Lessons from Portugal

1. Check the holidays, or at least ask your friends!

The person who informed me that I would be missing the festival of Sao Joao in Porto was the same person who pointed out to me that I planned to leave India just before Holi. Clearly I don’t learn

But I did effectively employ another previous lesson from Holi, which is that it’s worth it to change your plans and lose a little money, if it means gaining an experience that will be with you for a lifetime! I had a blast in at the festival of Sao Joao in Porto, and I’m grateful that I was still able to go.

Really, though. I’ve started checking calendars. This time for real.

2. Stop comparing in absolutes

Going from Spain to Portugal, everything was much cheaper, a fact that I never missed an opportunity to point out. I also fear that I still haven’t quite lost my awful habit of comparing local prices with prices in NYC, and then citing how much, exactly, an item would likely cost in NYC.

The thing is, it’s all relative. 10 euros for a meal may indeed be high if you can easily get one for 4, and if you only make a few hundred euros a month. This is something that I think I understood fairly well with in Sri Lanka, India, and Nepal, but that I lost when I had to adjust back to the higher prices in Spain.

In any case, I think it’s safe to say that it’s never good to compare prices to NYC. I moved away for a reason, now why am I reminding myself of the things I didn’t like?

3. Local guides are the best!

In Portugal, for the first time in my travels, I had local friends (who I previously met in other countries) that I could visit, and who acted as wonderful guides. It was a whole different way to see the city that I definitely prefer. I had the opportunity to go beyond the surface tourist layer and learn more about the culture outside of a tourist context.

How might my experience have been different in other countries if I had local friends? It’s hard to know. But hopefully I’ll get more opportunities to visit friends both new and old in their home countries, and hopefully I’ll get the opportunity to play host to them in the future too!

4. Don’t let fear of being impolite stop you from speaking up

I had my first car collision ever in a rental car in Portugal, in an unfortunate incident that involved a concrete pole and a side view mirror. I wasn’t the one driving, but I was held responsible…and it was something that I could have prevented.

As soon as I let someone else drive the car, I felt uncomfortable with the driver’s fast swerves, but I didn’t want to say anything for fear of offending the driver. I planned to come up with an excuse to take back the wheel the next time we stopped, but before that could happen, we swerved off the road and knocked the side mirror clean off.

All I could think of was the scene in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, where the villain leads the main characters into his house and ultimately into deep danger, and he points out that they could have left at any time but didn’t for fear of being impolite. And what did that lead to? Imminent torture, rape, and death. A little far fetched, but at least for me, it was just the side mirror and not anything worse. I learned my lesson – offending someone is far better than getting slapped with a bill for repairs or ending up in the hospital… or worse.

How to get from Porto to Denver, Colorado* with Sata Airlines

*with a stop in Cedar City to pick up a car

IN THEORY

A fairly long and hectic trip, but a backpacker’s gotta do what a backpacker’s gotta do.

  1. Take a Sata Airlines flight from Porto -> Punta Arenas
  2. Take a connecting Sata Airlines flight from Punta Arenas -> Toronto
  3. Take a connecting flight from Toronto -> Las Vegas
  4. Spend the night in the Las Vegas airport
  5. Take the first morning shuttle from Las Vegas to Cedar City
  6. Pick up car
  7. Spend the night in Cedar City
  8. Drive 10 hours to Denver

Total: 60 hours 15 minutes

 

IN ACTUALITY

In which everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and 30 steps are added to the process.

