Island Trek in the Azores

“To awaken in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world” — Freya Stark

AzoresIslandTrek - DSCF9011.jpgI wake up to the sound of the surf — waves crashing on rocks somewhere outside my window.  As I come out of my dreamstate I remember that today is a day for walking.  Not just any walk at that — the Grand Route of Santa Maria Island in the Azores is in my sights for the next five days.  The “Grande Trilho Santa Maria” is about 80 kilometers (50 miles) of walking around the circumference of the island with a hike up over the highest peak on the island, Pico Alto, thrown in for good measure.

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Santa Maria Island and the Grand Route trek – click to view larger

Santa Maria is geologically the oldest of the nine islands that make up the Azores archipelago in the Atlantic Ocean.  Multiple volcanic eruptions combined with the natural processes of the ocean over the eons caused Santa Maria to rise out of the water multiple times — there are both lava fields and fossil deposits here.

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Location and islands of the Azores

The Azores are located more than 1300 km (850 miles) West of their Portuguese motherland and served as a outpost and resupply point servicing the explorations of the New World in the 1400’s.  Surprisingly, the Azores are only about a four hour direct flight from Boston and two to three hours from some European cities.  In the early years of trans-atlantic flight and through World War II, the islands’ placement was important for refueling and strategic purposes.  Santa Maria had a population of about 15,000 back when the US military operated here but now is home to about 5000 people.

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The main street in Vila do Porto

Over coffee in Vila do Porto, the principal town on the island, I get a good orientation to the Grand Route from Ioannis and Rita Rousseau, proprietors of a small business here called Ilha a Pe (meaning ‘island on foot”).  They tell me how to recognize the route markings, where there are services along the way, highlight some of the sights and points of interest I will pass, and — importantly — how to find the series of eco-cottages they have established and maintain along the way.  I will stay at a different one of these the next four nights to break the trek into five days of walking.

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The Grand Route trail markers use a white and red stripe. If the route is also part of a shorter local route or loop, it also is marked with a yellow stripe for that segment.

Ilha a Pe’s facilities and services mean that I will only need to carry a daypack.  Ioannis will bring my luggage & a sleeping bag along with dinner and breakfast each night to where I am staying that night.  They have things set up so that you can backpack and take care of your own food at a lower price, but I found their service to carry my stuff and bring meals to be well worth the price.  I think that at the time of my trip, the “backpackers” price for just a place to stay for the four nights (no meals or moving your stuff) was about 120 euros and it was only another 80 euros to add meals and moving your stuff (check their website for current pricing).  An excellent value I think.

Day 1

The couple points the way and I am off heading east along the Southern coast of the island.  The coastline here is fairly open country on top of high bluffs overlooking the Atlantic.  Soon, roads through farmlands transition to a narrower trail close to the precipice of the bluffs.

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A cave along the route
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I visited during October — well off prime time for flowers in the Azores. I understand that the summer wildflower displays are spectacular. Even so, there were still plenty of beautiful flowers along the way

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a traditional way of stacking corn stalks to dry

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In places, the path passes through dense stands of bamboo
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The architecture of the island features distinctive chimneys that look like towers

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Different colors are used on the traditional homes in the different parts of the island — blue, yellow, green and reddish (like clay pottery.

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house at Malbusca
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Ilha a Pe eco-cottage near Malbusco

Ilha a Pe’s eco-cottages are renovated stone farm sheds.  All of them are located at spectacular scenic settings.  Ioannis and Rita told me about their experiences with acquiring and renovating these properties.  It wasn’t always easy as the concept they were working on was like nothing the local authorities and regulators had ever encountered.

I arrived in the mid-afternoon and took a walk over to a small shop at Malbusca and did some writing while sitting in the sun with a cold drink.  Ioannis arrived soon after I returned to the eco-cottage to drop off my stuff and bring me dinner and the next day’s breakfast.  Rita had prepared a great, traditional feast for me — squid stew, rustic bread, and tremocos (lupini beans) in locally crafted pottery.  I enjoyed all of the meals throughout the trek — there were interesting local specialty treats each day … some I remember were biscoitos de orelha (ear cookies), a homemade pate, and a homemade cheese.

