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A landlocked state in southeastern Brazil that encompasses 588,384 square km (227,176 square miles), Minas is approximately the size of France. It shares borders with six other Brazilian states. The Serra da Mantiqueira range creates a natural boundary between Minas and Rio de Janeiro. It encircles to the south the Paraíba Valley, an area between the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Minas Gerais. The Serra da Canastra mountain range is a source of the São Francisco River. The longest river in the country, the São Francisco flows down from the mountains through most of Minas Gerais and Bahia and enters the ocean between the states of Sergipe and Alagoas. With a population of 19.4 million, Minas is one of Brazil's most populous states, and with approximately 16% of the country's paved roads, it's one of the easiest to navigate. Although Minas is large, its major attractions, including Belo Horizonte, Ouro Preto, and the mineral-spa towns, are in the state's southeastern portion, within driving distance of one another.
Belo Horizonte is Brazil's third-largest city, with more than 2½ million inhabitants. At an elevation of 2,815 feet, the city lies in a valley encircled by a ring of mountains, the Serra do Curral. The city center was planned for carriages, and the streets crisscross each other at 45-degree angles, hardly efficient for modern-day traffic. Social and cultural activity is concentrated along three main plazas in the center: Praça Sete, Praça da Liberdade, and Praça da Savassi.
The historic cities of Ouro Preto, Tiradentes, and Diamantina lie in the Serra do Espinhaço range, with Ouro Preto at 4,000 feet. This central region of Minas Gerais is the most populous, with more than 7 million inhabitants. The towns are typically very hilly, with narrow, winding streets that are more easily navigated on foot than in a car.
The Circuito das Águas (Water Circuit) of Minas Gerais is concentrated in the southeastern regions (essentially counties) of Sul de Minas (2.6 million inhabitants) and Mata (population 2.2 million). The small cities of Caxambu and São Lourenço sit at an elevation of about 4,000 feet and have less than 50,000 inhabitants each. They're equidistant from the cities of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Belo Horizonte (400 km/250 miles).