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Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Visiting the Azores - A Guide to Adventure on Sao Miguel

You either know about the Azores as they have been high on the radar as a spot for affordable adventure travel, or you are completely new to the name and this chain of islands. Either way, today's post is all about the main island of Sao Miguel and why it's a top destination for adventure travelers all over the world.  

The mainland of Portugal "Continental Portugal" is the small sliver of a country next to Spain on the Iberian Peninsula. What a lot of people don't know is that there are also two Autonomous Regions of Portugal, the Azores and Madeira. I've been to both and while they are both amazing locations, the Azores are a little more rugged while Madeira is a bit more resort-y (you can find my Madeira travel guide here).

Today's post is all about the Azores, an archipelago composed of nine volcanic islands in the Macaronesia region of the North Atlantic Ocean. The islands are about 1,400 km (870 mi) west of Lisbon, about 1,500 km (930 mi) northwest of Morocco, and about 1,930 km (1,200 mi) southeast of Newfoundland, Canada.

Picnic areas and parks on Sao Miguel

While there are a lot of islands to visit, my parents were born on the island on Sao Miguel and it seems to be the place we keep coming back to. This was my second time on the island but my first time with my husband, son, and inlaws. What you need to know is that the island offers everything you want and need as a tourist (pharmacy, large grocery stores, etc), while also allowing for that rugged, natural feel. The island is beautiful and you can quickly go from a beautiful hotel to a rugged little village where cows cross the street and horses pull carts and carriages. You can stop at the mall and then visit a small town for their local feast. You leave the highway to drive down cobblestone streets lined with hydrangeas for miles. The island is full of natural beauty, rugged coastline, old culture, and new updates. There are a ton of reasons to visit but I'm here to talk about why this island is such a great place to visit for anyone who loves adventure travel.

Lakes on Sao Miguel

Before You Go 

Flights and Climate

There are direct flights from New York, Boston, and Lisbon to the main island of Sao Miguel making it a relatively easy destination for those of us in the Northeast of the U.S. and anyone leaving Lisbon. They are very strict on baggage requirements so make sure you research your airlines allowances. The nine islands are Flores and Corvo, to the west; Graciosa, Terceira, São Jorge, Pico, and Faial in the centre; and São Miguel, Santa Maria, and the Formigas islet to the east. Because of its location near the gulf stream, the temperatures remain mild year-round and the summers stay relatively cool while the winters remain snow free and mild. Summer is the best time to travel especially if you want to enjoy all the water activities the island has to offer. 

Airbnb near Populo Beach


There are a variety of hotels on the island but we almost always opt for an Airbnb while traveling. We love the convenience of a kitchen, private outdoor spaces, and room to hang out as a group. There are a lot of options on Airbnb and we booked a large beautiful house by Populo Beach during our stay. If you prefer something a bit more along the lines of a hotel or resort, Ponta Delgada has a large variety of hotels for every budget and level of luxury. This was our Airbnb that I highly recommend for bigger groups (great host, location, and house). 

Rental Cars

This is the kind of vacation where I highly recommend a rental car. Thankfully, it's a pretty easy process and you can pick a car up right at the airport. We booked through and ended up using Wayzor rentals on the island. They had a kiosk right at the departure area and while the process was very slow, we had zero issues. Driving on the island is a bit treacherous (really narrow streets, parking on sidewalks, etc) so I highly recommend you purchase the offered car insurance. If you purchase the car insurance, trade-in is a breeze. If you do not, they will look over your car with a magnifying glass (not really) and try to pin any little scratch or dent on you. We just avoid the headache and pay for the insurance. If you are traveling with kids/car seats and a lot of luggage, you will want to upgrade to a bigger car. The cars here are much smaller so really look at the space on the website of the car you are renting. We ended up with a Skoda Kamiq which just fit four adults, one car seat, and our luggage. 


While the island doesn't look that big, it does take a while to get around certain areas thanks to steep, slow, and winding roads that traverse the island. Plan your stay by tackling "sections" of the island (north, east, south, west). 


The island is known for its hiking, scuba diving, hot springs, snorkeling, mountain biking, cliff jumping, horseback riding, and much more. I've been able to do most of these activities and can happily say it all does in fact exist and it's spectacular. We spent a week on the island during our first visit, and another week on our second visit. Of course, you can come to the island just to relax but with so much to do, I highly advise you take advantage of some of the beautiful scenery and the landscape of the island. Here's a list of some of the best things to do on the island if you consider yourself an active adventurer. 

