In the beginning of September we visited some islands in the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Portugal, called the Azores. We were impressed by the natural beauty, volcanic terrain and abundance of thermal pools. We soaked up the sun all but one day and swam in the ocean, lagoons and thermal pools as much as possible.
The Azorian lifestyle was laid back and simple with a focus on farming and agriculture which made for a great place to relax as we explored. As we mentioned earlier, we met Will’s high school friend Alec and his wife, Raquel, on the islands. She is a Lisbon native which helped with the language barrier and understanding the culture. It was fun to travel with them for 5 of the 10 days on the islands — lots of laughs and catching up.
We visited 5 of the 9 islands (one was just a flight layover 🙂 ) and found each island had its own unique geological features and personality. If we’re lucky enough to go back some day, we will visit the others. We had lots of adventures, but the following are our favorites from this amazing trip. If you’d rather skip straight to the photos, check out our collection here.
During the first few days on Sao Miguel we hiked to a beautiful waterfall. This was our first exposure to the jungle and flora of the Azores, and like much of the trip, we had the trail to ourselves. It was so lush! We went for a swim in Faial Da Terra waterfall and enjoyed the scent of the non-native, very invasive ginger lilies (Hedychium coronarium) .
Lago Do Fogo 7 miler
The four of us wanted to trek the “best hike on the island” and Lago Do Fogo trail did not disappoint. It was a long loop hike that followed alongside an aqueduct that delivers water to the coastal cities. Alec and Will took a dip in the centuries old crater lagoon which was refreshing. It was one of our favorites!
When we arrived on Pico island our mission was to climb the highest peak in Portugal, Pico Mountain, standing at 2,351 meters above sea level. Our flight touched down mid-day and we had little intention to hike that day. But once we settled into our room, we became restless and decided to head up the mountain instead of waiting for morning. We arrived at the visitor center to get the required pass and GPS tracker with little understanding that no one but those staying overnight in the crater start hiking Pico at 4pm… oops! Confident in our hiking abilities and guidance skills to hike the mountain safely at dusk, we headed up the volcanic terrain after signing a release waiver stating “we were warned”.
We made it to the crater sooner than expected so decided to climb all the way to the top of the little peak “Piquinho”. The top was windy and steaming which made us unsure if the mountain was still active or not — however we later found out the peak has natural steam vents. A few pictures snapped and we haded back down. The hike down was tougher with loose footing but we made good time and had plenty of sunlight left for our decent. We took a break half way down the mountain to watch the amazing sunset before strapping on our headlamps and following our GPS to the visitors center. Our spontaneous hiking adventure took about 5 hours and left us happily exhausted.
While on Sao Gorge island we went on a few dives to check out the ocean life. Our guide was an Azorian native who loved the islands and was a fantastic local resource for us.
The dive sites, in the town of Urzelina, were along the unique volcanic underwater landscape where we saw many fish, nudibranchs, eels and a very large stingray (~5′ across, with a stinger tail as thick as your forearm!). One of the most unique experiences was towards the end of our first dive. Along the dive we were directed by our guide into a cave where the fish were swimming all around us. He then motioned for us to surface inside of the cave! It was incredible to come up inside a volcanic rock cave where natural light shined through a hole in the top.
Since it was near the end of our dive, we re-submerged at a shallow depth and swam our way out of the cave to the starting point. When our skills improve, we’d love to get back and dive the sea mounts near the islands that bring huge schools of sea life including manta rays and whale sharks!
Thermal Pools (and a hot ocean!)
Due to the volcanic landscape of the islands, there were quite a few natural aquifers that had been developed into natural thermal pools. With most of the thermal pools on Sao Miguel island we tried to visit many. We visited two in Furnas — Terra Nostra and Poca Da Dona Beija.
Terra Nostra was a serene, picturesque park and botanical garden with a large circular thermal bath and estate house that date back to 1775. The volcanic spring bath was a murky brown because of the iron dissolved in the hot water (95 F to 105 F) which we were warned would stain our bathing suits. It was true, our suits were permanently tinted bright brown!
Poca Da Dona Beija was made up of five flowing thermal baths with a stream of cold water down the center. It was touristy, but very relaxing after a long day of adventuring. We opted to end our day at the baths and grab local pizza in town after. Needless to say, we all slept well that night.
One of the most amazing places we visited (twice) was Ponta Da Ferraria, one of a few natural oceanic thermal springs in the world. We timed our two visits there at low tide so the warm spring water was more abundant when it met brisk ocean water. It was relaxing and strange to be floating in thermal warm water while incoming waves of cool ocean water swept through. It was a once/twice-in-a-lifetime place for all of us!
Swimming in waterfalls, lagoon, ocean swimming holes
Considering we were on an island the swimming opportunities were endless, unless of course the wind picked up and big waves came in. We had many opportunities to simply pull over and hop into the water along the coasts if we followed the swimming signs along the roads. Some towns had volcanic rock pools sitting aside the ocean which were only swimmable during low tide while some towns had saline lap pools and others had ocean swimming off of the concrete docks. My favorite was in the sheltered ocean areas where we could watch the array of fish go about daily life.
Food and Beverages
As a simple set of islands, the Azores had great food and wine. We enjoyed lots of seafood, the wine of Pico Island, espresso in the morning and a few other fine dishes. Our big splurge was eating at one of the best steak restaurants on the island, Restaurante da Associação Agrícola de São Miguel, with Alec and Racheal towards the end of our trip.
Great Flora, No Fauna
It was a surprise to me that the islands had no native mammals other that the greater mouse-eared bat which I had little interest finding. There were cows and birds most everywhere we went, but no animals like when we visited the island of Tasmania.
I was very impressed with the plant life of the Azores. Everywhere I turned I wanted to bottle up the plant and ship it home to grow. So I took a photo instead. Enjoy!
Thanks for reading, and keep adventuring!