Inland federal unit (state) of southeast Brazil; area 586,624 sq km/226,,495 sq mi; population (2007 est) 19,261,800; capital Belo Horizonte. The region is rich in mineral deposits (iron ore, manganese, bauxite, nickel) and is the centre of the country's iron ore, coal, diamond, and gold mining industries. Cattle are raised in the northwest of the region, and coffee, maize, dairy products, fruit, and sugar are produced. The ports of Rio de Janeiro, Vitoria, and Santos are used for its external trade. The Rio São Francisco flows through the northern part of the region. Other towns include Juiz de Fora, Governador Valadares, Uberaban, and Uberlândia. Gold was discovered at the end of the 17th century.
Physical and cultural landmarks Given the state's geographical expanse, the region is very diverse. North of state capital Belo Horizonte, grassy slopes and occasional forest are replaced by the savannah of the Planalto Central in the northeast of the state. Here, cactus species, bare rock and drought are characteristic of the region known as the Sertão Mineiro – an area that suffers considerable hardship. The Serra do Espinhaço runs north–south through the state. To the west flows the Rio São Francisco and to the east and south flows the Rio Jequitinhona. In southwest Minas, bordering São Paulo state, are the spa towns of Cambuquira, São Lourenço, Caxumbú and Lambari. Caxumbú was the haunt of the Brazilian Royal family in the 19th century. Another spa town, Poços de Caldas is the finest and a major resort town particularly for rich Brazilians. Eastern Minas has a fascinating landscape dominated by the Caparaó National Park, and the 3,000 m/9,840 ft-high Pico de Bandeira – the highest peak in southern Brazil.
Heritage sites Minas Gerais has some important heritage sites and churches from the early colonial period, known as the Cidades Históricas (historic cities). Most are towns rather than cities. In the vast interior of the state there are many 18th century mining settlements, many of which are the cidades históricas, such as Ouro Prêto, São João del Rei, Mariana and Sabará, Congonhas, Tiradentes (1702) and Diamantina (which is the furthest afield from Belo Horizonte). Tourism is important, but varies between the settlements. Most modern of the cidades históricas is São João del Rei (founded in 1699) which has grown into an established market town. Uniquely among the cidades históricas, Diamantina still has an active mining community where gold and diamonds are still extracted. The town is also the gateway to the heart of the Sertão Mineiro and the Jequitinhonha valley, one of the poorest and remotest areas of Brazil, where Garimpeiros (gold miners) actively work the river valley in search of gold. Sabará, founded in 1674, following the discovery of gold, has some of the oldest inhabited streets of southern Brazil. It was the major centre of gold mining until Ouro Prêto and Mariana became more important at the end of the seventeenth century. Ouro Prêto is a picturesque university town surrounded by steep mountains, and is a major tourist and commercial centre. It was founded in 1711 (formerly called Vila Rica), and was formerly capital of Minas Gerais 1721–1897. It was the richest city in the New World in the mid-18th century. It has 13 baroque churches and has been declared by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage Area.