to the Estrada Real. It was on a journey from Minas Gerais in the 1820s that the Portuguese king stopped at a farm for the night. He was so enchanted with the climate and the clean mountain air that he made an offer to the owner for the land. When the farmer refused he bought adjacent land where he planned to set up his summer palace.

He never saw the project through, but his son, Pedro II, set up his residence here and many of Brazil’s elite followed him, leading to the formation of Petrópolis. The city is now rich with grand 19th century mansions and, while the clean air in the city centre has suffered from the heavy traffic that chugs through its streets, the city still retains the feel of a place of retreat from the chaos of Rio, barely 50 km away.

Take me there!

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