By Arnout Nuijt
Belo Horizonte, in short “Belô”, “Beagá”, or “BH” is the capital and main urban center of Brazil’s Minas Gerais State. The city has a population of around 2,5 million inhabitants, but there are approximately 5,5 million people in the Metropolitan Region. That makes BH the third most populous urban region of Brazil after São Paulo and Rio. Yet Minas Gerais State and its capital Belo Horizonte are often overlooked by foreign visitors and business missions – unless they are in the mining sectors. In fact the city and state have a lot to offer and presently the city feels like bursting out of its seems.
Minas Gerais State churns out almost half of Brazil’s mineral production, especially iron ore but also gold and diamonds. From the air or along the highways, huge open air mining operations can be seen around the city. Both city and state are widely regarded as Brazil’s third most important in economic and business terms. Politically speaking the mineiros, as the locals are called, have always been a force to be reckoned with, often providing presidents of the republic or acting as political powerbrokers. It is high time for Belo Horizonte to enter the world stage!
Belo Horizonte was founded in 1894 to replace the old mining town of Ouro Preto as the state’s capital. For its first ten years BH was known as Cidade de Minas or Minas City. The city was built from scratch. Local architects designed a rectangular grid of avenues with a diagonal grid of other streets across, a plan strongly inspired by the L’Enfant, who had designed Washington DC in a similar fashion a century before. The original city of BH, confined within the present Avenida do Contorno or ring road, has spilled over its boundaries a long time ago and the city is stretching out now in all directions on a “sea of hills”.
The city feels booming and both inside and outside the Contorno new residential and office towers are going up all around you, though never higher than around 20 floors. The street pattern within the Contorno could be confusing to the visitor, but most avenues and streets are named after Brazil’s states, some capitals and the country’s indigenous tribes. So you might pick up a thing or two about geography and Indians!
In the 1940s, a still young Oscar Niemeyer designed the new Pampulha neighborhood to great acclaim, a job he got thanks to the Mayor at the time, future president and founder of Brasilia Juscelino Kubitschek. Together this duo created more wide avenues, large lakes, parks and the skyline that characterize the city today. Niemeyer left a few landmark buildings in the city and you will no doubt recognize them by their tender curves and other features.
Niemeyer has been active lately too, with his design for the huge Cidade Administrativa, the complex housing the state government. You might catch a glimpse of the large structures, discretely covered by dark glass, on your way to or from the airport at Confins.
Belo Horizonte should be seen as the distribution and processing center of a rich agricultural and mining state, with a burgeoning industrial complex. The Minas State government is well organized and is geared to receiving foreign investors. As one of the few states in Brazil Minas has its own investment bank, the BDMG, providing incentives to new investors, both foreign and local. The local entrepreneurs federation, FIEMG (pronounce Fee-eng-gui) is an excellent point of reference for anyone wanting to do business in BH.
The following business sectors are now considered as very important to the state of Minas Gerais: mining, construction, agribusiness, cellulose, metallurgy, minerals, electronics, biotech, R&D, renewable energies. There is always a huge demand in Minas for knowledge and innovative products. Local companies are looking for foreign partners in order to innovate, grow and invest. There is also a local shortage of engineers, especially related to large mining projects still in the pipeline.
In the mining sector of Minas you will encounter a host of local and international companies, like AngloFerrous, Ferrous Resources, MMX, ArcelorMittal, Usiminas, Gerdau, Açuminas and Bahia Mineraçao. Besides iron ore and other traditional minerals, Minas Gerais also has a nice stock of “rare earths”.
But while mining may dominate the state, the service sector plays a very important role in the economy of the city of Belo Horizonte, taking some 85% of the city’s GDP. Manufacturing makes up for most of the remaining 15%. Because the city is a traditional hub for Brazil’s steel making industry, BH developed its own metallurgical companies and related industries. Production is centered on steel, steel products, automobiles and some textiles. Gold, manganese, and gem stones mined in the surrounding region are processed in the city as well.
