Discovering the Azores

Volcanic peaks, picturesque towns, whale-filled waters and now a new Darwin-inspired bike trail – here’s why the Azorean island of Terceira is the natural selection

6 mins

As first impressions go, it’s fair to say that Charles Darwin wasn’t too impressed with Terceira. ‘There are no good shops and little signs of activity, excepting the intolerable creaking of an occasional bullock wagon,’ the scientist noted in his diary in 1836. However, he did grudgingly concede that Angra do Heroísmo, the oldest city in the Azores, was a ‘very clean and tidy place’.

Standing on the high viewpoint of Monte Brazil, looking over the sheltered Angra Bay where the Beagle would’ve anchored, I wondered what Darwin would’ve made of the city today, a UNESCO World Heritage site with a thriving harbour filled with yachts, motorboats and whale-watching cruises, surrounded by peaceful streets, colonial-style buildings, modern restaurants and bars. There are even a few good shops, though on that front Terceira still lags behind the Azores’ cosmopolitan (and largest) hub island São Miguel.

Darwin actually spent less than four days here – and they call the man a genius! – arriving in September 1836, his final stop on his way back to Britain at the end of his fruitful world tour that included the Galápagos, Australia and South Africa. Angra, the former capital of the Azores’ nine volcanic islands, was an important stop for ships.

“It was like a self-service station in the middle of the Atlantic,” my guide, Tiago Fortuna, told me. “Darwin probably came here to refuel the boat, get supplies, make repairs.”

The curious scientist borrowed a horse and spent his time on Terceira exploring. Using the locations he noted in his diary and the roads he would’ve travelled, Tiago has created a day-long cycling route, the Darwin Trail, which lets visitors do a little ‘research’ of their own.

While busy São Miguel may be the Azores’ headline act now, the much less developed Terceira gently buzzes with the promise of a wilder adventure. I had a feeling that after my own days on the island – on and off the cycle route – I wouldn’t be left quite as underwhelmed as the man the trail’s named after.

In Darwin’s hoof-steps

Like Darwin, Tiago and I set off from Angra. But there’s a long, steep hill leading out of the city, so we got a jeep to drop us and our bikes at the centre of the island – a small cheat, but we are intelligent, highly evolved apes, after all.

Our 47km ride started near Pico de Bagacina, a tranquil spot with chaffinches singing and buzzards circling overhead. As we set off, Tiago pointed to a series of blackened domes on the hills to the west, known as Mistérios Negros (Black Mysteries), from the island’s last major volcanic eruption in 1761.

Darwin wrote that Terceira’s heath, fern, pastureland and stone walls reminded him of Wales, while there were ‘some old English friends among the insects, and of birds, the starling, water wagtail, chaffinch and blackbird’.

I caught the same sense of familiarity, though it’s clear from the scent of sulphur and steam rising out of the ground as we entered Furnas do Enxofre – a protected volcanic reserve Darwin visited – that we weren’t in the UK any more. We parked the bikes and walked to a colourful steaming crater. “Furnas do Enxofre is still absolutely wild, not damaged by man,” Tiago told me. “It’s still like it was when Darwin was here.”

Furnas do Enxofre is an important spot; the locals say that if steam stops coming from the ground, it indicates a possible imminent eruption elsewhere. “We live in fear of eruptions, but at the same time we have the secret desire to experience it,” Tiago told me. “We never know if we might see another island being formed.”

As we rode on, the road filled with goats being led home by a local farmer. We followed and watched for a while as he moved through the pen, milking each goat in turn – there were 300. The farmer handed us a pan of rich, warm milk, fresh from the teat.

It was Terceira’s inhabitants that made the biggest impression on Darwin. ‘I do not recollect ever having beheld a set of handsomer young men, with more good humoured pleasant expressions,’ he wrote of the impoverished locals he encountered.

He was also taken with the roads the locals used, many of them utilising smooth ‘streams of hummocky basaltic lava’. Tiago led me off the main road to a rocky section of 2,000-year-old lava flow. “This road was known as Passagem das Bestas, or ‘the Way of the Beasts’,” he told me.

“This was one of the main connections to the centre of the island, a place to collect wood.” He pointed to deep grooves cut into the lava, which Darwin recorded: ‘I noticed in several places, from the long traffic of the bullock wagons, that the solid lava, which formed in parts the road, was worn into ruts of the depth of 12 inches.’

We soared downhill, riding roads lined with colourful hydrangeas – at least, until we turned a corner only to discover the road blocked by a herd of bovine bollards. The island’s cattle outnumber its 55,000 humans by two-to-one. “A traffic jam,” Tiago suggested wryly.

The scenery shifted colours as the trail moved from farmland to lava trails, cutting through the cool shade of forests, then the peaceful whitewashed village of Fontinhas, with views of the northeastern coastline. We rolled down cobbled streets in the town of Praia da Vitória to the beach. “Horrible day,” joked Tiago as we sat on the sand, eating lunch alongside the gently lapping ocean.

