I remember the very first photo I saw of the Azores. It was a walkway overlooking a double lake in a lush green and floral surroundings. (Photo above) It was like a lakes in the sky, paradise and a photo heaven. Of course, I had to go! I visited the island in September 2022, 3 years later, loaded with camera equipment and a need to explore the unseen!
If you don’t know me, I am a photographer and videographer based in Ireland. I have always been passionate about traveling and photographing the world. This is my experience of travelling to the Portuguese island of Sao Miguel and spending the week capturing it’s most beautiful locations.
Where are the Azores?
The Azores is a 9 island cluster 1500km west off the coast of Lisbon. (it is pronounced Assorrays) for us non native speakers. 1500km is a good chunk of ocean west of Portugal. Almost half way across but not quite. These little subtropical islands stay mild all year round and they all have volcanic origins. The best way to describe these islands, is like someone hit “vibrance” and boosted it right up. They are so lush, rich in colour and atmosphere.
Which Island should you visit in the Azores?
I visited the main island of Sao Miguel which is the largest of the cluster. Ponta Delgada is the capital and home to the double crater lakes of Sete Cidades, multiple hot spring locations, about 20 waterfalls, some incredible scenery and whale and dolphin watching. One of the main reasons I wanted to travel to the Azores was to swim with dolphins. I wrote about swimming with the dolphins here. These islands are surrounded with some of the most spectacular species of oceanic creatures that you can find anywhere in the world. It is very normal to see whales and dolphins here.
The smaller island of Pico is renowned for having the biggest variation of sea life, so if you are serious about your diving and underwater exploration then Pico is the place to be. There are many flights operating from Island to island daily but they werent cheap flights ( when you consider the distance, its about right). I wanted to do some scenic exploring as well as swimming with the dolphins, I thought Sao Miguel would be the best choice for a one week visit. I would have loved to travel to Flores for its spectacular scenery, but I decided to focus on where I had a transport and plenty to see on Sao Miguel.
How to get to the Azores?
I flew the super early 5:30am with TAP out of Dublin Airport (Ireland) and just managed the catch the Ryanair then from Lisbon to Ponta Delgada Airport on Sao Miguel island. The airport in PDL is tiny, easy and fast. The switch over from one terminal to the other in Lisbon isn’t the fastest so keep that in mind for your transfers. There is direct flights from many European locations and the UK. There are also multiple locations on the east coast of America that will fly directly to the Azores.
What to do on Sao Miguel Island?
Transport is key! You really need your own transport or a private driver to get around the island. There is of course many small operators doing the sights of the island but if you prefer your own schedule then a rental is best. It takes almost 2 hours to drive from east to west, however the drive from north to south is easy and fast. I went straight to collect my rental but none of the motorbikes would start… so they had to give me a 4 wheel upgrade! Which changed the entire trip for me, in a good way. Two of the most costly things in the Azores are accommodation and car rental. I will give more details later below. Since it was sunny I dropped everything and started exploring the island straight away.
My first day swimming with dolphins (or as they like the call it “an attempt to swim with dolphins” ) was the very next morning. However the wind was so strong it was causing rough seas so It was cancelled for a few days. I had booked two tours with company called Futurismo in Ponta Delgada. You can read more about that here. In the mean time, I pulled out my giant (car bonnet sized) tourist map and started driving.
Some of the main attractions are the lakes and mountains. There are 5 big lakes but so many other small ones. Most of which are worth visiting. However, in my experience the upper lakes of Sete Cidades (866ft) and they very high lakes of Lago do Fogo (3110 feet) were constantly covered in cloud, while the rest of the island basked in sunshine. For those of you who hate talking altitude numbers, basically you start to find it hard to breathe somewhere around 8000 or 10,000 feet and planes fly at 35,000 feet. So these lakes are pretty high but not that high but they still tend to capture a lot of cloud. After watching the weather for 7 days it seemed the island quite often had early morning clouds and like clockwork they would clear around lunch time.
