An archipelago in the mid-Atlantic, the Azores are a well kept secret that is slowly appearing on the radar of more travellers thanks to EasyJet and Ryanair starting budget flights to the main island in 2016.Wednesday 16°CThursday 16°CFriday 17°CSaturday 17°C
Lonely Planet describes it as “this other Eden” and they aren’t wrong. A volcanic creation, the chain of islands is covered in craters with the twin green and blue crater lakes of Setes Citades being one of the best known sights of the Azores. Hot natural thermal pools, bubbling mud, steaming rocks and man made pools full of lava heated brown health improving water are scattered all over the islands with the ground steaming casually beside the road as cows munch unperturbed on the lush green grass.
We flew in from Porto with Ryanair and the landing, to say the least, was sketchy with the plane hitting the runway hard at a sharp angle. Our first taste of “Eden” was heavy clouds, driving rain and gusty wind. We later found out that this was due to a very rare January hurricane called Alex that made landfall two days later!
Still non the wiser to this, we collected our (tiny) rental car from the airport desk and drove into Ponta Delgada to find our hotel situated on the harbour sea front. After weirdly driving over a metre high curb to get into the hotel car park, we took the lift to the 5th floor to find an enormous upgraded suite with a stunning view over the harbour and out to sea. The next day this same view was somewhat changed by the arrival of a huge cruise liner which also filled the small city with people desperately looking for WIFI in the small cafes dotted around. Don’t let this put you off – barely any of them left the city and the rest of the islands are tranquil and you have it pretty much to yourself.
After exploring the city, which included visiting the remains of the city fort (now an active military base), we left the hotel and made our way to our Airbnb apartment which was to be our main base for the remainder of the trip. After having to get directions from our host due to the incredibly confusing one way systems of the small town we were staying in, we checked into our spacious 2 bedroom apartment (with hot tub!) looking out to sea from its hill side vantage point. Our host showed us around, explained how everything worked and then delivered the bombshell of the hurricane that was due to hit us the following day! We hurriedly re-thought our plans, stowed our bags away and went back out immediately to explore this side of the island.
On a map, I had seen a mountain road which climbed over a large volcanic crater giving amazing views of the island so we decided, as this was close, to head that way and do a loop around the area. As we started climbing, it became apparent that the view was totally covered by the blanket of cloud surrounding the island and as the wind was beginning to shake our little rental car, we did a u-turn and headed back down. We drove past the very unassuming gates of Caldeira Velha and on the spur of the moment decided to pull in and take a look. We paid a few Euro to the bored (and cold) looking person on the gate and started trudging along the dirt track. We rounded a corner and came upon wood and grass hut changing rooms in the middle of the jungle forest next to an empty natural pool with a small waterfall emerging from the forest above. We changed as quickly as possible and hobbled bare foot to the side of the pool before stepping into the warm, slightly clouded pool and sunk into the blissful water. Two guys left as we turned up leaving us with the place to ourselves. For those that have “done” the Blue Lagoon in Iceland, this could not be more different from that experience. After ten mins or so, we tentatively left the pool, grabbed our bags and swiftly went back down the path to the second pool which was busier. After gingerly walking across a slippery bridge next to signs warning of boiling water, we stepped into the very hot pool and sat down on the natural rock ledge under the surface. Surrounded by leafy trees and ferns with steam rising from the water, you could have been forgiven thinking that you had somehow gone to Jurassic World!
The following day the hurricane hit full blast and we hid indoors (other than briefly and stupidly venturing down to the coastal road to look at the huge waves rolling in) watching films on the impressive media system in the apartment whilst listening to the wind (literally) howling around the house. The noise a hurricane makes is unlike anything and it’ll stay with me for a long time.
We woke the next day to silence and a more peaceful sky so wasted no time before heading out towards Furnas home of a man made pool filled with brown iron filled lava heated water within a stunning botanic garden. The easy drive there winded across the island which has few roads and we barely saw another car on the road for most of the morning. Before arriving into Furnas, the tarmac road turned into the original cobbled road that initially paved the islands. Tree lined, next to a huge lake filled crater, it was like going back in time for a brief moment before signs of life and the town appeared at the next corner.
After walking around the gardens, somewhat battered by the winds, we changed in the nearby cubicles and made a run for the brown muddy looking water. It was nicely warm and totally impossible to see the bottom as the iron sediment floating in the water so was thick. Several stone pipes constantly filled the pool from the volcanic heated water system and the water that spurted out of those was hotter than your average shower. Later when we got out, our skin was covered in the brown yellow sediment and my swimming shorts are still stained to this day.
On the way back to the apartment, we stopped at Caldeiras das Furnas to walk around the bubbling and steaming mud pools used by a local restaurant to cook in and climbed the steep and tough crater side to the top view point which gives a stunning view of the full crater rim below. Made harder by the mud slips and branches that the wind had brought down, I’d definitely recommend this climb if you had time to spare.
On our full final day, we drove to the other end of the island, up a steep and windy road to walk around the twin lakes that feature heavily in any images of the Azores. Parking in the shadow of a huge, unfinished and abandoned hotel, we followed the dirt track that runs along the rim of the crater for an hour or so before turning down and following the road to the middle of the crater where a bridge separates the two lakes. Standing on the bridge, it is very easy to see that one side is indeed green and the other is blue. Rather than following the rest of the footpath around the other side of the crater, we followed a steep logging mud road up the side of the volcano back to the car park. Whilst not as pretty as the first part of the hike, it did save a lot of time making the full hike just over 3 hours long.
Tips and tricks:
- Sat navs are useless here, use the totally free offline maps.me
- If renting a car, there isn’t a petrol station at the airport. Instead use one just off the main road on the approach
- Go now. This secret land is only going to get busier and more well known
- ATMs are common in Ponta Delgada, Azores but not elsewhere. Get cash out though some places will accept debit cards. As always, our Revolut cards worked impeccably and saved us a lot of money.
- We only went to São Miguel which is the largest of the 9 Azores islands. SATA offer inter island flights but be prepared to pay a lot.