A local Portuguese actress gives insider tips for an unforgettable adventure on the island of Pico, Azores.
Pico is the second largest island in the Azores archipelago, a group of nine islands in the Atlantic Ocean that are an extension of Portugal's territory (along with the island of Madeira). The Azores islands are an absolute paradise for nature lovers. They're home to volcanic rock beaches tucked along rugged coastlines, lush tropical forests that you can hike and canyon through, extensive plains and farmlands where cows are raised and crops are tended to, beautiful lakes that glimmer of emerald green and sapphire blue, warm geothermal waters and spas, and so much more.
Volcanos, island-grown wine, and whale watching
The Ilha Preta (Black Island) as Pico is commonly referred to for its black volcanic land, is situated amongst a triangle of islands including São Jorge and Faial. One of Pico's spectacular natural wonders is Mount Pico, an imposing stratovolcano that can be seen from nearly any point on the island, and even from its neighboring islands.
Pico also has a UNESCO World Heritage Site that recognizes its tradition of viticulture. Wine produced in the Azores has an incredibly unique flavor profile marked by the volcanic terrain from which its grapes grow.
And if you enjoy sailing on the ocean and watching larger than life aquatic mammals in their element, Pico is one of the best islands from which to embark on a whale watching tour.
Get a sneak peek of Pico and its natural wonders in this soothing travel documentary, now playing on Amazon Prime. Bonus: in just 45 minutes, you'll also get to explore the neighboring island of Faial.
Getting to your island vacation in Pico (Azores)
You may have never considered visiting Pico, but it’s a must add to your bucket list if an island adventure is what you’re seeking. A popular one-week itinerary is to add Pico as a second stop on a trip to the Azores following a visit to the archipelago’s largest island, São Miguel.
If this is your plan, you can take a regional plane from São Miguel to Pico, which is serviced by Portuguese airlines SATA and TAP. You may have a layover at another island along the way as there are limited direct flights.
That said, Pico may be smaller but it’s got more than enough character and adventure to be your sole destination, especially if you’re flying from the East Coast or are already in Western Europe. If Pico is your only destination, you can fly directly to the island from Lisbon. São Miguel is also a common layover stop for flights to Pico.
Once you’re in Pico, you can spice up your trip by taking a short ferry ride to the nearby islands of São Jorge and Faial. Either way, Pico promises to deliver an unforgettable experience.
Travel recommendations from a Pico native
To help you put together the ultimate travel experience in Pico, we got insider tips from Helena Ávila. She's a Pico native and a Portuguese actress that you may recognize from episodes of Morangos com Açúcar (season 9) or the musical theater comedy “Do Ceu Caiu Um Anjinho.”
Pico is a place where kids play freely in the street and people are longtime friends with their neighbors. It's home. When I was 17, I went to study theater at the University of Coimbra and pursue my passion for acting. But once I left Pico, I missed it more than I expected. When you’re growing up, you want to escape the island life. But once you leave, the desire to return is strong. I've been fortunate to work as an actress throughout Portugal and even spent some time in Los Angeles, California. Since I've returned to Portugal, I spend much more time in Pico. I love it. I can’t live without it. It’s in my blood.
Hiking Mount Pico
The most Pico thing you can do is climb Montanha do Pico/Mount Pico, a stratovolcano that dominates the island's landscape. And at 2,351 meters, it's the tallest peak in Portugal. Hiking the volcano is challenging, but anyone can do it if you take your time. If you want to hike to the top, you should plan to make this an all-day adventure. An advanced climber can get to the top in 1.5 - 2 hrs but a beginner should plan 4 - 5 hours to reach the summit. I've hiked to the peak in about 4 hours and I felt good, not exhausted. It's best to hire a guide to help you navigate to the top. But if you know someone from Pico, I suggest inviting them to accompany you and take advantage of a more “local” experience — camping overnight to see the sunrise the next morning.
An overnight camping trip on Mount Pico
As just mentioned, the most important thing to remember if you plan on spending a night camping on Pico's famous volcano is to take at least one person who is familiar with Mount Pico, whether they're a professional guide or a local friend. That, and pack lots of layers because it gets really cold when you're up on the mountain at night — even during summer!
I usually start the hike at 5 pm which will get you to the Alto Pico crater just in time to set up your tent and see an incredible sunset over the island, which sets around 10 pm at the peak of summer. When the weather is right, you can see five of the Azores islands from up there! It's a view that you won't see anywhere else in the world.
I like to set my alarm for 5 am to wake up early and begin the climb to the Piquinho summit, the volcanic cone that protrudes from the crater and is considered the true peak of the volcano. That hike takes about 30 minutes from the middle of the Alto Pico crater. If you can get to Piquinho by 6 am, you’ll catch a breathtaking sunrise. The hike back down the volcano takes about 3 hours.
Sunrise on Mount Pico
If camping isn't your thing, you can still plan to catch a sunrise from the volcano. I recommend starting the hike at 2 am (yes, it will be dark so remember to take a guide or local) to get to the summit as the sun rises. If you bring some local pastries with you, you can enjoy a light breakfast before making your way back down the volcano and spend the rest of the day relaxing — we suggest taking it easy at the beach.
Hire a Mount Pico guide
I can't say enough that it’s highly recommended that you hire a guide to climb Mount Pico. You can expect to pay around 50 euros for a guide. At the very least, you need to check in to Casa de Montanha where you’re given a GPS that tracks your location to ensure your safety. If you’re looking for an off-season experience, they’ve started organizing hikes and skiing on Mount Pico in the winter! Again, take lots of thick layers.