Bold: original steps
Italics: optional steps

  1. Upon arrival at Porto airport, find out that your Porto -> Punta Arenas flight has been canceled
  2. Stand in line for the Sata customer service desk for 3 hours, with an entire plane-full of people
  3. Get rebooked on the same flights for the next day
  4. Get a 10 euro voucher for lunch at the airport
  5. Take a shuttle to a hotel that the airline has arranged for you
  6. Rejoice, for this is the nicest place you’ve stayed in since you started your travels. It comes with two twin beds and a TV!
  7. Have a delightful complimentary dinner at the hotel
  8. Have a delightful complimentary breakfast at the hotel the next morning
  9. Take a shuttle from the hotel to the airport
  10. Upon arrival at the Porto airport, find out that your REBOOKED Porto -> Punta Arenas flight has been delayed for five hours, which will make you miss your connecting flights
  11. Stand in line for the Sata customer service desk for 1 hour
  12. Get rebooked on different flights (Porto -> Terceira, Terceira -> Boston, Boston -> Las Vegas) for the next day
  13. Get a 10 euro voucher for lunch at the airport
  14. Take a shuttle to a hotel that the airline has arranged for you
  15. Rejoice, for THIS is the nicest place you’ve stayed in since you started your travels. Two bedrooms and a kitchenette! With a fancy lobby that you feel like you should have dressed up for, and a closer location to the city center.
  16. Have a delightful complimentary dinner at the hotel
  17. Have a delightful complimentary breakfast at the hotel the next morning
  18. Take a shuttle from the hotel to the airport
  19. Upon arrival at the Porto airport, find out that your RE-REBOOKED Porto -> Terceira flight has been delayed for two hours
  20. Stand in line for the Sata customer service desk for half an hour, find out that you will still be able to make your connecting flights…just barely
  21. Take a Sata Airlines flight from Porto -> Terceira
  22. Drop phone in toilet at Terceira Airport
  23. Mourn. Bye bye, phone.
  24. Take a connecting Sata Airlines flight from Terceira -> Boston
  25. Retrieve luggage, go through customs, drop luggage off, and go through security in a little over an hour
  26. Take a connecting flight from Boston -> Las Vegas
  27. Wait for your luggage at baggage claim for an hour. Find out that your luggage didn’t make it on the flight because of the narrow timeframe and will be arriving the following morning after you’ve left
  28. Spend the night in the Las Vegas airport
  29. 10 minutes before the shuttle, realize that you’ve been waiting in terminal 3, and the shuttle leaves from terminal 1
  30. Squeeze in a taxi with a family of 5 to share the fare to terminal 1
  31. Arrive at the shuttle pick up at terminal 1 just in time to see the shuttle pull out of its parking spot and take the ramp onto the highway
  32. Chase the shuttle with all of your luggage in tow, screaming and waving movie-style
  33. Break down and bawl in the middle of terminal 1of the Las Vegas airport, because that was the last straw
  34. Borrow a cellphone, as you don’t have a US SIM card – and in any case, your phone is dead, to rebook for the next shuttle
  35. Wipe tears off cellphone before returning it to its concerned and slightly repelled owner
  36. Take a shuttle from Las Vegas to Cedar City
  37. Pick up car
  38. Get luggage delivered once it finally arrives in Las Vegas
  39. Spend the night in Cedar City
  40. Drive 10 hours to Denver

Total: 108 hours 15 minutes (48 hour delay)


The trip back from Porto to Denver was a combination of some of my worst traveling nightmares, one after another. To be fair, I inflicted a lot of the problems on myself, like giving my phone a toilet bath and not checking the shuttle location. But the Sata Airlines delays were getting almost comical.

It took 20 extra steps before I could even leave Porto, resulting in a full 48-hour delay. 48 HOURS. Luckily, I had a flexible schedule, but I can only imagine the pain and opportunity cost if I were traveling for a business meeting, had to go to a specific event, or had reservations lined up.

Though Sata Airlines did treat me well while I was stranded in Porto, I contacted their customer service for compensation. According to EU Regulation 261/2004, I could claim up to 600 Euros in compensation for a delay of over 4 hours. Since I had been delayed overnight not once, but twice, that meant potentially… 1200 Euros?

That seemed a little unlikely, and the customer service representative wasn’t buying it, either. After a few back and forth emails where she offered me a 600 Euro voucher that I rejected by saying I couldn’t risk flying Sata again, she finally conceded to 300 Euros in cash as compensation. Not a bad outcome for a crazy experience with a good story.

Still, I think all of it was the universe trying to tell me something: “Don’t come back to the US!” Next time, I think I’ll just stay abroad, wherever I am!

Port wine tasting at Calem

I know just about nothing about wine, but I couldn’t visit Porto without trying some port wine. All of the port wine producers are next to the Douro river on the southern Villa Nova de Gaia side (not actually in Porto proper). From what I could tell, they all offer similar tours and tastings, and I went with Calem because it was the one that friends from the hostel had heard of.

