The Azores, a lonely archipelago of nine islands set far into the Atlantic Ocean, is home to some of the World’s most unique experiences.
For a start, life on these has volcanic islands largely gone unchanged since the 20th century, with an old cosmopolitan style dominating fashions and appearances everywhere you look. Throw into the mix some remote lakes, towering volcanoes and dark-sand beaches, and you have yourself one very gorgeous, very interesting playground in which to roam.
The Azores does get its fair share of tourists, but they usually flock to the beaches for some long tanning sessions, and potentially some snorkelling. The cost of living there is surprisingly cheap, and locals and tourists alike smile non-stop throughout the day.
Coincidentally, our Great Whale Project is based on Faial, one of the central islands, and has been immensely popular with our volunteers since its release. There is no better place in the world where you will encounter whales and dolphins in their natural habitat. You will be kept busy on the Project itself, with plenty of conservation research and learning/teaching about eco-tourism in the area. However, once you have finished your time with us, do you really want to leave the rest of the Azores unexplored?
Here are some ideas to help you really sink your teeth into the islands and its charm, and truly understand what it has to offer:
Something which is quite popular with tourists, the surrounding marine life is certainly worth visiting, given the chance. From those just starting out to the avid professional, there are endless parts of the coast of the nine islands that lay waiting to be discovered and explored. With high visibility under the water’s surface, you will struggle to miss the glowing fluorescent fish, curious sharks, playful dolphins and shy mantas, as well as the many other fascinating creatures of the sea all just going about their business.
You may have heard of the Miradouro Vista do Rei and Salto do Prego, and no wonder, they offer spectacular views of surrounding landscapes and coastlines, and are two of the main postcard images you will see when visiting The Azores. However, speaking with the more knowledgeable locals on Sao Miguel Island, you MUST check out Boca do Inferno. It is much quieter and the views are out of this world. You can see a full 360°, including volcanic craters and lagoons. Make sure you get up there for sunrise.
If you want a little more adventure check out the dormant volcanic crater of Sete Cidades, and its wonderfully charming village. Once there you will feel like you’ve just walked onto a movie set from the 1930’s, with its quaint houses and cute chapel, and the pleasant locals enjoying their slow cadence of life travelling around the old-school way, i.e. horse and cart. There are other villages of similar nature dotted around the Azores, and the locals are very happy to greet those that care to visit them, but this particular village offers more, as you can even kayak in the crater itself. Imagine telling your friends and family that kayaked in a volcano, when you eventually get home!
To fully understand the diverse landscape of the Azores, you have to visit the Ponta dos Capelinhos because pictures on the internet will never do it justice. Just to give you a little background, this area was capitulated in 1957 by volcanic eruptions, and is now, apart from a sorry-looking lighthouse, completely barren, like a desert, but black and by the coast. Some like to compare it to what they see of footage from Mars; others simply remember the bustling community that was once here. Whatever way you see it, if you have a camera or not, go here and experience a new kind of landscape to anything you’ve experienced before.
This is an eye-opener. Not only is it the stopping place for yachts-people in the Atlantic, it is also the fourth most visited marina in the world. Don’t let that put you off though, it is totally worth the visit just to see all the amazing artwork on show, produced by sailors over many decades. The paintings are mostly personal renditions of luck-giving and well-wishing to those going out to sea from the marina. In addition, the neighbouring town of Horta, where you will be situated for most of the Project, offers so much in terms of nightlife and culture.
You can count the number of volcanoes in the world that you can explore any of its inner chambers, on one hand. On Terceira Island, there is the Algar do Carvao, which literally means coal pit, conveniently name because of the mining-like chimney that can be accessed and directs you straight into its centre. Scarred and bruised from distant years of scorching lava, the chimney acts as a tunnel nowadays, which leads to a fresh-water lake and hundreds of stalagmites and stalactites. The magma chambers are also accessible (the only reachable magma chamber in the world) and because of its rich terrain from earlier volcanic activity, plants and algae grow freely, adding to the multi-coloured exquisiteness of this phenomenon. Although you could be in parts of a volcano that no other volcano in the world would let you access without cooking you alive, don’t worry at all because the last eruption here was over 3200 years ago!
