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Day 39: Cardeal Mota, Serra do Cipó National Park

Michael Palin - BrazilFor 200 years after the first European strayed by chance onto the coast of Brazil, the wealth of the country was largely generated by the world demand for sugar. This was serviced from the huge slave-worked plantations in the North-East of the country. Then, in 1693, something happened to change all that. Reports came into São Paulo of an adventurer who had returned from the mountains with traces of gold in small dark nuggets of rock. This was what the Portuguese settlers had been waiting for. They knew there was gold in the continent – their Spanish counterparts had struck it rich in the Andes 170 years earlier – and they knew that one day God would guide them to their own El Dorado.

The bandeirantes (flag-bearers), privately financed bands of freebooters, had long been penetrating the Brazilian hinterland looking for slaves. It was one of them, Antônio Dias, who led an expedition into the area where the ouro preto (black gold) had been found. It wasn't easy to locate the source. All they had to go on was a particular rock formation – a big rock with a smaller rock beside it, jutting out like a thumb. Eventually, in 1698, in a range known as the Serra do Espinhaco (the 'Spiny Mountains') some 320 kilometres (200 miles) north of Rio, they found what they were looking for. The gold rush that ensued revealed that the mountains were also rich in diamonds and other precious stones as well as apparently inexhaustible reserves of bauxite, manganese and iron ore. God had rewarded them beyond their wildest dreams. Churches were built and profusely decorated. A new state was created under the blandly functional name of Minas Gerais ('General Mines'). Agriculturally blessed, as well as minerally rich, it became the new commercial epicentre of Brazil. The capital moved from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro in 1763. The transfer of power from the North to the South of Brazil was complete. It has never been reversed.

Our first night in Minas is spent at an attractive, artistically furnished pousada at one end of a long, thin tourist town called Cardeal Mota. The owner has created an attractive garden with bendy trees rather like the ones you see on Willow Pattern china, in which noisy, yellow-breasted birds dart about and hummingbirds, which the Brazilians call beige flores ('flower kissers'), gyrate among the blossoms. Comfortable chairs are scattered around in which you can recline and watch the sun set on the mountains behind the house. Contentment.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 39: Cardeal Mota, Serra do Cipó National Park
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Cardeal Mota
  • Book page no: 169

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