Trails, waterfalls, spirituality, tasty cuisine, history and architecture: there are many attributes that make up the Serra do Caraça. However, I confess that I didn’t understand the destination very well the first time I heard a friend from Minas Gerais talk about the place.
The description mentioned a mixture of sanctuary and lodging in the middle of the Minas Gerais mountains, where there is a maned wolf’s tradition of going up the stairs of the church and snacking on a tray left by the priest on the floor. It was curious, to say the least.
But one thing is certain: just being in Caraça to understand why the place is special. In the middle of the mountains and the green horizon, between the cities of Catas Altas and Santa Bárbara, about 120 km from the capital Belo Horizonte, you can see a construction that leaves us fascinated. It’s the Caraça Sanctuary, a place with almost 300 years of history and immeasurable cultural wealth.
In general terms, the Sanctuary was an imperial college, an apostolic school, which received Dom Pedro I and hosted Dom Pedro II and Empress Teresa Cristina in April 1881. Today, in addition to accumulating history and tradition, it is located within a private reserve that offers accommodation, traditional Minas Gerais cuisine – synonymous with abundance and flavor – and a spiritual and ecological immersion.
While we were recording the episode Belo Horizonte, Inhotim and Caraça: Mining Experiences from the program CNN Travel & Gastronomy, we chose to travel to Caraça precisely because of the almost mysterious aura of the place – and because it is part of an interesting refuge.
Note that it is not such an easy destination to reach, as it is in a mountainous area and possible setbacks on the road can delay the route. However, we are rewarded with breathtaking views and much-needed peace of mind.
Serra do Caraça
Part of the Serra do Espinhaço, Serra do Caraça is located in a transition zone from the Atlantic Forest to the Cerrado, two very rich Brazilian biomes that make the region an ideal destination for ecotourism and also for the preservation of animals.
With more than 11 thousand hectares of area, the Serra is named for a curious reason: from a distance, it has the shape of a face profile – but also because it means “gorge” in Tupi-Guarani. In addition to the rock formation, the peaks also attract the attention of visitors to the natural park, which vary between 1,200 and 2,080 meters in altitude.
Interestingly, most of the mountain, which belongs to the Brazilian Province of the Congregation of the Mission, was transformed into a Private Natural Heritage Reserve (RPPN), in other words, an eternally protected area, with the mission of preserving its abundant nature.
Several water sources supply waterfalls and rivers that cross the region and provide us with tours with stunning views of the Serra. I give some examples: the Cascatinha waterfall, with four waterfalls and crystalline wells ideal for bathing; the Emperor’s Bath, where, according to an account in the diary itself, D. Pedro II took a bath; and the Stone of Patience, ideal for getting a sense of the immensity of the surroundings.
Being in Caraça, as the most intimate people call it, is to begin to understand that the place is a multiple tourist complex, a mixture of faith, fauna and flora.
It all started in 1774 with the construction of a small wooden chapel and accommodation space at the initiative of Brother Lourenço. Before his death, it is believed that the Brother received an apparition from Our Lady Mother of Men, who ordered that the environment would be conducive to the edification of men.
At the same time, the Portuguese priests Leandro and Viçoso arrived in Brazil, who received the testimony that a college was built there – founded in 1820 with four students from the Rio de Janeiro.
Today, 247 years later, we are witnesses of the living legacy embedded in the middle of the Minas Gerais nature left in the form of buildings and teachings. Museum, daily masses in the neo-Gothic church, hotel and restaurant come together and welcome the many pilgrims and tourists who come here every year
As in the past, visitors can stay overnight or spend longer periods in the sanctuary’s facilities, as they have more than 50 rooms at their disposal.
Accommodation is divided into two main facilities, with single rooms. One of them is the Pousada do Santuário, which has several wings, imperial suites (which housed important names in Brazilian history, such as the room where I stayed in which D. Pedro II spent the night), a chalet and adjoining houses.
There is also the Engenho Farm, closer to the entrance, which, in addition to rooms, has production of milk and cheese, produce and small animals.
But accommodation is not the rule: visitors who just want to visit the Sanctuary are welcome upon payment of an entrance fee and no reservation required.
From personal experience, the feeling of staying in a parish begins as soon as you wake up and walk past the church, the center of the place, with religious music in the background and open doors. Impossible to hear this call and not want to enter its interior.
Built on the site of the old chapel in 1876 and completed seven years later, the Church of Our Lady Mother of Men already impresses from the outside with the tower’s 48 meters height. Soapstone, marble and quartzite make up the imposing construction, all materials extracted regionally. Inside, even more interesting: very rich and beautiful, the stained glass windows were made in France and donated by D. Pedro II during his visit.
And a painting does not go unnoticed by the eye: it is the Santa Ceia, signed in 1828 by Ataíde, Aleijadinho’s contemporary artist. Of great proportions, the painting is another one of the marvels found inside and outside the building.
Apart from the church and the accommodation, other attractions are part of the complex – these aimed at a cultural immersion linked to the history of the school. The former education center was deactivated in 1968 due to a tragic fire that destroyed most of the library’s facilities and books. The incident was caused by a stove, which is displayed in the museum as part of the history of the place.