During the 1940s, the district of Contagem (within the BH metropolitan area) was developed as the main industrial zone of the city. Meanwhile multinational companies like FIAT and Toshiba have subsidiaries in other parts of the city, along with other companies in the textile, cosmetics, foods, chemicals, pharmaceuticals and other sectors.
Some other BH companies are worth mentioning like steelmakers Açominas and Usiminas. Telecoms are well represented in BH by Oi, Vivo and Telecom Italia Mobile. One local company is very interesting: multinational and NYSE-listed energy provider CEMIG.
There are also a large number of small enterprises in the high-tech sector of regional or national importance, particularly in the fields of computing and biotechnology. Both government and private funding of the IT and biotech sectors have led to more diversification of BH’s economy. The number of jobs in the IT-sector has been growing strongly over the past years.
As a business visitor you are most likely to arrive in BH by plane. The Tancredo Neves International Airport is located at Confins, almost 40 km north of the city. Cooperative taxis (that can be booked inside the terminal) or executive busses take you for a rather long drive on good highways to your hotel in the city. Confins – slated to be privatised – has excellent connections to all of Brazil’s cities plus a few international ones. American Airlines flies to and from Miami, Copa to and from Panama City, TAP to and from Lisbon, Gol to and from Buenos Aires (serving both airports there), plus TAM flies directly to and from Paris-CDG. Extension works on the runway as well as a renovation of the passenger terminal are to be carried out before the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Old Pampulha airport, closer to the center, only serves regional flights now (i.e. flights within the state of Minas Gerais).
For a hotel and the best restaurants you’d better head straight to either the Lourdes or the Savassi districts in the southern half of the center. The best hotel in Belo Horizonte though is the four star Ouro Minas Palace, located far outside the city center, but en route to or from the airport. In Savassi there are a lot of good options to stay, but all hotels seem to be in the three star category. The advantage for BH is that room prices are much lower than in Rio or São Paulo. There are several Mercures, there are the Royal Hotels or the Caesar Business (the latter in the southern parts of town, next to the highways to the south). A full overview of all available hotels in Belo Horizonte can be found on booking.com.
Your local contacts will no doubt have you taste some mineiro gastronomy, but if you are looking for a good restaurant yourself here are some options. Reportedly the best in town (at least according to Guia Quatro Roads 2012) is the Vecchio Sogno, an Italo-Brazilian restaurant located in the building of the Minas State Assembly, run by chef Ivo Faria, Other good places are Splendido (in Savassi), Hermengarda (Italo-Brazilian) or Taste-Vin (French, in Lourdes). If you need some cow meat try the local branches of Fogo de Chão in Savassi or Porcão. Other good addresses in Lourdes are Gomide, D’Artagnan and A Favorita restaurants. In Pampulha, the huge Xapuri, run by chef Nelson Trombino, appears the best option.
Both the Savassi and Lourdes neighborhoods are busy all time of the day and you should be fine walking around there. Some businesses will be at walking distance from there, but for the rest, just take a taxi to your meetings to be sure.
If you are an art lover or if you love to wander in a huge parque try visiting Inhotim, the brainchild of millionaire Bernardo Paz. Inhotim is a unique site that offers art works, displayed outdoors as well as in galleries, all located inside a botanical garden inspired by landscape architect Roberto Burle Marx. It’s about an hours drive to the southwest of town and the whole visit should cost you at least half a day. But it may be worth it! By the way, Inhotim may sound like an Indian (or native-Brazilian) name to many. Yet, it is nothing of the kind. The site was previously owned by a gringo, Mr Tim, in Brazilian: Nho Tim.
Dotted around Belo Horizonte in every direction is a string of old and well preserved colonial towns, like Sabará, Diamantina, Tiradentes, etc. Some are nearby, other harder to reach. The best accessible is probably the old capital and mining town of Ouro Preto. It is a Brazil classic you can not miss and it’s a must to visit the place. More about Ouro Preto in our series Weekend Breaks.
October 22nd 2012. All righst reserved by Brazil Weekly/Rotterdam Week