pico island - the black island of the azores
January 1, 1970
by Annalise Attard
I had been longing to visit the Azores ever since I came across some beautiful pictures of the islands – craters, lakes, waterfalls, hot springs, mountains, whale watching. What else would I want? I found out that the Azores are in fact an archipelago of 9 islands in the middle of the Atlantic. The fact that there are good connections from Europe, and these don’t involve spending all your savings, got me planning the trip as soon as the next vacation was due. The first dilemma was which of the islands to visit because while I would have liked to see the best of all of them, time and money made me choose. While I ended up visiting 4 of them, I think Pico Island is the most underrated and that’s why I want to write about it. The lava makes it black, yet it is still very green, and as soon as you step on the island, you are overcome by a sense of peacefulness.
how to get to pico island (and how to get free flights)
It is possible to fly to Pico Island directly from Lisbon. However, since Sao Miguel (the main island of the Azores) can be reached via a direct flight from a number of European countries and also the USA, many choose to go there first, and then fly to Pico. Moreover, Azores Airlines (SATA) provide free inter-islands flight tickets to those starting and/or ending their trip in Portugal (tried and tested). You can find more information from here.
what to do on Pico island
We spent a total of 5 days on the island and rented a car to get around since it is quite hard to explore the island without having your own vehicle. While this may be an extra expense, it is the (good) price to pay when travelling in a place which is natural and not crowded with tourists.
climbing mount pico
Mount Pico at a height of 2,351 metres (7,713ft) above sea level, and also being the highest point in the whole of Portugal, is what gives Pico Island its unique character. The mountain is in fact a volcano. Its majestic tip is seen from any point on the island, and anyone who loves trekking or the outdoors would be longing to get to the top as soon as they step on Pico Island. We tried to choose the least cloudy day, had a good breakfast and drove to the starting point – Casa da Montanha. While some people say that you should hire a guide, following our experience, I can say that if you have a good level of fitness, have some food and water, and choose a nice sunny day (even though the weather is quite unpredictable in the Atlantic), it can definitely be done without a guide. A fee of €12 is paid at the visitor centre if you want to get to the top. Relevant information is given, and also, each climber is handed a GPS so that he/she is tracked. This way in case of emergency, the staff would be able to locate you. The trek is marked with signposts (47 in total). It took us a total of 7 and a half hours to get to the top of the volcano and back down, but it totally depends on how fast you walk and how many breaks you would like to have. I must admit that I was quite slow in certain parts! Oops.
Even though it is very doable, it is not an easy peak to reach as it is very steep, and in some parts, you have to use your arms to propel yourself up. However, the views and sense of achievement when you reach the summit, make it all worth it. To make you feel even more accomplished, a certificate is also given at the end.
What better place to see these majestic animals up close? While tours can be done from other islands of the Azores, we were told that Pico Island is the best option, and I cannot agree more. We went with a company called Espaço Talassa, who are very professional, and even though they are doing business, they care about both the environment and their clients. It cost us €54 for a half day tour, and what made the tour more special was that we were on a rib, therefore very close to the sea and the marine wildlife (some companies use big boats/ferries with a lot of people onboard). We were lucky to see the common dolphin, the striped dolphin, a glimpse of a finback whale, and our biggest joy, the blue whale – the biggest animal in the world! My boyfriend was also lucky to spot a loggerhead turtle. We were there in May and in fact, springtime is the best time of year for whale watching, when the animals pass by the Azores during their migration to the Northern Atlantic. Keep this in mind when planning your trip, in order not to be disappointed.
These are caves formed by lava and apparently, there are quite a few on the island. We visited Gruta das Torres, which is the largest lava tube in Portugal (5150m), and also the easiest one to reach. The guided tour lasted 1 and a half hours and cost us €8 each. The highlight of the whole experience was when the guide told everyone to switch off their flashlight. We were suddenly in total darkness; no matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t see a thing. It is a very peaceful feeling, and we were told meditation groups sometimes organize sessions there.
Vineyards and wine tasting
Another thing Pico is well known for is its wine production. The Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We drove past the vineyards, however, we were more interested in tasting the wine. Very close to our accomodation was the Adega “A Buraca” which is a museum and winery. We spent nearly 2 hours in wine conversation with the guide, and we also tasted 3 different types of their wines. The wine exceeded our expectations as it is not just the usual wine, but in fact, liquor wine, and with a much higher alcohol content. One word to describe it: delicious.
Just drive around
While this may not be a specific tour or activity, driving around Pico island with no particular destination, and stopping to take in some views (and of course some pictures), should be part of the plan if time permits.
Visit the islands nearby
Pico is one of the central group of islands of the Azores. The other 2 are Faial and São Jorge. Being so close to each other, and both reachable via ferry in less than an hour, why not pay them a visit (as we did)? You can opt to do day trips or longer stays.