Faial, Pico and São Jorge
Map: 1: 50.000 Freytag & Berndt, also sold in Portugal by „Turinta” ed., basically a road map but good enough for hiking, even if trail markings were not always taken into account
Guidebook: „Azoren” by Michael Bussmann, Michael Müller Verlag, http://www.michael-mueller-verlag.de/de/reisefuehrer/portugal/azoren/index.html. A very good, informative guidebook, including hike descriptions for every island. The only drawback – you need to read German to use it 🙂
A very informative website on Azores (but for German speakers too) is http://www.azoren-online.com/. it is especially useful for finding cheaper private accommodation (under “Unterkunft” for each island). Warning: some information, including bus schedules, is out of date.
Horta: Casa Buganvilias (no sign on the house), http://msvieira.no.sapo.pt/, private rooms for rent in a new part of the town, 5 minutes walk to Porto Pim, a lot of free parking space, 40 minutes walk to the ferry terminal. 25 euros for a comfortable double room, fridge, shared bathroom (but we were only guests in the house). No wi-fi.
Lajes do Pico: Apartamento Lajes, found on booking.com. No sign on the house, in the same building as a driving school. A fully equipped apartment (kitchen, fridge, bathroom, access to washing machine), 35 euros per day. Located in a very center of Lajes, across the corner from whale watching agencies. Free parking ca. 50 meters away in near the port. No wi-fi but the city authorities provide wi-fi in some locations nearby. Note: in order to book I had to send a bank transfer with part of the price, which might be difficult for visitors from outside the EU.
São Roque: Sportfish.pt, found on booking.com. A large comfortable bedroom with bathroom in a vacation home (access to common part with fully furnished kitchen and a swimming pool), 30 euros. Wi-fi and free parking. Located in a side street near Oasis car rental office (handy for returning the car) close to the road towards Lajes. Some 20 minutes walk to the port but the owner kindly gave us a lift for the morning ferry.
Velas – Hospedaria Australia (http://www.acores.com/australia/), Rua Drº Teófilo Braga, in the very center, no parking. A traditional basic guesthouse. 35 euros for a room with bathroom (no hot water in one room, low pressure in another), modest breakfast in an attached snack bar included. Free wi-fi.
Getting there: we took a flight from Lisbon. Only two companies fly to the Azores from Lisbon – TAP and SATA. At the time of booking our tickets TAP had very rare special offers priced below 100 euros for return flights, with very limited dates. Otherwise their prices started from 150 euros. SATA had prices starting from 120 euros, with much larger choice of dates. Cheaper flights were available to Horta (Faial), Ponta Delgada (São Miguel) and Terceira, flights to other islands were much more expensive. Finally we bought a ticket to Horta for 128 euros by SATA. Taxi from the Horta airport to the town was 12,50 euros.
Between the islands: Faial has the advantage of being one of the “Triangulo”, three islands linked by regular and relatively inexpensive ferry link by Transmacor (http://www.transmacor.pt/). Their website is not easy to navigate. Usable schedules are somewhat hidden under „Informacoes uteis” –> “Downloads”.
Ferries ply between Horta (Faial), São Roque (Pico) and Velas (São Jorge) twice daily. There is also a more frequent link between Horta and Madalena (Pico) 5-7 x daily. Prices: Horta – Velas 15 euros; São Roque – Velas 10,10 euros; Horta – Madalena 3,40 euros.
It may be difficult to believe but from the regular ferry between Velas and São Roque we saw as many as three whales and four packs of dolphins, some coming just below the board of the ferry.
On the islands: probably the main drawback of moving around Azores is the very limited practicality of local bus transport. On Faial buses are completely useless for any hikes or trips out of Horta. On Pico buses can be used in a limited way from Madalena (schedules: http://www.cristianolimitada.pt/horarios_cristiano_limitada.html) but they are useless from any other town and do not reach anywhere in the interior of the island. On São Jorge there are two possibly useful bus connections (Mo-Fri only) from Velas – to Rosais on the western tip of the island and to Calheta, passing by Norte Pequeno and Norte Grande, allowing for a hike to the central mountains. Schedules are available in the tourism office in Velas.
In view of the above, for any serious exploration of the islands the choice is between renting a car, hitch-hiking or taking expensive trips by taxi. We rented a car on all three islands. We found our experience with rental agencies on all three islands to be fairly similar – they are not cheap compared to prices in mainland Portugal (30-35 euros per day for the cheapest small car, with no insurance) but they were straightforward, did not try any dirty tricks with fuel or alleged damage to the car. We used the following agencies:
Faial: Auto Turistica Faialense (http://www.autoturisticafaialense.com/), ca. 30 euros/day (prices on their website do not include VAT), booked by e-mail.
Pico: Oasis (http://www.rentacaroasis.com/), 30 euros/day, no additional charges for pick-up in Madalena harbour and return in São Roque. Altogether they were the best agency during our trip. They also have cars on Faial. Booked by e-mail.
São Jorge – Auto Turistica Velas (http://www.velasauto.com/, opposite big hotel Sao Jorge Garden), 35 euro/day (walk-in rate for one day), 33 euro/day for two days or more. Walk-in (their website shows higher prices for internet booking).
All above prices were without insurance. Typically the insurance was 7-9 euros per day for limiting the liability to ca. 900 euros or 20 euros per day for limitation to 50 euros.
Hikes and things to do
All three islands are simply amazing for nature and hiking and they are quite different, so not easy to compare. If asked to make a ranking, I would probably give Pico number one, with São Jorge a close second. We did following trips on foot and by car but there are many more interesting possibilities!
