The first archipelago in the world to be certified as a sustainable tourist destination is Portuguese and one of the most desirable places now, thanks to its stunning natural landscapes. A reminiscence of the past planet that reminds us of what we must do to reach the future.
One of the sensation destinations in world tourism, the Azores were until recently practically unknown, and even today the lucky ones who have visited the nine islands of this archipelago in the middle of the North Atlantic are still rare. Scattered along a strip about 600 kilometers long, these small points of land of volcanic origin – which some say is the Hawaii of Europe – have long been forgotten, which in some ways has been an advantage as far as the preservation of a multitude of natural, historical, and cultural resources are concerned. Fortunately, the recognition of this immense value has led to the development of sustainability policies and the classification of almost 25% of the Azorean territory as Protected Areas, and the creation of Natural Parks in all the islands. The Azores are also home to four of the eight Biosphere Reserves existing in Portugal: Graciosa and Corvo (classified since 1997), Flores (since 2009), and the Fajãs de São Jorge Biosphere Reserve (since 2016). A beauty that does not end in terrestrial landscapes, as the sea in Azores is considered one of the best places in the world for diving. For the mild temperatures and good visibility of the waters, but above all for the variety of undersea landscapes and ecosystems – but we are on our way.
São Miguel and the neighboring Santa Maria were the first to be seen by Portuguese navigators, in 1427. Like its neighbors, without native population or mammals, the largest island in the archipelago presented itself as a wild land, full of waterfalls, birds and volcanic mountains covered in lush green. Today, it is its main gateway, receiving the largest number of visitors, which sometimes places it in a more fragile position. Still their business cards are unbeatable. This is the case of Lagoa das 7 Cidades (one of the 7 Natural Wonders of Portugal), Lagoa do Fogo, Furnas, or projects such as Santa Bárbara, a hotel that has raised the meaning of sustainable tourism since its opening in 2015. The archipelago’s first eco-beach resort was born out of a surfer’s passion for a black sand beach, built in total respect for nature and perfectly framed in the landscape.
Just 50 minutes by flight from Ponta Delgada, you arrive at Pico Island. With an astonishing beauty, made of contrasts, symbol of the cohabitation of man with nature, it is the right destination to recharge your batteries, climb to the highest point in Portugal, and taste the products of the land. This is the case of Pico wines, with increasing prominence, a tasting that is necessary before or after visiting the island’s vineyards located in lava fields.
One of the largest whale sanctuaries in the world, this has been a whaling land since the mid-18th century, with sperm whale hunting thriving and spreading to other islands in the archipelago until the mid-20th century. The final point comes in 1986, with the ban on hunting cetaceans and is an example of a peaceful conversion to whale and dolphin watching, complying with observation rules, respect for animals and safety measures.
With no bad weather on the canal and just 6 km away, Faial is easy to reach (30 minutes by ferry). The world-famous Marina da Horta is a destination for sailboats from all over the world, contrasting in color with the lunar landscape of Capelinhos Volcano, one of the island’s natural monuments, caused by the eruption that occurred on September 27, 1957. São Jorge does not let you foresee what awaits you: a landscape made up of fajãs, small plains that extend into the sea resulting from the reduction of cliffs, many of which are only accessible by walking trails, which make them places of magical beauty.
On Terceira, the last of the islands in the Central group, Angra do Heroísmo stands out, the first city in the country to receive UNESCO World Heritage classification (in 1983), living proof of good conservation practices and the restoration of valuable “treasures”, especially from the Baroque period – of which the very rich Church of S. Gonçalo (18th century) is an example.
A new flight and the Western group are in sight. The island of Flores is known for its cinematic landscape – with so many references made to its style between the Jurassic and the Avatar – dazzling for the beauty of its natural waterfalls that cascade over impossible emerald green cliffs and lakes carved by volcanoes. A reserve island that holds the most varied species of flora endemic to the Azores, with extensive mats of peat bogs.
The richness of the coastline of Flores justifies a long boat trip, justifying the crossing of the inlet that connects to Corvo, the miniature island that marks the horizon on the northeast coast of Flores and whose central crater has a surprising magnificence. Both islands are one of the best spots in the Azores for bird watching and a real sanctuary for finding native and migratory species.
Here, as in many other parts of the archipelago, the blue of the sea is mesmerizing, however it is the magic of the underwater world that makes it truly special, welcoming an oasis of biodiversity that fascinates the scientific community. And it is not by chance that, in 2019, the Underwater Archaeological Map of the Azores was designated by UNESCO as one of the five examples that represent the best practices for the protection of underwater cultural heritage. But not everything is blue.
Recent expeditions have been verifying that, outside the marine reserves, the islands already show accentuated levels of overexploitation, both in coastal reefs and in the deep sea, so it is urgent to implement and even expand the marine protected areas already foreseen. So that this entire past world can continue to be witnessed by future generations.