Karen Eller and pals take a trip to the ‘so foreign, yet so close’ mid-Atlantic jungle wonderland – The Azores.
Words Karen Eller Photography Maria Knoll
Julia, our photographer Maria and I don’t set out on this journey completely unprepared. Out of the total nine inhabited volcanic islands, the two most easterly, Sao Miguel and Santa Maria, are renowned for being an enduro paradise. Our Azorean friends Andre (One) and Andre (Two) are waiting for us at the airport in Sao Miguel, the largest of the islands. They grab our bags, load them into the car, and take us to our accommodation for the night.
Rise and shine!
Our two guides pick us up in the morning while it’s still dark. As the sun’s first rays reach out over the eastern horizon we stand 947m above sea level on Pico da Barrosa, the highest point on the island. Below us there’s a beautiful display of colours – light green illuminating a circular lake framed by a white sandy beach. The darkening forest reveals its contours and radiates surreal rich green tones that stand out against the azure blue sky. We can’t take our eyes off the colours.
The guide waves past a bunch of local enduro riders who want to ride the island’s longest trail before work. Then it’s our turn. We leave the crater lake on our left and follow the path along a ridge. Riding for a while with a view of the sea, the trail suddenly plunges into dense vegetation. It’s a tunnel of roots and lianas. To begin with, the blue sky shines through the dense network and then the lush greenery takes over.
The trail turns into a roller coaster with no emergency exit. Right turn, then left turn, our tyres grip down into a peat-like soil from which a root protrudes every now and again. Each time I think I’m falling I’m caught by a berm, then after the bend comes a drop. And repeat…
All of a sudden an open meadow appears: time to apply the brakes. I nearly ride into Andre and Julia who have just let a pair of Azorean cows go past. There are 200,000 cows on Sao Miguel – that’s one cow for every inhabitant. As we come to a stop at the small port of Caloura, Andre One is waiting for us with the shuttle. We drive halfway up to Pico da Barrosa. At the bend a wooden sign points towards a popular downhill course. “If the descent becomes too difficult, keep to the left. That’s where we’ve installed Chickenways,” explains our guide. ‘Chickenways’ somehow sounds more regimented than mere chicken lines. And it’s not just at one spot that I’m glad about them.
After the descent we continue down the street to Ribeira Grande. The biggest town on Sao Miguel’s north coast is a small place with lots of sandy beaches and small black dots on the water… surfers! It’s a hotspot for wave riders. We follow Andre into a place called Casa de Pasto. It’s a bar that is not immediately recognisable as one from the outside. Inside, however, the dining room is packed and plates of hearty home-cooked food are being served. We manage to get the last empty table and without being asked are given a carafe of red wine. Andre immediately covers it with his hand. “Careful; this wine can’t be imported into the EU due to its high alcohol content. We only drink it mixed with Laranjada, our Maracuja lemonade, otherwise you’ll get hallucinations.” This concoction tastes delicious. It goes perfectly with the meat stew and fried squid. There’s pineapple for dessert, which is unbelievably fresh and juicy. “If you want, I’ll show you the greenhouses later. They belong to my father,” garbles Andre with two pieces in his mouth.
Island hopping and a change of scene.
After three days there’s a change of scenery – we climb aboard a small propeller plane and fly over to Santa Maria. It’s the southernmost island in the Azores and not particularly large. Sao Miguel is about the size of La Palma in the Canaries and Santa Maria is not even half the size of the island of Elba off the coast of Italy. We touch down on an oversized runway and quickly realise that Santa Maria is much hotter, drier and, unfortunately, much flatter than Sao Miguel.
We are welcomed by our new guides – Hugo and Miguel. They can already see the doubt on our faces and try to allay our worries: “It’s only flat in the west. On the east of the island there are 600 metre-high mountains with fantastic trails.”
Pico Alto is, at 587m, the highest peak in Santa Maria. Its mountain range runs from north to south, from the flat west to the hilly east. Hugo points to the faint lines that disappear into the jungle. “There are seven trails for you here at Pico.” The first is called Aeroplane Trail, which starts at Point Zero. In 1989 a Boeing 707 crashed into Pico in the fog. All 145 passengers were killed. There’s a memorial plaque marking the tragic accident. Not the most cheerful start to a great trail…
As we set off, an open roller coaster awaits us, which leads to a flow trail through the jungle full of small (and big) surprises in the form of roots, steps, drops and berms. Every now and then we’re struck on the face by small thorns. The last section of the trail curves into a narrow bend through a cactus-filled landscape.
At midday we stop at a small bar in the bay of Praia Formosa for a café Pingal – an espresso with a dash of milk. A postman rattles around the corner on a scooter. Hugo greets him warmly, and introduces us to this man in his grey uniform: Nuno Aguiar aka Káká, mountain bike downhiller of the moment. He moved from Sao Miguel to Santa Maria a few years ago and began searching for trails using old military maps. That’s how he discovered the ones on Pico Alto, which were, at that time, completely overgrown. Using a shovel and an axe he was able to expose the trails. Unfortunately, due to his job and family, he is unable to spend as much time on his bike, which is why Hugo has taken over the job of looking after the trails. He ensures that they are used regularly. However, he occasionally closes some of the more frequently used trails to allow them to regenerate. The Enduro World Series is due to make a stop here in 2018. Everything needs to be perfect for that.
On the way up to Pico we make the most of as many trails as possible before gently descending to San Lorenzo in the evening. At a colourfully painted beach bar we order Cerveja de Pressao, a local draft beer, and enjoy spectacular views of the Atlantic waves. We definitely need to come back here again before this bike paradise becomes too popular.
The Azores are a group of nine islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, 1,369km from the European mainland. Santa Maria and Sao Miguel are the eastern islands; Terceira, Graciosa, Faial, Pico and Sao Jorge are the central islands; and Flores and Corvo are the western islands. Pico, at 2,351m, is the highest peak of the island and also the highest peak of Portugal.
The best mountain biking can be found on Sao Miguel and Santa Maria. Here you’ll also find bike shops, shuttled tours and guides.
How to get there
There are direct flights in the summer from London, or other times via Portugal or European hubs.
From Sao Miguel to Santa Maria there is a cheap daily connection with SATA Air Açores. Bike transportation is no problem at all. The flight to Santa Maria takes 15 minutes.
Best time to travel there
The Azores are different to the Canary Islands. The wind comes from all directions to the islands and brings high humidity so it can rain every day, but usually only in short showers. The subtropical climate means temperatures of maximum 26C in August and a mild 11–16C in February. May, June, September and October are the perfect months for riding, since the humidity is low and the temperatures are between 22 and 24C.
The trails are very difficult to find on your own. Azores Adventure Islands Tours can organise a trip to all the islands, including airport transfer, bike shuttle, guiding, accommodation and rental bikes.
Santa Maria Tours offers tourist activities, including hiking and mountain biking.
Bike shops are in Sao Miguel and in Santa Maria. Bring any special spare parts for your bike you might need, with you.
What you need to do there:
• Visit the tea plantation in Sao Miguel
• Swim in the hot springs at Poca da Dona Beija in Furnas (Sao Miguel) www.pocadadonabeija.com
• Enjoy a cool beer and burger in Santa Maria in the Central Pub in Vila do Porto www.centralpub.no.comunidades.net
Enduro-party in Faial da Terra (Sao Miguel) in February,
Azores Challenge MTB, Stage Race in September