Belo Horizonte: Planning Your Time
The third largest city in Brazil by population, Belo Horizonte, or B.H. (bee-ah-GAH) to the locals, is nestled in the hills of the Serra do Curral, a small mountain range for which the city was originally named Curral D’El Rei (King´s Corral). The city is situated in a triangular position to Rio de Janeiro to the East and São Paulo to the South. Belo Horizonte, while not as evolved as São Paulo or as picturesque as Rio, offers some interesting attractions that will take you off the tourist track for a while.
First and foremost, Belo Horizonte is a shopper’s dream. The garment district, called Barro Preto, offers some of the best deals on clothes in the entire country. The city offers several active street fairs with wonderful handcrafted items at excellent prices, even for Brazil. And the basics of dining, groceries, and accommodations are from 10% to 30% less expensive than in the other cities. If you get carried away, you can look around for some good deals on extra luggage.
Belo Horizonte is also home to all kinds of great food products, including, sweets, bottled waters, beef and the famous Brazilian pão de quejo (cheese bread), which was invented here. And while the city may not offer the breadth of international cuisine that São Paulo offers, comida mineira is well known and loved throughout Brazil as the best country cookin’ available…and that includes a healthy dose of hooch, since Belo Horizonte is Brazil’s most happening bar town. There are said to be more bars per capita in B.H. than any other city in Brazil. Most of them are botecos (local dive bars), but many are quite upscale too.
Belo Horizonte, with almost 4 million people is still considered by residents of São Paulo and Rio to be something of a farming town, full of country folk (known as caipiras) transporting their cattle and chickens to and from the city by mule. Indeed, you can still find, on the outskirts of town, country farmers with mule carts moving their cargo precariously down city streets (taking the right-of-way over the cars). But Belo Horizonte is, in truth, a bustling metropolis with a crowded city center, an international airport, several upscale neighborhoods and everything you would expect from a major city. Life in B.H. has actually become somewhat stressed and agitated in the past ten years or so, making this simple, country folk something of a terror behind the wheel. Driving in Belo Horizonte is, to be sure, an exercise in insanity and self-restraint. Combine this pent-up, urbanized stress with the sincere but insufficient attempt at urban planning and you have one of the most challenging and awe inspiring street scenes in Latin America.
Generally temperate, Belo Horizonte is most pleasant from March to September, the dry season. Temperatures during this time can get well into the hot zone, reaching as high as 42 degrees Celsius, but usually hovers around 30–36 degrees Celsius. The rainy season, from October to February, brings a consistent and moderate rain with patches of sun every week or so. During the peak of the rainy season, it’s not uncommon to experience heavy, tropical downpours that bring floods and landslides. On a clear day, the city appears a sparkling metropolis with many tall buildings climbing up and down the hills of the city. On such a day, you’d do well to find a majestic viewpoint in the south hills of the city and take in the bird’s eye view.
Planning Your Time in Belo Horizonte
Most travelers spend no more than two or three days in Belo Horizonte and usually not all at once. The largest city in the region, B.H. serves as the hub for travelers going to and from the historical towns, farming villages, and industrial centers that surround it. That makes it common for travelers to come back to B.H. two or three times during their exploration of the region, spending just enough time to restock any necessities, get to know one or two neighborhoods or sites, and perhaps partake of a new restaurant. Then it off to the historical towns or mountains. There’s no reason to hang around in Belo Horizonte longer than is absolutely necessary.
If you find yourself in Belo Horizonte for a more extended period, you could plan a couple of day-trips to some of the small towns within a day’s reach from the city. Sabará, a mere 20 minutes by bus from the B.H. Rodoviaria, offers a taste of the region’s historical architecture and the nearby Gruta da Lapinha will give you a feel for the region’s hillsides and natural caves.
Don’t Miss in Belo Horizonte
Praca da Savassi: The Savassi area is the city’s upscale center, sporting numerous sidewalk cafés, boutique stores, art galleries, design centers, restaurants, and bars. In addition, a number of classy nightclubs have recently sprung up, making the area a great nightlife destination.
Barro Preto: The city’s bustling garment district, Barro Preto has nearly 1000 stores and outlets for all types of clothing, from casual beach wear to jeans to formal nightgowns. If you like to shop, spend a day walking around this neighborhood. You’ll find factory and discount outlets, fabric and supply stores, indoor malls and collectives.
Mercado Central: A labyrinth of isles full of meats, cheeses, fruits and vegetables, this public market is one of the most interesting in the country. Besides the food, there’s also wine, Cachaca, health foods, pots, pans, wicker furniture and, of course, live animals. It’s a wonderful slice of the local culture.
Feira de Arte e Artesanato (Feira Hippie): On Sunday mornings, a huge section of the city’s main boulevard becomes one of the largest outdoor flea markets in Latin America. As its name suggests, most items are hand-made by local artisans, but you’ll also find great deals on clothes, shoes and accessories.
The Gold Town of Sabara: Long before Belo Horizonte existed, Sabara stood as one of the five most important gold towns in Minas Gerais. At its peak, its gold production surpassed that of Ouro Preto and the vestiges of this era remain intact. Colonial architecture, gold-lined churches, and lavish public buildings…it’s all within an hour of Belo Horizonte and can be seen in a single day.