A Visit to Minas Gerais and Diamantina

The landscape during the drive from Belo Horizonte to Diamantina.
The landscape during the drive from Belo Horizonte to Diamantina.
Typical eroded sandstone/quartzite landscape feature of the Espinhaço Mountains.
Typical eroded sandstone/quartzite landscape feature of the Espinhaço Mountains.
The Rio Jequitinhonha in Mendanha, which slaves panned for diamonds.
The Rio Jequitinhonha in Mendanha, which slaves panned for diamonds.
The town of Mendanha in Minas Gerais.
The town of Mendanha in Minas Gerais.
Pau-a-pique earthen construction.
Pau-a-pique earthen construction.
Monumento Natural Gruta do Salitre
Monumento Natural Gruta do Salitre
Cachoeira Sentinela in the Parque Estadual do Biribiri.
Lower part of Cachoeira Sentinela in the Parque Estadual do Biribiri.
Cachoeira Sentinela in the Parque Estadual do Biribiri
Upper part of the Cachoeira Sentinela in the Parque Estadual do Biribiri
Center of Diamantina
Center of Diamantina
Typical "self service" food in Minas Gerais.
Typical “self service” food in Minas Gerais.

Last week, I attended the 6th National Seminar on Geography and Phenomenology in Diamantina, located in the state of Minas Gerais. As part of the seminar, I was able to attend a number of field trips in the surrounding area.

Diamantina is in the interior of Brazil, much further south than Recife, but not as far south as Rio de Janeiro. On the basis of latitude, it is about in the center of Brazil, but relatively close to the coast (about 500 km or 300 miles). The landscape here is a savanna, which reminds me of the Texas hill country, located in the southwest part of the state. This is a place of grand vistas and geological decay: everywhere are the remains of a great ocean that deposited vast amounts of sand on the sea bottom more than a billion years ago. The Espinhaço (“spine” or “ridge”) Mountains are an important feature of this landscape; the craggy remains of this ancient sea bottom are apparent everywhere as heavily eroded siliceous sandstone and quartzite. Because of the elevation (on average, more than 1,400 meters or 4,500 feet), the weather here is very pleasant, with evenings around 16-18 deg. Celsius (about 60-65 deg. Fahrenheit) and low humidity.

This is also mining country. Diamantina is from the Brazilian word for “diamond” because this is where African slaves mined this precious gemstone in large quantities starting in the 18th century. According to Dr. Mariana Lacerda, a geologist that I met with who runs the Casa Glória, a geological museum in Diamantina, no one is quite sure where the diamonds originate. They are likely to have started life in the igneous rock, kimberlite, but there is no known source of this rock in Minas Gerais. Mining for Diamonds in Diamantina therefore means panning the silt of rivers, much like miners do with gold, as the diamonds are more dense than most of the other minerals and will sink to the bottom of the pan.

Our first trip was to the region called Mendanha, about 18 km (10 miles) from Diamantina. Mendanha was one of the most important diamond extraction regions, with extraction happening into the 19th century. It is a fairly intact landscape of colonial-era buildings, which gives a fair representation of what the slaves who worked the river, panning for diamonds, saw.

I immediately noticed quite a few differences in the construction techniques used on these buildings compared to Recife and Olinda. The traditional buildings in Mendanha, and as I would later learn, much of Minas Gerais, are constructed of heavy timber framing with the interstices between the wood members filled with adobe blocks or a kind of basket weave of twigs with earth and straw squeezed in-between. Lime plaster was then applied over the top of the earth. The construction technique is known as pau-a-pique (cob wall). (In this respect, it reminded me a lot of the wattle and daub construction technique used in England.) Many of the buildings have no masonry foundations and instead have wood sills laid directly on the ground. Not only modest houses, but very large buildings, including churches, were constructed in this way. This technique surprised me greatly because everywhere you look, there are massive termite mounds, and surely, they would find all the wood in contact with the ground to be a rather tasty treat. I was assured, however, that the specific species of tree used for its wood is very insect and rot resistant. It would appear that this characteristic coupled with a dry climate is what makes this construction technique enduring.

A bit closer to Diamantina is the Monumento Natural Gruta do Salitre (Natural Monument of the Cave of Saltpeter), which is a sublime geological formation consisting of a narrow valley with steep cliffs and a cave at the end. This place is amazingly peaceful and beautiful. It was at this location where I saw several blue morpho butterflies; watching them fly was like seeing a brilliant blue light flash on and off as their wings fluttered. There was also a stand of wild jabuticaba trees (the source of jabuticaba fruit, which looks and tastes much like a muscadine grape) that are native to this area of Brazil. My fellow conference attendees and I kept wondering what an interesting endeavor it would be to do a phenomenology on the experience of this unique place.

After visiting the Monumento Natural Gruta do Salitre, we went to the other side of Diamantina to the Parque Estadual do Biribiri (Biribiri State Park) to see the Cachoeira Sentinela (Sentinal Waterfall). The water here is clean and crystal clear and quite refreshing to take a swim or at least dip your toes in. The park itself is very large and if I had been here longer, I would have liked to explore much more of it. Compared to similar parks in the US, there were no public facilities, including places to put garbage, yet the place was perfectly clean. My assumption is that people respect this pace and, individually, try and keep it clean.

The town of Diamantina reminded me a lot of mining towns in the United States or hill villages in Italy because of a similar topography. When a town is founded on the side of a hill or mountain, the local geography dictates where roads go and in a pre-automobile era, you get some very interesting urban landscapes full of discovery and a sense of mystery. While Diamantina, which is a World Heritage city, has plenty of beautiful buildings, squares, and places, what struck me as most impressive is that this is a living city. All the other World Heritage cities I’ve visited (and many locally/national historic cities as well) around the world are pretty much exclusively for tourists. You can find lots of restaurants, hotels, and trinket shops, but no grocery stores or places to get your hair cut – in other words, these places are not intended to be lived in by local people. On the other hand, Diamantina has all of these local resources – grocery stores, hardware stores, barbershops, and even fabric stores (for sewing materials). You can actually live in this World Heritage city and walk to get most of what you need for daily life. At the seminar, I met Cláudia Regina Vial Ribeiro, who had just published a book on the phenomenology of Diamantina, Diamantina um Espaço-Vivo, and explained some of the unique characteristics that makes Diamantina different from other heritage cities. I now have her book and am planning on reading it to learn more.

Lastly, I should make a note on the food in Minas Gerais. It is definitely Brazilian, and familiar to me from my experience in the north, but its presentation is quite different. While “self service” or cafeteria style food is quite common here as it is in Recife, the food is commonly displayed on a large ceramic oven that is fired with wood to keep the food hot. Deserts (sobremesas) have the largest differences from what I was familiar with in Recife: doce de leite (similar to the Spanish dulce de leche) is extremely popular here and apparently is a sweet that defines Minas Gerais.

About the only negative thing that I can say about the Diamantina area is that it’s a bit hard to get to. There used to be a regional airport here, but it closed several years ago so now the closest airport is in Belo Horizonte, which is about 4-5 hours away by car. On the other hand, the drive through the regional landscape is worth the experience as well. So, if you have the time, Diamantina is one of the more interesting places to visit in Brazil.

One thought on “A Visit to Minas Gerais and Diamantina

  1. Ada Lee

    Thank you for sharing, Jeremy. The natural landscape is spectacular, in particularly the eroded rocks are reminiscent of the mountainous regions in mainland China. The Rio Jequitinhonha in Mendanha and the splendid church architecture in the city of Diamantina testify the colonial era, reminding one the hardship the locals have suffered during those days.

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