Hiking in the Azores seems to be quite the norm. So many people travel from Europe and the USA to experience the incredible scenery of the hiking trails. There are a lot of US travellers here, in fact I met more Americans here than Europeans.
Mapping it out
I had mapped out the island in my head into 5 sections for visiting. Two of them had serious Jurassic Park Vibes. The far upper west, which had so many beautiful lakes and hills (Jurassic park vibe 1). The east which to me seemed the most tropical and lush part of the island and it also saw the most sunshine during the week. ( Jurassic Park vibe 2).
The north part of the island was lower, with black sand beaches and surfing as well as the tea plantations and some lovely towns and villages. The south west part is mainly the largest town and port of Ponta Delgada, with plenty of restaurants and shops as well as the airport close by. And finally the south eastern part which was the least accessible road wise (very windy and slow) but also looked quite tropical. If you want to find exact points of my visit you can visit my page on Mapify.
One of the most important things you will constantly be checking is the live web cams for the island. This is a brilliant idea since the island can have 4 different weather scenarios at the same time, in different places, It became essential. I went straight for Nordeste which is the east/tropical looking part, since the webcam was showing brilliant sunshine.
It was late in the evening when I arrived at Nordeste and It is an amazing time to visit as the sunlight is just catching the highest tips of the mountains and the shadows and glow is just incredible. There are a lot of look out points down the east coast. 3 really nice ones. The lighthouse view point, the actual lighthouse and the tropical gadrens view point called “Miradouro da Ponta Sossego”, was my favourite spot on the island. Palm trees and bright red walkways lead you up to some pillar view points. The second pillar view point was by far the best view. The high peaks are absolutely jam packed with lush trees and the mountains almost fall into the sea with a huge drop.
Even in September the flowers were still blooming and yellow butterflies were busy fluttering around in pairs. The ocean was so still, just a vast depth of rich blue horizon and a ripple or two as the wind danced across the surface. It really is a breathtaking view.
I did continue the drive further south on the EA1-1A but it is the longest way to get back to the lower part of the island, but certainly worth the drive. The roads are literally shoulder to shoulder with the high peaks and there is so many beautiful view points. There is not a lot of places to stop on this particular road so If you see something nice, you may have to park up and walk back to see it. Again, a great time to see it is the evening.
Lago De Fogo
The next day I headed west towards Sete Cidades, the web cam wasn’t great but I had hoped it would clear. It actually didn’t clear for 6 full days. I drove up every day hoping it would lift but it remained in thick cloud. It is quite normal for these clouds to stay here, but not so normal for 6 days straight. So if you see if clearing on the web cam, GO… fast! In the mean time I did fly over to Lago De Fogo which is the highest peak at 3110 feet and had beautiful sunshine.
One thing to note is that the live web cams are usually placed in the highest part of the mountain. In Lago De Fogo, the camera is up on the aerials and is rarely clear of clouds, however this does not mean the best view (shown above) will be in cloud.
Use your judgement on this and normally you can tell when you are 20 mins away. If there is cloud on the way up the road way itself, then forget it, as the lakes will be bathing in thick cloud. But if there is only a tip of white sitting on the very top then it will likely be fine for the view. The lake of Lago De Fogo has to be one of the most stunning lake views I have ever seen. Its depth, colours and stillness are just serene.
There is a small paid car park at the viewpoint so you can leave your car and hike down to the waters edge. Its pricey at 80c every 15 mins and the first 20 mins are free. It takes about 20 mins to walk down to the beach. The sand surrounding the lake is white and the water is emerald green at the edges and rich blue in the centre, surrounded by tall trees. It is pure paradise.
This walk down has many steps, in fact it is all just steps. There is even a wooden ladder to get down to the lower part which is a bit slippy so hiking shoes/boots are a great idea. The walk back up is pretty steep and you will sweat… a lot. I was carrying a full bag of camera gear and arrived at the top dripping. I ran the drone over the lake and took some snaps that you can see below. It is worth waiting for sunshine for this lake as the sun can really illuminate the rich colours.
