Semana Santa (Holy Week; March/April) processions in Ouro Preto are quite a spectacle.

There are also festivities associated with Congado, the local expression of Afro-Christian syncretism (similar to Candomblé in Bahia or Quimbanda in Rio). The major Congado celebrations are for NS do Rosário (October 23 to 25, at the Capela do Padre Faria), for the New Year and for May 13 (the anniversary of abolition).

Semana Santa in Ouro Prêto

Semana Santa (Holy Week) is celebrated all over Brazil, but Ouro Preto’s festivities are especially dazzling. For four days the town becomes a giant stage, starting with Thursday night’s ceremonial washing of feet and the deposition of Christ from a giant cross in front of Igreja de São Francisco on Good Friday.

The most memorable event is saved for the wee hours preceding Easter Sunday. Around midnight Saturday, locals begin opening bags of colored sawdust on street corners all over town, unleashing an all-night public art project in which 3km of Ouro Preto’s cobblestone streets are covered with fanciful designs, a giant carpet marking the route for the following morning’s Easter processions. Until the early 1960s, Ouro Preto observed the old Portuguese tradition of decorating Easter-parade routes with flowers and leaves. More recently, colored scraps of leather, sand, coffee grounds and sawdust have become the media of choice for these tapetes coloridos (colored carpets).

Tourists are welcome to participate in laying out the designs, but be prepared for a late night. Things really don’t get going until well after midnight. Music and general merrymaking erupt unpredictably all night long, and a few stragglers stick around till dawn to put finishing touches on Praça Tiradentes, the last spot cleared of vehicle traffic. If you prefer your beauty rest, go to bed early Saturday evening, then wake up at 5am Sunday to see the magic that’s unfolded while you slept. It’s like awakening to a Technicolor snowfall!

The designs – some religious, some profane – change every year and only last a few short hours. Within moments of the procession’s passing, the public-works crew is out in force with brooms and shovels to clean the streets, until next year.