Are you the type of person that likes to live on the edge a little? Well, try canyoning and you will be jumping off edges in no time- edges of creeks and cliffs! In rugged and remote parts of the island of Flores, there are ample opportunities to try your hand at this “extreme sport”, a sport that has a fast-growing community world-wide. Flores has plenty of narrow gorges, some jaw-dropping waterfalls and an array of rock-types to be leaping from, such as limestone, basalt and sandstone, creating some incredible settings. There are gorges suitable for all levels of ability and the local guides are very aware of the possible dangers with canyoning, so definitely seek advice before seeking adventure.
A semi-secret cove calved into the western coast of Sao Miguel Island, experience the magic of a thermal bath without the crowds. Ferraria is not the spa you typical hear about on Sao Miguel, due to the popularity of Furnas Thermal Spa, but it is reasonably accessible from nearby village of Ginetes, and offers more than just a thermal bath, it can also be a great place to snorkel. During high tide, the water is warm but full of marine life. During low tide, the water is a lot warmer, and an incredible place to watch a sunset. Many people find this place by chance, and have loved it because where else can you get a geothermal hot bath in the middle of the ocean?! There are even toilets and changing rooms nearby that are well-looked after, and a local restaurant ready for those lucky people after their bath. If you want to go the extra mile, there is a spa, the Termas da Ferraria, which uses the same thermal waters as its lesser-known neighbour, and offers the full spa treatment experience.
If you are slightly tight for time but want to see what the islands have to offer, hire a set of wheels! Discover some of the most beautiful parts of the islands, such as on Sao Miguel, by riding around in a quad bike. If you follow one of the tour operators there, you will be directed towards a few points of interest, but if you can, take your time and go to Lagoa do Fogo, the Lake of Fire. Such a convenient name for what used to be a volcanic crater. Once you have driven all the way to the top of the track, you will be gifted with some remarkable views of the lake itself, with its crystal blue waters and green surroundings. There is plenty of vegetation to ogle at, nesting areas for a variety of birds, its biodiversity obvious from every angle. If you wanted to follow the hiking trails, this is an option, but otherwise, the quad bike adds that fun factor.
The island of Corvo is tiny and only houses 430 inhabitants. With such a close-knit community it is easy to assume that they may not appreciate visitors, but the reality is completely to the contrary. They are very helpful, very A day-trip is ideal as there is only one guesthouse on the island and availability dwindles. But whilst there, you will be thrust into the most gorgeous landscape on the archipelago, with volcanoes, lakes, greens and blues. If you head to the hills overlooking the village of Vila Nova do Corvo, you will come across, a large crater called Caldeirao, the focal point of the island. Corvo is accessible by boat from Flores, or from most other islands via flight.
If you prefer eating organic, you can’t get more organic than the Azores. Cows and pigs have big open spaces and eat very well, so your meat choices are of high quality. The soil is volcanic so the quality of route vegetable is unrivalled, with the choices being taro, sweet potato and regular potatoes. The cheeses are made the traditional ways, forgotten by many factory-orientated dairy companies elsewhere in Europe, so have that extra taste and spice. Nothing is wasted, even the algae growing on limpets, which is used in a local specialty mixed with eggs, gives you a veggie burger option, and by all accounts tastes amazing. Of course, seafood is in abundance and always caught in the wild so therefore the freshest seafood ever.
Even if you aren’t religious, the festivals are definitely something to look out for between June and September, because communities come together and party in their own awesome ways. Huge banquets are put on and free to all those that attend. Music concerts, bazaars and fayres take up many weekends and are always fun to attend, but the main reason why the islanders have these festivities is based on their Catholicism, just like mainland Portugal.
With your time on the Azores focused primarily on the incredibly exciting Great Whale Project, it may be difficult to think what else could make your trip even better. But with these ideas, you are looking at the possibility of extending your stay, fitting more life-changing, awe-inspiring moments like what the listed ideas could bring, and truly getting to grips with the magic of The Azores.
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Come face to face with one of the world’s most misunderstood predators whilst aiding great white shark conservation. As a volunteer, not only will you get the incredible opportunity to dive with sharks, but you will also assist the team in raising awareness of the great white as you work alongside tourists and local school children to provide them with knowledge of the local environment and the importance of living in harmony with South Africa’s marine life.
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