Name Brazil’s three largest cities. For most of you, this will be a piece of cake: Sāo Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and…. Oh wait. What on earth is Brazil’s third largest city, anyway?
Let me introduce you to Belo Horizonte, located in the state of Minas Gerais. A quick search will inform you that this mountainous state capital, translated to “Beautiful Horizon,” is bustling with commercial and industrial activity. At first glance, that does seem to be all there is to it. Yet the loveliness of Belo Horizonte lies precisely in its inconspicuousness. Affectionately known as Beagá to locals, the city fosters hundreds of small, lively Bairros (neighborhoods), each boasting an identity of its own. Tourists are a rare sighting, and consequently they are… *drum roll* … quite appreciated when they come around.
The truth is, this likely isn’t a city that you want to plan your entire vacation around. This is the place that you accidentally stumble upon and fall in love with, for all its unassuming beauty. First, get the stereotypical Brazilian experience out of your system – gawk at the gorgeous semi-naked women, stock up on Havaianas, drink Caipirinhas and dance some Samba. Then, rent a car and take a drive through Minas Gerais if you wish to understand how the rest of Brazil lives when it is not under the watchful eye of the tourism industry. Just a few of the many reasons Belo Horizonte is worth exploring:
The topography of this city is unbelievable – I have never seen anything like it. Belo Horizonte is built on hills and surrounded by mountains, resulting in Bairros with houses almost stacked on top of one another as well as incredibly steep roads. When I say steep, I mean terrifyingly so – expect your stomach to drop as the car reaches the top of a hill and then plummets down what feels like a 90 degree angled road. Once you learn to ride the streets like you would a rollercoaster, the unique landscape becomes quite fascinating.
Parque de Mangabeiras, one of Brazil’s largest urban parks, offers a peaceful nature getaway from the frenzy of the city. Here you’ll find waterfalls, hiking trails, and captivating views of Belo Horizonte’s renowned hills. The best part? Tiny, fuzzy monkeys. Everywhere. In addition to being unbearably adorable, they are easily enticed with crackers (let’s be real, this wouldn’t be the first time I use food to make friendships). Other creatures you will encounter by the dozen include anteaters, exotic birds, and some of the largest, most intricately designed butterflies I have laid eyes on.
Feira Hippie is an enormous outdoors Sunday market featuring over 2500 artisanal stands. This is the best place to get a taste of upcoming and current Brazilian trends. Expect to find apparel, art, jewelry, toys, food, and everything in between. In addition to being vastly hand-made (read: authentic), items are reasonably priced. People watching is also a must.
There is something oddly charming about the Botecos huddled on every street corner. Botecos are Brazilian pubs featuring lively music, cheap food, and ice-cold beers. They are an important cultural marker not only in Belo Horizonte but all over Brazil. Belo Horizonte doesn’t have a beach, so these bars become cozy watering holes for the locals. People flock to Botecos after work to socialize, eat, drink, and have philosophical conversations about politics and soccer.
At the end of the day, what really makes this city special are the people. This city is inhabited by some of the kindest, most welcoming, and humble humans I have met. People who, despite not having much, would not think twice about inviting you into their home and offering you a meal. Have you ever eaten homemade Brazilian food? It’s fantastic.