Walking in the Azores

If I told you there was a group of unspoilt volcanic islands with lush vegetation, a myriad of interesting hiking trails, crater lakes to paddle in, a sub-tropical climate, tea plantations and hot springs you would naturally want to go there. 

If I told you they could be arrived at in under four hours with a budget airline from London, and in under 5 hours from Boston, Massachusetts you might be even more intrigued.

Well the Azores checks all these boxes and I spent a week there before Easter, with my family. In this article I describe climbing Pico da Vara (incl. Video) and other notable walks, offer a couple of top tips and useful information and links.

 Northern Coast of São Miguel.

Northern Coast of São Miguel.

INTRODUCTION TO THE AZORES

Those of us who live on larger land masses normally envision small islands as being some sort of paradise of open air living; grilled fish, cold drinks and long evenings.  

Of course when we visit we are but passengers on someone else’s ride and the truth is seldom the way our postcard imaginations may experience it. The national dish of Malta is rabbit. I have it on good authority that they ship them in. 

In the Azores, or at least the island of São Miguel, the cow is mightier than the fish. “Grass fed” is bandied about these days as if it were some extraordinary virtue when speaking of these beasts.  

Highlight reel of our trip to São Miguel.

Grass fed?! What else would you feed a cow on? I have a feeling I don't want to know the answer to that. Anyway, assuming that feeding a cow on grass is indeed the height of bovine sophistication, an Azorean cow must be a happy one.  

Standards of happiness amongst enslaved animals do of course differ greatly from those of their biped masters but with such a green and fertile land I am willing to bet they enjoy the lush slopes and verdant pastures that adorn this jewel in the Atlantic as much as we did. 

São Miguel (nicknamed The Green Island) is the largest island in the archipelago and home to a number of areas of outstanding natural beauty. It is too small to speak of in terms of true wilderness but in going a little out of season one can often stir the desired feelings of insignificance that loneliness in the wild can bring. 

CLIMBING PICO DA VARA

I started on the trail (PRC7SMI) to Pico Da Vara around 8:30 in the morning. The sun was warm as I dived into cool dampness of the mature cedar forest at the trailhead. Spring is a burgeoning time of year anywhere but the mosses, flowers, plants with leaves like satellite dishes, and shooting six-foot ferns are testament to the energy with which plant life can grow when supplied with a dirth of rain and sunshine. They are testament also to how foreign this place feels from the Western Europe to which it is politically attached.  

Video of my hike up Pico da Vara.

Emerging from the forest, up a well-maintained wood-framed path, I got a view East to the summit and South to the sea. Pico da Vara is a modest 1103 metres (3619 ft) high but I was alone. A few layers of peaks grew gradually blacker with distance, the mist seemed to amble up their flanks and cause the low sun to spray a white ethereal light across this panorama. 

The walking is easy; a mere 8 km roundtrip according to my Strava, along a well-marked, although frequently sodden path, but the terrain varies pleasantly from woods to shorter grasses and shady damp nooks where the path cuts deep into the volcanic soil. The summit itself affords spectacular views, North, East and South to the sea and West down the spine of the island. The day before my trip the rain had come down with an admirable and unrelenting belligerence. I was fortunate to have a few token clouds for contrast but the gift of warm spring sun to light the landscape.  

 View from the Summit of Pico Da Vara

View from the Summit of Pico Da Vara

OTHER NOTABLE WALKS

Sete Cidades (PR3SMI & PR4SMI)

This is the signature walk on the Western side of the island. It circumnavigates twin lakes, one green, one blue which sit in the crater of an extinct volcano and the views out to the ocean and inland are spectacular.  

In truth there are two paths, with alternative start points, that descend either side of the crater rim and arrive in the town of Sete Cidades on the shore of the Lagoa Azul (blue lake). There is no reason why you couldn’t do either in reverse but it is nice to finish in such a picturesque spot that offers opportunities to laze by the water’s edge or hire a kayak to paddle around. 

For those looking for a complete circuit, the two could be linked but between the starting points you will have a stretch of around 5km of road to walk along.  

