Exploring the Azores

Hi, friends! I’m back from Portugal and ready to share all of my adventures with you. Thanks so much to Melissa and Doug for their awesome guest posts last week, and YOU for your wonderfully supportive comments and laughing along with me as I navigated my first 36 hours in the Azores!

Brace yourself- super pic heavy post ahead! I’ll pick up where I left off at the end of my last post, which was at the end of a disastrous first day and a much better second day. It did still rain off and on during Day 2, but January – March is the rainy season in the Azores, so that’s to be expected. There was a great forecast slated for Day 3, so I decided to try and visit the “crown jewel” of São Miguel Island while the weather was good – Lagoa das Sete Cidades!

The twin lakes are in the middle of a volcanic crater and in good weather, one appears blue and the other is green. You can hike around the rim of the crater for some pretty incredible views, but first, I had to get there. While you can take the public buses to the village in the center of the crater, it’s not ideal for a hiking drop off, so I decided to rent a car and drive myself there. At this point, my phone, which had been flooded during the Great Hiking Incident of 2016 a few days prior, was still not working. I had no way to tell time, no way to get directions, and no way to call anyone should something go awry, but I wasn’t going to waste a day of my trip fretting about that. To start, the owner of the hostel I stayed in (The Nook Hostel – can’t recommend it enough!) suggested I “go into the abandoned hotel near the lake and take pictures from the top.” Oh yes, good! My parents are just going to LOVE that, I thought, but I figured the hostel owner probably did not want me to be murdered and therefore, I took his advice. I’ll be the first to admit I was a bit dubious when I arrived at the hotel.

dsc00188-1024x683-1-4 Yes, this should be good.

I’ll admit, it was a little creepy at first, but I quickly realized I had nothing to be afraid of. There’s no vagrants lurking anywhere in the Azores, let alone here, in such a random location far from everything except a great view. So for my bravery, I was rewarded pretty handsomely.

dsc00195-1024x683-1-4 Looking out over Sete Cidades from my fancy penthouse suite in the abandoned hotel. WOW!

You’ll all be relieved to know that I finally figured out how to work my tripod, and I had great timing, because this hike was perfect for it. I set out for what ended up being about a 10 mile walk around a portion of the crater’s rim. The views took my breath away every single second, so I stopped to take a lot of pictures. Click to enlarge any of these and see more!

dsc00242-1024x683-1-4 Check out the mini crater inside the crater! The blue lake is on the left, the green is on the right. The perfection is everywhere.

It was literally a process of walking about 20 feet, setting up my tripod, and taking a million pictures. I regret nothing.

dsc00216-1024x683-1-4 Me and my trusty new backpack, Sven. We spent a lot of time together this week! Pants are from KUHL and are AMAZING – more on that later.

Just try and imagine this for me, ok? You’re hiking along and there are massive, sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean, quaint villages, and rolling pastures on your left. You look to your right and it’s two perfect lakes and a village set in the middle of a volcanic crater. It was absolutely unreal and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. Then again, why would I want to?

dsc00240-1024x683-1-4 Go to the Azores. Go right now.

For those who are slightly freaked out by the idea of me hiking by myself, let me say this – first, this is probably the most popular trail in the Azores, and I saw other tourists quite often, many of whom were also alone. Second, I was high up on a ridge and it would have been pretty hard to surprise me from my vantage point. Third, I basically felt more safe in the Azores than in my own backyard.

dsc00264-1024x683-1-4 Looking out over the village of Mosteiros and the Atlantic Ocean (the left side of the trail)

I couldn’t believe my luck while I was hiking. Not only was there perfect weather and an incredible view to behold, but I was reminded of how fortunate I am to be able to travel regularly and take this trip, my first one truly alone overseas. It was an incredible feeling of empowerment and I thanked the Universe about every thirty feet.

dsc00267-1024x683-1-4 The Azores say they have the “happiest cows in the world” and I think it’s pretty freaking obvious why

After taking literally 350 pictures along the trail (I will not bless you with all of them), I decided to head off on another short hike and then a drive around the western half of the island to see what I could find. In the Azores, there’s not a bad view anywhere you look, so I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed no matter where I ended up. I was not wrong.

dsc00323-1024x683-1-4 Pure bliss looking out over Mosteiros. This is right off the road, by the way. I didn’t have to hike to get to it. dsc00316-1024x683-1-4 Hiking near Lagoa do Canario in my Lena Insulated Jacket from KUHL – it beat out the wind and cold up at the top of the mountains!

I headed into the village of Mosteiros and found one of many black sand beaches on the island. I’ve never been on a black sand beach before, so that was pretty exciting. The waves crashed against giant rock formations with green cliffs shooting up from the sea in the background.

dsc00328-1024x683-1-4 Mercifully, my tripod did not fall over in the wind

And of course, there were flowers everywhere. I can’t even imagine what this place must look like later in spring and in summer.

dsc00334-1024x683-1-4 Be still, my heart

The day just kept getting better from there. I managed to finally get my phone fixed and find an adaptor that fit my laptop charger! My phone had turned back on, but the charger would not fit in the port. It turns out there was a tiny piece of rice stuck in there and “Dr Informatico” in the mall was able to get it out in about 30 seconds! I came dangerously close to kissing me from sheer joy but then remembered AJ would probably not be too keen on me traveling alone again if I did that.

