In the early days of exploration in the gold region, at the end of the 17th century, a long road connected the mining settlements to the port of Paraty, crossing the Mantiqueira mountain range.
The journey took three months.
In 1698, the bandeirante Garcia Rodrigues obtained authorization to open a new route from Vila Rica (now Ouro Preto) towards Rio de Janeiro, passing through what is now Juiz de Fora – the so-called Caminho Novo, as it became known.
The Portuguese Crown tightly controlled the flow of metal from its colony, and both the New and Old Roads could only be traveled under its control; opening new roads was a crime of lese majesty.
With the exhaustion of the mines at the turn of the 19th century, the Estrada Real lost its solemnity.
It was only after Brazil’s independence (1822) that the old “royal roads” were freed up for traffic. They were joined by ordinary roads, with some stretches falling into disuse and disappearing, swallowed up by time and the forests.
Other stretches became mere country lanes, the beds of highways and railroads.
So the history of the Estrada Real sort of “faded away”; many traveled it without even knowing that those roads were the scene of so many stories. These stories only began to be revived at the end of the 20th century, with the resurgence of the Estrada Real, now as a tourist product;
The official roads were thus given the generic name of Estrada Real (Royal Road)
The two old roads – and their subsequent extension, between Ouro Preto and Diamantina – are being restructured today by the Estrada Real Institute, in partnership with the government of Minas Gerais, with the aim of stimulating tourism in the region.
The project includes 177 towns along 1,400 kilometers, in a route that crosses mountains, valleys, plateaus, floodplains, forests and savannahs.
Within the Estrada Real there are regional circuits and routes – the Trilha dos Inconfidentes, which brings together sixteen towns around Tiradentes, for example, or the Vilas e Fazendas circuit, a selection of places for rural accommodation around Congonhas.
Many of the towns that make up the Estrada Real are in the process of setting up and improving their tourist infrastructure; small towns that until now had been alien to conventional tourism are mobilizing to offer support and good services to new visitors.
They compensate for the shortcomings of incipient professionalization with the richness of their old buildings, the beauty of the surrounding landscape and the moving authenticity of their cultural manifestations.
Ways to discover the tourist attractions of the Estrada Real
1. The Old Way – Caminho Velho
Also known as the Gold Trail, it was the first route created by the Portuguese crown and connects Ouro Preto to Paraty.
Some of the towns and districts that are part of the Old Way: Aiuruoca, Baependi, Bananal, Cachoeira Paulista, Carrancas, Caxambu, Delfim Moreira, Itamonte, Lambari, Lavras, Ouro Preto, Paraty, Queluz, São Luiz do Paraitinga, Tiradentes and Três Corações.
2. New Way – Caminho Novo
Created to serve as a safer route to the port of Rio de Janeiro, mainly because cargo was subject to pirate attacks on the sea route between Paraty and Rio.
Some of the towns and districts that are part of the Caminho Novo: Antônio Carlos, Barbacena, Conceição de Ibitipoca, Inconfidência, Itatiaia, Juiz de Fora, Lima Duarte, Ouro Preto, Petrópolis, Rio de Janeiro and Santa Rita de Ibitipoca.
3. Sabarabuçu Way
This district of Ouro Preto is surrounded by splendid mountain landscapes and legends that permeate the popular imagination.
Some of the towns and districts that are part of the Sabarabuçu Way: Brumadinho, Caeté, Cocais, Morro Vermelho, Nova Lima, Ouro Preto and Sabará.
4. Diamond Way
Created to connect the seat of the Captaincy, Ouro Preto, to the main diamond mining town, Diamantina.
Some of the towns and districts that are part of the Diamond Way: Alvinópolis, Conceição do Mato Dentro, Diamantina, Ipoema, Mariana, Milho Verde, Ouro Preto, Santa Bárbara, Santana do Riacho and Serra do Cipó;
History of the Royal Road – Estrada Real
The 1400 km long Estrada Real route involves more than 200 municipalities divided into three Brazilian states: Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Minas Gerais.
The Estrada Real route drove the country’s economy for more than 150 years.
Through these routes gold and precious stones were taken to the court in Rio de Janeiro;
It was the discovery of gold and diamonds that made a decisive contribution to attracting people from diverse backgrounds to the region, with the aim of easily enriching themselves with minimal investment.
After the period of occupation of the Brazilian coast by the expeditions of the bandeirantes and sertanistas, the last decades of the 17th century saw the start of gold discoveries and the establishment of the first settlements and population centers;
A large number of people from various parts of the colony and Europe began to occupy the region.
In 1705, the Portuguese Crown tried to prevent strangers from entering the gold zone.
The search for gold in Minas Gerais reached its peak in colonial times until the mid-18th century.
Gold digging began on the banks of streams and rivers, and was then extracted on higher ground, on the slopes of the mountains.
The search for gold and precious stones led to the emergence of “many paths” leading to the mines, expanding the Entradas left by the bandeirantes and the paths demarcated by the indigenous people.
Numerous roads were built from Rio de Janeiro to Minas, passing through São Paulo.
Because of the diversity of routes, detours and changes that occurred over time, three routes were delineated on the maps:
- Old Path – Caminho Velho
- General Sertão Path – Caminho Geral do Sertão
- New Path – Caminho Novo
Thus, the so-called Caminho Velho comprises the largest of the Estrada Real itineraries.
The Caminho Geral do Sertão, as the old São Paulo road came to be known, was the result of the efforts of the bandeirante Fernão Dias Paes on his last expedition (1674-1681).
This route established communication between São Paulo de Piratininga and the towns of the Paraíba Valley – Mogi, Jacareí, Taubaté, Pindamonhangaba and Guaratinguetá, crossing the Mantiqueira mountain range and crossing the Rio Grande on its eastern stretch towards the Rio das Velhas.
On the Old Way, the journey from São Paulo to Ouro Preto or the Rio das Velhas region took around 74 days. Leaving Rio de Janeiro, passing through Paraty, the journey took around 73 days, comprising “35 days of travel and 38 stops.”
Even with all the difficulties, this route only ceased to be widely used when the Caminho Novo was built, which allowed quick and easy access to the mines.
The Caminho Novo is considered to be the first official Brazilian road.
The construction of this route received strong support from Governor Artur de Sá e Meneses who, impressed by the difficulties encountered on the first trip to the gold mines, quickly commissioned another road from the son of emerald hunter Garcia Rodrigues Paes, who completed this road in 1707.
At the beginning of the 18th century to the middle of the 19th century, The New Way was the main gold route, among all the colonial paths and roads of the 19th century.
Departing from Rio de Janeiro towards the mines, this new route was covered in 10 to 12 days, with its 80 leagues or 494 km.
The Diamond Way, also called the Sabarabuçu Way, is a regional route, within the scope of the captaincy of Minas Gerais.
The discovery of auriferous veins in the regions of Serro Frio (town of Serro) and Tijuco (Diamantina) led to the emergence of this road.
Access to it became very competitive. This route led to the arrival from Vila Rica (Ouro Preto) of the precious stones so coveted in the Diamantino District.
Few of the original routes of the Gold Roads to the mines have remained intact.
From Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, stretches were transformed, mainly into railroads, considering the facilities represented for such projects by the numerous gorges located in the Serra do Mar and Serra da Mantiqueira mountains through which these roads passed.
Other stretches were reworked, giving rise to new carriageways in the 19th century, which gave way to highways in the 20th century.