Today, we can see the ruins of the school, which trained more than 11,000 young people, including two former presidents of the Republic: Afonso Pena and Artur Bernardes. Several adjoining buildings and service facilities are also listed as buildings in the historic core.
For those who don’t fear, the catacombs they are a relevant visiting point, reminding us of some famous figures who have already visited Caraça. Here are buried some priests and teachers, being the oldest tomb of Father Leandro Rebello Peixoto e Castro, first superior of Caraça and founder of the school – the date of his death dates back to 1841.
O Museum is one of the most striking points of Caraça. Divided into three – the college’s museum, the sacred museum and the art gallery – each section contains different artifacts that help to narrate the local tradition and past.
The museum was assembled from pieces of furniture and objects for daily use belonging to Caraça itself, some remaining even from previous centuries. The beds in which D. Pedro II and Teresa Cristina slept are good examples of the artifacts on display, which were specially assembled to receive the entourage at the time.
It is located on the second floor of the building where the College used to be, a floor that is also home to the library. Like the entire complex, it is an environment of very precious historical value, but with even more special contours as it has around 2,500 rare works in its collection.
The oldest of them is the encyclopedia “Historia Naturale”, authored by Pliny, The Elder, which dates from 1489 – it is an example of an incunabula, that is, a work edited because of the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg. A dive into history right in front of us!
Another interesting work concerns one of my favorite subjects, gastronomy. The book “O Confeiteiro Popular”, 1914 edition, contains the recipe for the cabinet pudding I learned at the Sanctuary, a sweet made on commemorative dates and appreciated by D. Pedro II.
Typical Minas cuisine
Food is a high point in Caraça. As expected, the smell of Minas gastronomy invades the place and shows up in typically appetizing meals. In the morning, after visiting the church, it’s time for breakfast, served in a large cafeteria where the boarding school children used to have their meals.
A wood stove houses delicacies from the cuisine of Minas, made with a delight to surprise. From the kitchen and the bakery, you can find biscuits, assorted breads and many centuries-old recipes from centuries-old books in the library’s gastronomic collection.
Vegetables and vegetables come from a garden that values the PANCs (unconventional food plants) and honors the culinary tradition of Minas Gerais, with impeccable bean tutus, tropeiro beans and hearty portions of crunchy greaves. For dessert? Cheeses, jams and dulce de leche, all made right there.
In addition to the kitchen, another point of interest is the wine cellar, located next to the stairs that lead to the church doors. Renovated in 2015, along with it, the Sanctuary’s delicious past has been recovered: the production of wines and fermented products.
Existing since the 18th century, the renovation of the cellar brought new discoveries to light, such as bottles up to 100 years old. hydromel, whose production was resumed after the surveys.
The historical find is seen by the team as a revitalization of a production that was already taking place in Caraça. Grape, jabuticaba and orange wines are also among the drinks made at the Sanctuary and matured in the cellar.
Tapirs, wild dogs and birds of all kinds share the attention due to the abundance of fauna and flora that surround the place. However, it is the Guara wolf, star of the new R$200 bill, one of the most illustrious visitors to the Sanctuary.
Here there is the possibility of having a direct interaction with the animal. It’s a fascinating experience: every day, from 7 pm, we gather in front of the church stairs to wait for the wolf to visit. Silence takes over and anxiety starts to beat harder inside her chest.
As it is a wild animal, it ends up maintaining its natural habits, so, in fact, it has no exact time to show up – there is even a risk of not seeing it. However, when he shows up because of the food placed on the tray on the floor, it’s impossible not to smile silently and be impressed by his colors and size.
The tradition of waiting for the wolf’s visit dates back more than 40 years, when some trash cans appeared overturned. It was thought they were dogs, but soon the Sanctuary team made sure it was the wolf.
Since then, trays with meat and pieces of fruit have been placed on the floor in front of the church as a ritual to approach the animal – a way of preserving it based on respect. It is noteworthy that the maned wolf’s visits are closely monitored by a biologist, who provides further explanations about the animal and its habits.
Between the experience with the wolf, the waterfalls, mountains, forest, gastronomy, history and faith, the feeling that sums up Caraça is only one: that of wanting to return.
How to get
Serra do Caraça is located between two municipalities in Minas Gerais, Catas Altas and Santa Bárbara. Both are, on average, 120 km from Belo Horizonte.
Departing the capital by car, you can reach the Caraça Sanctuary through the BR 381 highway towards Vitória-ES until the Barão de Cocais/Santa Bárbara/Caraça interchange. Take the MG 436 highway via Barão de Cocais and, before the city of Santa Bárbara, turn right towards Caraça.
The main entrance of the Sanctuary is on the Caraça Highway, at km 7, where it is necessary to travel another 12 km to the headquarters on a paved road. The distance from the Sanctuary from Rio de Janeiro is about 500 km; in São Paulo are about 700 km.
Reference: CNN Brasil