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The name refers to any land which at the time of colonial Brazil, was covered on the process of settlement and economic exploitation of its resources, in conjunction with the international market. In this perspective, the designation "Royal Road" reflects the fact that this was the only authorized way for the movement of people and goods. The opening or using other means constituted crime of lese-majeste, being there the origin of the word embezzlement, meaning smuggling.
From the second half of the eighteenth century there was a decline in mineral production in the district of Minas Gerais that led to an increase of fiscal policy and a dissatisfaction which led to the independence movement. With the Independence of Brazil in the early nineteenth century, these paths become free, thus building, with the wealth provided by coffee plantations, the main thrust of urbanization in the Southeast.
Portuguese colonists of Brazil and their African slaves began building the road in 1697 shortly after gold, diamonds, and other precious minerals were discovered in the present-day[update] state of Minas Gerais. The purpose of the road was to facilitate the movement of those minerals from the interior to the coast and thence to Lisbon. The original road—Caminho Velho—began in Paraty and went north through the towns of São João del-Rey, Tiradentes, Coronel Xavier Chaves, Congonhas, Itatiaia and, ultimately, Vila Rica, today's Ouro Preto. Later, the distance to Ouro Preto was shortened by the Caminho Novo, which started from Rio de Janeiro. The road was extended northward through Mariana, Catas Altas, Santa Bárbara, Barão de Cocais, Ipoema, Conceição do Mato Dentro, Serro, São Gonçalo do Rio das Pedras, and, at the northernmost point, Diamantina. The length of both roads combined is about 1,400 km (850 mi).
Transportation along the road was tightly controlled by agents of the Crown to prevent smuggling and unauthorized movement. Goods were transported in mule trains known as tropas, led by tropeiro mule drivers. Products from Portugal made their way up the road while minerals made their way to the coast, as manufacturing and many crops were prohibited by the Crown so as to keep the region economically dependent on Portugal. Many of Brazil's hearty dishes, such as feijão tropeiro and tutu, were originally prepared by the tropeiros, who needed food that could be transported without spoiling.
The towns along the Estrada Real were opulent in the days of gold and diamonds, but by the end of the 18th century, the minerals became more scarce and the economy went into decline. Recent efforts by governmental and non-governmental organizations are turning the Estrada Real into a route that leads tourists through the cradle of Brazilian culture. The road is still mostly unpaved, and the towns and villages along the way appear much the way they did in the 19th century. Magnificent churches still stand in towns that have been economically stagnant for over a century. The tourism initiative is educating people to retain their traditional ways and preserve the Baroque architecture of their old churches and government buildings.
- Cheney, Glenn Alan, Journey on the Estrada Real: Encounters in the Mountains of Brazil, (Chicago: Academy Chicago, 2004) ISBN 0-89733-530-9