I’m going to skip ahead a couple of days now to the last day of full day of my trip, which was also spent in the Azores. I visited Lisbon in the middle, and I’ll post about that next time! My last day was absolutely perfect. It was like each day just kept getting better and better after the first day, honestly. On the last day, I was determined to find this one particular spot on the island that I had kept seeing all over Instagram. This particular view is the reason I had wanted to come to the Azores in the first place! I tried like hell to find it on my first few days but never could. Finally, I had the bright idea to ask the owner of my hostel on my last day, and he pointed me in the right direction. It turns out I had only been about a quarter-mile from it on Day 3! And this, my friends…this is the view I had been waiting for. Turns out, it’s just a little past Lagoa do Canario.

12819340_10104426612988938_8954044716498217532_o-1024x1024-1-5 There aren’t even words

I almost cried when I got there, in all honesty. It was the culmination of my trip and I couldn’t believe I had found this place. It was all the more perfect that it happened on my last day, and it just so happened that shortly after I arrived, a guy from my hostel also showed up with his group, and he was happy to take pictures for me.

dsc00466-1024x683-1-4 How perfect is this?

I decided to spend the rest of my day doing what else…hiking, of course! I enjoyed my hike along the first half of the crater rim so much that I decided to explore the second side as well. I didn’t pick the ideal day for this, though, as it was unbelievably windy! The views were worth it, even if I did have to literally run and catch the tripod on multiple occasions before it fell over. I didn’t cry when my phone broke but I definitely would have if my camera had shattered!

dsc00475-1024x683-1-4 You can see the entire center of the island from this point. The ocean is on both sides! dsc00477-1024x683-1-4 You can see me getting ready to run towards my camera because it was about to fall over! The lakes of Sete Cidades are right behind me and the ocean is behind that! I mean, come on.

The second half of my day was spent at a family-owned dairy farm! The dairy industry is incredibly important in the Azores and goes back centuries. I’ve randomly ended up on farms on many of my other international trips, so this time, I decided to make it intentional and get a taste of how the locals live and work. I booked this tour in advance of even coming to the island, but once I got there, I was so glad I did. There are so many cows around that you want to learn more about them and get closer to them. Gena and her husband João were my gracious hosts on my private tour for the afternoon, which was a steal at $12!

dsc00487-683x1024-1-4 Making friends with a baby calf who is just a few days old! They love to suck on your fingers and headbutt you.

This tour (which I found on Vayable and can be booked by contacting Gena at hello@genapinheiro.com) emphasizes letting participants take part in the entire dairy farming experience if they so wish! I did, of course! One of the first things I did was help Gena bring the cows down from their pasture to the feeding area, which was about a mile away. In theory, the cows should walk right down to the feeding area along the road (a common sight here in the Azores!) but on this particular day, the cows were feeling frisky and often tried to graze in side pastures, which involved me literally running after them and herding them! It was a blast and tough work, but we ultimately prevailed and I managed not to lose a single cow.

dsc00502-1024x683-1-4 I kept telling the cows to “mush,” which I do not think they understood.

In addition to getting up close and personal with all the cows (and let’s be honest, especially the calves!), I also got to learn a lot about the dairy industry in general and Gena and João‘s philosophy on raising “happy cows.” They have a holistic approach to raising their cows and focus on the welfare of the cows, protecting the environment, serving their community, and ensuring the quality of the raw milk they provide. It’s not about the money for them – they purchased the farm from family and are committing to raising another generation of farmers. It’s pretty easy to see that their philosophy is working when you meet the cows and see the land!

dsc00489-1024x683-1-4 These little babies are my new best friends! dsc00492-1024x683-1-4 Walking down to feed

The cows spend the vast majority of their days in the pasture once they are old enough to withstand the elements. It was amazing to watch João with the cows – he has named all of them and knows all of their personalities! When it came time to milk them, he was careful to pick the “patient” cows for me to milk, which was probably a good thing because it turns out that cow milking is not my greatest skill.

dsc00517-683x1024-1-4 The cows are so excited to get milk (and eat special grain) that they push each other out of the way to get to a spot first. The whole process takes about 45 minutes for 24-28 cows.

Finally, it was time to deliver the milk to the milk depot in the village. On the Azores, each village has one – that’s how common dairy farming is! The milk gets sucked out of the tank with a giant hose and it is actually extremely interesting. The whole process is done electronically and each farmer scans a barcode, delivers their milk, and receives a printout with the amount that they deposited!

dsc00524-683x1024-1-4 Delivering the milk

The whole experience was incredibly educational and a whole lot of fun, and I loved getting to know Gena and João and learn about the dairy industry! At the end, I even got to taste some of the raw milk that I had just helped with. I’ve got to say, it was absolutely delicious, and I’m not a huge milk drinker. You can taste the quality and the happiness of those cows, for sure!

dsc00531-1024x683-1-4 Even the artwork in the Azores is cow-centric

Whew, ok! The epic Azores recap is over. Thanks for sticking with me. Next up, Lisbon!