The next stop was the tea plantation in Gorreana on the north side of the island. I visited in the early morning when there was nobody in the fields. They are open 24 hours but the main building is only open from 9-6pm.
You can taste and buy their beautiful tea here and get a tour of their facility. It is amazing to see that it is all done by hand and on location. The fields look incredible from above. Perfect lines and aisles of green leaves trimmed to perfection. This made for some stunning imagery from above.
Tea is handpicked from their plantations. The is also a factory tour where you can see the process of the tea being made in different rooms. There is a tasting area afterwards and a shop where you can purchase the multiple different varieties of tea they produce. The coffee shop has amazing views of the te fields, with cake and other snacks.
Driving in the Azores
I will try and be delicate here. It is actually quite easy to drive in the Azores as the roads and motorways are not that busy. They are well maintained and in great condition. Be warned if you venture into the town. The streets are so narrow you must fold in your wing mirrors to pass. So if you did well on your spacial awareness test in secondary school, then you will be fine here! However… the local driving culture has to be the worst and most dangerous I have ever witnessed. They drive at unimaginable speeds on windy mountain roads, even in heavy rain and are extremely impatient with visitors. Boy racers are a plenty and they treat the mountain roads like a race track, never anticipating oncoming drivers. Visitors must make up at least 60% of their road traffic so it is hard to believe they have not acclimatised.
Drivers overtake on bends and without enough notice. Nobody keeps to the speed limit despite the speed checks from the police. I had two very serious near misses with locals driving towards me on the wrong side of the road as the road lines seem to be merely a suggestion rather than a rule they stick to. With that in mind, I drove very cautiously here.
Cars in general seem to be quite well scratched and nobody seems to care about bashing doors with each other. You will see the nice cars parked far away from the supermarket doors. So if your rental company hands you a brand new car with no previous scratches on it, make sure you have extra insurance or car hire excess insurance purchased before hand and fold your mirrors in no matter where you park!
If you want to take a motorbike or scooter for the week instead you are in for a treat. The roads are very well looked after and the twisty mountain roads would make for incredible motorbike roads. Perhaps being on a bike would be safer as you would be easier to overtake.
Car Rental and Accommodation
As I mentioned, car rental and affordable accommodation are two of the most difficult parts of travelling to this island. I would suggest booking well in advance. The accommodation is usually either fancy hotels, apartments, Air B+B or hostels. I had an issue getting a place to stay in Ponta Delgada. I wanted to stay in the main town as the rental company would collect me and bring me to the car hire location as they are local. Otherwise you will pay a taxi fare to collect and drop off your car rental. The accommodation I choose was the Pic Xii – It is large accommodation that must have originally been for the church members who were staying at the church beside it. The building is very new. I will let you read the rest my booking review of the property.
As it turned it, even though it didn’t have any way to make food and it was very hot in the rooms at night, but it was still one of the cheapest options by far and very easy to access. You could also walk to the village from the front door.
For car hire, the initial price when I checked for car hire was €900.00 for 7 days for a tiny fiat 500. I assumed this was a mistake and tried many other sites but the cheapest I found was (€680-900) which was crazy. So I opted for a large scooter (125cc) which is better than a motorbike for seat storage. As I mentioned above, I got lucky and none of the bikes would start so they gave me a car for the same price. It was €360 for 7 days for the scooter which Is still not cheap. If you do end up going with this option bring small luggage and backpacks that fit into the seat storage and netting. I would have happily taken the scooter but considering the weather I had that week, it was probably a good idea!
On the 7th day, in the afternoon, the clouds finally started to lift off Sete Cidades. I took off towards the west of the island to catch the view I had been chasing all week. There is a lot of locations around the lakes that will offer very different views. As it turns out, the photo that I had seen 3 years ago, was above the lakes and at the highest point of the overlook called “Miradouro da Boca do inferno”.
Live web cameras are a lot lower than than this upper view point. If the camera looks like it is clearling up then it is likely the upper part will clear afterwards. This is the only place you can see for as far and wide as possible. It is, in my opinion, by far the best view of Sete Cidades. The live web camera is a lot lower than this point, so there can still be cloud on this particular view.