 Sete Cidades

Sete Cidades

Praia to Lagoa do Fogo (PRC2SMI)

This was a highlight and a proper little adventure for me. I made this linear route into a 12.5 km round trip by hiking up to the Lagoa and then wandering along its southern banks. 

The middle section off the walk follows an irrigation channel which is a thing of beauty. It is not often that a man-made scar on the landscape strikes me as beautiful but this old water channel is leaky in parts and festooned with greenery. It is also like permanently walking alongside a mirror, affording an enchanting reflection of the surrounding woods, often framing the blue sky and literally giving a different viewpoint to the hiker. 

The top section, as the valley narrows and approaches the shores of the lake is altogether another prospect… at least in Spring. Either side, sitting on promontories, rocks, perhaps even nests large herring gulls squawked vociferously and rather ominously, lining the route. 

Would that they did only that. Occasionally these sentries took off, circled in groups above my head and swooped down towards me. The closest was probably only 10 feet above me but I guess its early in the breeding season. Give it a few weeks and this Valley of Gulls will be full-on Hitchcock.  

The Lagoa itself is stunning. Capped by cloud, I couldn’t see the ridges of its steep sides on this particular day but I came across a few small beaches of grey volcanic sand that seemed made for an overnight camp in an old crater and the chance to see the night sky in such an eerie place. The water was light blue and clear, and with hindsight I wish I had taken my packraft up there to paddle around its shores and explore the bays and beaches. 

 Lagoa do Fogo

Lagoa do Fogo

Other Islands:

In total there are nine islands all with spectacular scenery and rich in wildlife. The highest peak in the islands is Pico (literally meaning sharp point), standing at 2351m (7713 ft) it is the only landmark on the eponymous island.  The highest mountain in Portugal, it is a huge volcanic peak that rises steeply into the sky in an imposing cone and it is the only place you are ever likely to see snow in this group of islands.

TOP TIPS

Apart from not antagonising nesting gulls whale watching is surely a must whilst you are visiting the Azores. Unfortunately we were twice thwarted because of the weather conditions, but it was early in the season so I would expect later visitors to have more joy.

Bathing in the hot springs is also a must and a nice way to relax those weary muscles if you have been out walking all day. We went to the Parque Terra Nostra and also to Caldeira Velha.

IMPORTANT NOTES

Climate

The islands are on the same latitude as the Portuguese capital of Lisbon so the climate is mild, with relatively small variations year round. 

Maximum temperatures usually vary from 15 to 25 °C (59 - 77 °F). The average annual rainfall increases from east to west and varies from 700 to 1600 annual millimetres (27.6–63 in) on average.

During the week we were on the island of São Miguel we experienced sunshine, clouds and rain on almost every day. One local told us that it is common practice to check out some the islands webcams and simply travel to where the sun is.

This was a spring visit which was delightful as there were no crowds. In summer you can of course expect more crowd and less cloud.

Permits

If you want to climb Pico da Vara (São Miguel) or Pico Mountain (Ilha do Pico) you will require a permit. 

I did not get a permit for Pico da Vara, simply because I rocked up and walked up without any idea I needed one. It is something I discovered subsequently when reading more about the area. Anyway it goes without saying that you should do so first and respect the environment you are using at all times.

  • You can download the Pico Da Vara permit here.
  • For Pico Mountain permit more details can be found here

USEFUL LINKS

  • Visit Azores has a wealth of information, including trail maps for many walks across the various islands. More information on each, including detailed guides can be found here.
  • Island webcams.
  • Azores Choice can also help you with organizing your travels.

GETTING TO THE AZORES

  • From UK: Ryanair flies every Saturday between April and October.  There are also flights from Gatwick and Manchester, operated by SATA and TAP respectfully.
  • From USA: You can fly to São Miguel and Terceira from both Boston and Toronto.
  • Alternatively daily flights from Lisbon connect São Miguel, Terceira and Faial.
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I quit the rat-race to live a more adventurous life. This is my journey.