Sao Jorge - The Azores - Our adventurous story.
Sao Jorge - The Azores
Highlights: simply stunning scenery : nature at its true best.
Things learnt: Book hire cars WELL in advance
Catching the 5pm ferry from Horta harbour we set off to Sao Jorge for a week's hiking and camping. The ferry leaves half an hour late, but nobody minds. If it leaves, it does and if not - well, it doesn't. Nobody here gets upset about that or even asks why.
For us, the ferry ride is just as big an adventure as the islands themselves, always on the look out for the chance to see dolphins, whales or some flying fish. The closer we get to Sao Jorge, the more noticeable the steep and quite inhospitable cliffs become. The anticipation of our journey ahead heightens.
Arriving in Velas, the capital of Sao Jorge, we look for a place to camp. There is an official camp site in Velas but it does not open for another week, so we walk a short distance out of town and find an unused field right above the sea.
Before nightfall we go down to the sea to a natural swimming pool. These pools are generally small, safe swimming areas surrounded and/or separated by volcanic rocks which give some protection from the sea. They are perfect to spend a few hours relaxing, swimming, and particularly snorkeling in the crystal clear, but sometimes chilly sea. Due to the volcanic origin of the islands, white sandy beaches the way everybody knows them from the Mediterranean don't exist here. The snorkeling however more than compensates for this.
Our first stop today is the tourist office to find out if any of the other camp sites are open but the three that exist on the island are all still closed. The season does not start till June. The most common answer we get is "You could ask the locals. They might be able to put you up for a night".
Most of the Azoreans we have met are very friendly and helpful, though our Portuguese is less than perfect, therefore we decide to wild camp.
Before moving on though, we go to the library to do a final check on the weather forecast for the rest of the week, but we find that the computers here have been out of order for a year and nobody knows when or whether they are going to be repaired. However, one of the librarians kindly gives us a lift to a place where we find all the info we are looking for.
Mid afternoon, after getting our final provisions from the local supermarket we jump into a taxi to take us to Serra do Topo, the start of our hike.
Our goal for this afternoon is to hike to Santo Cristo. This trip leads 700m down from the ridge at the center of the island to sea level. Santo Cristo is located on a so-called faja, a flat stretch of land, generally surrounded by steep cliffs, which is at or only little above sea level. The walk to the faja is wonderful, everything is green, in all imaginable shades, and it reminds me a bit of Wales.
On the hike down we have to work our way through and around quite a few cows (and once even a bull!) who stands right in the middle of the narrow path we have to take. We are hiking on the north side of Sao Jorge and in the distance we can see the fourth of the five central islands of the Azores - Graciosa.
We are the only people on this walk and although a little cloudy, the scenery, atmosphere and solitude are wonderful. Two thirds of the way down, close to a very isolated, small and lonely house, (inhabited by we believe an elderly couple that works all alone in the huge fields surrounding the house) we discover a waterfall. This is the perfect time to remove our shoes and socks and cool our feet. We are even contemplating going for a quick dive, but after dipping our feet into the icy water we decide to give it a miss.
A short time later, after rounding a corner, we get the first glimpse of the faja and the small, unique settlement of Santo Cristo, that - believe it or not - currently has only 12 inhabitants, none of whom are visible upon our arrival. The only living beings we meet are barking dogs, a donkey that announces our arrival and a couple of cows and bulls. The village does have a church but whether there is a priest is doubtful. A doctor does not live here. If there is a medical emergency, a helicopter has to come. The closest hospital is about 90km away on the neighbor island of Terceira.
Santo Cristo, with no car access, is one of the remotest settlements in the Azores. The main street of Santo Cristo is a 1,5m wide dirt track full of field stones. About 10 years ago, technology reached this faraway place, too, though, and now you can roll into the village, on quad bikes.
After putting or tent up in a field just outside the village (of course only after checking for bulls in it), we take a walk around the small settlement and find the only restaurant in town (yes, they do have one!), and hope to try some local food. The place is open (well, the doors are open) but nobody is in sight so we head back to our campsite for a gourmet camping stove meal. On our way back we meet and have a chat with one of the locals, who moved to Santo Cristo right after finishing school. I ask myself what he does in his free time, when he does not work in his garden. It does not look like they have electricity here and apart from the "restaurant" and the church there are no places to socialise. Anyway, Sean and I have to eat our camping food - pre prepared noodles, which we cook between the rocks at the lagoon. This lagoon is what Santo Cristo is famous for. It's a lake, connected with the sea by a narrow channel and it's the only place in the Azores where you can find cockles. These you can then order in a restaurant in the capital for about 32Euros!
The night in Santo Cristo is certainly adventurous. The lovely warm day has turned into a full-on storm. Thankfully though it does not rain, but the wind pushes and pulls the tent, bends it down to the ground and eventually some hooks rip off. As we cannot sleep in this weather anyway, we leave the tent and huddle and crouch in a semi-sheltered crag underneath the towering cliffs. It is quite an amazing night. In between racing dark clouds the night sky offers a beautiful display of twinkling and shooting stars.
