Our first full day in Ouro Preto, Peder and I woke up early and popped our heads outside our door to find a table totally covered in sliced meat, cheese, bread, fresh fruit, fruit juices, and coffee. It was the standard fare, but considering the quantity and the fact that we were the only ones in the entire place, we could at long last eat our fill.
We were also greeted by the pousada’s cleaning lady, who had the most impressive moustache I’ve ever seen on a woman. And I’m not talking about the kind of slightly hairy upper lip that we’ve all probably seen once or twice. I’m talking a full-on black moustache. Like the guy on Deadwood. Thick enough to be combed. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Soon we headed off to catch a 19th century steamtrain to the next town of Mariana; it was an enjoyable ride, especially when the train stopped to fill the boiler from one of those overhead water troughs. I couldn’t stop thinking of Back to the Future Part III. But realistically it would’ve been just about as fast if we’d chosen to walk.
Our first stop was for some good ol’ fashioned prospecting. Mariana, like Ouro Preto and most of Minas Gerais’ mountain towns, was founded as a mining colony in the 1700’s. Apparently when the area was first discovered it contained so much gold – the largest deposits in the entire Western Hemisphere – that its discoverer was absolutely convinced he’d found the fabled El Dorado.
Well, a few locals still try to make their living to this day by panning in the river that runs right through the center of town. This was no tourist attraction. Just a few old-fashioned guys still trying to make a living off the spoils of Mother Earth.
We showed up and asked a man working at a fruit stand for directions. He jumped up and immediately started leading the way, insisting on escorting us directly to the river.
It’s interesting, as a sort of “defense mechanism” for not getting ripped off in Brazil both Peder and I have developed quite an aversion to people who try to escort us too far. In Japan I used to love these types of people, going out of their way to make sure we find our destination or to help with a translation. But in Brazil they always ask for money. And if you refuse, or don’t give them as much as they wanted, they follow and pester you until you pay up. Regardless of whether or not you even wanted their help in the first place. It’s incredibly annoying, and as a result we’ve learned that when you ask someone for help or directions and they start tagging along, the best thing is usually to escape as soon as possible.
Anyway, Fruit-Stand Man led us to the river and introduced us to a little old man in rubber boots and a fisherman’s hat holding the same type of metal pan that was probably used to pan for gold back in the 1700’s. He found it hilarious that the two spoiled gringos insisted on standing under a tree as the now rainy sky began drenching our clothes and backpacks. But soon it subsided and he gave us a little demonstration, uncovering about 1 real worth of gold dust in the process. It’s hard work and I don’t really see the payoff, but it was still quite interesting 🙂
Soon the rain picked up again and we decided it was time to move on to our real destination, the true reason for having come to Mariana: Minas de Passagem. For a few weeks now I’ve been saying that the only two things this trip’s been seriously lacking are 1) Some caves, and 2) Some rainforest. We were less than a week away from my departure back to the US, so it was time to get to work crossing those last two items off my list.
Minas de Passagem turned out to be without a doubt, far-and-away the best spelunking experience thus far in my 25 years of travel. Sorry dad, but this place blew Bet Shamesh, Israel out of the water.
Why? Mainly because (if you haven’t figured this out yet), in Brazil, there are no rules. Nobody ever kicks up a big stink about silly little things like safety. So after riding the rickety antique cable car deep into the bowels of the earth, listening to 5 or 10 minutes of guided tour, and slipping away from our group at just the right moment, Peder and I were completely free to explore the immense network of tunnels and mineshafts sprawling for kilometers beneath the city of Mariana. The guide simply couldn’t be bothered to come look for us before leading the others back to the surface. Or maybe he just didn’t notice we were gone. In any case, it was just the opportunity I’ve always wanted. And we were prepared. We had a backpack of water, snacks, candles, two flashlights, a swiss army knife, and a cell phone with which to play the Ghostbusters theme song.
You know, for effect.
Because according to Lonely Planet, literally hundreds of slaves died while blasting into the rock and extracting chunk after chunk of gold from Minas Passagem. There was even a small shrine in one of the tunnels, dedicated to all those who died during its construction.
Peder and I spent the better part of three hours exploring those mines, stumbling on rotting shovels and pick-axes that’ve probably been resting there for over fifty years; Tripping over the remnants of old mine-carts and cable-car tracks; Crawling through tunnels barely three feet high, entered vast caverns, and shimmying up rock walls towards the sound of dripping water. We even found a crystal-clear subterranean lake, the top layer of the flooded lower tunnels that our guidebook told us is over 2km wide. When the book was published in 2003, the lake was open for swimming…and SCUBA diving, for the truly adventurous.
But apparently it’s since been contaminated with arsenic, so we decided this time it might be wiser to back down.
We continued our exploration, leaving a burning tea candle to mark the way back through any potentially confusing cavern. It felt like something right out of The Goonies. Or Indiana Jones II. Twisting and turning and snaking every which way, always keeping a mental map of where we’d been. Every once in awhile we’d pop out into to a lantern-lit chamber, realizing that we’d somehow looped all the way around and emerged 50 meters higher along the tracks that had been used to bring us down several hours earlier. Then we’d hear the rumble of the cable car lowering another group into the mines. We’d turn off our flashlights and fall silent so as not to alert the guide of our presence. A few times I thought we’d been caught, but again, either they didn’t notice or simply didn’t care.
By the time we were satisfied that we’d accessed every available and non-flooded tunnel, we’d burned through one spare lightbulb and several sets of flashlight batteries. The last tour had concluded and the minecarts were no longer creaking down the tracks. We debated how to get out. Would they be more upset if we used the emergency phone to call them back down, or if we just walked all the way to the surface ourselves?
We decided to hike it.
We backtracked up the tunnel, stopping to take a few photos whenever the light permitted, until we finally burst out of the mountain and back into the sunlight. Into the jungle. The cart operators were sitting on their little wooden platform enjoying a couple of cigarettes.
After all that effort to avoid the staff, all that deliberation about whether or not we’d be yelled at – or arrested – their response was little more than a chuckle.
“Oh, did you guys get lost down there or something?”
They didn’t care at all.
Brazil may not be the safest country in the world, but at times it sure is nice being able to do whatever you want, whenever you want 😀