I would highly recommend getting up there early (even before 9am ) to see it without anyone else in your photo. The car park is pretty small here but lots of people park on the roadside too. The walk is pretty easy considering the view. Just normal trail and then a rocky walk way up to the view point. Possibly only 15 mins from the car park. Also, inside the same walk way you can pop into Lago Da Canario for some perfect still reflections. Although, It can be a little mucky!
Magic View points
This view point is so rich with landscape your eye will not know where to look. Once you come out of the forest walk you are hit with the beautiful smells of the flowers. This view is just so much for the eye to take in. It really is quite something to see in person. How beautiful the lakes are, the clouds touching the tops of the mountains, the ocean in the distance and the winding roads that lead down into Sete Cidades.
I threw the drone up here and got some pretty nice shots. It was pretty busy with people, as it was mid afternoon. But I was so glad to actually see it having waited a week for the clouds to move. From a photographers point of view, the early morning sunrise would be an ideal way to photograph this location.
Swimming in Waterfalls
Salto Do Cabrito
This islands have so many waterfalls you would be hard pressed to see them all in one week. Some are smaller than others and some carry huge volumes of water. I visited 3 during the week. The first two had very little water in them, which was very underwhelming. However, after it poured rain on and off for a day, the Waterfall of Salto Do Cabrito was flowing nicely. This is a nature reserve where they seem to also generate power from the flowing water. There is an upper car park and lower one. I parked up high and didnt realise the height drop down into the valley was so significant. The roadway is really steep but it did not stop many normal rental cars going down. There is plenty of car parking at the bottom and it is well paved. Worst case scenario, two of your passengers might have to get out if the car is finding it hard. First gear job all the way up thats for sure!
As you walk up closer to the falls you can hear the rush of water. It is a beautiful place to sit and absorb the view. There are actually 2 falls of water but the one you can see more clearly is right in front of you. It is a perfect place to swim. Water shoes are your friend here. I parked myself and my gear on the far side and walked in for a swim. The water was cold but perfect if you having trouble with the humidity.
You can swim right up under the falls and enjoy the intense feeling of powerful energy. You cant stand here, so swimming is essential. They say us humans can be very positively affected by the negative ions that are realised under a waterfall. The negative ions are of course invisible, but are generated by the energy of the falling water. I felt it. It was such a refreshing experience. Exhilarating and another spot I was reluctant to leave.
What kind of weather to expect in the Azores?
If you have straight hair, prepare for a curly week people! The weather is an interesting anomaly here. The locals say “4 seasons in one day”. Which is true. I was a bit unfortunate for early September weather as it rained a lot and it was pretty cloudy. The rain is short lived however and passes quite quickly. I did a lot of research before coming to this island and one thing I never came across was the humidity! I was not prepared.
I had been checking the weather which was on average 25- 27 degrees with a nice breeze but with the humidity up at 95% this made for a very different experience. I have never sweat so much in my life. By the 3rd day I had almost used up all my clothing for the week as most days I would be dripping in sweat. For an Irish person, this was a big deal. The staff gave everyone a fan for their bedrooms but sleeping at night was not easy. So don’t bother bringing a rain jacket, its actually too hot for those. A poncho is the only thing for the rain. I brought 3 jumpers and never once wore one of them. The car has air con which was a must! Also… decathlon has great air con! 😉
Outdoor Swimming pools in the Azores
Most of the towns have lovely public outdoor pools filled with sea water. Ponta Delgada itself has a lovely pool and a supervised part of the port where swimmers can do lanes while the restaurant goers watch on. One particular pool worth mentioning was in Povoação outdoor pool which is a public infinity pool ( yes I did say public infinity pool) overlooking the steep mountains nearby. It is best to visit in the evening as the sun just clips the tops of the mountains and it feels like another jurassic park moment.
