Seven adventures to try in the Azores, from hiking to whale watching

Portugal’s Atlantic archipelago of nine volcanic islands are made for adventures. Explore the waters on bracing dives, spot sea life on seasonal safaris, and test out adrenaline sports including paragliding and canyoning.

By Azores Promotion Board
Published 29 Oct 2020, 11:45 GMT, Updated 5 Nov 2020, 20:59 GMT
The Azores is known for its dark-sand beaches and beautiful serrated cliffs.

The Azores is known for its dark-sand beaches and beautiful serrated cliffs.

Photograph by Getty Images

Escaping the crowds comes easy in the Azores. This nine-strong, volcanic island chain, scattered across the mid-Atlantic has a population of about 250,000. Part of Portugal, yet 930 miles west of Lisbon (or a two-hour flight away), they’re naturally distinct, coronavirus-safe with testing on arrival and sustainable — the only archipelago in the world to be designated a sustainable tourist destination by EarthCheck, in fact. And with a natural bounty this great, they have to be. Here, whales and mantas roam the seas, craters and canyons run deep and pulse-quickening adventures await around every corner.

May to October is the best time to dive in the Azores, when you're likely to spot Galapagos sharks, manta rays, turtles and hammerheads.

Photograph by Shutterstock

1. Below the waves
All nine islands

Diving is spectacular across the Azores. Plumbing the depths of the archipelago reveals underwater lava walls, sunken craters and abundant marine life. Top sites include the wreck of the Second World War vessel, SS Dori, lying beneath São Miguel; the Cemitério das Âncoras, Terceira Island’s eerie cemetery of 40 submerged anchors; and the bubbling underwater fumaroles of the hydrothermal vents, accessible from São Miguel. If you have to pick just one, however, head to Santa Maria, home to the marine reserve of Baixa do Ambrósio, where mantas and devil rays dance as you dive. It’s also the best island for swimming with whale sharks, and the jumping off point for the Formigas Islets, where you may spot Galapagos sharks, mantas, turtles and hammerheads. May to October is the best time to dive. 

There are 24 species of whale in the Azores, a quarter of the world’s population.

Photograph by Getty Images

2. Sails and whales
Faial Island

If you’ve never experienced the child-like joy of seeing a cetacean summit the water, the Azores is the place to do it. While swimming with whales is prohibited, trips to spot them run from April to October. This is a season dictated by the weather rather than a lack of cetaceans, which can be seen year-round from blustery clifftop viewpoints. There are 24 species in the Azores, ranging from regulars such as sperm, sei, pilot and blue whales, to occasional visitors, like minke and humpbacks. 

Six of the islands have 20 miles or more of ‘grand routes’, best tackled over several days.

Photograph by Armando Jorge Mota Ribeiro

3. Blaze a trail
São Miguel Island

Time to walk it off? There are around 500 miles of waymarked trails lacing around the nine-island chain. Many trails are age-old paths plied by Azorean islanders over the years, used to transport goods with mules or move cattle to fresh pasture, but that have now been restored into a network of pedestrian paths. Six of the islands have 20 miles or more of ‘grand routes’, which are best tackled over several days, but there are also many shorter more manageable strolls that are just as scenic, such as the popular hike to Lagoa do Fogo on São Miguel, which covers just under seven miles in four hours.

São Miguel, São Jorge and Flores islands have the best canyoning options. 

Photograph by West Canyon Turismo Aventura

4. Grand canyoning
Flores Islands

Canyoning — essentially hurling yourself down river canyons and hoping for the best — will really get the blood flowing. First-timers might be nervous, but conquer your fears and you’ll be captivated — jumping down waterfalls, scrambling over rocks and abseiling through a river canyons is exhilarating. São Miguel, São Jorge and Flores islands have the best options. 

The caldeira on Corvo island is a 1,000ft-deep, mile-wide crater.

Photograph by Getty Images

5. For the crater good
Corvo Island

The smallest and most isolated island of Corvo — known as ‘The Black Island’ — is essentially one giant volcano. Or rather, one giant volcano and about 20 secondary cones looming on its flanks. Today, you can hike the caldeira, a 1,000ft-deep, mile-wide crater, last active about two million years ago. Make sure to look out for the island’s famed birdlife as you go; the area is home to several rare species, including warblers, shearwaters and vireos.

Every March, São Miguel hosts an immersive, boundary-pushing festival called Tremor.

Photograph by Vera Marmello

6. Sound and vision
São Miguel

As is also the case in Iceland, the isolation of the Azores has given rise to an idiosyncratic, creative community. Locals here love a festival, and every March, São Miguel hosts an immersive, boundary-pushing event called Tremor. Festival-goers are transported around the islands to mystery events at venues as diverse as skate parks, thermal pools and pineapple greenhouses (yes, really), where avant-garde concerts, film screenings and workshops take place. In July, meanwhile, Walk & Talk festival also sidesteps the traditional format in favour of the non-conventional. Here, visitors might find themselves exploring chapels and churches with local curators and artists.

In August, paragliding pilots and free-flight aficionados descend for the annual Azores Paragliding Festival.

Photograph by Getty Images

7. Winging it
São Miguel

Arial ascents further cement the Azores archipelago’s reputation as a destination for adventure enthusiasts. There are 32 paragliding locations dotted across the islands, 15 of which are on São Miguel. The sport is so popular, in fact, that throughout August paragliding pilots and free-flight aficionados descend for the annual Azores Paragliding Festival. Novices are warmly encouraged year-round by specialist companies that take visitors on tandem flights over the craters of Sete Cidades and Furnas, above the island’s dark-sand beaches and serrated cliffs. You’ll be glad you’re with a pro for this one.

Essentials


Getting around: Hiring a car is the best way to get around most of the Islands. There’s also an excellent interisland flight service operated by SATA Air Azores, as well as seasonal ferry services that run between all of the islands. 
Average flight time: 3h30m.

Discover more adventures in the Azores.

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