The combined tour + tasting started in a small “museum” waiting area that contained a lot of basic port wine information. Some things I learned:

  • Official port wine comes only from the Douro valley. Wine made in a similar way in a different place cannot call itself “port wine.”
  • There are 160 types of Douro grapes
  • Port wine is stronger than normal wine because it is mixed with brandy in the fermenting process
  • Vintage port wine from certain excellent years can fetch a price of up to 200 euros per bottle. The top years in the past two centuries were 1870, 1961, and 1963

On the tour itself, we visited massive barrels in the cellar. The largest barrels hold 60,000L of wine, the medium barrels hold 2,000L, and the small barrels hold 200-640L.

We learned some more about the different types of port wines:

Whites

  • White and dry: drink before meal, best paired with dry fruits
  • Fine white: a little dry, a little sweet
  • Lagrima: the sweetest of the whites, with 140g sugar per liter. Called lagrima because when a glass of this wine is agitated, the high sugar content causes the wine to slowly ooze down the side of the glass in the shape of a tear

Reds

  • Ruby: the deepest red. It is made in a big barrel, so only a small part of the wine touches the oak, allowing it to retain its intense red color
  • Tawny: tawny wine is made in small barrels with less space and oxygen, so all of the wine touches the oak. This turns the wine into a gold color and flavors it with oak
  • Rose: made with red grapes, but most of the skin is separated when smashing the wine, they try to separate most of the skin, so it’s not dark like the ruby. Can be drunk either before or after the meal

Any of these wines can be mixed (only with other wines of the same variety) to achieve a specific color and taste. Around 20 different wines could be combined, aged a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of 40 years. The median age is then printed on the bottle.

A special variety of wine is the vintage: wine made from a single harvest from a specific year classified by the Portuguese wine institute as “excellent.” The wine must age 2 years before bottling, and is bottled with some parts of the grapes in the bottle so that it continues to age and improve for another 20 years. When opened, a vintage must be drunk in 2-3 days.

Finally, it was time for the tasting: dry white and tawny red port wine. The guide instructed us to start with the less sweet wine (the dry white) and to follow these instructions:

  1. Agitate the glass, which brings out the flavor. Hold only the stick, don’t touch the body of the glass because body heat will transfer to the wine
  2. Look at the beautiful color
  3. Smell
  4. Toast
  5. Drink

It was delightful, though even the two little glasses we were given were a lot to finish in the time allotted. After about 5 minutes to enjoy the tasting, we were all ushered into the gift shop a little light headed. I see what you did there…

Anyway, I can’t say that I’m any better at tasting and discerning wines after the tour, but now at least I have a little collection of basic port wine facts!

Festival of Sao Joao in Porto

After having a blast in Lisbon during the festival of Santo Antonio, I heard that Porto had similar festivities two weeks later, on June 23rd. I already had tickets to Porto on the 24th, but the local friend who let me stick around in Lisbon also graciously offered to take me around Porto for Sao Joao. I couldn’t refuse that, so I rearranged my tickets to arrive in Porto two days earlier. And I once again learned a valuable lesson: don’t book until you talk to local friends. Or at least do a basic internet search.

From my friend’s description, the festival of Sao Joao is very similar to the festival of Santo Antonio, but even more of a party. In addition to all of the drinking on the streets and the ubiquitous street-side food stalls, there are also plastic hammers, garlic flowers, flying paper lanterns, fireworks at midnight, and concerts throughout the night.

Plastic hammers

Plastic hammers are at the center of the festivities. They’re not so much tradition as much as the result of a plastic company seeing an opportunity to make money during the holiday starting in the 19th century. The day before the holiday, vendors who might be as unofficial as a man carrying a clear trash bag filled with hammers appear at nearly every street corner to sell them for 2-3 euros. It’s a ripoff for something that something that costs at most 10 cents to make, but as my friend pointed out, most locals just recycle their hammers from the previous years.

But they sure are lots of fun. Everyone walks the streets armed with a plastic hammer that they use to hit their companions and random strangers on the head.

This could easily get out of hand, but for the most part it’s all civil good fun. You’ll get a surprise bop on the head, turn around to see someone smiling, give them a light dink in return, and then both laugh about it. There are, of course, a few exceptions, like the man who I wanted to strangle because he used his hammer far too often and far too hard behind us during the fireworks.