1. By car from Horta to Capelo, walk from Capelo along a marked trail across two older volcanoes (Cabeço Verde and Cabeço do Canto) to the amazing new volcano of Capelinhos (emerged from the sea in the 1950s). There is a very informative interpretation center near Capelinhos (entry 6 euros), much helpful to understand how the volcano emerged. Back to Capelo by dirt roads above the seaside cliffs, starting in Porto Comprido. Altogether it’s a day trip, taking into account time needed to visit Capelinhos volcano and for a picknick lunch. A map is available for download here: http://trilhos.visitazores.com/pt-pt/trilhos-dos-acores/faial/capelo-capelinhos
2. Around the Caldeira, the central volcano, climbing Cabeço Gordo (the island’s highest point, 1043 meters). There is a road to a parking just below the crater rim, from there the full circle took us 3,5 hrs, plenty of photo breaks included. The problem with this hike is that it is very often in the middle of the clouds. When the clouds allow for that, the view inside the Caldeira seems to show a strange lost world. Sometimes the clouds cover the crater rim but allow for a view inside, so it is worth trying even in cloudy weather. Map available: http://trilhos.visitazores.com/pt-pt/trilhos-dos-acores/faial/caldeira
1. Climbing Pico (2351 m), the highest mountain in Portugal. The starting point is Casa da Montanha (http://parquesnaturais.azores.gov.pt/en/pico-eng/what-visit/interpretation-centers/mountains-house) on ca. 1250 m, accessible by road (no public transport). All visitors are registered and get a GPS device with connection to the rescuers for the case of emergency. [UPDATE 2017: after our visit a fee of 10 EUR has been introduced for climbing the summit. I have no information whether it is actually charged in practice.] All visitors are registered and get a GPS device with connection to the rescuers for the case of emergency. The trail is very clearly signposted by numbered wooden poles. The actual peak is a smaller volcanic cone located inside the larger crater. In order to reach it one must descend a bit to the crater (almost no altitude loss in this place), cross it and climb some 100 meters across “frozen” lava flows and volcanic rocks. This last part is the only part with some slight difficulties – orientation for finding right passage in the rocks and balance in scrambling using all-fours is needed in two or three spots. Altogether the climb and descent took us some 8 hrs, including a lunch break and plenty of photo breaks.
2. Car trip through Lagoas on the ridge inside the island. Very recommended. Landscapes are amazing, sometimes right from an African savanna, then after a few meters like from a Scandinavian saga. There is an acceptable paved road all along the ridge, passable even in a small car.
3. Westernmost tip of the islands. Parking in Piedade, walk to the lighthouse in Manhenha (easy, along paved or dirt roads), then along the coast northwards. The part along the coast is a marked trail (map: http://trilhos.visitazores.com/pt-pt/trilhos-dos-acores/pico/porto-calhau-manhenha-ponta-da-ilha) but it is not at all easy, as it requires jumping across huge lava boulders, sometimes unstable, and for several parts there is no path at all, just signs painted on the boulders. We found it more difficult than the Pico climb and finally gave up and returned to a village path inland at the first possibility.
4. Whale watching! It was a highlight of our Azores trip. We took a 3 hrs trip with the very professional Espaco Talassa from Lajes do Pico (http://www.espacotalassa.com/ (departures in the morning and afternoon). Not cheap at 54 euros per person but definitely worth it. Pico is probably the best place in the world for seeing whales and May was about the best season in the year. The trick with Espaco Talassa is also that they use an ancient lookout above Lajes (previously used by whalers) and their whale-spotter calls the boat skippers to direct them towards the whales. During the trip we saw three species of whales, including sperm whales and the world’s largest – blue whale, as well as a pack of dolphins. The guys from Espaco Talassa are a treasure-trove of information on marine mammals, provide very informative explanation and keep an exact record of their sightings (available on the website).
Afterwards we also saw whales and dolphins from the São Roque – Velas ferry and dolphins from the coast near Velas.
1. Rosais and down to Fajã de João Dias. We took a bus from Velas to Rosais (9.45 a.m., weekdays only, starts near the Compre Bem supermarket), walked along local paved roads to the starting point of the 400 m descent along an old trail to the fajã (or a small flat area under the cliffs). There is a small village in the fajã, still inhabited by some people, and provisions are brought in by horse. After slogging the 400 m back uphill we went back to Rosais by taking a round walk via a forest park and another viewpoint to the northern coast, missing the only bus back to Velas at 3 p.m. in result, so we needed to walk the remaining 6 kms to Velas.
2. Fajã dos Cubres to Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Cristo. We have reached the first fajã by car, by a quite adventurous narrow access road carved in the steep slope. Fajã dos Cubres is linked to Fajã da Caldeira de Santo Cristo by a very nice trail, sadly frequented by quad bikes, taking ca. 1-1,5 hrs in one direction. Both fajãs are inhabited, there are quite large villages there including snack bars and even some accommodation.
3. Pico da Esperança (1053 m, highest mountain on São Jorge). An easy and beautiful walk from the highest point of the trans-island road between Urzelina and Norte Grande. Altogether it took us 3 hrs there and back, mostly along a dirt road, only the top itself was accessible by a grassy path.
There is also a hardcore version of this hike accessible by public transport on weekdays – 07.25 a.m. bus from Velas to Calheta goes through Norte Grande and Norte Pequeno. From either of the Nortes there are some dirt roads allowing an easy ascent to Pico da Esperança (ca. 700 meters up) and then it is possible to walk along dirt roads and then side paved roads to Santo Amaro and Velas. All should be doable in a day but it would be a long hike. It seems to be worthwhile only when the central ridge is not shrouded by clouds.