Diamantina is the start of the Caminho dos Diamantes (Road of the Diamonds) and a UNESCO world heritage site. This means that it’s maintained, although this includes things like the horrible cobbles that make you feel like you’re in an earthquake when you drive over them. They also do a fair number on the suspension of most cars. The steep, narrow streets are very pretty, but driving there as a non-local must be horrible, as you need to be constantly aware and ready to reverse to get out of the way of other cars, sometimes down streets that make San Francisco look flat.
I was there for 4 nights, and felt lucky to have such wonderful hosts as André and Evandro. They both appreciate the slowly-does-it style of tourism, to the extent where André likes to just see one thing a day, and really get to know it, a far cry from the ‘visit all the churches!’ style that many people seem to have. It was with this mind-set that I got shown around Diamantina, from the old Caminho dos Escravos (Road of the Slaves), to the beautiful Cachoeira Sentinela in the nearby settlement of Biribiri and even a concert played by the orchestra that Evandro is a member of.
Diamantina got its name, and fame, from the diamonds found there back in the 18th century. The story I heard goes that a priest was watching the locals playing cards and using some pretty rocks as counters. The locals saw them as nothing more than as such so had no problem giving the priest some. A bad move. He then sent it to Europe to be analysed and it was discovered to be diamonds. The Portuguese crown wasn’t so fast, and took about 20 years, but then they effectively locked down Diamantina to make sure that no-one could take ‘their’ diamonds. This was to such a point that the Portuguese crown retained Diamantina for 50 years after the rest of Brazil gained its independence. It was only let go because of the discovery of superior diamonds in Africa.
There are many stories linked to Diamantina, including that of Chica da Silva, a slave whose owner, the owner of a diamond mine, fell in love with her, freed her and raised her up to being one of the most powerful women in the Americas. There is a lot of conflicting information about her, and unfortunately her house was closed while I was in town, but one of the biggest criticisms she gets is because she never seemed to use her power to help other slaves, preferring to try to integrate into white society and ignore her roots.
At the concert