Garlic flowers

Also for sale on street corners are long-stemmed, purple garlic flowers.

I don’t know the origin of the garlic flowers, but they seem to be a bit more traditional than the plastic hammers. People also buy these to hit people on the head with and to wave in people’s faces, but they are considerably less popular than the plastic hammers.

Flying paper lanterns

Though usually part of the holiday, flying paper lanterns were banned this year because of the raging forest fires in central Portugal that broke out a week earlier. Nonetheless, a handful of lanterns were still spotted, including this one that a group hastily set off in front of us:

Fireworks

The big event of the night is the fireworks display at the riverbank and on the Dom Luis I bridge itself at midnight. Because the fireworks were the main thing I wanted to see, I made my way to the river side at 10pm. Even two hours early, it was already crowded with people and all the best spots to sit or watch the fireworks were already taken. My feet were killing me from all of the walking around that I did during the day, but I stood for 2 excruciating hours until midnight finally arrived.

However, midnight came and went, and nothing happened. A few minutes later, there was an announcement which a kind man behind me translated a few words of: some sort of technical problem, and “police.” I wondered whether they might have been canceled and whether the entire city would riot (we were, after all, all armed… albeit with plastic). But somewhere around 12:20am, the music started and the fireworks appeared.

All the waiting was worth it. It was probably the longest and one of the best fireworks shows I’ve seen, especially with the bridge lit up:

The wait after the fireworks was almost as long as the wait before, though, and not quite as worth it. So many people were packed at the river side that it took a full hour and a half to get back into the city. We waited 30 minutes for the people to clear a little before attempting to join the fray, but even then the wide streets leading back to the city were so crowded that I legitimately worried that a stampede might break out.

Eventually we did finally make it to the city center, but I was exhausted from the fireworks ordeal. After catching up with another local friend who I met during the festivities in Lisbon, I called it an early late night and made it back to the hostel at 4:30am.


A great night overall, despite being crowded and painful for my feet. Well worth the ticket change to experience the festival of Sao Joao in Porto!

I loved the hammers, which were great tools to connect with passing strangers and share a little laugh together. They have absolutely no practical purpose outside of Porto and outside of this one holiday, but I squeezed one of them in my backpack. Who knows when I might be back? If I do get to go back to Portugal, I’ll definitely try to make it again to these holidays in June!

Porto, Portugal

My second stop in Portugal, not counting the Azores, was Porto: Portugal’s second-largest city and the home of port wine. It has many similarities to Lisbon (the riverbank location, the orange tiled roofs), but at the same time, it has a very distinct flavor of its own.

For one, as a local friend aptly described, the the buildings in both Lisbon and Porto are colored -however, in Lisbon, they are a lighter pastel color, whereas in Porto, they are a little more dark.

Regardless of color, the riverside is breathtaking.

The Duoro river separates Porto in the North from Villa Nova de Gaia in the South. It is also the reason why Porto is known as the city of bridges, with a count of 6 bridges, the most famous one being the Dom Luis I bridge.

Fun fact: Villa Nova de Gaia is the actual producer of port wine – even though port wine is stamped with Porto, Porto has no part in the making of the wine. It is actually brought to Gaia because it is cheaper, as Porto was controlled by the church.

Porto Walking Tour

As with most other large cities, I started exploring Porto with a walking tour. In this case, with the aptly named Porto Walkers. The guide started off with a bit of history that I wasn’t able to confirm, but is too good to leave out:

There is a strangely high number of churches in Porto because the city was given to the church in 1120 by Teresa of Leon, before Portugal was even a country. Until the 16th century, even the royal family had to ask permission to enter the city, and could only stay a few days at a time. In the 19th century, the religious orders were expelled and many of the monasteries and convents repurposed. Monks and nuns were not kicked out, however, and allowed to stay until their death. This didn’t always work out well, though, as one nun in the convent marked to become Sao Bento station refused to die for 58 years.

Whether that’s true or not, Sao Bento station does indeed sit in a location that used to house a convent. Construction on the station began in the 19th century, and it was designed by an architect named Jose Marques da Silva. Allegedly, when the station first opened, it lacked a ticket booth, waiting room, and bathrooms. However, the architect made sure to leave his signature (literally).

