Minas Gerais is the original gold rush state. Sometime in the early 1700s, explorers from São Paulo pushed beyond a forbidding range of mountains and discovered gold in the high plains beyond. Tens and then hundreds of thousands of miners poured into the new territory, setting up camp in and around the new town of Vila Rica de Ouro Preto.

The Portuguese crown tried to stem the tide, even banning emigration from Portugal for a time, to no avail. In 1720, Portuguese authorities bowed to the inevitable and switched their focus to taxing the new wealth. A new captaincy of Minas Gerais (General Mines) was declared, with Vila Rica as its capital, and a small army of Customs agents and tax collectors was sent out from the mother country to collect the royal fifth, the 20% tax owed the crown.

The gold that poured out of Minas Gerais made king and mother country rich, while changing the dynamics of colonial Brazil. In 1763, the capital was shifted south from Salvador to Rio de Janeiro, the port that served as the embarkation point for Minas gold.

The boom lasted for over half a century, but by the 1780s production was slumping, even as Portuguese taxation demands increased. The situation came to a head in 1789 in the Inconfidência Mineira, a short-lived conspiracy in Ouro Preto lead by a dentist known as Tiradentes (the "tooth-puller"). Though it accomplished next to nothing, the Inconfidência is now seen as a forerunner of the Brazilian independence movement.

With the gold petering out, miners shifted to ranching cattle, and later to growing coffee. A distinctive Mineiro culture developed, the archetypical Mineiro simple but proud, practical and self-reliant, and hospitable to strangers. The history of mining and ranching lead to a unique Mineiro cuisine, with rich stews and sauces.

In the early 1900s, geology again came to the fore with the discovery of iron ore deposits. Minas soon developed into Brazil's leading steel producer, and one of its leading manufacturing states.

The capital was shifted to a new planned city dubbed Belo Horizonte -- the Beautiful Horizon -- or more often just BH. Belo Horizonte today is a pleasant and efficient business city with some good Mineiro restaurants and pleasant strollable neighborhoods.

The real reason for a visit to Minas Gerais, however, lies back in those old gold towns. Built during the gold boom of the 18th century, the cities of Ouro Preto, Mariana, and Tiradentes are gems of high baroque architecture; thanks to the later gold-mining bust, most have been preserved in their original condition. Together, the Historical Cities of Minas Gerais are an architectural wonderland.

Several of these cities have excellent hiking nearby, but the main joys here are quiet and largely visual. It's enough to simply contemplate the beauty of the surrounding mountains and the architectural creativity of man.