What's in the basement of his hotel? Nicholas Jones knows, but will he be allowed to go there?

Hotel Solar do Rosario has two swimming pools, 41 rooms, an award-winning restaurant, numerous courtyards, and a gold mine.

"Can I please see the gold mine?" I ask after being tipped off to its existence by Jairo, our guide to Ouro Preto, Brazil.

The receptionist is confused. There is no such gold mine, she insists. Jairo must be mistaken. Perhaps a hotel across town.

Back in my room the phone rings. "Sir, I'm sorry, I was mistaken, there is a gold mine, but it is not open to the public."


Not the usual answer re laundry or wi-fi access.

The mine entrance is somewhere beneath the hotel. When Portuguese landowners discovered gold, they built over their mine, lest it be seized by a rival cresting the hill with slaves and guns.

The name of the city, Ouro Preto, translates as "black gold", and is so named because gold from the region is darker than normal. The first strike was made by slave hunters, sent inland to the mountains to recapture escaped Africans.

Gold fever followed, and by 1701 Ouro Preto's population was 250,000, Jairo tells us. Of all the world's cities, only New York was bigger.

Gold drew people from Portugal, Goa and Africa. Fortunes were made, and funded the construction of 13 churches and eight chapels, bringing architects, sculptors and artists.

Today the population has dropped to about 70,000 remains. But the action has not passed the state of Minas Gerais by -- it's just that different minerals are coveted.

Some of the world's biggest mining companies have set up here, including Australia's BHP Billiton, and on the drive from Belo Horizonte we pass open-pit iron-ore mines.

With that comes the modern equivalent to Ouro Preto's mansions -- a huge gated (more like walled) suburb, ridiculously named Alphaville, flashes by the window.

Pine trees outside its clipped lawns makes the settlement seem like something out of Europe, and it's a world away from the plywood and plastic shacks by the state capital's motorway.

Ouro Preto remains almost totally preserved as a tribute to the old rush. It is not an old town within a modern city, its churches, colonial houses, fountains and bridges are ringed by green hills.

The town has Unesco World Heritage status, and strict rules protect its character. Residents can only paint their homes in red, blue, white, yellow, green and brown, and cannot alter the facade.

Streets are up or down and narrow, and it's common to turn a corner and find a car (only the smallest are used by residents) reversing at pace, making way for an oncomer.

From street level, most homes are rectangular and symmetrical, with brightly coloured doors and window frames, and wrought-iron covers across windows. There is no gap between neighbours, meaning streets can feel like a corridor.

The town's churches, built in the Italian Baroque style, have two bell towers each and are often framed at either end of a street -- it pays to look back frequently, to catch a completely different view.

Most houses were built after the 1740s, with second and third floors added as a family gained wealth. Many have as many as 20 rooms, for family members and a large number of slaves. Three floors are visible from street level, and twice that number can exist below.

At several houses Jairo points to tiny openings just above ground level, which let in slivers of light and air to slave quarters.

We have lunch in a restaurant below street level where slaves used to live. There are exposed beams only 2m above the stone floor, and chains on the walls.

Slaves could grow rich themselves, and buy freedom. The church across from our hotel, Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosario, was constructed using funds from former slaves, who were barred from churches attended by the Portuguese.

A feel for the excess of the era can be found at Our Lady of Pilar, completed in 1733 and the richest church in town. It has 500kg of gold leaf and decoration inside. The richness, to my eye, is off-putting -- like something a Kardashian would design, only with fewer mirrors. More pleasurable is the slow amble between landmarks, through purple flowering jacaranda trees and bougainvillea creeping around centuries-old buildings.

Antique stores, and immaculately presented restaurants and cafes dot streets surrounding the central square.

There are also gem stores, whose jewellers can make up a custom ring within three hours (much of the world's gemstones come from Minas Gerais).

I find myself at the Rococo Catholic church of Igreja Nossa Senhora do Carmo, just off the main square of Praca Tiradentes.

Like several places in the town, it offers views out and over the terracotta-tiled roofs below, and to the hills beyond.

Just down a typically steep cobblestoned path a restaurant is tucked opposite a blue-shuttered home. Above are the church's twin bell towers and away to my left, peeking over the roof line, is the outline of Igreja Sao Francisco de Paula.

Locals lean forward as they walk up to the square, hands clasped behind their back, and, aside from a nod hello, pay me no attention. But, here's the waiter.

"One beer, por favor."


LATAM operates seven non-stop flights each week from Auckland to Santiago. latam.com

South American experts Eclipse Travel can design a Brazilian itinerary to suit you. They suggest visiting Ouro Preto in combination with Rio de Janeiro, Iguazu Falls, the Pantanal and the Amazon. Their four-day Rio Essentials package starts from $767pp.