Inside, the station is gorgeous. It’s decked in hand-painted blue azulejo tiles, an influence from Moorish culture.

On all sides are scenes from Portugal’s history, including one from the famous marriage of John I with Philippa of Lancaster.

Philippa was an English royal who brought a British influence to Portugal, evident even today, right outside the train station:

Another fun fact: The artwork in Sao Bento station has a purposeful mistake, because only God is perfect. If you look carefully at the scene below, 3 tiles are misplaced.

The tour also took us to the area surrounding the Porto Cathedral, a religious center that experienced many changes under the dictatorship of Salazar. The cathedral itself was built in 1120, funded by Teresa of Leon, and it was here that Jon I and Philippa of Lancaster tied the knot.

According to our guide, the cathedral used to be surrounded by houses, but Salazar knocked the houses down in order to build a terrace to highlight the majestic cathedral. He destroyed an old tower in the process, but built a replica of it at the edge of the terrace and paid people to throw rocks at it to make it look old.

Next to the cathedral is a massive building, the Bishop’s Palace. Construction started in the 18th century but took 100 years, and in the meantime, cutbacks from the original plan had to be made. Even so, the building is monstrous – and it contains a throne room, auditorium, and private garden, amongst other luxuries.

The path down from the terrace to the river starts behind the Bishop’s Palace. The first portion of the path is labeled the “truth arch” and the “truth stairs” – formerly known as the “lie stairs,” as it was a prostitution area where husbands came and “lied” to their wives. The bishop was understandably not a fan, so he cleaned up the area and renamed it to proclaim the change.

This area next to the river is Porto’s oldest neighborhood, with houses built in the 13th century.

A frozen rent law was passed under Salazar, enabling some of the residents in the area to pay as little as 5 euros/month in rent. They used to be able to pass this unbelievable rate to their descendants, effectively ending any chance for the landlords to profit. While the passing down is no longer allowed, some residents still pay ridiculously low rent for the remainder of their lives.


Though I’m unable to ascertain some of the things that the guide mentioned, Porto is undeniably a city brimming with intriguing stories. As Portugal’s second-largest city, it certainly holds its own against Lisbon and shows a different side of the country.

Between Porto and Lisbon, it’s difficult to say which I like better. They’re both great destinations, and among my favorites. However, the guide did make an excellent point: it’s called “Porto-gal,” isn’t it? Not “Lisbon-gal!”

Angra do Heroismo

The view from Alto da Memoria in Agra do Heroismo, Terceira, Azores, Portugal

With some time to explore more of the Azores, I hopped over to Terceira, the third largest island with the second highest population. (By “hopped,” I mean actually “took a 4 hour ferry ride which left me sea sick for 3.5 hours.” But that’s another, less savory story.)

The top destination on Terceira is Angra do Heroismo, the oldest city in the Azores and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The city was founded around 1450, and the port of Angra played an important role in Portuguese Trans-Atlantic trade in the following centuries. That’s why Angra do Heroismo has impressive military fortresses, churches, and manors that are usually found in much larger cities, and usually not on islands.

Beautiful Sites of Angra do Heroismo

Sunset down a typical road:

Sunset in Angra do Heroismo, Terceira, Azores, Portugal

Rua Direita, one of the main streets of the city:

Rua Direita in Angra do Heroismo, Terceira, Azores, Portugal

Beach and marina:

Beach and marina in Angra do Heroismo, Terceira, Azores, Portugal

Alto da Memoria

One of the best views of the city is from the Alto da Memoria, a memorial built on a hill to honor King Pedro IV in the 19th century. The memorial itself isn’t necessarily special, but the view from the top of the hill is!

The view from Alto da Memoria in Agra do Heroismo, Terceira, Azores, Portugal

Monte Brasil Hike

Another great viewpoint is from the top of Monte Brasil, the hill in the picture above. Fortunately, it’s possible to reach the viewpoint without a car, via a 2 hour hike up from the city.

Mont Brasil is also home to an old but still functioning military base. The road up the hill goes through a crumbling fort with cannons and right across a gate to a high security zone that is manned by an unsmiling soldier at attention. Just keep following the road and don’t go through the gate – once you pass the first section, you’ll find a path that looks more like a trail.

