Minas Gerais: Places to Explore

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Belo Horizonte

The Cidade de Minas (city of Minas), now Belo Horizonte, was established in 1897, when Ouro Preto, because of its mountainous geography, could no longer afford a population expansion. Since the planned uprising of the Inconfidentes in 1789, however, the residents of Minas Gerais had dreamed of a state capital, free of Portuguese influence, that would open a new historical chapter. The first planned modern city in Brazil (its design was overseen by the engineer Aarão Reis) modeled its streets on the wide avenues of Paris and Washington, and on their circular city centers.

In 1906 the city assumed its current name of Belo Horizonte. It earned its nickname, "the Garden City," during the 1940s and 1950s, when the main avenue, Afonso Pena, was lined with huge trees. (As head of state in the 1890s, Pena proclaimed this the site of Minas Gerais's new capital.) These days the city can look both like a metropolis—with traffic jams, tall buildings, and urban noise—and, in its tranquil downtown neighborhoods, like a simple country town. Because it's in a valley surrounded by mountains, traffic and industrial pollution is concentrated in the city center and sometimes the surrounding mountains get smogged in.

Growth was slow at first but picked up speed in the 1920s. At that time, with industries finally prospering, the city gained monuments like the Praça Sete's obelisk in 1924, known as Pirulito, or the "lollipop," and the Santa Tereza Viaduct. Belo Horizonte also emerged on the cultural scene with poets such as Carlos Drummond de Andrade and Pedro Nava, among others. In the 1940s, under the administration of mayor Juscelino Kubitschek, one of Brazil's most famous and respected politicians, Belo Horizonte gained status as a metropolis. Kubitschek hired the young Oscar Niemeyer to create the Pampulha Architectural Complex; this project became emblematic of the architect's later work.

Today Belo Horizonte, the third-largest city in Brazil after Rio and São Paulo, is distinguished by its politics and its contributions to the arts. In the early 20th century, Brazil's political system was referred to as Café com Leite ("coffee with milk") because the presidency was alternately held by natives of São Paulo (where much of Brazil's coffee is produced) and natives of Minas Gerais (the milk-producing state). The current system is more diverse, but mineiros are still influential in national politics. Minas Gerais is home to respected theater and dance companies and some of Brazil's most famous pop bands. The artistic tradition is emphasized by the many festivals dedicated to all forms of art, from comic books to puppet theater and short movies to electronic music. The arts and nightlife scene, along with the stunning modern architecture, are reasons to visit Belo Horizonte before or after traversing Minas Gerais's peaceful countryside.

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