Azores Part 2: Hiking + Swimming in the Azores
This guide is broken into four chapters, outlining the best of our 9-day trip to São Miguel, the Azores, during mid-October 2016:
HIKING IN THE AZORES
This is an island for frugal people like me! Most of the fun stuff – like hiking and swimming – is completely free once you’re on the island. The Azores are set up for exploring – be sure to pack your adventure shoes! You’ll find adventures literally around every corner. It’s so exciting, but it can also be overwhelming! Hiring a tour service like Azores Getaways or Intrepid Travel is a great way to make sure you hit all the highlights while hiking in the Azores, discovering off-the-beaten-path sites and experiences, and saving a bunch of money on air and hotels (they can save you around 20% if you book a package, which is so worth it, since you’ll be booking those things anyway).
Before we dive into my favorite hiking spots on Sao Miguel, first, some vocabulary: MIRADUORO refers to a viewpoint. They are all over the island and are very well marked with brown signs, and they all have parking. Some miraduoros are elaborate well-maintained gardens or historical buildings, others are picnic areas with a dozen grills, picnic tables and pagodas, and others are trail heads or mountain tops. All overlook a beautiful vista. Most of the adventures below began at a miraduoro.
TRAVELR’S TIP: Research your miraduoros in advance and plan your routes. While all miraduoros offer amazing views, some are notable more spectacular. They tend to be on the way to other adventures like beaches or baths. By noting which are your must-see stops and building them into your day, you won’t miss a thing.
Lagoa do Fogo – There is a small parking area (you’ll see the most cars at this miraduoro), and steps (LOTS of steps) leading down to the lake. It seems farther than it is! The hike down took only 20 minutes. From there we hiked about a 1/4 of the way around the crater lake and swam at one of the beaches. Even though the trail was busy, once at the lake it felt like we were the only ones there. The dreaded hike back up took about 30 minutes, with plenty of breathing breaks. If you prefer a guided hike, there are a few options available from Azores Getaways – you check those out HERE.
TRAVELER’S TIP: Pack your backpack with water, some snacks or a picnic, and a beach towel if you’re swimming. And wear your good hiking shoes for this one!
Bath house – Later in the afternoon, after hiking our way up the Lagoa do Fogo staircase, we stopped at the Santa Iria Miraduoro. Wild, well fed cats studded the grass and brick patio overlooking the sweeping vista of Atlantic coastline. From here we could see some ruins on the cliffs below and decided to find them. We drove down the road that looked like it would take us there – through Porto Formoso and a hand-drawn sign that said PRAIA (beach).
We turned onto a narrow one-way side street that lead us out of town where we found a small wooden sign that pointed us to a trail near where the ruins should be. We followed it -down, down, down more earthen steps with wooden railings. And found the ruins! But the tail continued, and we found the actual baths fed by a natural hot spring – and a few fisherman casting in the surf.
Sete Cidades – The Million Dollar View: We parked at the Lagoa Canario miraduoro – ideally you can drive through the gate and take your first left down a dirt road. We had to try to find this viewpoint twice because the first time we were on foot and couldn’t find it! If you’re on foot, it will be a long walk. Once you park, the views are Instagram gold. The blue and green lakes sparkle under the hydrangea hedges and the wooden rail fence. Make sure to go here on a sunny day – or at least avoid the fog, so you can see the lakes sparkle in bright blue and green.
Sete Cidades – Hotel Monte Palace Ruins: This 5-star hotel was recently abandoned after only operating for a few years. In such a short time – only about 5 years, the hotel went from glitzy charm to total ruin. A nice reminder that timing is everything – only 2 years ago regular passenger flights to the Azores began – this venture missed the jackpot by only a couple years. The tiles, fixtures, windows, doors, and utilities have all been stripped. There’s no caution tape, just open elevator shafts and laundry chutes masquerading as open doors. Despite its disrepair, the zombie hotel’s roof still commands one of the most breathtaking vistas on the island.