With the onset of the rising sun it is however getting cold, and at 4am we go back to see if the tent is till there. Frozen and in need of a couple of hours sleep, we decide to take the tent down and wrap ourselves in it. With the wind still whistling past but finally with some sort of protection in our sleeping bags and the tent cover, staring at the sky, we wait for the sun to rise so we can move on.
At 9am, after a little bit of light sleep, we rise to a lesser wind and a sun that is burning down on us from the now cloudless sky. We refill our water bottles, brush our teeth, pack the tent together and say our goodbyes to Santo Cristo.
After an hour walking along the undulating path we reach the beautiful settlement of Faja dos Cubres. Although bigger and more accessible than Santo Cristo, Faja dos Cubres is just as quiet, but it has a cafe from which we treat ourselves to a well deserved ice-cream.
The next section of the walk looks a little daunting. Faja dos Cubres is flanked by sheer cliff and the road up to the village of Norte Pequeno is a 6km long, very steep and windy road. After an exhausting hour's hike we decide to hitch a ride and thankfully, a friendly farmer picks us up on the way. (We would recommend a pre-booked taxi from Faja do Cubres, it is a long way up and with very little passing traffic.)
After a short stop in Norte Pequeno we decide to keep walking as the weather is lovely and the day still long. It is another 30km to Velas and all the locals we meet think us crazy, wanting to walk all the way.
So we keep walking and walking, all the time uphill. The next distance to cover will lead us all the way along the ridge which is the spine of the island. From up there you are supposed to have fantastic views over all five central islands. After walking for a few hours we decide to put up our camp in a small forest right next to a cow field. Thankfully it only drizzles from the sky and the wind is not as strong but all night we hear cow bells ringing and are woken by farm trucks driving past in the early morning hours.
A wonderful, sunny morning. After breakfast, consisting of crackers, an apple, frankfurters from the tin and cheese, we continue walking, but on the opposite site of the ridge we want to be on. After figuring that the only way to get to the top on this side is right through more fields of cows and after Sean telling me about him having been chased by a herd of cows before and only having been able to escape by running onto a beach (which will be hard to find here) we decide to turn around. Eventually we find the path up but we hardly see anything as we are in the middle of clouds...
After the official trail past the highest peak of Sao Jorge (Pico da Esperanca:1053m) ends, we continue following the ridge, walking on farm roads, consisting of red sand, past huge, lush green meadows, framed by hydrangea hedges and full of big happy cows. Tonight we are camping in the forest again, just above Velas. From here, with a beautiful setting sun we have a wonderful view of Pico, the mountain on the island of the same name, which is seperated from Sao Jorge by a 20km wide channel.
It is a sunny day again and within 10min we reach the last town before our final stop Velas. In Santo Amaro, a farmers town, we see a few really cute kittens. Unfortunately, I cannot just walk over and pet them as there is always a dog nearby and Azorean dogs are not exactly known for their friendliness. Every farmer here has at least one dog and every time a farm truck passes us, a brawling dog barks at us.
Two hours later, we are back in Velas and book into a hotel by the harbour. We would not have a problem camping another night, but after four days without a shower and only sporadic washes with ice cold mountain water, a proper wash is required. The afternoon we spend at the B&B's pool, which is filled with seawater. My feet are grateful not to have to walk anymore and when we go out for dinner my tummy is happy to get some good Azorean food, with which we treat ourselves for the last, strenuous days.
On our last day, we rent a car to explore those corners of Sao Jorge we haven't seen yet. First we drive to the most eastern tip of the island, to Topo. Although cloudy and overcast in Velas, the further east we go the clearer it becomes and once we arrive at Topo the skies are blue and the sun is shining. The views are fantastic and we can see both Graciosa and Terceira. Both islands are between 30 and 50km from Sao Jorge.
Off Topo, there is a small island, since the earthquake in the 1980s only inhabited by birds. Apparently, it is owned by an American who inherited it from his Azorean father. When he heard of his property, he came over to have a look, but when he saw how tiny the island and how isolated life here is, he went back to the States.
The only place to go out to in Topo is the natural pool, which has crystal clear water and is full of fish and crabs. The village itself consists mostly of vineyards.
Our next stop is Sao Joao. The only reason we are going there is because a local recommended it and we are glad that it has become misty so we cannot see just how steep the edges of this narrow, steep and windy road are. The village itself is difficult to describe, it is simply from a different world. Time here stopped ages ago. We meet a man on a horse, packed with things, and another man, looking just as shaky as the wooden cart he stands on, which is drawn by two really strong cows. After a walk through the village we drive to the other side of the island and rest at a viewpoint above Faja do Ouvidor. Here, too, we only see three people in town during the hour we spend here. This place is beautiful, though. Red sand roads wind their way between the houses to the harbor, all houses are painted bright white and surrounded by big gardens. Below us, a man picks vegetables three times the size of those we grow at home. It is a sleepy little paradise. Finally, we drive to the western end of Sao Jorge, where there are many more trees and more rolling hills than steep cliffs. We halt in Sete Fontes, a floral forest park which surprises me with its beauty. After all these eternal green meadows, I did not expect to see this forest of exotic trees, flowers and ponds. At the tip of the island we are only awaited by an abandoned lighthouse - former military territory, and again - steep cliffs...
The Azores - Nine Islands of adventure - Our stories
Search NOW for