Hiking signs on the island 


The island is known for its amazing hiking trails. I was amazed at just how well most of the trails are laid out with great signage, restrooms, and parking areas. For such a small island, they really paid attention to the details and hiking on the island is definitely a top attraction. With that being said, I HIGHLY recommend you use AllTrails when hiking on the island. The app provides easy directions to the parking areas, includes recent photos, notes from other hikers, and great maps you can download to help you stay on route. Here are some of the hikes we did while visiting in June of 2022. 

One of the tunnels that take you into the jungle portion of Janela do Inferno

Waterfall in the jungle part of the hike - Janela do Inferno

Rota da Agua - Janela do Inferno

4.8-miles 873 feet - loop hike - rated moderate - Southcentral Sao Miguel, east of Lagoa
This hike is nothing short of magical. You start off at this quaint little tourist center/picnic area where they hand you maps and answer any questions. You then head off through cow fields full of hydrangea. You come to the point in the hike where you enter this dark short tunnel and BOOM, at the other end you are in the rain forest. It's this dense tropical little oasis with bridges and waterfalls. You then make your way to another tunnel and exit back into the beautiful rolling fields of Sao Miguel. It's absolutely gorgeous and you will feel transported to some magical secret little place. Be sure to use AllTrails as the signage does get a bit tricky and we got a bit lost, missing the tunnel the first try. If you only have time for one hike on the island, this should be it. 

Famous viewpoint, Miradouro da Boca do Inferno
Miradouro da Boca do Inferno

1.5 miles, 350 feet - out and back hike - rated easy - western Sao Miguel by Sete Cidades 
This famous viewpoint is under two sections in this guide, hikes and viewpoints. It's a famous viewpoint but it also includes a 1.5 mile out and back hike so call it what you will. Before you go, know that it may take several tries to get to this viewpoint and actually get a view. Its high up on the mountains and often covered in dense fog and clouds. The drive up to the trailhead is incredibly scenic and you will soon understand why this hike is often so clouded in. I think it took us three tries to finally get a clear enough break in the clouds to enjoy the spectacular view below. The hike itself is easy and it's relatively flat as you follow a gravel trail straight out. Once the trail ends, you will follow a dirt trail with a fenceline that offers some insanely gorgoeus views of the lakes below. Keep following this dirt trail out until you get to the end point which will lead you to that famous photo and viewpoint of the island. This is a very popular trail so don't expect to find solitude here. Also, arrive early and bring some patience as parking can be an issue. 

Serra Devassa

2.5 miles, 623 feet - "lolipop" loop hike - rated easy to moderate - western Sao Miguel by Sete Cidades 
We started this hike and had to turn around pretty quickly due to the howling wind and sideways rain. This part of the island is pretty high and is known for its foggy clouded in weather. If you get a nice day, it's a nice little hike to complete after visiting the neighboring famous Miradouro Do Boca De Inferno viewpoint (across the street). The parking area for this hike is also used for the famous viewpoint so expect to get there early for parking.

Rocha da Relva
Rocha da Relva

3.5 miles, 1,060 feet - out and back hike - rated hard - just past the Airport/Ponta Delgada
This hike is pretty close to the airport and takes you along and down a cliffside view to a tiny village below. We did the "left" section of this hike and ran out of time for the "right" side. Be warned, this hike literally goes down a steep cliffside on a winding path. It's not the easiest hike but it's quite scenic as you enjoy the ocean views and some serious cardio. Down at the bottom, we were surprised to see the tiniest of villages, complete with a public bathroom with plumbing, and the sweetest little picnic area. The "right" section also looks scenic and passes by waterfalls and other viewpoints on this side of the island.  A lot of hikers recommend avoiding this steep left section and just hiking the right part. It's a quiet, less popular hike but expect to see donkeys or horses on the trail as they are used to bring supplies down to the village below. 

Canyon on the Cascata Salto do Cabrito hike

Caldeiras da Ribeira Grande and Cascata Salto do Cabrito

5 miles, 930 feet - loop hike - rated moderate - Central Sao Miguel south of Ribeira Grande

This hike surprised us in a few different ways. It starts off pretty nonchalant and before you know it, you are following a water pipe through a jungle and make your way to this insane canyon. You will make your way along a suspended trail through the canyon before finally ended up a the waterfall (sort of underwhelming waterfall if you ask me). From there, keep following the trail through a hot spring area, across little bridges and quiet roads. There is some road walking but the scenic beginning in the canyon/gorge area more than makes up for it.  

