Imagine waking up every day to the sight of flowery green hills populated by friendly black and white dairy cows. Green hills which hide swimmable waterfalls, volcanic thermal waters, pristine crater lakes and dense forest hikes. Now, imagine this paradise surrounded by a seemingly infinite blue ocean, where wales, dolphins and manta rays either live or pass through during their life.
This exists—and no, it is not in New Zealand or Iceland. We’re describing the Portuguese islands of the Azores, which are situated smack in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. As a Azorean myself, born and raised on the main island of this archipelago (São Miguel), I’m eager to provide local insight into its dizzying array of beautiful lakes.
About the Azores and the volcanic phenomenon that spawned its many lakes
The archipelago of the Azores is comprised of nine volcanic islands and is located deeply in the Atlantic Ocean. Its population varies by size per island from 464 people in Corvo Island, the most western point in Europe, to upwards of 137,000 people on São Miguel, the economic capital of the archipelago.
Due to its volcanic origin, the distinct black color of the rock is visible throughout the island on its waterfalls, streams and black sand beaches. It also means that the land is incredibly fertile and has, over time, become a paradise for nature lovers due to its many green pastures and fields, along with the many lakes formed on the large craters left by the volcanoes. And yes, the volcanoes are indeed still active, which is why you can cook your own food by burying it in the ground. More on that later. But first…the most beautiful lake in the Azores:
1. Sete Cidades Lake
When the weather is clear, you will be able to see the two colors (blue and green) of Sete Cidades Lake, one of the Seven Wonders of Portugal. Legend has it that a beautiful, blue-eyed princess fell deeply in love with a common, green-eyed shepherd. When her father, the king, forbade their love, they wept, with their tears dissolving into the respective sides of the lake by the color of their eyes.
Sete Cidades Lake offers you once in a lifetime views with the possibility of spending a couple hours walking around the base and enjoying its tranquility. Once there, you can rent kayaks or paddle boards for exploring on your own from the local shops (like Garoupa Canoe Tours).
For a bit more adventure, head to the northwestern point of the Blue Lake where you'll find a 2-3 meter entry into a small tunnel, which serves as a canal for naturally regulating the water levels. Here, in complete darkness, you can cross by walking slowly with the sight of a dim light at the end of the tunnel. Just be sure to bring appropriate shoes and a lantern—or as I did it when I was younger, with plastic bags around your feet!
For an alternative full-day program, embark on an eight-hour hike around the top of the mountains surrounding the crater of Sete Cidades Lake, called the Cumeeiras hike. It starts in the locally famous sightseeing place Vista do Rei (which translates into “King’s Sight” and yes, may very well be the same king who once separated the two lovers) and from there continues in the opposite direction from the asphalt road from which it started, following the dirt path into the woods.
This circular hike is not difficult (I did it with my family when I was only 12 years old), but it is long. As a reward, though, you’ll be greeted with spectacular views of the lake from the height of the mountains—angles which many locals haven’t even experienced! Don’t forget to bring your own sandwiches since you won’t find any commercial activity along this path. Just you and the lake.
2. Furnas Lake
At Furnas Lake, you can witness a uniquely Azorean cooking technique: putting various vegetables into a large pot alongside different types of blood sausage and meat—but without any water. From there, the pot is wrapped in a large sheet of cloth and tied with a rope long enough for the pot to sink three meters deep into a man-made hole. Over the course of six hours, your food boils in mineral-rich, sulfur water generated by the high temperatures and humidity emanating from the ground. To experience the distinct flavors without the trouble of preparing the food yourself, visit Restaurante Tony's, a local spot in the heart of Furnas village. Be sure to book in advance—it gets busy!
After this heavy meal, you’re welcome to either nap in the many picnic areas or take a walk on an easy three-mile circular path surrounded by the lake on one side and vegetation on the other. To find this path, simply follow the shore. You can’t miss it.
For a complete tour of the volcanic activity in Furnas, don’t miss the local outdoor sulfur thermal baths: Poça da Beija and Terra Nostra Park, where you can see and feel the heat generated by the Earth. The sound of the hot water boiling through various-sized puddles will warn you not to get too close. Not to worry, though, everything is properly secured.
3. Fogo Lake
Finally, for the true nature lovers, a hike around the base of Fogo Lake.
Fogo is the most isolated lake of the three, as there is no village or commercial facilities nearby. Two sightseeing spots, a large antenna and some very steep wooden steps drenched into the soil make up the totality of infrastructure here.
If you’re going purely for the great view of the lake and western side of the island, head to the Viewpoint of Pico da Barrosa. Located at an altitude of almost 1000 meters, you’ll have a complete view of the lake and its breathtaking simplicity, in addition to a unique perspective on the island by being surrounded by the infinite swaths of blue.
For a full afternoon of hiking, head to Viewpoint over the Fogo Lake. From here, you can access the base of the lake by walking down steep, slippery wooden steps which should take you around 10 minutes. Keep in mind, though, that this is not easy to access, so only go if you’re up for the challenge. From the base, you can do a complete circular hike around the lake—and on its most northern point you’ll have the official option of taking a small hike up the mountain or, as I did as a child, go through the lake with water rising up to your chest!
Definitely bring clothing you’re not worried about getting wet—and also bring food with you. The hike will take you a few hours, so it’s worth carving out an entire afternoon for it.
The lakes of São Miguel Island are just one of the many natural sights the Azores have to offer. The islands, which have managed to maintain their pristine innocence while supporting a sustainable tourism ecosystem, offer a world of beauty to discover.