Though it's far from the circuit of Brazil's most visited places, the state of Minas Gerais holds unforgettable historical, architectural, and ecological riches. Minas has more UNESCO World Heritage Sites than any other state in Brazil. This mountainous state's name, which means "general mines," was inspired by the area's great mineral wealth.
Prior to the 18th century, the region was unexplored due to its difficult terrain, but in the late 17th century bandeirantes, or adventurers, forged into the interior, eventually discovering vast precious-metal reserves. As a result, the state, and particularly the city of Ouro Preto, became the de facto capital of the Portuguese colony. That period of gold, diamond, and semiprecious-stone trading is memorialized in the historic towns scattered across the jagged blue mountain ridges. It remains a tremendous source of pride for mineiros (inhabitants of the state).
Minas Gerais is one of the calmest and most conservative Brazilian states. Many say that it's because of the mountains that surround the state, which are also said to make the mineiro an introspective and friendly person. Yet Minas Gerais has also been a hotbed for movements that have triggered political, economic, and cultural development. Minas reared Brazil's first revolutionaries, the group of men in charge of the Inconfidência Mineira (Minas Gerais Conspiracy), a revolt against the monarchy in 1789. Later, other strong proponents of change would hail from Minas Gerais as well. Juscelino Kubitschek, president from 1956 to 1961, was born in Diamantina and served as mayor of Belo Horizonte. He reshaped the country by moving the capital from Rio de Janeiro to Brasília in the 1960s. Tancredo Neves, who helped restore Brazilian democracy in the 1980s, was born in São João del Rey.
Though the Gold Towns—Ouro Preto, Mariana, Tiradentes, and Congonhas—are awe-inspiring, Minas Gerais has other attractions. Roughly six hours south of the state capital of Belo Horizonte, several mineral-spa towns form the Circuito das Águas (Water Circuit). Thought to have healing powers, the natural springs of places such as São Lourenço and Caxambu have attracted the Brazilian elite for more than a century. Close by is the unusual town of São Thomé das Letras—a place where UFOs are said to visit and where mystics and bohemians wait for the dawn of a new world.