5/30/2018 UPDATE: I just learned there are plans in the works to rebuild this hotel, so the ruins may be off limits as they prepare to sell it, and during construction.
Sete Cidades Ridge Trail – From the same starting place as the ruins, you’ll find a ridge trail, leading ultimately to the town of Sete Cidades. It’s a good leisurely walk along a thin ridge before the steep decent to Sete Cidades, so we opted out of the last part of the hike. The views are amazing!
Cha Gorreana -This is Europe’s only tea plantation. There are a couple hike options beginning in the plantation, as well as organized hiking tours, which you can book in advance (and wont get you lost in the Azorean wilderness!).
We took the “long loop” and missed a turn because I was busy taking pictures of the darkest forest I have EVER seen! The thick Japanese cedar trees didn’t let any light hit the ground, and I realized why the European fairy tales always caution against going into the dark scary woods. It would have been terrifying if any large or dangerous animals lived in the Azores (but there aren’t any! Except for cows).
This adventure sent us high into the pastures and the clouds, where we stumbled across a cute ruined stone house (a fixer-upper!) in the fog, overlooking miles and miles of pastures, forest, and the ocean.
There are lots of “fixer-uppers” on the island. These abandoned stone houses and pastures have the most beautiful views! If I had unlimited time and money, restoring these old houses would be a dream.
Eventually we found our way back to the missed turn and finally headed downhill. It’s difficult to actually get lost on this island (despite our best efforts).
Terra Nostra Botanical Garden –This Botanical garden takes 2-3 hours to fully explore. It’s in the same space as the Terra Nostra baths (see “Hot Springs” below) so you can really make a day of it and bring or wear your bathing suit. I’m sure it’s gorgeous when the flowers are in bloom, but not much was blooming in mid-October. My favorite part was the palm tree forest, you can really immerse yourself in the greenery from all over the world.
Ribeira dos Caldeirões Natural Park, Achadinha (Waterfalls!) – We could have missed this place, as the signage wasn’t as good as the other sites we visited, but it’s well worth the drive. This park sits on the edge of Nordeste region – the wild, mountainous east coast of Sao Miguel. It is a retired Mill town with a showcase waterfall. Plenty of trails surround the waterfall, which lead to more waterfalls deep in the muddy jungle.
SWIMMING IN THE AZORES
There are seemingly infinite beaches on Sao Miguel, but these are the few we stumbled upon. The gulf stream keeps the water fairly warm late in the season, and even though it’s off season the beaches were well maintained and incredibly clean. Many have black sand, which makes these beaches feel extra exotic.
Ferraria – Follow the signs to the pools at Ferraria. It leads you to a public pool. Nothing remarkable happening here – but walk a little down the lava rock coastline and you’ll find a boardwalk, which leads to a deck with modern changing pods and bathrooms, and then to natural pools in the ocean, with ropes stretched across to hold onto so the churning waves don’t pull you out to sea. This deep pool is supposedly heated by underwater vents, but it just felt like cold ocean water to me. This was a very fun, hidden surprise, even though the water wasn’t especially warm.
Mosteiros – On the way to this beach we followed signs to another set of natural pools with cliffs of lava rocks that Don jumped off of into the pool. The waves in the ocean were massive this day, but the pools where completely protected.
After driving just a little way down the coast, we arrived at Mosteiros beach in a small fishing village. We lounged on the beach for a couple hours waiting for sunset, and bought some “mini” beers and a Magnum from the Snack bar truck at the street. I have enormous respect for a country where an ice cream bar is twice as expensive as a beer. This beach had the blackest sand we saw on the island. With towering monoliths, just off shore – they served as perfect props for the sunset photoshoot that ensued as soon as the sky started turning.
I later learned you can book a kayak excursion for this area, which would have been an incredible experience paddling around the rock formations, and seeing this part of the island from the water.
TRAVELER’S TIP: This might be the best sunset on the island.
