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Hiking the Azores into lush mountains and stormy North Atlantic weather

Volcanoes have shaped the Azores, creating rugged mountains and high lakes like Lagoa do Fogo that lie in dormant craters.
Brian Mann
/
NPR
Volcanoes have shaped the Azores, creating rugged mountains and high lakes like Lagoa do Fogo that lie in dormant craters.

Far out in the North Atlantic stretches a rain-swept chain of volcanic islands, the Azores, a distant province of Portugal.

On a day shaped by washes of cloud and sun, Inês Pereira Rodrigues of Lisbon leads the way up a steep trail, part of a network of trekking routes that crisscross the island of Sao Miguel.

"It's very lush, looks almost like a tropical forest," Rodrigues says. There are head-high ferns and trees that look ancient. "It's gorgeous, really gorgeous."

People sometimes compare the forests of the Azores to scenes in the film Jurassic Park. It can feel jungle-like. But temperatures in the North Atlantic tend to be temperate not tropical.
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
People sometimes compare the forests of the Azores to scenes in the film Jurassic Park. It can feel jungle-like. But temperatures in the North Atlantic tend to be temperate not tropical.

Sao Miguel is the biggest island in the Azores. The trails are often challenging and rocky, winding like calligraphy along mountain streams.

There are birds everywhere — flocking through the branches, filling the forest with dizzying layers of song.

These islands feel remote. They lie more than 900 miles from the rest of Portugal and roughly 2,400 miles from the east coast of North America. In colonial days, Sao Miguel was a layover port for ships from Portugal traveling to the Americas.

Sao Miguel's coastline is often rugged and stormy. The Azores lie more than 900 miles from the Portuguese mainland and the islands feel remote, a world apart from Europe.
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
Sao Miguel's coastline is often rugged and stormy. The Azores lie more than 900 miles from the Portuguese mainland and the islands feel remote, a world apart from Europe.

Hiking trails often break out of the forest into wide meadows of emerald grass bordered with the blooming hydrangeas that grow wild in the Azores. At times, the island can feel more like Ireland or Vermont than the tropics.

"There's cows, black and white cows everywhere," Rodrigues says, explaining that dairy farms are a symbol and a source of pride for these mountain villages. "All the butter, the good Portuguese butter comes from the Azores."

Sao Miguel Island, the largest in the Azores, is criss-crossed with well-marked hiking and trekking trails that cross the forests, meadows and pasturelands.
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
Sao Miguel Island, the largest in the Azores, is criss-crossed with well-marked hiking and trekking trails that cross the forests, meadows and pasturelands.

There's a pattern to trekking on Sao Miguel. Steep mountain pathways give way to hillside dairy farms that give way in turn to more tangled forests and rivers.

There's also a lot of rain, soaking downpours that blow in swiftly from the grey ocean. At times, up in the high country, hikers find themselves in the clouds.

Because of the rain, and the challenging terrain and the lonely location of these islands, there's also a sense of solitude.

Trekking in the Azores often means getting wet. The forests are lush, the trails can be muddy, and gorgeous sunny days can suddenly turn into torrents of rain.
Brian Mann / NPR
/
NPR
Trekking in the Azores often means getting wet. The forests are lush, the trails can be muddy, and gorgeous sunny days can suddenly turn into torrents of rain.

"It definitely feels like we're in the middle of the ocean," Rodrigues says. "When we're at some high lookout point and you can see the water on both sides, there's a roughness or wildness to the place."

We're soaked through, muddy and tired, but as we turn back toward the village below, the clouds break. Sun spills over the forest and the meadows and the distant stormy sea.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Brian Mann
Brian Mann is NPR's first national addiction correspondent. He also covers breaking news in the U.S. and around the world.