In the heart of the state of Minas Gerais, Brazil, you will find a city widely known for being the biggest gold source of Portugal during the XVIII and XIX centuries: Ouro Preto. This city, whose name can be translated as “black gold,” still attracts a lot of foreigners and national tourists, for its beautiful landscapes, nature and its gold mines.
About 650 tons of gold were extracted for the last four centuries in Ouro Preto and some historians joke that the city is like "swiss cheese": under the old houses, there are hundreds or maybe thousands of narrow and suffocating tunnels. In these places, adults and children had to work day and night, sometimes even sick and hungry, to extract gold that nowadays decorates churches in Brazil and Europe.
Therefore a visit to the gold mines in Brazil is more than just a regular tour; it is a moment to reflect about our past, our present and some wounds of our society that still need to heal. In this story, I will present the six mines that are officially open for visits, so you can have different options to better enjoy your tour to Ouro Preto.
1. Mina da Passagem - the biggest visitable mine
About 35 tons of gold were extracted from this mine during the first half of the XIX century and until 1985, when it was officially closed. Its a 30 km mine, full of tunnels and big halls that turn it into the biggest one in the world open to tourists. During the visit, people are taken 120 meters underground for a 45 minutes tour in little trolleys so that they can see the caves and the lakes formed by the mineral water.
2. Mina du Veloso - the mine explored by children
From 1761 to 1819, coronel José Veloso do Carmo owned 220 slaves and the lands that nowadays integrate the neighborhood of São Cristóvão. This gold mine is 500 meters long, filled with narrow tunnels that only children could enter, so the tourists can only visit half of the space. Nonetheless, it is worth visiting: there is a hall full of stalagmites, a well with transparent and non-drinkable water and plants raising out from the rocks. The nature is exotic, the history is shocking, and the visit takes only 30 minutes.
3. Mina do Chico Rei - when a free slave runs the mine
It is very close to the main square in the city, Praça Tiradentes, so you can easily finish your tour with this visit. The interesting fact about this place is that one of the slaves that worked there, Chico Rei, conquered his freedom and bought the mine. Later on, with the gold he extracted, he also paid for the freedom of other slaves and became a very respected person in Ouro Preto. The church of Santa Efigênia was built with gold from this mine.
4. Mina do Jeje - the claustrophobic mine
This gold mine is 160 meters long, but visitors can only walk until the first hall. Its operations occurred basically during the so-called "Gold Cycle," in the XVIII century when most of the gold taken to Europe was extracted from Brazil. Visitors can walk in the mine using a special helmet and following the tour guide in the lightened ways. Although it can be claustrophobic, the visit takes about half an hour, and it is safe.
5. Mina Velha - one of the oldest mines
Felipe dos Santos, who participated in a rebellion against the Portuguese crown, was the owner of this mine, so it is also known as Mina Felipe dos Santos. It is located on the archeological site of Padre Faria neighborhood, and it is one of the oldest gold mines in Brazil, probably since 1704. The visit takes only 15 minutes, and there is a small but beautiful waterfall in there.
6. Mina Santa Rita - the endless mine
It is almost as old as Mina Velha, as it first opened in the first half of the XVIII century. Up until now the end of its labyrinth was never found, so only 115 meters of narrow tunnels are open for visits, that take approximately 30 minutes.
As there are many mines, you could probably pick one that you think is more interesting and prepare yourself for a special kind of tour. The history of Minas Gerais is still deeply connected to mining activities, and the damages are not restricted only to the environment. This year the breaking of the Brumadinho dam killed 247 people, and in 2015 the breaking of the Mariana dam killed 19 and destroyed one of the most significant rivers in Brazil, Rio Doce.
Visiting an old mine is a good way to rethink the value of the gold, of life and of nature.
Are you ready to experience this story yourself?