Coloura’s outdoor pool (below) is also a nice spot but normally busier. Many locals and tourists alike come to sunbathe and jump off the pier here. The pool itself is often overflowing with waves from the ocean and it is a lovely place to spend some time. If you are like me you will spend a lot of time trying to cool down during the week by jumping in and out of the water.
Lagoa Do Congro – Other Lakes in Sao Miguel
There are so many lakes in Sao Miguel, some listed and some not. Get onto google maps and explore the ones that aren’t such obvious tourist traps. Lagoa Do Congro was one such! If you follow google maps to “ Lagoa Do Congro” it will take you to a spot literally at the side of the road. There is a side road just beside this that will take you to a small car park. The road is a bit rough but ok for a rental if you move very slowly.
Also, it is very narrow and only 1 passing point. It is better than leaving the car at the side of the road however! As you get up the side road you can park under the tree. You can only venture further up this road in 4X4 as it gets too rough for cars. If you are unsure of where to go from the car park just take out google maps and follow the lake. There is about a 15/20 min walk to the lake from this point. It is all quite easy, with some steps downhill but there are steps some sign guidance. Get ready to sweat…. Again!
The walk starts off flat but then a steep walk down takes you to the lake. We arrived quite early (me and my two new exploring buddies) so it was pretty quiet. One couple was just finishing their latest insta post as we arrived. This place is all about the depths and variety of greens! The lake was a rich emerald colour and the surrounding lush vegetation was a deep jungle green. There wasn’t a ripple on the lake, it was so peaceful. It was like a perfect fitting piece of emerald colour jelly had been slotted into this deep hollow and only a fish could make a ripple. It’s steep edges were lined with trees from top to bottom, growing vertically despite their gravitational challenges! Very large fish darted from one side of the inlet to the other, investigating us and then disappearing into darker greens. The sun shared it’s light with only one side of the lake, which managed to illuminate the greens into the colour you wish you lawn would be. An exact and perfect reflection could be seen, just like a glass floor, as you looked out across the lake. It was yet another hidden gem the Azores had to offer!
What you need to bring to the Azores.
An awareness that you will sweat, a lot. I did travel in September. The temperatures looked perfect at 24-27 degrees, but remember humidity feels much hotter. With that in mind, bring lots of t-shirts. When you pack your bag for the day, throw in a spare t-shirt. I promise you will use it more than you think. You sweat so much on these hikes that you will be delighted to find a fresh tshirt in your car! If you are hiking to any kind of serious walking, good shoes are a must. Merrell are my weapon of choice. Since there are swimming pools and waterfalls everywhere, it is a great idea to bring a small microfibre travel towel and swimming gear on every journey/hike. The swims really helped me cool down after a day of walking. A rain poncho! Essential! As I mentioned rain jackets are just too hot in the Azores. A poncho is light enough not to add to your sweat burden. I brought a power bank with me everywhere. This one charges my iPhone faster than a plug socket many times over. You can be out of range and signal for quite some time and you will likely always be using maps on your iPhone, so a power bank will come in very handy!
If you dont feel like making the splash into underwater photography you can travel a lot lighter with the Gopro and a floaty to make sure you dont loose it in the water! A car charging cable for your iPhone is also a must have since you will be using Maps a lot! If you are renting a motorbike or scooter then I would highly suggest getting an iPhone holder for the motorbike as you will certainly use it! Food! Bring food, as most of the out of reach spots do not have food options. There are no food trucks or newsagents on these islands. Just big town centres and restaurants, but you can be miles from these while exploring ! If you are in any way adventurous you will have a very full week of exploring this beautiful island!
If you want to read my blog about swimming with dolphin, it is linked here.
There wasn’t a puff of wind the morning I flew out. 7am and the sun was rising in Ponta Delgada airport. As we reached a few thousand feet, the engines lit up in an orange glow. (the sunrise kind, not the “were gonna die kind”) and the clouds were fluffy and sat in perfect cotton candy shapes ontop of the highest peaks. I could see the entire island from my window seat. I remember thinking, that was the most beautiful place I have ever visited!
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