May 20th, 2011 – My trip was down to the last 4 days before catching my flight out of Sao Paulo back to the U.S. I had missed two other steam train rides that I had hoped to take – one early in the trip at Curitiba, and one at Mariana. Now I had one last opportunity to ride an old steam train into the small gold mining town of Tiradentes, which means tooth-puller, and was named after Joaquim Jose da Silva Xavier, who lived from 1746 to 1792. He was a leading member of the Brazilian revolutionary movement known as the Inconfidencia Mineira. The movement’s goal was full independence from the Poruguese colonial power and to create a Brazilian republic. When the independence movement plan was discovered, Xavier was publicly hanged. After the republic was formed he has been honored as one of Brazil’s national heroes.
Breakfast was abysmal at the Vila Hostel, and once again I was the only one staying there. I raided the almost empty fridge, sucked a couple raw eggs and strolled out to enjoy the beautiful morning in the lush, green back yard. Packed up my duffel bag and stashed it in my dorm room, left the Hostel and walked to the well-maintained train station. A Museum about the history of the train era and gold extraction in Brazil was housed within the station.
As I was perusing through the Museum while waiting for the train to begin boarding, hordes of screaming 8 to 10 year old school children flooded into the Museum, all ticketed to take the train to Tiradentes. Every single one of them had a digital camera and they were flashing photos like mad as they dashed around and leapt from one old train engine to another. There were several school teachers accompanying them, though not controlling any of them in any way.
The train began to board and I chose to sit in a car near the rear of the train. Shortly after doing so, I realized my mistake – the rear cars were loading up with all the wild and screaming children. I quickly moved forward about 4 cars to one that had older, quieter folks, like myself. Fortunately, I was still in time to find a window seat. The windows slid up and down and all of them were open which made it easy to stick the camera out to catch train shots as it went around bends.
The ride to Tiradentes was flat and went through lush green countryside, with lakes in the foreground, mountains in the background. Occasionally the smoke from the engine’s smokestack would drift into the windows – ugh! It was filled with small black particulate matter, and later I learned that the train was burning oil, which stunk to high heaven when it wafted by. But for most of the ride the air was clean and breathable. The countryside was gorgeous!
The old-time train whistle was great to hear, and it tooted as often as it could, at every crossing, at every passer-by – it kept pretty busy! As we pulled into Tiradentes, there were over a dozen horse-drawn taxi carriages ready and waiting to transport people into town. I chose to walk, as the town was just a couple blocks from the train terminal and I wanted to exercise the legs.
Tiradentes is a beautiful town with a river running through it, mountains all around, and it sits fairly high with commanding views. The highest hill in town has a Basilica perched atop, and the cobblestone streets that splay out below are lined with high-end tourist shops and restaurants. I thoroughly enjoyed this town – it was elegant, peaceful and surrounded by stunning landscapes in every direction.
Before I had headed into Tiradentes I watched the group of train engineers turn the engine around to ready it for it’s return to Sao Joao del Rei. It was quite an operation. Many of the passengers stood and watched the engineers get the engine onto the turnstile, rotate it around and back it up to hitch it to the train cars. Interesting to see.
I caught the 1 p.m. train back to Sao Joao del Rei, and it was totally empty of school children – they had all returned by bus. Arriving back into Sao Joao del Rei, I had quite a time finding the Rodoviario, but upon finally locating it I learned that there was a bus that departs every day at 3 p.m. to Coxambu, my next destination. I didn’t want to stay another night and almost full day in Sao Joao del Rei just waiting for the next day’s bus, so I decided to try to catch this bus – but it was already getting late. By the time I got back to Vila Hostel, it was 2:50 p.m.!
I grabbed my duffel bag, quickly paid my Hostel bill, asked the desk girl to call me a cab, and dashed out the door to the other side of the road. I stuck out my thumb to start hitching a ride to the Rodoviario, in case my taxi didn’t show in time. A woman was pulling out of a parking lot just next to me, and I asked her for a ride to the Rodoviario, but I think she thought I was a rather strange person, and chose not to.
I was feeling a tad frantic! The next car that came driving down the road I started waving at with both arms and hailed it down as though it should pull over – AND IT DID! The driver was a sweet older gentleman and upon quickly explaining about trying to catch a bus at the Rodoviario that would be leaving in 8 minutes, he offered to take me there!!!
He drove a luxurious car with plush leather seats. I jumped in and off we went. Fortunately, he knew the shortest route to the Rodoviario, and though we were slowed by having to wait for a couple red lights, he ran the third red light (no one was coming) and dropped me off at the Rodoviario at 2:57 p.m. Gushing many grateful thank yous and waving good-bye, I dashed to the ticket counter – it was closed! But – the ticket sales woman saw me and remembered me from earlier. She came out from the ticket office and walked me over to the gate, where she explained to the bus driver that I could still board the bus and pay for the ticket once I was onboard!!
I still had to buy another ticket to go through the gate to get to the bus, so after quickly purchasing that ticket at a kiosk I passed through the gate and boarded my bus to Coxambu! The bus was full – I was the last passenger through its doors!
Once we pulled out of Sao Joao del Rei, the bus assistant came down the aisle and collected fares from those who had not yet paid. Fortunately, I still had the name of the town I was going to and the fare cost written on the paper the ticket office woman had originally given me. The rest of the ride was a breeze as the bus wound its way through gorgeous scenery along the old trade route to Coxambu.
The bus arrived to Coxambu at 6:30 p.m. I walked to the nearest hotel and booked a room. The hotel was made entirely of marble – quite grand. It also had a Spa which I used immediately. First, the steam room, and then a 40 minute massage. Ahh, what luxury!
It was the end of a wonderful, crazy day. Before heading off to bed, I watched a large group of hotel guests dancing to a live jazz band in the large lobby area of the hotel. Nearby was a fireplace dancing with flames, while outside everything was frozen solid at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. It felt like a great accomplishment and relief to have made it to Coxambu, the city known for its mineral waters, and to have a secure, warm place to stay on a frigidly cold, dark night.