If you’ve been even remotely contemplating a trip to Inhotim, the otherworldy art park created by a visionary Brazilian mining magnate, now is the time to start planning in earnest.
The park’s remote rural setting has always been an essential part of its allure—when I visited, a flood turned the unpaved roads into canals of mud, adding an Indiana Jones element to the experience. But as its fame and popularity have grown, Inhotim (pronounced In-yo-cheem) is becoming less of a frontier-style adventure. By the time of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, a planned runway will allow light aircraft to land in the nearby mining town of Brumadinho, cutting travel time to a minimum. Luckily, for the moment, getting there is just complicated enough to keep the essential strangeness of the place intact.
The rewards will more than justify the effort. You could easily spend a couple of days just exploring the world-class tropical gardens, which are regularly toured by scientists from all over the world. (They were designed by revered Brazilian landscape architect Roberto Brule Marx, who worked with Oscar Niemeyer on Brasilia and designed the iconic wavy lines on the Copacabana boardwalk in Rio.) An outdoor restaurant serves a Brazilian buffet; there are gorgeous lakeside cafes (each one different, as the lakes are filled with varieties of algae that provide a distinctive color tint); even a very acceptable pizza stand.
And then, of course, there is the art.
Bernado Paz, Inhotem’s visionary founder, has referred to the park as an adult Disneyland, and it’s easy to see why. This sprawling “outdoor museum” is now one of the world’s most exciting experiments in contemporary culture — Brazil’s futuristic answer to such famous sites as Storm King in New York, Gaudi’s Park Güell in Barcelona and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the UK. The scale is mind-boggling. There are five miles of walking trails through the succulent greenery, which link 21 pavilions—as if the Venice Biennale had been transported to a tropical forest.
Several of the installations have become iconic, including what is probably Inhotim’s most famous work, “Sonic Pavilion” by US artist Doug Aitken. Aitken’s circular glass chamber is perched like a flying saucer on a hilltop, with microphones sunk deep into the earth below transmitting oddly life-like grunts, as if the planet itself were groaning. The “Viewing Machine,” by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, is a telescope lined with mirrors to create a kaleidoscopic vision of the lush distant mountains. Another pavilion contains a work by Brazilian artist Cildo Meireles named “Red Shift,” an apartment where every fitting is a deep shade of crimson.
But there are over 600 pieces in Inhotim’s collection, and it’s best to abandon the map and surrender to random surprises. Scattered in various forest clearings are: a Stonehenge-like ring of monoliths in candy colors; contorted Mayan figures; a yacht suspended upside-down from jungle vines like a homage to Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo; and a collection of VW beetles painted in tutti-frutti colors.
Some of the park’s acoustic creations will also catch up with you as you wander along: it’s eerie to hear the archaic strains of Tudor hymns sung by a children’s choir mixing with the birdsong and the rustle of wind in the leaves. And, lest you forget you’re in Brazil, one of the installations is a working swimming pool, complete with life guards, free towels and changing rooms; be sure to bring your swimsuit.
Perhaps the most surprising element of the whole place is that it, unlike traditional urban museums, it never gets exhausting. Inhotim’s forest layout and winding trails encourage visitors to refresh their eyes and minds — to sit on benches carved from ancient tree trunks, for example, or to ponder the intricate beauty of jequitibá leaves and rippled “crocodile wood.”
Finally, this may be the only museum in the world where you can also pick up the ingredients for a cocktail. As I hiked an overgrown trail between galleries, a young Brazilian botanist in trim shorts and T-shirt pointed out an array of exotic fruits, including pink bananas and a tart orange berry known as the pitanga.
“In a caipirinha, it’s very good,” he confided.
Visitors can fly directly from Miami, or via Rio or São Paulo, to the capital of Minas Gerais state, Belo Horizonte. (The best internal connections are on TAM, www.tam.com.br). From there, Inhotim is a roughly two-hour drive along winding mountain roads that were mostly created to service the giant iron ore mines that dot the landscape. Buses leave every morning at 8:15 a.m. from downtown Belo Horizonte, although the trip is most comfortably done in a private car arranged through local hotels.
It’s quite possible to stay in Belo Horizonte and make a day trip; but the most atmospheric (and leisurely) base is a small rural inn called the Pousada Nova Estância, only a fifteen-minute drive from the park. The relaxed hideaway has a swimming pool, a creative restaurant with a Venezuelan chef, views over the palm trees to the surrounding mountains and, after dark, a lush soundscape courtesy of of tropical frogs. They also have an amiable English-speaking driver, Cristóvão Lana, who can arrange drop-off and pick-up from the art site. (From $100 night inc. breakfast, www.pousadafazendanovaestancia.com.br).
Entrance to Inhotim is a modest $7.50, and free on Tuesdays.
Cover photo by Tony Perrottet