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The mine at Minas Passagem, lying between Ouro Preto and Mariana, is the country’s oldest gold mine and was once the source of much of the region’s gold. Today, most of the mother lode has been discovered and excavated, though veins of gold can still be found in the walls of the mine.

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The gold is expensive to extract, however. It takes 1 ton of ore to get 4-8 grams of gold. Hardly economically enticing. But, the owners of the mine have found a new source, a much easier source, of income: tourists. Each visitor pays R$35 (about $17) to visit the mine. That’s a heck of a payout compared to mining gold!

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As one of the visitors commented to us when we were wandering underground, “Nós somos o novo ouro” (We’re the new gold).

Visitors check in at the Reception, buy their tickets, and then walk into the grounds of the old mine, where they can find food and drink, a gift shop, and a tiny basically useless museum, along with some equipment scattered around the grounds.

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A little further on, visitors stand in line to wait their turn to descend into the mine, riding a rickety metal cart with narrow seats and no seatbelts. This is not for the faint of heart, or for the wide-of-bottom.

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Rising from the dark entrance of the mine, the “train car” is pulled up the steep slope via cable and pulley, to stop and dislodge its cargo.

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The new cargo steps onto the car, squeezing onto the bench seats, straining to hold themselves off of the back of the seats in front of them as the car faces down the steep incline, before the cable brake releases and the car descends back into the darkness of the surrounding vegetation and then into the mine.

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Visitors descend 350 meters into the mine, stopping 200 meters below the surface. It’s dark and damp down there, and if you have a fear of closed-in spaces, don’t go down. Also, if you have a fear of losing your children in the mine, hang on to them, because there are no restrictions regarding running off into the cusps of the mine. (Brazil simply doesn’t regulate tourist attractions the way other countries do. Safety standards are pretty much nil.)

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In the mine, one of the first things you see is an altar set to the side. I wonder if that brought solace to the slaves who were forced to work (and die) underground. Me, I would have run screaming into the light, altar or no.

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Further along, bravehearts can take a scuba diving tour into the crystal-clear, 2 km-long, 4 m-deep underground lake. This was not on my bucket list.

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The tour continues further into the mine, and members of our group spent more than an hour exploring the depths. We got the blessed opportunity to high-tail it out of there after about 20 minutes, which was quite long enough for me, as I pictured Gollum around every corner, hissing, “Where is my Precious?”

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This being the only mine we visited, I have nothing to compare it to. I have heard that the Chico Rei Gold Mine is a “must-see,” but that’s just hearsay. I think the cost was as steep as the train ride, but, hey, when you’re in Minas Gerais (General Mines), you visit mines, right?