In the afternoon we rode southwards through a salty port where fishermen and women were laying out their lines, past the industrial zone and along the coast, the deep-blue Atlantic to our side.

“Darwin was smarter than us. He did this on a horse, not a bike,” Tiago laughed as we huffed our way uphill in the afternoon sun, the road curving around a white lighthouse and rolling up and down for several miles to Salga Bay, our final stop. A cold beer, sipped while overlooking the bay, closed one of the most enjoyable days of cycling I’d done in years.

Natural selections

Darwin didn’t spend time studying Terceira. His assistant, who usually helped him take notes, stayed back at the harbour. “Maybe this was time for relaxing,” suggested Tiago, as we drove out to Pico do Gaspar next day. “I think he’d been so impressed by the Galápagos, when he got to Terceira, he was just curious to explore the island. And maybe people on Terceira at that time didn’t have scientific knowledge and didn’t show him the really interesting places to look.”

There’s certainly plenty on the island that could have enticed him to stay longer, if he didn’t already have five years’ worth of samples to study and the small task of writing On The Origin Of Species to get to (as if that was going to go anywhere...). Terceira today has the biggest national park in the Azores and the most diverse habitats of any island in the archipelago, from caves to cloudforest and grasslands.

We left the cycles and bike trails behind us to examine the rest of the island, starting with a climb up Pico do Gaspar, near the island’s centre, to a pristine, green cauldron of plant life in the collapsed chimney of the volcano, many of the plants endemic to Terceira. Later, we spent the day exploring the island’s high coastal viewpoints, hidden lava tunnels in farmers’ fields and vineyards on the north coast, the land divided into sections by walls of black lava.

In the afternoon, we made our way down dank tunnels into Algar do Carvão, a cavern complex in an empty volcano. Local montanheiro (mountaineer) guide Ramiro Barbosa pointed to “probably the biggest formed silica stalactites in the world”, before we made our way down to the old magma chamber.

“There would have been over 1,000°C of heat coming out of here,” Ramiro explained. “It would have been a moving liquid, with incredible heat and power.” It’s now a chilly underground lake, with rain dripping in from above and an Eno-esque ambient soundtrack playing through speakers. What a difference a few millennia make.

Trails & whales

The boggy trails through Santa Barbara’s cloudforest – the island’s highest point at over 1,000m – awaited Tiago and I the next morning. The fog drifted in over the juniper bushes. “What you find here is the type of vegetation as the first settlers found it. It’s very well preserved,” Tiago explained. Ancient plant species from around the world are found here, the seeds carried and deposited by birds on their Atlantic crossings. “It’s like a Noah’s Ark for plants.”

The Azores’ mid-Atlantic position also makes for an interesting mix of marine species. “We get a bit of everything,” scuba instructor Devin Leary told me the next day in Angra. “Because of our location, we get all kinds of things passing by that people don’t expect.”

We geared up and jumped into the cool Atlantic at Angra Bay, swimming under the water where the Beagle once rested. There are nine wrecks in the bay, including the Lidador, a 78m-long British steam ship that sunk here in 1878. Triggerfish are nesting around the wreck’s mid-section, while blue damselfish hover among the rocks, guarding their eggs.

The creatures we came across underwater reminded me just how much Darwin’s discoveries have shaped how we view the natural world. I spotted a flounder laying flat against the ocean floor, its top a perfect recreation of the hue and texture of the sand, making it near-invisible. “They can change their pattern and colour depending on what sand they’re on,” Devin informed me between dives.

We also saw a huge octopus camouflaged among the rocks and a pair of flying gurnards engaged in a mating display. The gurnard is a strange creature, a fish with blue-fringed wings used mainly to scare off larger predators but also thought to be used during courtship; it also has ‘legs’ that are used both for ‘walking’ and as little feelers for searching through the sand for food. All of these underwater wonders have evolved in ways to help them survive and thrive, to ensure the continuation of the species.

There are whales in these waters, too – some local, others passing through on migratory journeys. Until the late 1900s, they were hunted, a major industry in the Azores. I sailed out from Angra with marine biologist Breno Toste. Out in the deep water, we located three fin whales by the hissing spouts sprayed from their blowholes, then saw their bus-sized black bodies curving through the ocean.

“You can see how calm this whale is,” says Breno, pointing to a 14m specimen swimming alongside us. “This is the kind of whale that most likes to play with the boat. They can reach 24m. It’s the second-largest mammal in the world, after the blue whale.”

But it wasn’t just the whales that were taking a friendly interest in our vessel. As we made our way back to the harbour, a pod of dolphins playfully chased us as we went.