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squid stew

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cottage view

The eco-cottages are spartan, but nicely equipped and appointed.  Each one is set up with bunks to accommodate six people.  A solar cell provides electricity for lights (no wall outlets) and a solar hot water set-up provides hot water for showers and washing up.  A composting toilet set-up handles bathroom needs.  A wood burning stove is available for warmth, but it was never cold enough (I visited in October) that I wanted to use one.  A propane stove is available to heat food and water for coffee.  I found the eco-cottages all to be relaxing and comfortable places to stay.

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Malbusca eco-cottage view to the sea
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Guests are expected to clean up after themselves and leave the eco-cottages as they found them.

Day 2

Breakfasts typically consisted of coffee (others may prefer tea) bread, butter, jam, cheese, sliced deli meat, yogurt, fruit, hard boiled egg … a plentiful continental breakfast.  After breakfast and a bit of clean-up it was back on the trek.

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This is an example of the kind of farm building that Ilha a Pe has turned into their eco-cottages. These structures are dotted on the farm lands throughout the countryside.

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Passing through some of the distinctive red clay that is used for traditional ceramics. Santa Maria historically exported clay for ceramics.
Fence stiles and gates are encountered frequently on the trek
Fence stiles and gates are encountered frequently on the trek
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Fence stiles and gates are encountered frequently on the trek” width=”800″ height=”599″ /> Fence stiles and gates are encountered frequently on the trek

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volcanic cliffs known as Ribeira do Maloás  – I envision this as a waterfall of lava that was “frozen” into place when it contacted the ocean waters

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banana grove
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vineyard
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bamboo

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remnant of a windmill in the distance

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Wild Ginger is an invasive specie that grows everywhere

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These small stone enclosures called “corrals” are everywhere where wine was historically produced. They are largely abandoned now and contain untended vines. When I asked what happened, a couple different people told me the same thing — too much work in the day of cheap imported wines

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Although altitude changes aren’t extreme, don’t be lulled by that  There are some steep sections of the route.  On each of the first three days and on the last day there are steep descents down the cliff to the beach below followed by very steep climbs back up to the rolling plains above.

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Gonçalo Velho Lighthouse

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approaching Maia

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lunch stop at O Grota in Maia

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seemed like thousands of these steps going up the vineyards to the top of the cliffs above
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Maia from above
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Agave stalk

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Cascata do Aveiro – 110 meter falls – the Grand Route passes over the stream at the top

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sign for the eco-hut near Santo Espirito (Lapa)

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Daily check-in with Ilha a Pe
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Ioannis warming dinner
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Worried when you hear “composting toilet”? No worries … clean and odor free
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just follow instructions

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Day 3

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The remains of windmills are encountered at several places along the route; Belgians are part of the history of the Azores

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The village of Santo Espirito is a pretty little community surrounded by wooded hills and farmlands.  It is home to the Museum of Santa Maria which features the history and culture of the island — well worth a stop.  An artisans cooperative (Cooperativa de Artesanato de Santa Maria) is also located here that makes and sells weavings, baked goods (ear cookies!), and other craft items.

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Parish Church in Santo Espirito – Church of Nossa Senhora da Purificação
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This bar has free wifi — the password was posted on the wall  — the artisan cooperative is further down this street near the school

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All along the Grand Route you pass through steep lateral drainages running from the center of the island to the sea.  Although there is nothing technical about the route, it provides a good test of lungs and legs.

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Small communities often had a fountain with washbasins near their center. As I understand it, these used to be important communal places — I can almost hear the buzz of gossip

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Approaching São Lourenço from above

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A short side hike along a stream called Ribeira do Salto in a hanging valley above São Lourenço is rewarded by views of the beautiful waterfalls of Cai Agua — the trail dead ends at the falls

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another descent to the sea
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the vineyards had almost overgrown the steps down in this stretch

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The peaks above São Lourenço[
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more steps back up …

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back on top of the sea cliff …

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Santa Maria seemed to have a very high proportion of traditional architecture compared to the other islands I visited.  The buildings here seem to always be perfectly sited to complement the surrounding landscape.  They also tend to be dispersed from each other rather than being placed close together.

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The eco-cottage at Norte was the only one I walked right past and didn’t find at first. It is behind some other buildings and there wasn’t a sign like I had seen the previous two days. If you get to the big sign board for the Grand Route at the intersection in Norte you have gone too far. It is on the other side of the road from the small sign for the Casa do Norte guesthouse.
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Inside the eco-cottage at Norte
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eco-cottage at Norte

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I was adopted for a day by a hearty little dog I decided to call “Duke”. He showed up one morning out of nowhere and stuck with me for about six hours of walking. He chased off after a bird and disappeared as abruptly as he had arrived.

