Wheels clack against the track. You chug by the slow-moving Mortes River on your right and vine-covered brick walls on your left. Then you pass under low-hanging trees. The whistle blows as you round the bend. The blueish Serra São José mountain looms ahead of you. You start to lose speed. The small, yellow station comes into view.
You just rode a steam train, the Smoking Mary, 13 kilometers between São João del Rei and Tiradentes. You’re in Minas Gerais, in Southeastern Brazil. The state was once Brazil’s mining district. Diamonds, gold, and silver used to be transported along the narrow gauge railway. It now brings visitors to one of the most well-preserved colonial towns in South America.
Tiradentes looks much as it did in the 18th century. Narrow, stone streets are lined with whitewashed cottages that have terra-cotta roofs and brightly colored trim. Largo das Forras is the center of town. The tree-lined square is surrounded by horse-drawn carriages and outdoor cafe seating. The tops of Baroque churches hover above the treetops. Painters, silversmiths, and furniture makers line the side streets. You feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
From Largo das Forras, your first stop should be the Padre Toledo Museum. Padre Toledo was one of the Inconfidentes who conspired against the Portuguese for Brazilian independence. His beautifully restored house has hand-painted ceilings and hand-crafted furniture. From the museum, head toward the Church of St. Anthony, one of the most beautiful churches in Brazil. The whitewashed church sits at one of the highest points in the town, and the interior is filled with gold foil. Plan to return later if there’s an organ concert scheduled.
Pass by City Hall in Emancipation Square and walk toward the São José Fountain. The ornate, soapstone fountain was built in 1749; its water comes from a nearby spring. Continue toward the Church of Our Lady of Rosary of the Black People. The oldest church in Tiradentes was built by and for slaves at night after long days of work. The moon and the stars are painted on its ceiling. Finally ready for a break, stop at Virada’s do Largo—locally known as Restaurante da Beth—for lunch on the patio. The huge portions are perfect for sharing.
When the little town gets crowded with afternoon tourists, it’s time to find Solar da Ponte. The charming country home, only a short walk from the main plaza, became Tiradentes’ first inn in 1974. Rooms have four-poster beds and fresh flowers. Afternoon tea is about to be served. If it weren’t for the pool out by the gardens, you’d swear it was 1714 instead of 2014. And for just a few days, that might be okay with you.