Helena Ávila is a Portuguese actress you may recognize from a few episodes of Morangos com Açúcar, Season Nine or the musical comedy theater performance “Do Ceu Caiu Um Anjinho,” directed by renowned Portuguese actor Fernando Gomes. She met with liveLUSO to give us the scoop on the best of her hometown of Pico and why it's a must-see island of the Azores archipelago!
I’m Helena! I was born and raised in Pico, It's a place where kids play in the street and people are friends with their neighbors because it’s country — you know? When I turned 13, I fell in love with theater and acting so I joined the community theater. At 17, I went to study theater at the University of Coimbra. Once I left Pico, I missed it more than I expected. When you’re growing up there, you want to escape the island life. But once you’re out, the desire to return is even stronger. After college, I worked as an actress throughout Portugal and recently moved to Los Angeles, California to pursue new acting opportunities. I return to Pico for the holidays and summer vacation. I love it, I can’t live without it, it’s in my blood.
Here’s our Q & A with Helena:
Q: Aside from seeing friends and family, what is your favorite thing to do in Pico?
A: Jump in the ocean!
Q: Where’s the best view of the island?
A: The town of Lajes has the best view of the volcano/mountain and sunset!
Q: Is Pico the best island in the Azores?
A: It’s getting there! However, I think that if someone only has one shot to go to the Azores, they should go to São Miguel because it has a little of everything all on one island. I can’t believe I’m saying that São Miguel is better than Pico, haha!
Q: What’s the second best island?
A: Definitely Pico! It’s developing the tourism industry with new housing and community development. The island is hoping that this development will 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.
Q: Most unique thing you can do in Pico?
A: Climb Montanha do Pico/Mount Pico. It’s the stratovolcano that protrudes over the island's landscape and is the tallest peak in Portugal at 2,351 meters in altitude. It’s challenging, but anyone can do it if you take your time. To get to the top, it takes 1.5 - 2 hrs for an expert and 4 - 5 hours for beginners. I did it in 4 hours and I felt good. While it’s best to hire a guide, if you know someone from Pico, I suggest having a more “local” experience by climbing up and camping overnight to see the sunrise the next morning.
When I go, my plan is to start hiking at 5 pm to get to the Alto Pico crater in time to see the sunset over the island, usually around 10 pm in the summertime. When the weather is right, you can see five of the Azores islands from up there! Once you get to the crater, you can set up your tent and relax. It’s very, very cold so take lots of layers! I set my alarm for 5 am to wake up early and begin the climb to the Piquinho summit, the volcanic cone that is the true peak of the volcano, which takes about 30 minutes from the middle of Pico crater. If you can get to Piquinho by 6 am, you’ll catch an incredible sunrise. The climb back down takes about 3 hours. If you want to skip the camping, I would start the hike at 2 am to catch the sunrise and then climb back down on the same day. It’s highly recommended that you hire a guide to climb Mount Pico; at the very least you need to check in to Casa de Montanha where you’re given a GPS that tracks you to ensure your safety. You can find a guide for about 50 euros. If you’re looking for an off-season experience, they’ve started doing hikes and skiing up to Mount Pico in the winter!
Q: Best beach?
A: I have my secret place, but I’ll tell you about the beautiful Poças in São Roque. It’s a small, quiet beach that’s just by my house. No one goes there, so it’s perfect for complete relaxation. But if you want a more lively and social beach spot, you should go to Lagoa beach in Lajes. It has the old whaler boats and a bar/cafe right next to it. Side note: Pico is made of volcanic earth, so its beaches are rocky with natural pools, not the white, sandy beaches that some might expect.
Q: What is a traditional food or dessert from Pico?
A: Caçoila is a very traditional meal. It’s a flavorful dish of stewed beef and spices including onions, garlic, salt, white wine, tomato, cinnamon, allspice, and more. Just thinking about it makes your mouth water. Arroz doce (sweet rice) is also a typical dessert. Although you can find arroz doce all over Portugal, in Pico you make it with a lot of eggs and pure whole milk, which makes for a very thick and creamy texture. Some variations from mainland Portugal use water instead of milk, and sometimes no eggs at all.
Q: Best day trip from Pico?
A: São Jorge, for sure! To get there, just hop on a 30-minute ferry ride. I would go in the morning and rent a car to drive to the fajãs, a distinct feature of the islands created from collapsing cliffs or lava flows and are identifiable along the coast as "flat" surfaces. When you’re on top of the cliffs over the fajãs, you can see the small towns that lie in its valleys -- some even have natural pools. The food there is amazing. You have to try ameijoa de Santo Cristo. If you think you’ve had clams before, you haven’t. You also have to go to the famous Queijo de São Jorge factory to taste incredibly fresh cheese. 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) take a swim at Calheta beach!
Q: If someone only had 24 hours in Pico, what should they do?
A: A lot of people actually visit Pico for just a day. Honestly, maybe 24 hours in Pico isn’t enough, but this is how I’d make the most of it! First, visit Ponta da Ilha beach and go for a swim. Around lunchtime, head over to the nearby restaurant, also called Ponta da Ilha.
After lunch, travel over to the southern part of the island to check out the town of Lajes. From there, if you can squeeze it in, I’d recommend going on a whale watching trip. It takes about 3 hours but it’s definitely worth the experience, especially given Pico’s close history with whaling. If you don’t have enough time to go whale watching, you should at least visit the whaler’s museum, Museu dos Baleeiros. It’s awesome! It really gives a sense of what Pico was like about 30 years ago, and what it meant to be a whaler for both the whaler and their family. It can be a bit emotional. Lastly, head north across the island to São Roque for dinner. You’ll pass lagoons and beautiful scenery along the way. Before calling it a night, enjoy some post-dinner nightlife by visiting Clube Naval de São Roque. It’s a lovely bar by the ocean with a view of Pico Mountain and the island of São Jorge!
A few extra tips:
Plan ahead! Securing a place to stay and reserving a car rental can be key to a stress-free experience in Pico. Remember, it’s a small place with limited supply. If you don’t plan ahead of time, you might not find a place to stay. While a car rental will help you see the most in a short amount of time, if you don’t have one, you can always take taxis to get around, it’s just a little more expensive.
There might be more flights from Lisbon to São Miguel, the largest of the Azores islands, but you can fly directly from Lisbon to Pico! Pico is also a great way to get to the islands of São Jorge and Faial, since they are just a short ferry ride away.
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 even Google to translate.