Best beaches in Pico
After a day spent hiking a volcano, you're going to want a day of relaxation at one of the island's beaches. I have my secret place, but I’ll tell you about the beautiful and peaceful Poças beach in the town of São Roque. No one goes there, so it’s perfect for quiet relaxation. But, if you want a more lively and social beach spot, you should go to Lagoa Beach in Lajes. There's a popular bar/cafe right next to it where you can get some refreshments. Plus, you'll get to see the traditional whaling boats in Lajes and even more amazing views of Mount Pico.
Local insight: Ponta da Ilha is another good beach to visit. Since Pico is made of volcanic earth, its beaches are rocky with natural pools. You won't find the white, sandy beaches of California and Florida here.
Traditional Piquense meals
There's nothing better to accompany relaxation time than a good meal. And if you're in Pico, you must try caçoila. It's a very traditional meal of beef flavored with allspice, cinnamon, and garlic and stewed with onions, white wine, tomatoes, and few more special ingredients. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water.
When you're ready to sweeten your palette, look our for arroz doce (sweet rice). Although arroz doce is a popular dessert all over Portugal, there are many subtle variations of it. In Pico, it's often made with a lot of eggs and pure whole milk. Then it's cooked until it reaches a thick and creamy consistency.
A local lodging experience
Pico has been making efforts to develop its tourism industry. One way it's doing that is by supporting new construction and the renovation of traditional buildings. The island seeks to attract tourists by offering the “Pico” experience with new local businesses and rental properties that show off Pico’s traditional architecture. The government even gave subsidies to families to rebuild their traditional homes, with the condition that they had to turn them into businesses or rental properties. So consider one of Pico's traditional homes when booking your stay.
A day trip to the island of São Jorge
With two other Azores islands just a stones throw from Pico, a day trip is definitely something to take advantage of. I recommend visiting the island of São Jorge. To get there, you just hop on a 30-minute ferry ride. If you go in the morning, you can rent a car and drive to the fajãs. They're a distinct geological feature of the islands — plains created from collapsing cliffs or lava flows. When you’re on top of the cliffs on the island, you can see an aerial view of the fajãs and the small towns that lie in its valleys. Some even have natural pools!
The food in São Jorge is also amazing. You have to try the clam dish, Ameijoa de Santo Cristo. You may have had clams before, but you haven’t had them like this. You also have to visit the famous Queijo de São Jorge factory to taste São Jorge's iconic cheese made fresh from the island's cows, known for being humanely raised on large green pastures. For dessert, try especies, or little spice cookies. They mostly taste like cinnamon but also have a hint of anise. Before you leave (and maybe before eating all of that food), you should also take a quick swim at Calheta beach!
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More travel highlights in Pico
So you've climbed Mount Pico like a champ, swam at the local beaches, day tripped to São Jorge, and eaten a traditional meal like a local. And you're still looking for more adventures in Pico? Here a few more experiences I recommend:
Go whale watching! Pico is home to over 20 species of whales and dolphins. Most commonly seen are sperm whales and a variety of dolphin species. Boat trips typically last 3 - 4 hours.
Visit one of the island's scenic lagoons, particularly its largest one, Lagoa do Caiado, located in the town of São Roque.
Though Pico's traditional whaling industry has waned over the years, many former whalers continue to share their stories of months-long expeditions at sea. Their history and that of the industry is preserved at the Museu dos Baleeiros in Lajes.
Viticulture, or wine growing, is somewhat of a miracle in Pico as the island's volcanic terrain is considered an obstacle to grow grapes. Visit one of the island's many vineyards to see firsthand the island way of cultivating wine, where grape vines trail along black basalt rocks instead of trellises. Picos's wine region is also recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site!
Pico is a small island so there isn't much in the way of night life. But if you're looking for a fun evening out, stop by Clube Naval de São Roque in the town of São Roque. It’s a lovely bar by the ocean with a view of Mount Pico and the island of São Jorge!
Consider adding a day or two to your itinerary to visit the islands of São Jorge and Faial. They're each just a 30-minute ferry ride away and hold wonders of their own!
Insider tips for traveling to Pico
Plan ahead! Securing a place to stay and reserving a car rental at least one month in advance are key to a stress-free experience in Pico. Remember, it’s a small place with a limited supply of both lodging and cars.
If you can't get a rental car, taxis are available. They just cost more and you will need to call for them rather than hail them like in big cities. Find the number of a taxi company in Pico and always keep it with you while exploring the island.
Many fly to Pico by way of São Miguel, the largest island of the Azores, because there are more direct flights from Lisbon to São Miguel. But you can fly directly from Lisbon to Pico! There are just fewer flights available so you will want to book in advance.
For the latest on what’s happening in Pico, whether you’re a tourist or local, visit the blog Cais do Pico. It’s written in Portuguese, so if you don’t read the language, ask a friend or use Google translate.
Planning a trip to Portugal? Here are some guides we've checked out & recommend for you:
1. Fodor's Essential Portugal offers the best presentation of both information that's useful and organized as well visually pleasing with beautiful photos that give you a glimpse of Portugal before you even start your trip!
2. If you're looking more for a list of things to do and less detail on the history of Portugal, Portugal Hidden Gems may be the travel guide for you.
3. There aren't many travel guides specific to the Azores...yet. Moon Azores, which includes travel info about Pico, will be released December 2020 and is available for pre-order now!
4. With someone as well-traveled and globally curious as Rick Steves, you can never go wrong with one of his guides including Rick Steves: Portugal.
P.S. If you purchase one of these travel guides, liveLUSO may receive
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