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Minas Gerais: Brazil’s World Apart

Brazilian men celebrating Congado
Musicians celebrating the Congado.

One of Brazil’s culturally richest regions, the Jequitinhonha Valley in Minas Gerais, is also among its economically poorest; so poor in fact that two of its principal cities, Araçuaí and Itinga, figured on Brazilian president Lula da Silva’s “misery tour” of the country at the beginning of his term. Yet here, you encounter Brazilian culture in an intimate way nearly impossible in the major tourist centers and enjoy contact with people you would scarcely have a chance to meet as a tourist.

A child celebrating during the Congado festival in a reenactment.
A young boy in Serro, Minas Gerais dressed as sailor, representing the Portuguese in the enactment of the Congado celebration.

The upper Jequitinhonha Valley was settled because of its mineral wealth, as evidenced by the names of many of its towns: Turmalina, Berilo, Rubelita, and Diamantina. Gold was found at the beginning of the 18th century. Shortly after, diamonds were found. The district was then sealed and administered under tight control by the Portuguese crown. Within this confined cloister the region developed a distinctive Afro-Brazilian culture. When the deposits of gold and diamonds were exhausted, the area gradually fell into economic decline. Today much of the Jequitinhonha Valley’s economy is based on the planting of eucalyptus, used mainly to provide fuel for the steel industry. The valley’s residents find their lands made ever more desolate by this voraciously thirsty crop in an already arid land.

The wealth of the region is in the hearts of its people and their traditions, including their music and dance, as well as some of the finest crafts in Brazil.

To experience the traditional regional music and dance try to time a visit during one of the Congado festivals. The celebrations derive from African coronation festivals with European elements and are devoted to the traditional protector of blacks in Brazil, Our Lady of the Rosary, and to various black saints, especially Saint Benedict the Moor and Saint Ephigenia. The celebrations involve singing, dancing, drumming, street processions, live bands, and general revelry.

Women and men celebrating the Congado.
Women and men celebrating the Congado.

In addition to the Congado festivals there is a devotional and festive cycle known as the Folia de Reis, celebrated in many parts of Brazil, from Christmas Eve until January 6. This involves a reenactment of the Three Wise Men’s journey, with visits to private homes whose owners host the festivity, a sort of elaborate Christmas caroling. A sincere inquiry will often elicit an invitation. The city of Araçuaí is known for its chorales, one of which was featured on Pietá, a recent album by composer and singer Milton Nascimento, a native of Minas Gerais. Nascimento's music is not exclusively regional, but many of his songs are based on folk themes.

The Jequitinhonha Valley is not an easy destination to reach, being well off the beaten path, but its rewards are many for those who want to discover a hidden piece of Brazil’s heart.  

For More Info

Very little travel information is available on the Jequitinhonha Valley. Visitors should be prepared for less than ideal transportation and rudimentary accommodations. Portuguese is the primary language.

The Estrada Real, or Royal Route, is in fact two different routes used during colonial times. It linked Rio de Janeiro and Paraty to Minas Gerais as far as Diamantina. The route can still be traveled in some parts and is being restored and developed as a cultural and recreational attraction.

PHILIPPE LAVOIPIERRE lives in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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