A Visit to Pico

After a week of boat chores in Horta, we decided to hop over to Pico Island for the weekend. Our friends Patricia and Christian (SV Joséphine) had been planning to go over for a day trip, but were easily persuaded to make it a weekend trip – a quick internet search found us a hotel, a car rental, and our ferry tickets. All set for the weekend!

The Horta ferry terminal is at the other end of the harbour, about a 25 minute walk from our boats. Once on the ferry, it takes only 25 minutes to travel the 8km to the town of Madalena, at the western point of Pico.

We picked up the rental car at the ferry terminal, then headed off to explore the island. We first tried to visit the Gruta das Torres, a giant lava tunnel formed during a volcanic eruption about 1500 years ago. The tunnel is approximately 5150m long, and you can visit about 450m of it. Note to future travelers: book your tour time before you arrive! We didn’t know this was required, so of course everything was booked up when we got there. Boo! So, onward to the next activity…

At 2351m, Mount Pico is the tallest mountain in all of Portugal. It is a dormant stratovolcano (for all you geology fanatics), whose most recent major eruptions were in 1562, 1718, and 1720. If you are ambitious, you can hike all the way to the summit – it is a 7 hour trip (3 hours up, 4 hours down), and you can also camp on the summit to break up the trip a litte. We were not feeling ambitious (even without the rainy weather), so we opted just to drive up to the Mountain House, which is the departure point for the hike. Here, the staff issue you a GPS transponder for the hike, give you a brief orientation, and make sure that you are sufficiently prepared before they will let you go up. For the non-hikers like us, they simply answer all your questions about the mountain, and show you a video about the trail.

The road to the Mountain House takes you past several old craters, and we were hoping to be able explore them a little. We took advantage of a break in the weather to walk to one crater that is not far from the parking lot (in the opposite direction from the main trail). But the Mountain God was having none of it: not five minutes up the road and there was a crack of thunder followed by a downpour! We dashed back to the car, and decided to do the rest of our exploring by car.

Rain so heavy that you can barely see. Watch out for the cows on the road ahead!

As we drove across the middle of the island, the weather started to improve. By the time we reached the south coast (on the hunt for lunch!), it was beautiful and sunny again. We stopped in the town of Lajes do Pico (first settled in 1460!), and had an amazing lunch of beef pica-pau (a Portuguese dish made of beef fried in a light gravy) and roasted octopus salad. Portuguese food really is amazing!

Revived by our lunch, we hopped back in the car for more exploring. Our hotel was on the north-west corner of the island, so we decided to continue driving counter-clockwise around the island until we reached it. We made a few stops along the way, including one at the eastern tip of the island, where we took a short walk out past the lighthouse. The lighthouse itself is closed to the public, but a well-marked hiking trail takes you along the volcanic rock cliffs that line the shore.

As we returned from our walk, we realized that we were overdue for check-in at the hotel – and we were still almost an hour away. So hop back into the car and off we go, this time along the north side of the island. Our hotel – technically a pair of guesthouses – was on the northwest corner of Pico, near the small village of Lajido. This area was in the path of the most recent eruption of Pico in 1720, so it is built on ‘young’ land of only 300 years. The early inhabitants recognized that the rocky, dry land was unsuitable for regular crops, but that, with a bit of work, it could be ideal for growing grape vines. They converted the rocky fields into plots of a few square metres each, and surrounded then with walls built from the rocks cleared from the land. The resulting walls keep the vines warm and protect them from strong ocean winds and salty spray (apparently, winter winds can cause 20m waves to break on the nearby shores!). Straight walls delineate grape vine plots, while circular walls are used to protect fig trees (from which they make great fig brandy!). Our guesthouses were built right in the middle of a vineyard, so we were able to see some of the walls up close, and appreciate the hard work that went into building them.

As we checked in, the owner told us about a food and wine festival that was taking place in the local village that night. After a short rest – and some sampling of the local Vinho de Cheiro, or ‘smelly wine’* – we walked down to the festival grounds to see what was going on. When we sat down for dinner at one of the communal tables, we ended up meeting a couple who were originally from Pico, but who have lived in Toronto for the last 50 years. In addition to being very interesting dinner companions, our new friends also helped us order our dinner, and then chase down our meals when they took ages to actually arrive (the festival-style restaurant was extremely busy)! We ended the night with a sampling of fig brandy, and a little bit of local music.

Sunday morning was incredibly wet. Several small thundershowers rolled through as we were eating breakfast and getting ready, and we even lost power for a short time. We visited two small museums that were in the village (one on wine, and one on volcanoes), and then went in search of lunch. The sun came out as we were eating, but by that time we were ready to head back home. So we returned the car early, hopped on the ferry, and made it back to Horta in time for dinner. Overall, it was a great weekend, even if it was a little soggy!