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Old quarry pit at Poço da Pedreira

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On the fourth day, there is an ascent up over a high ridge near the top of Pico Alto, the highest point on the island at 586 meters (1,925 ft).

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Pico Alto in center — the route climbs to this ridge and follows it for a while

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The mountains are forested with Japanese Cedars — big, attractive, stately trees. I was told they were brought to the Azores to provided lumber for making crates to ship oranges in back when those were an important export. I think the bamboo has a similar story. Apparently, these trees grow much bigger on the Azores than they do in their native Japan.

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a view from near the top of the ridge
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cedar forest

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somehow this reminded me of roadrunner cartoons
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eco-cottage near Bananeiras (Raposo)

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This was just the first year for Ilha a Pe, but they already are compiling an impressive set of entries in their guest book — this entry obviously by someone with artistic talent

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Day 5

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The silhouette of Sao Miguel island across the water” width=”800″ height=”600″ /> The silhouette of Sao Miguel island across the water
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Crossing trail markers signal that you have gone the wrong way
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The Barreiro da Faneca, known as the “Red Desert”

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fossils in sedimentary rock — the geology of the island has both volcanic and sedimentary features

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Anjos is another coastal village that is said to have been visited by Christopher Columbus during his return from the Americas in the 1490’s.

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The rest of the trek crosses expanses of dry plains.  I am not a “birder” but I was told that this area offers excellent opportunities for bird watchers.

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There is a last climb down to the sea and back up in this stretch.

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The harbor at Vila do Porto
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Approaching Vila do Porto and the trek’s end

Vila do Porto

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The cannons at São Brás Fort in Vila do Porto used to be part of the towns’s defenses against repeated attacks by French, English, and other pirates.

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The Centro de Interpretação Ambiental Dalberto Pombo (CIADP)  is a very modern natural history museum on the main street in Vila do Porto.  It has interesting displays about the geologic history of the island.

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During my visit, I was intrigued by the story of how the Trilho Grande, or Grand Route came to be and I was fortunate to meet a few of the guys who conceived of the route and did the work to make it a reality.  They told me that there were five good friends who liked to hike and who all shared a vision that a long-distance hiking route would be a great way to share all that Santa Maria has to offer with visitors to the island.  It was a total volunteer effort — a labor of love.  They worked on the routing, the necessary land-owner permissions, and getting recognition of the route by the government.  The route was formally designated and recognized in 2015.  One of the friends is a web developer and he put together a nice website about the route.  Check it out!

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There are a handful of restaurants, cafes, and bars in Vila do Porto. I enjoyed the Central Pub.   I had pizza the night I arrived on the island and a burger on the night before leaving.

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Santa Maria is off the beaten track, but has several small businesses that cater to tourism.  I was fortunate to meet and spend short visits with proprietors and representatives of several of these.  SMATUR provides a variety of tours as well as a service to shuttle mountain bikers and hikers from Vila do Porto to a variety of locations on the island.  Their service supports a broad variety of possibilities for hiking and downhill mountain biking.  With respect to the Grand Route, a person could spend all their nights in Vila do Porto and be shuttled to/from the beginning/end of each day’s stage of the trek.  Bootla offers a variety of standard jeep and bus tour itineraries on the island and can also provide customized experiences.  Casa do Norte manages several guest houses — both their own and for others — that provide unique rural accommodations.  They are typically for multi-day stays.  Laurinda Souza was kind to treat me to coffee and spend a bit of time talking with me about Santa Maria at her Casa do Norte property.  I came to understand from others that Laurinda is a key connector for tourism businesses on the island — she was the person who connected me with Ilha a Pe when I was researching my trip.  All of the people I met are passionate about their island and want to help share it with visitors.

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Laurinda Souza at Casa do Norte
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Corn husk crafts at Casa do Norte

Direct flights to the continent (Lisbon) are provided by Azores Airlines (formerly SATA International) out of Santa Maria Airport located close to Vila do Porto. The airport and airline also provides some direct connections to the rest of the Azores archipelago.  I came by way of Ponta Delgado on Sao Miguel island and returned to spend some time there and on other of the islands before retuning to Lisbon.  As I understand it, there are also direct flights from Boston to Ponta Delgado that are just a few hours in duration.

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sunset on the airport runway
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