Miradouro do Navio on the northern coast

Miradouro do Navio on the northern coast

Miradouro da Vista do Rei - View of Lagoa das Sete Cidades


Viewpoints (Miradouro)

There are a lot of viewpoints around the island but let's be honest, the entire island is a viewpoint. There are iconic ocean views around every corner and the bucolic rolling green fields filled with cows and hydrangeas is postcard-worthy. If you set out for a drive around the island, you will see various "miradouros" or viewpoints marked on google maps. You have the famous Miradouro Do Boca De Inferno overlooking the lakes of Sete Cidades which I talk all about this viewpoint above in the hiking section above. It's one of the most iconic views on the island and if you get a clear day, it is so darn beautiful. This area is often clouded in so plan to make the trek up here a few times (you are high up in the mountains). This viewpoint does include about a 1.5 mile out and back hike down a relatively flat gravel path. You also have random viewpoints as you drive around like Miradouro do Navio on the northern coast. My advice is to drive sections of the coastline with google maps in hand and stop as often or as little as you'd like to take in the sweeping views of the Atlantic. Don't miss a birds eye view of the famous multi colored lake, Twin Lakes of Sete Cidades (Lagoa das Sete Cidades). There is a great viewpoint Miradouro da Vista do Rei which is across from the from the Monte Place Hotel Ruins. 

Hydrangeas on the island

Hydrangeas and Cows

This is probably the weirdest heading in a blog post but it is one worthy of a header/ main section. While the miradouros are worth stopping at, don't forget to take in the scenery inland as well. The thousands of cows perched on green hillsides are beautiful in a way that's hard to describe. And the hydrangeas? thousands upon thousands are growing all over the island, along roadsides and stone walls, in random fields, front yards, and just about everywhere. They come in every color and in some pretty impressive sizes. **Each of the towns is responsible for taking care of the hydrangeas whether pruning or planting. It's illegal to pick hydrangeas from public spaces like parks or the countryside. This flower is a huge part of the culture and plays a large role in maintaining the aesthetic of the island. 

Cows on the island

Another famous marker on the Azorean landscape is the abundant population of cows. According to a 2018 statistic, The Azores has a cattle inventory of 125,000 adult cows (73% are dairy cows). The island is known for its happy dairy cows which produce the island's abundance of milk and cheeses. You will see dairy cows spotting the lush green fields all over the island. 

Azorean Coastline

Everything Water 

Diving, Swimming, and Hotsprings  

Mosteiros Beach 

Mosteiros Beach 

Mosteiros Beach 

Mosteiros Beach - Beach, Kayak, Swimming 

Mosteiros Beach is a long-ish drive along the winding coast but it's worth it to get a glimpse of this small fishing village and beautiful beach. It's also a great place to catch the sunset if you time it right for an afternoon swim. The beach is known for its black sand with towering monoliths. We watched surfers and grabbed a snack while enjoying the view. We ordered a pork sandwich from a tiny beach cart and quickly learned that after placing your order, he calls in the order to his wife who then brings out a hot amazing sandwich from her house. You can also rent kayaks and take a kayak tour of the island if you want to explore by sea. 

Caldeira Velha - National Monument and Hot Springs

This official natural monument is known as a tropical oasis and is often a major attraction to sit in the thermal pools. We stopped here with our bathing suits and towels and quickly realized this popular destination has a limited amount of tickets for the hot springs and sells out fast. Before you go, reserve your tickets ahead of time online.

After striking out at Caldeira Velha, our group broke up and headed out to two different hot springs. We headed to Termas das Caldeiras close by in Ribeira Grande while my parents/sister headed towards Furnas for Poca Da Dona Beija.

Poca Da Dona Beija - Hot Springs

Large/popular hot spring area in the town of Furnas with several different pools. They are open late and are known to be a popular spot in the evenings (open 830am to 11pm). There is a time limit and tickets can be purchased at the entrance for 8 euros. More info

Termas das Caldeiras Hot Springs

Termas das Caldeiras - Hot Springs

Small inexpensive hot spring out back behind the building (time limit during the busier season). They also have a spa and wellness center. Two different pools, one slightly warmer than the other. A perfect way to unwind after our botched trip to Caldeira Velha. Open 10am to 10pm admission purchased at the entrance for 3 euros. More info

Terra Nostra

Terra Nostra - Garden and Thermal Pool

Terra Nostra is a beautiful garden park and thermal pool in the town of Furnas. It pairs perfectly with a traditional Azorean boiled lunch (further detailed below). You can walk around the park, enjoy the gardens, and end your visit with a dip in the thermal pool. There is an admission fee to get into the park and hot spring and there is no time limit. It's not that warm but the mineral water is said to boast numerous healing properties. Be sure to bring an old dark-colored swimsuit as the brown mineral water will stain your clothing. Read more about our visit to Furnas and Terra Nostra HERE

Scuba Diving with Azores Sub

Scuba Diving 

This may not be for everyone but if you are Scuba certified and want to add some unique diving spots to your list, you are in luck. I scheduled a dive with Azores Sub (PADI dive center) in Franco do Campo my first visit to the island. We had a unique little dive around the famous Ilheu Vila Franco do Campo and experienced some of the Azorean wildlife up close. You can read all about my dive, video included HERE.

