And no we didn’t die.
Okay, so maybe it wasn’t hurricane force winds, but the winds were whipping about 45 mph from all directions and my phone kept beeping with high wind warnings.
On my third day on Sao Miguel, I hopped into a car with the Fashionable Filipino, the Brown Student, and the Teacher after a leisurely morning waiting to make contact with the Teacher (no one was quite sure what he was doing). The boys had a rough plan in mind of where they were heading and quickly took off towards the West. Now, I’m very Type A and like to have a plan. Some may call me a “control freak,” but I would say that I’m just organized. This entire trip was very much out of my comfort zone. I mean, I just willingly jumped into a car driven by a stranger who is from Massachusetts. Being from Maine and all, you know never to get into a car with a Masshole unless you fear for your life.
Sao Miguel became the second island of the Azores archipelago to be settled by colonists from mainland Portugal in 1427. The first settlement, Povoacao Velha, was located on the southeastern part of the island. Between 1439 and 1444, the island volcano erupted and changed the entire landscape of the western part of the island. The volcano has actually erupted multiple times over it’s very long history.
Today, Sete Cidades is almost a perfect circular caldera. The caldera was formed in three phases over time. The first phase occurred about 36,000 years ago and stopped when the original volcano collapsed. The second phase began about 29,000 years ago and ended with the collapse of the northwest portion of the caldera. The third and final phase occurred about 16,000 years ago and was responsible for the collapse of the northern and northeastern portions of the crater. Over the past 5,000 years the Sete Cidades volcano has experienced over 17 intra-caldera eruptions making it the most active volcano in the Azores island chain. The last biggest eruption was in the 15th century when the first settlers arrived, but smaller eruptions within the caldera and submarine vents along the western coast have occurred in recent human history.
Now that we have had our short history lesson on the formation of Sete Cidades, let’s talk about the crazy ride to get there. From Ponta Delgada, the ride is quite short compared to driving to the other side of the island. The roads are narrow and windy, but in excellent condition. The views from the car window are surreal. It was like stepping into Paul Cezanne’s Montagne Sainte-Victoire paintings. There is a reason Sao Miguel is nicknamed the “green island” as it is green as far as the eyes can see. If I closed my eyes and opened them without knowing where I was, I would have guessed that I was in Ireland or Scotland. It certainly makes me want to hop the first boat to the land of my ancestors; albeit, a very small branch of my family tree is from Scotland. The grass is a deep green even in the dead of November where back home our front lawn was just blanketed in the cold, wet white stuff. There is an overabundance of grassy knolls and hills serving as pastures for cows. Every once in a while a decrepit rock wall would appear dividing farmer’s pastures from one another. Black and white cows spot the horizon happily grazing on the lush grass.
As we climbed higher up the windy road to Sete Cidades, the ocean appeared to glisten in the few rays of sunshine on our left. The trees and the Hydrangeas that dot the side of the road were blowing steadily in the wind. Towards the top we came to sharp hairpin turn in the road with the Sete Cidades lakes to our left and a spooky abandoned hotel on our right. From here the road turns a wee bit scary. To one side you have the volcano walls protecting you from the gusty wind while on the other side you have a cliff to the lakes below with an occasional guard rail. The Teacher tried to take a left heading down to the Sete Cidades village but the Fashionable Filipino quickly corrected him and told him to head to the Vista do Rei, or lookout point. Of course, the Teacher had started slightly down the steep incline into town. This required a 5-point turn on a very narrow road. The Teacher impressed me with his maneuvers, but the knot in my stomach was starting to grow.
I’ve never been afraid of heights growing up, but in recent years I’ve become terrified of heights. I thought I was going to pass out climbing up the wooden stairs to Temple II in Tikal National Park in Guatemala in May. And now, here I am in a car driven by a stranger I only met about an hour ago and we’re only about 8 feet from the side of a very steep cliff. I managed to keep my cool on the outside, but my insides were doing the anxiety dance and I was one the verge of hyperventilating. It didn’t help that we came to a herd of cows walking down the road and had to drive in the tiny ditch on the side of the road to get around them. Finally, after my near anxiety attack, we came to Boca do Inferno Belvedere where we could take in an epic panoramic view of the caldera. This was the Fashionable Filipino’s third time at Sete Cidades. The first few times he came earlier in the week it was foggy. We lucked out that there were a few rays of sun that were peaking through the clouds dancing off the northeastern part of the caldera. We quickly grabbed our cameras and made a beeline up the steep walking path to snap photos.