Last port of call

I was back on the water again for my final afternoon on Terceira. Tiago and I put a couple of kayaks in at Praia da Riviera on the island’s east coast. A turtle poked his head briefly above the surface as we paddled across the bay to Praia da Vitória.

This ‘quiet forlorn little place’ – according to Darwin’s diary entry – is now a laid-back seaside town of white buildings with terracotta roofs. From the hilltop above, a giant statue of the Virgin Mary silently watched us approach, keeping guard over the town.

We paddled in to the beach for a cold beer at a coastside café, then made our way back along the shore, the island’s rugged geology temporarily lost behind the wind farm turbines spinning on the green hills. But these little reflections of modernity didn’t distract me from Terceira’s more unevolved charms.

Church bells rang out for a local wedding, echoing across the bay. It felt incredibly relaxing and peaceful, a million miles away from the ‘intolerable creaking of bullock wagons’ that so tormented Darwin almost 180 years ago.

Terceira, Azores (Shutterstock)
Terceira, Azores (Shutterstock)

Azores' isles of adventure

Intrigued by Terceira? Check out the rest of the Azores archipelago with our expert guide…

São Miguel is the largest of the nine Azores islands, home to 55% of the archipelago’s population. It is also the busiest island, and home to the international hub airport at Ponta Delgada. There are lakes (including the spectacular twin lakes of Sete Cidades), volcanic thermal pools, fumaroles, hot springs and craters to explore, but also more bus tours and tourists than on the other islands.

Many visit Pico to bag its namesake peak, Portugal’s highest (2,351m). The climb is a good day hike; alternatively, trek up late afternoon, camp at the top and climb Piquinho (the true summit) for sunrise. Pico also offers whalewatching tours and great scuba diving with manta rays (Jul-Sept) and sharks. You’ll also see crater lakes and vineyards – the volcanic soil is good for wine production.

Whale off Pico island (Shutterstock)
Whale off Pico island (Shutterstock)

The clustered trio of Pico, Faial and São Jorge are referred to as The Triangle and are easy to travel between on regular ferries. Faial (known as the Blue Island, for its profuse hydrangeas) is most famed for Horta marina, used by sailors from around the world who are crossing the Atlantic; the Peter Cafe Sport bar is a renowned yachties’ meeting place. The island also has hiking trails, craters and whalewatching.

Quiet and sparsely populated, São Jorge has big sea cliffs and a dramatic mountain range, with hiking and canyoning possibilities. The coastal village Fajã de Santo Cristo can only be reached on foot or by quadbike. The coastline has good surfing spots, too. The island’s also known for its strong cheese.

As this issue’s article testifies, wild Terceira has plenty of adventure options, including hiking, kayaking, cycling and scuba diving, as well as whalewatching. Do take time to stroll through UNESCO-listed Angra do Heroísmo and charming Praia da Vitória. The drive along the west coast is a treat of views and villages.

Graciosa (meaning ‘gracious’) is one of the archipelago’s least-visited islands, and one of the most laidback, dotted with quiet, traditional villages and rural scenes. It’s a good spot for scuba diving, with coastal caves to explore. The island is also home to Furna do Enxofre, one of Europe’s largest volcanic caverns.

Lighthouse at Santa Maria Island (Shutterstock)
Lighthouse at Santa Maria Island (Shutterstock)

The oldest island in the Azores, Santa Maria is where locals go for beach holidays – it’s the driest and sunniest island. There’s good diving here, including with manta rays in summer. The island also hosts one of Portugal’s oldest music festivals, the annual Maré de Agosto (August).

One of the big draws of northerly Flores (‘flowers’) is its hydrangeas, the Azores’ national bloom. The island’s remoteness has kept it wild and natural; it’s often considered the prettiest in the archipelago. There are opportunities for hiking, canyoning and birding, plus lakes and waterfalls to explore.

Corvo is the smallest island, with only 400 inhabitants and a chunk of its territory taken up by a large crater speckled with lagoons – Caldeirão. Corvo is especially popular with birdwatchers who come to see the varied species that pass on their Atlantic crossings. During peak birding months (Oct-Nov), hotels can fill years in advance

Make it happen

The author travelled with Archipelago Choice. Its seven-day The Darwin Trail (April to October) includes flights, transfers, B&B accommodation, a day of guided cycling, cycle hire and route maps. Its seven-day Terceira Activity Week (March to October) includes flights, transfers, B&B accommodation, a day of guided cycling, a full-day jeep tour, one day of guided walking, a half-day kayaking trip and a half-day whalewatching trip. Two shore dives with Arraia Divers cost €100pp (£73) including gear rental.

Getting there
SATA International flies direct from Gatwick to Ponta Delgada on São Miguel every Saturday. Journey time is from 3hrs 45mins. SATA also offers inter-island connections throughout the Azores, with prices from £42pp one-way. Ryanair also flies from Stansted to Ponta Delgada.  


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