Graciosa - The Azores - Our adventurous story.
Graciosa - The Azores
Highlights: Calderia; Furna do Enxofre; scenery; Thermal Baths; Serra Branca; Ilheu da Baleia,
September Dana's Account
Today we start our journey that will take us to the four islands we have yet to visit, Graciosa, Teceria, San miguel and Santa Maria. We are up early. The ferry to Graciosa should leave Horta at 8am and thankfully the weather has improved. Tropical storms Gordon and Helene having come through the islands only hours before transforming the whole marina into a huge spiderweb of ropes, as waves meters high were projected.
Thankfully, the ferry is there and leaves on time. On the ship, we once again run into people we know. A couple from the Black Forest, who came for a 4-week camping trip, just before Gordon was due to hit, and with all their luggage gone missing on the flight. But now, the two Germans have all their kit back and survived the bad weather. As we will find out later on Santa Maria, the central islands were very lucky.
Arriving in Praia on Graciosa in the afternoon after a very pleasant trip, we already have to change our original plans. Just before leaving Faial we found out that from October, the ferry between Graciosa and our next island Terceira runs only twice a week, and of course not on the day we would need it. So we make our way, by taxi, to the SATA office in Santa Cruz, the small, but very pretty capital of the island, to book another flight. And as we are here now anyway, we quickly pop into the tourist office as well. All I can say is, I am so glad to have learned enough Portuguese in the last months to get by. The lady behind the desk does not speak a word of English. (If it wasn't for all the colorful brochures lying around, I'd think I'm in the wrong place.)
Anyway, after having found out everything we needed and being praised for my "good" Portuguese, we leave for our campsite, on a bus packed to the roof with school kids. As the two weird looking foreigners with the huge backpacks we are the attraction and surely will be known to the whole of the island by dinnertime tonight.
After a sleepless night, thanks to some snoring neighbors, we get up at the unearthly hour of 7am. It is still pitch black outside, but during breakfast, the sun slowly rises and in the crisp, clear morning air we can see all five central islands. The plan for today is to visit the famous Furna do Enxofre (Sulfur Cavern), which is geologically unique in the world. First, we hike to the next village for a grocery shop. Along the way, we see that there is much construction going on, but there are just as many houses standing empty and neglected. In town, we meet an old man with his donkey and a cart, a picture that has become so familiar to us.
From here, the trail leads inland and upwards towards the caldeira (crater), from where we have a wonderful view back down to the coast and over most of the island. With just over 67km� and 3000 inhabitants, Graciosa is the second smallest island of the archipelago and makes an incredibly peaceful impression on us. Noticeable is that Graciosa is much browner than the other islands. Due to it being very flat, it cannot generate its own rain. Still, while we are here, we have more of it than we asked for.
After half an hour through the bush, we now have to walk along a road that is just being tarmacced. Afterwards, our shoes are so heavy with sticky stones and tarmac, we can use them for tap-dancing. But as this is the only way to the cave in the crater, we have to go through it. To enter the crater, you have to pass through a long, dark tunnel. At the other end, the unexpected is waiting.
It is a huge crater, compared to the rest of the island, it's beautiful, almost entirely covered with forest. As we follow a long, windy road through the woods, we finally reach the entrance to the Furna do Enxofre. Because it is already late September and therefore end of the all too short tourist season in the Azores, we are the only visitors. That, and the very low CO2-emission in the cave today, are really good luck. Our Portuguese guide takes us much deeper into the cave than most visitors are allowed to go and we get a personal talk, for whose correct translation I don't take any responsibility.
To get down into the cave, though, you have to climb the 183 steps of a pretty impressive tower, which was built into the wall of the cave. Before this tower was built, the only way to get down was abseiling. Prince Albert of Monaco visited the cave this way, being one of its first and most famous visitors. Once at the bottom, we are pretty amazed by what we see.and hear.and smell. The high ceiling is as round as if manmade; everywhere, mini stalagmites stand around, and from somewhere in the dark we can hear the bubbling of a fumarole. In the dim light, we see a lake shimmering and the smell of foul eggs almost knocks us over. At one spot, we hold our hands over a hole, out of which we can hear the hissing of gas. Despite our guide encouraging us to put our whole hand into this hole, I miss out. Sean is too intrigued, though, and I can't keep myself from smiling when, after a few seconds, he quickly pulls his hand back out with a muffled "Ouch". It was a bit too hot, then, wasn't it!? The fumarole, in which mud is happily bubbling along, is unfortunately not very well visible. Due to a very dry summer, the water level sank a lot. The lake, too, has sunk from 15m to 10,5m over the years. At the shore, a wooden boat swings back and forth. Since 1922, when three drunkards drowned in this lake, it is prohibited to paddle around on it. I still wonder, how those three got down into the cave in the first place as back then you still had to abseil into it, if I remember right. However, the lone little boat makes the scene look a lot more romantic for the visitors. Before we leave the cave, our guide proudly shows us the spot where the president of the republic took a rest during his visit. National pride is strong in the Azores.
Back in the sunlight, we take a tour around the rim of the crater, enjoying fantastic views. Before descending to sea level, we take a little detour to the Furna da Maria Encantada - The Cave of the Enchanted Maria. It is another lava tunnel, more than two meters high, and surprisingly intact.
Back in Carapacho, where we set up camp, we pay the popular thermal bath a visit. Here, the sulfurous water is used to cure rheumatic and skin problems. Sean and I are more interested in curing our aching, tired limbs, though, and thoroughly enjoy the hot 15min-bath. Afterwards we jump into the outside pool, filled with icy seawater - and find out, that this is warm, too! This basin is fed with seawater, but due to underground hot springs it is being heated naturally. The deeper I dig my feet into the sand, the hotter it gets. Well, I can happily spend the rest of the day in here.
Last night, it poured down with rain. Yesterday, we walked around in shorts and T-shirts; today we wrap ourselves in rain gear from head to toe. Goal for the day is to hike to Guadalupe, a small town in the middle of the island, where we will pick up our hire-car.
Due to the rain, the hike is not much fun, but towards the end, the path leads us to one of the higher peaks on the Serra Branca,from where we can see the entire northeast of Graciosa: meadows, fields full of happy cows, and small, widely spread settlements all the way to the coast.
Once in the car, we move on a lot faster and - most importantly - drier. In Santa Cruz, we sit in the harbor for a while, watching the waves roll in and crash on the walls. The last stop of the day is Ilheu da Baleia, a big rock just off the coast, which looks like a whale.
The next morning is cool, but as the shower room is still locked, I decide to be brave and have a dip in the relatively warm seawater pool. Sean is just about brave enough to put his big toe in. Unfortunately, I cannot persuade him to more. And there I thought the British don't mind it being cold and wet. Today, I am excited. Before we leave Graciosa, we finally visit a place I have been looking forward to going to for a while: the cookie factory! I have heard so much about how nice they are and I've seen them piled up in the supermarket on Faial, but I really want to know where and how they are made. Of course, I hope to get to try them as well. But, as it is, the cookie factory stays shut today. The "open" sign on the door is mocking us. Our next stop is Terceira Island.