When you’re seeking a little travel inspiration, where do you turn? Instagram? Pinterest? Travel blogs?
While perusing Buzzfeed one day, I came across a post called 8 Places You Need to Immediately Add to Your Bucket List. Number one on the list was the Azores Islands, a small cluster of nine volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Portugal.
Even though the article only offered one photo, I knew then and there that I wanted to visit the islands. I vowed this would be my first true international solo travel experience. Direct flights from Boston were shockingly cheap (around $400), so I didn’t think twice and booked my ticket!
I have traveled internationally to 15 countries and solo in the states plenty of times, but traveling to a foreign country alone (especially one where you don’t speak the language) is a bit different. I was so excited to set off on this adventure and really test my mettle. And test it, I did!
On my first day, I arrived just before 7 am, checked into my hostel, and set out for a hike. It was pretty much all downhill from there, except the hike – that was straight uphill.
To make a long story short: I got on the wrong bus and got caught in a torrential downpour on my hike miles away from civilization. My cell phone got completely soaked and stopped working, and then I had to hitchhike back to my hostel because I missed the bus by 5 minutes. I realized I forgot to pack an adapter so I had no way to charge my laptop and therefore no way to communicate. To top it off, I broke my roommate’s hair dryer while trying to dry out my boots.
Not exactly a stellar way to start the trip, but I knew things could only get better from there!
I shook it off and headed out the next day with my roommates, all the while praying that my phone would magically dry out and start working again. São Miguel Island (the largest of the Azores) has a ton of geothermal activity, so our main goal of the day was to see as much of it as possible. We visited Lagoa do Furnas, a volcanic crater lake that is surrounded by hot springs. The Azorean people cook a local stew in pots in the ground – that’s how hot it is! There are boiling mud pits, hot springs, and natural baths everywhere.
It’s not just hot springs on the eastern side of the island – there are plenty of beautiful trails to explore, too! It seemed like every lush, green corner of the island was begging for a photo shoot, so I obliged. Although it rained off and on (it was the tail end of the rainy season, after all), it didn’t distract from the beauty or from my increasingly good mood.
The next day, I set off for the “crown jewel” of São Miguel: Sete Cidades. This volcanic crater, located on the western side of the island, features two lakes – one blue and one green. Pictures of the lakes were what had drawn me to the islands in the first place, so I was ecstatic to wake up and find perfect weather for my hike. I rented a car, got directions from my hostel owner (no GPS – eek!) and hit the open road for the short drive. What I found was nothing short of amazing!
There is a trail around most of the rim of the crater, so I set out with my backpack, KÜHL MØVA pants, and camera. On one side of the trail was the ocean and sweeping meadows with the island’s prolific cow population keeping watch over quaint seaside villages. On the other side, I was looking into a volcanic crater with two pristine lakes and a sleepy village tucked inside. I couldn’t believe my eyes!
The hike lasted about 10 miles before I decided to set off in search of a trail that I had seen on Instagram and was sure was in the area. I drove all over the crater and hiked short trails I was just positive led to the spot, but alas – I didn’t find it. I did find plenty of other gorgeous views, though!
This was shaping up to be the perfect day, but it got even better when I got back to my hostel and discovered my phone was working again! I even managed to procure an adapter capable of charging my laptop. Crisis averted! Maybe I’m capable of handling this solo travel thing after all!
After a couple of days in Lisbon, I headed back to the Azores for a few final hikes and with renewed determination to find the spot. I didn’t know how to search for it online and couldn’t really describe it to the owner of the hostel for his help, but then I happened to see it on the front page of a local magazine. He knew exactly where it was and pointed me in the right direction. It was so much better than I ever could have imagined!
I stayed for probably close to an hour, looking out over the lakes and reflecting on how fortunate I was to be there. Then, it was time for another hike – this time along the other side of the crater’s rim, where it just so happened to be extremely windy! After a few quick misses with my tripod nearly falling over, it was time to pack it in and visit a local dairy farm.
You might think that a trip to a dairy farm is kind of a weird way to spend your vacation, and I suppose you’d be right! But dairy farming is by far the most dominant industry in the Azores, and the cows outnumber people It felt like a great way to learn about the local culture and experience something different. I got a private tour for the equivalent of $12 and got to help with everything, starting with bringing the cows down from the pasture to the barn. It was all fun and games until some tried to escape!
One of my favorite parts of the day was playing with the calves and helping to milk the older cows. I couldn’t believe how the cows literally ran to be milked and would try to push each other out of the way to get there first.
Getting to learn so much about the dairy industry and local Azorean culture was a real treat and a great way to wrap up the last full day of my trip. My hosts, Gena and João, were fantastic, and this is an experience I’d recommend to anyone who is visiting the Azores and looking to do something a bit off the beaten path.
Overall, my trip to the Azores Islands was amazing! The people were incredibly friendly, and although I don’t speak very much Portuguese (I did practice for about 2 months before I went!), many people on the island speak at least some English so communication was not a problem. If you’re looking for a natural paradise and the perfect place to indulge all the outdoor dreams you could ever have, this is the perfect place. I can’t wait to go back.