As we approached the top of the trail, it was eminent that the wind was strong. At times I feared for my life. I started picturing myself being lifted off my feet and being flung over the small wooden fence down the steep green cliffs into the heart of the caldera. Luckily, years of athletics and sports under my belt taught me to go into the athletic stance and hold my ground. But the wind was still blowing me around like a windsock. We slowly made our way out to the end of the Belvedere onto the tuff cone of Lagoa do Santiago. The wind was blowing strong and it was cold. I felt like I was on top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire. The views were stunning. I’ve never seen anything like this before and I only wish that my camera could take in all of the beauty because my pictures truly don’t do it justice.
After about 10 minutes of snapping photos and trying not to blown off a cliff, we made our way back down the steep walking path and to the car. The Brown Student was a total sweetheart and offered to link arms with me so we wouldn’t be blown off the trail. Once back into the car we drove about 100 feet and stopped at one of the smaller lakes where we met up with a tour guide and a Canadian couple. We chatted with them for a couple of minutes and the tour guide mentioned another lookout point that we missed earlier. We hopped into the car again, made a U-turn and headed back to the Belvedere. This view was out of the wind and required no hiking. The fog was starting to roll in a bit. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a divide in the brushes revealing a path through a cow pasture to the ridge of the caldera. I looked over at the Teacher and I knew he had read my mind. He had the same sparkle of adventure (or maybe just stupidity) in his eyes that I had. Clearly we could now be friends.
We jumped the tiny string that served as the fence and succeed to walk out into the pasture. Squish, squish. The ground was saturated with water and a landmine of cow patties. We quickly waved our white flags and retreated back to the safety of the car. However, as soon as we made it back to the car, we noticed another path, this one a clear dirt path, into the woods. The Fashionable Filipino didn’t want to disappear into the woods to nowhere and opted to stay in the car. The rest of us clearly didn’t mind exploring a dark wooden path in search of the Blair Witch or whatever may live in the woods in the middle of a volcano. We followed the path for a while and came across several small outpost building similar in size to an outhouse bathroom. All the doors were locked (trust me, I tried opening every single one) and you could heard rushing water inside. We deduced that perhaps the area served as the water supply for the village. After about a half mile, the trail ended and we turned around a headed back to the car.
We drove about 100 feet up to the first Belvedere we stopped at earlier. The sun popped out again as we all jumped out again and ran up the steep walking trail to the end of the tuff cone. I think I got my exercise for the day running up that damn trail for the second time in a matter of an hour. We snapped a few more photos while still fighting the pounding of the wind. Back in the car yet again, we drove back across the scary road, where I just closed my eyes and prayed. We stopped at the lookout point on the main road where from one side you can see the ocean and the other side you can look down into the Caldera and see both Lagoa Azul (the blue lake) and Lagoa Verde (the green lake). On the western side of Lagoa Azul, the small village of Sete Cidades sparkled in the rays of sun cutting through the clouds and fog. Between the ocean views and the Sete Cidades views sets an abandoned hotel. Obviously being the curious travelers that we are, we walked right into the open dilapidated concrete shell of a hotel. We’re not sure what its story is, but it’s kind of spooky!
We made it out of the hotel without seeing the Blair Witch or Jack Torrance (Here’s Johnny!). We finally drove down the long steep and winding road down into the heart of the caldera to the small village of about 800 people. The boys grabbed lunch and beer at one of the small snack bars in town. In an effort to save money, I had brought my own bread, cheese, and lunch meat to make my own sandwich. Although, food on Sao Miguel is extremely cheap for European standards. After lunch we had a small tour of the town because the boys were a little lost trying to find the way out. I am probably one of the most directionally challenged people so I was of no help. We made the long 10km climb out of the caldera and back on the main road to our next destination – Lagoa do Fogo or Lake of Fire.