Porto Formoso – There is a giant shore break here – The waves were ~8+ feet tall. We got mini cheap beers from the snack bar truck to sip on while Donald dodged the waves. There was also a quiet marina here with these colorful fish/surf shacks.
A boat tour of the north coast of the island will show you caves, remote beaches and amazing scenery that you can’t see from land. We didn’t know about this tour until after our trip, but next time it is definitely on our to-do list.
Ribiera Quinte – A quaint village and a big beach with an intricate retaining wall. By the size of the parking lot, and the helipad next to it, it looks like this beach is a huge party in the summer.. There is also a great beach bar right on the sand. Though, when we were there, the only people in this town were Donald, me, and the snack bar guy slinging mini beers and ice cream to us.
Sao Roque – Right next to our Airbnb was a really amazing beach next to an old church, punctuated with lava rock boulders, and covered in ultra-weathered sea glass. Apparently beachcombing isn’t really a thing here.
Caloura – A beautiful beach with a mysterious cave tucked back behind some rocks. Fire ashes outside of the cave were still smoldering, but there was no one in sight. The beach was beautiful and the bathroom pods and showers look like they’re from the future. There are multiple tours out of this area, including a stand-up paddle board tour! Which might be the best way to see all the amazing colors in this corner of the ocean.
The Caloura Beach Resort also has a private path to pools among the lava flows. The colors in the pools were spectacular and they were teaming with life. You may not have access if you aren’t staying at the resort. The resort’s seaside pool and steam rooms are also well worth it.
TRAVELER’S TIP: Opt out of the Caloura Resort restaurant. Maybe their chef was off-duty when we were there, but it was the most expensive and most disappointing meal of the trip.
Vila Franco Do Campo – Since we were in Sao Miguel in October, the ferries had just stopped running in September to this little volcanic crater island. It’s only a short boat ride off the coast and had the water not been too choppy, we could have kayaked out to it. However, the kayak rentals had also closed for the time being, due to the wind. Unfortunately we didn’t make it out to the island on this trip, but snorkeling in the protected crater in the center of this half-moon island is high on our to-do list for next time.
There are other “islets” nearby as well and you can hire a guide through this tour site to show you them all, and give you more history and context about all the beautiful places you’ll see (for a very reasonable price, I might add).
TRAVELER’S TIP: Check the ferry schedule if you plan on taking ferries to any other islands on your own, without a tour. It’s a great way to slow down your pace when your vacation gets hectic, and to see the archipelago from a different vantage point. Ferries are seasonal. Between September and May, flights and private boats are the only way to travel between island’s
HOT SPRINGS IN THE AZORES
TRAVELER’S TIP: Bring along a dark-colored or old bathing suit, since the sulphur and iron in the water (the orange color) will stain your suit! The same goes for towels and clothes. Avoid getting the water on anything white – it will permanently stain. We bought a couple cheap beach towels at a grocery store that we kept in the car for hot springs we stumbled upon, as the hotels and AirBnbs all had strict rules about not using their towels in hot springs. We left the towels at our Air BnB when we left.
Caldeira Velha Nature Reserve – These pools and nature park are on the way back from Sete Cidades. It’s a quick stop, with changing rooms and a few pools and a waterfall.
Poça da Dona Beija – This was a great set of sulfur and iron pools in Furnas. Most were about the same temperature. It was busy, but not overly crowded. This is one of the few places you need to pay to access, and the price was a little steep. As with all the hot springs, you should bring your own towel, although they rent towels here for an additional cost.
Terra Nostra – The modest admission fee gets you into the hot springs and the entire garden park. The hot springs include a HUGE iron/sulfur pool, and 3-4 other smaller pools set off to the side. There are changing areas and bathrooms near the smaller pools, which we didn’t find until we explored the park, after changing under our towels behind a giant tropical plant. The baths are 5 feet deep, so be prepared to swim (or hitch a ride on your BF’s back) if you’re short like me.
TRAVELER’S TIP: Arrive within an hour of closing time and get in to Terra Nostra for 1 euro! It sure beats the 6 euro it usually costs.
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