In the Azores, a Green World All Your Own

Filled with volcanic craters, lush forests, and steamy hot springs, these Portuguese islands are the stuff dreams are made of.



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WHEN I THINK back, it’s kind of astounding how little I actually knew about the Azores before visiting for the first time, over a decade ago. I was traveling under the guise of music journalism, having been invited to the island of São Miguel to cover a festival called Tremor. I came expecting to have the typical festival experience: to see a lot of mostly unknown rock bands and drink beer, to spend my time in music venues and cheap hotels similar to those I’d visited in various locations around the world. What I did not expect was to arrive at a place not unlike one of the forgotten dinosaur-filled islands in a “Jurassic Park” sequel — a landscape of spiky volcanic beaches, verdant hills carpeted with green pastures, the occasional Holstein cow, and massive volcanic craters large enough to house entire villages or misty crystal lakes. And while I did eventually see lots of music and art, I saw it in places such as an ancient preserved chapel (where classical musicians played the viola de terra, a traditional stringed instrument created in the Azores), at the bottom of a waterfall (where a handful of musicians performed experimental jazz through battery-powered amps), and at the edge of an immense volcanic crater, eye level with the clouds, surrounded by the North Atlantic.



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In the years since, I have returned to the Azores many times, both to take in the Tremor festival and to reconnect with the friends I’ve made there. I’ve learned that each of the nine islands that make up the Azores has its own personality and unique topography. The largest, São Miguel, encompasses nearly 300 square miles, while the smallest, Corvo, takes up only seven. Despite my many visits, I’ve still only explored three of these temperate green islands, and each trip felt criminally insufficient. Once considered prohibitively difficult to visit, both for Americans and for people traveling from mainland Portugal, the Azores have opened up in recent years, now offering more direct flights and accommodations. My hope, of course, is that more people will visit the islands and come to appreciate just how wild and fantastically beautiful they are, while in my heart of hearts, I want them to remain fiercely protected, like a band you love but you don’t want to see sullied by popularity. That being said, everyone really should go.


In trying to describe what makes the Azores so remarkable, I always go back to a night from my last visit. After a morning wandering the streets of São Miguel’s capital city, Ponta Delgada, a few of us drove to the ruins of the Hotel Monte Palace, a five-star hotel built in the 1980s that now sits abandoned, perched at the top of a dormant volcano. The concrete bones of the property have become their own sort of tourist attraction, largely due to the eye-popping view the rooftop offers of the volcanic crater lakes at Sete Cidades — one crystal blue, one jade green. Once the sun set, we worked our way back down into the interior of the island, traversing a winding mountain road before arriving at the thermal baths in Terra Nostra Park. Situated in the middle of a vast botanical garden, Terra Nostra boasts the largest thermal pool in the Azores, which dates back to 1770. As part of the festival, a band had set up to play in the park, the sounds of celestial synthesizer music wafting through the blooming flowers and across the steaming waters. A friend, a fellow American visitor, floated next to me. “How is this real? Like, where are we right now?” I asked him, bewildered. “We’re floating in a giant hot spring in what feels like a prehistoric green jungle at the bottom of a volcano crater somewhere on a tiny island out in the middle of the vast Atlantic Ocean,” he responded. “In other words, we’re in heaven.”


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Our Contributors

T. Cole Rachel Editor-at-Large

T. Cole Rachel is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor, and teacher with over 20 years of experience working in print and digital media. He is currently an editor-at-large at Departures.

Pauliana Valente Pimentel Photographer

Pauliana Valente Pimentel is a visual artist and photographer based in Lisbon, Portugal. Her documentary photography from around the world appears in museums and galleries. She also has a number of published books and contributes to various European magazines, including Der Spiegel, Stern Magazine, Le Monde, Extra Extra - Nouveau Magazine Erotique, Dazed Magazine, Hurriyet Daily News, Egoísta Magazine, Umbigo Magazine, and others including American publications such as Aperture Foundation and Burn Magazine.


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