This article was published originally on Brazzil Magazine at http://www.brazzil.com/. But here it is in its entirety.
An Out-of-this-World and All-Around Charming Varginha, Brazil
Written by Bryan Thomas Schmidt Sunday, 10 September 2006
Since January 2003, when I first ventured out of my world in St. Louis, Missouri, to the foreign world of Brazil - a different culture, different language, different continent (though Brazilians would argue this third point for sure) - I have visited a number of places in Brazil.
I have visited Rio de Janeiro, arguably the country's most famous city for reasons good and bad, São Paulo, Belo Horizonte, Goiânia, Ouro Preto, Mariana, Ouro Branco, Três Corações, and even Três Pontas.
And I have enjoyed different things about each of them. To be honest, I prefer the smaller interior cities to the massive congestion, noise, and crime of Rio and São Paulo for lots of reasons. One of my favorites so far has been the little gem of Varginha, hailed as the coffee capital of Brazil, in the south of Minas Gerais. One of Brazil's larger coffee enterprises, Café Bom Dia - sold now in Sam's Clubs in the U.S. - is based there.
They have several colleges and universities, including the State Conservatory of Music and Federal University of the South of Minas. Even UFO aficionados know the city from a reported UFO incident in the mid-1990s.
But for me what I like is the charm of a city large enough to have the necessities and niceties but small enough to be safe from major crime, pollution and congestion issues, even tourists, that so often make challenges for those of us in the larger cities of Brazil.
Varginha's population is presently listed around 100,000. It has a charming downtown of shops, cafés, restaurants, etc., which bustles with activity most days. The streets are generally straight but often wind up and down rather steep hills.
Most are wide enough for two cars, but a few are narrower, and many are interspersed one-way roads. Crosswalks are frequent, and unlike Rio and larger cities, the drivers actually seem to stop promptly when the lights change, conscious of pedestrian safety.
As one friend told me: "In Rio, pedestrians are just obstacles, but in Varginha, they have equal rights." In fact, you can even take a romantic starlight stroll almost anywhere in the city without worrying much about crime.
I mean, as with anywhere in Brazil (or the world for that matter), take the usual precautions, but you can walk through shadows and deserted areas without a lot of concern that someone will jump out at you or is lying in wait. In fact, Varginha has no favelas and the citizens are mostly middle class, hard-working family people.
For those wondering what there is to see and do, Varginha is surrounded by coffee plantations with the beautiful old historic fazendas and hills of green coffee plants. At Fazenda Pedra Negra, for example, built in 1915 and situated on the road to Três Pontas, the owners allowed us free reign to wander through the house and grounds, answering any questions as we raised them, and permitting pictures of anything and everything we wanted to shoot.
They have a working old telephone with the separated round earpiece you hold to your ear while talking into the megaphone shaped piece on the phone itself. They have a working stone oven large enough to prepare meals for huge parties, no doubt. They have a swimming pool, an amazingly designed water system to feed the house that still is out of reach of city water systems.
They have a charming dining area indoors and out, and they have a Museum of Coffee which is well worth the visit alone. The exhibits are well put together with good explanations and finely maintained examples and artifacts from the periods when this coffee plantation was at its prime to modern day.
But there is more to see as well. For one, the Museu de Varginha is a great place to explore both the history of this region and the city itself. Because of the UFO story's popularity and despite the fact that most locals I spoke with did not believe the story and even found the city's publicity of it a little distasteful and embarrassing, there are statues of aliens at the bus station, for sale in many shops, and spread along the Praça Governador Valadares, which lines Avenida Rio Branco in Centro. There is also a unique one at the base of the giant UFO found along Avenida Major Venâncio in Praça Marechal Floriano (beside the Honda dealership).
Varginha is also a great place to shop for the gems from which Minas Gerais gets its name and at bargain prices. The selection is optimal compared to smaller towns nearby, if nothing else, because the larger city has more shops from which to choose.
O Forno has the best pizza I have had in Brazil (though to be fair, I have never had pizza in São Paulo). Água Doce is a great cachaçaria and restaurant. The picanha is as good as any I have had anywhere. And don't miss the smoothies! Delicious!
This is also a great spot to sample the great comida mineira (Minas food) such as tutu à mineira (bean purée and pork rinds) and doce de leite (milk candy) and other specialties of the region. There are even local cachaçarias (sugar cane liquor bars) and wineries as well as great opportunities for the famous queijo mineiro, the cheese of Minas!
The selection of hotels is also good. My personal favorite is the lesser known Hotel Jaraguá, much newer and nicer than its older cousins in other cities. Free postcards of the city and its famous UFO statue are available along with inexpensive ceramic aliens at the front desk.
Each room has a stocked fridge with room to store your own stuff, as you only pay for what you use. The cable television selection is optimum, the breakfast buffet the best I have had in Brazil, and the service top notch. They even have a rooftop pool and bar. All of this at rates much lower than equal hotels in Rio. In fact, less than half price.
The hotel is located on Avenida Benjamin Constant not far from Centro or the bus station and it lies along major bus routes leading to various neighborhoods around the city. Hotel Castelar, situated more in Centro, is another fine option recommended by friends. Slightly more expensive than Jaraguá, it is located closer to Avenida Rio Branco and the shopping.
One of the nicest things about Varginha is that you can just about walk anywhere in the city in twenty minutes or less. The only exception would be from one edge of town to the other. It is safe to walk, and the weather is normally mild - 65-85, with occasional 50s a couple of weeks a year as well as occasional 90s in the summer. So this is a great place to visit without having to rent a car.
The bus ride from Rio de Janeiro passes right through mineral spa towns like São Lourenço and Cambuquira as well as other towns with access to National Parks like Resende and Barra Mansa. So you can see amazing and beautiful countryside in route and even use Varginha as a launching point to visit other places of interest or relax at health spas.
The historical cities of Tiradentes and São João del Rei are within 3 hours as well as Três Corações, birthplace of Pelé, Três Pontas, birthplace of Milton Nascimento, and the spa capital of Poços de Caldas.
Varginha also has an amazing country club and tennis club. The Tennis Club is located off Avenida Benjamin Constant in Centro while Termas do Sul do Minas Club, for members and guests only, is located on an island in the middle of the river that flows past the city. It has amazingly large outdoor swimming pools linked by bridges and includes great waterslides, indoor pools, tennis courts, racquetball, foosball, peteca (shuttlecock), volleyball, and other activities, even a ballroom. Definitely worth a visit if you can befriend any local members or somehow get an invitation.
Either as a gateway to the interesting coffee farms and spa towns around out, or for its own unique culture, Varginha, is a great place to experience life of the interior of Brazil in a way that cannot be experienced in the larger cities.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt, M.A. is the Founder and Executive Director of Anchored Music Ministries, Inc., St. Louis, Missouri, USA, which provides leadership development training in the worship arts around the world. He has traveled four times to Ghana, West Africa, four times to Brazil, and also worked in Mexico and the U.S. Anchored Music teams have also worked in Bulgaria, and Italy. His articles have been published in newspapers and magazines around the U.S. He has also served as guest lecturer and instructor in Missions at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. He can be reached at www.anchoredmusic.com.
A writer of stories and books, especially science fiction and fantasy, my first novel, "The Worker Prince," comes out in 2011. My first collection, "The North Star Serial, Part 1" came out May 2010. I've had stories and articles published in a number of magazines and newspapers, released 3 CDs of original music, and love to teach others how to be more effective with their creativity. I also read avidly and review short stories and books for Tangent Online (www.tangentonline.com) and my blog. My author site can be found at www.bryanthomasschmidt.net