Ilheu Vila Franco do Campo

Swim/Snorkel - Ilheu Vila Franco do Campo

A small boat from Fanco do Campo takes you out to this little inlet right off the coast. Here, you can camp out for the day, swimming and enjoying the Azorean sun. This is also the famous spot where RedBull takes their high divers on their cliff diving tour. You can read my post all about this area HERE

Dolphin and Whale Watching

Because of its remote location in the Atlantic Ocean, the Azores are a great spot to see some unique marine life. The Azores is one of the largest whale sanctuaries in the world and are home to over 20 species of cetaceans. I was disappointed to not fit this into our last trip but some pretty severe motion sickness makes me a little nervous to step on a boat for a longer ride in some potentially rougher seas. If you have your Dramamine and sea legs, head out on a tour to see what the island has to offer. A lot of trips leave right out of Ponta Delgada and the main season runs from April through October. 

On my first trip to the island, I went out on the boats to jump in the water with pods of wild dolphins. Helicopters set out in search of the pods and the boats went out and swimmers slowly descended into the water to get a quick glimpse of the wild dolphins. Being in the water, hearing all of the dolphins echolocating and dashing around with an experience I will never forget. However, some research has shown that this practice may be stressful to the wild pods. Do your research before heading out and make an ethical decision based on your research. 

Horseback Riding Sao Miguel

Other Iconic Sights/Activities 

Horseback Riding Sao Miguel

Horseback Riding 

Another great way to enjoy the landscape and the culture is on horseback. We booked a guided private tour with Quinta da Terca, located just a few miles from our Airbnb. We met the horses at the stable and quickly headed out into the quiet backroads, cute villages, and dense trails on the island. We were able to trot and canter sections of the trail because we were more experienced and on a private tour. The horses were well taken care of and our guide did a great job giving us information about the culture, flora and fauna on the island. We did a 2-hour ride for 50 euros. Book in advance. 

Furnas traditional boiled meal

Furnas Lunch 

The boiled dinners in the town of Furnas are a Sao Miguel tradition. The Valley of Furnas is a volcanic crater that has been dormant since 1630. It's home to a sulfuric village offering traditional lunches and the large garden/park, Terra Nostra Park. If you partake in the boiled dinner (lunch), meats, potatoes, and vegetables are cooked in large pots that are lowered into the "furnas" or volcanic holes with boiling mud and steam. It's something worth experiencing once but at the end of the day, it's spending the afternoon in a pretty stinky sulfuric town to eat a bland boiled dinner. Once was enough for me and you can read about our experience and visit to Furnas and Terra Nostra HERE

Visit Ponta Delgada

Ponta Delgada is the capital of the Azores archipelago. Consider it a tiny version of Lisbon and enjoy walking the waterfront, dining, and shopping. You can find a large mall and smaller boutique stores, fancy restaurants, and delicious food trucks. There is plenty of parking in large garages underneath the roadway. You will find a great area to walk along the waterfront and there are even public outdoor pools you can stop in for a swim. We didn't spend a ton of time here on our second visit but if you want a variety of shops and restaurants, this is the place for you. 

Mountain Bike Tours

One thing that I really wish I had done on my last trip was go on a mountain bike tour. I was pregnant on our second visit and decided that maybe mountain biking wasn't the safest option but I will be making this a priority on my next visit. There are several companies on the island that will take you on guided mountain bike tours, or rent you bikes and give you a preferred route. It's an excellent way to see the island on two wheels. I did a bit of research and quickly found Azores MTB. Schedule a tour in advance and please report back on just how epic it was. 

Sao Miguel is a pretty incredible place and just a taste of what the Azores have to offer. Spend a week on the island. Spend a month and visit them all. This was my second time back and Adam quickly agreed it's one of the most beautiful places he has ever been. There is something for everyone but it is truly an adventure outdoor lover's paradise. There is a lot of ecotourism and it should be on the top of your travel list if you seek culture, beauty, and adventure. 

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