Views from the trail:

Trail up Monte Brasil in Terceira, Azores, Portugal

View of Angra do Heroismo from Monte Brasil in Terceira, Azores, Portugal

Trail up Monte Brasil in Terceira, Azores, Portugal

The trail leads to the top of Monte Brasil, where there is a monument and an incredible view of the city across the way.

Monument at the top of Monte Brasil in Terceira, Azores, Portugal

View of Angra do Heroismo from Monte Brasil in Terceira, Azores, Portugal


Angra do Heroismo is an unexpected colonial city on an island paradise. It has the best of both: quaint streets and historic buildings, but also a vibrant marina and a hiking trail that starts right in the city. It’s the perfect place to stay and explore without a car, and a great complement to the other natural wonders of the Azores!

Whale and dolphin watching in Sao Miguel

Dolphins seen at the Azores, Portugal

Whale watching is one of the top things to do in Sao Miguel, but I was hesitant because I already went whale watching in Mirissa, Sri Lanka. Sure, there are probably more whales here, but how different could it be? As the saying goes, though, you regret the things you didn’t do, right? So in the end, I went again.

Most whale watching companies cost at least 55 euros for a four hour boat ride, but I got recommendations for a company called Moby Dick. It’s the cheapest option at 35 euros, as Moby Dick bypasses the agencies and thus spares its customers the commission fee. It also has great reviews, and after going on a tour, I’m pretty confident that it’s just as high quality as – if not better than – the others.

The company runs two tours a day (subject to weather, of course), one in the morning at 9am and one in the afternoon at 2pm. I joined the 9am tour, since the sun was less intense in the morning, and it left me time to see the island in the afternoon when the clouds had mostly burned off.

Moby Dick tours at Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal

Note: Call and book a ticket in advance at least the day before, because you can’t count on no shows for a spot – something I learned the hard way.

Non-Bottlenose Dolphin

About half an hour on our way out to sea, we spotted the first animals of the day. I embarrassingly don’t know the name of these dolphins – just that they are not bottlenose dolphins, which we saw later. But if you can identify them, please let me know.

Dolphins seen at the Azores, Portugal

Almost all of the other boats blew right past these dolphins on their quest to get out to the whales, but our captain stayed in the area to “play” with them. He purposefully created waves with the boat that the dolphins liked to ride, so they swam up to and around the boat. Looks like I picked the right company!

Sperm Whale

Pretty soon after that, we spotted the first whale. All you can see of it is a long gray ridge sticking out of the water, with the occasional spray of water.

Whale seen at the Azores, Portugal

It hung out at the surface for a couple of minutes, and then treated us to the classic shot:

Whale seen at the Azores, Portugal

Over the course of the tour, we saw three sperm whales total. Unfortunately no other species of whale, but still quite a treat.

Portuguese Man of War

Throughout the tour, I noticed these little plastic sacks floating all over the place. I’d seen them – and even accidentally stepped some dried out ones, which looked like inflated light blue balloons – at the beach the previous day as well. At first I thought they were small packaging pills littered everywhere, but then… “Hey wait…isn’t there that infamous jellyfish called the Portuguese Man of War? And aren’t we technically in Portugal…?”

Portugese Man of War seen at the Azores, Portugal

INDEED. Well, if I had any desire to swim in the cold Atlantic, that certainly was gone now.

Sea Turtle

On our way back, we got another delightful and unexpected treat: a sea turtle, just chilling at the surface and soaking up the sun. By a stroke of photography luck, I caught it just as it raised its head out of the water. I think this is my proudest picture yet!

Turtle seen at the Azores, Portugal

Bottlenose dolphin

The tour concluded with a visit by a school of bottlenose dolphins. Just as with the non-bottlenose dolphins, the captain played with the dolphins by creating waves for them to ride alongside us.

Dolphins seen at the Azores, Portugal

After several failed attempts, I finally managed to catch one in the air:

Dolphin seen at the Azores, Portugal

Moby Dick Tours

At the end of the tour, the captain, who is also the owner of the company, gave us a presentation about the dolphins and whales that we saw as well as some background on the company.

Moby Dick Tours at Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal

I missed the first part of the presentation, hence why I can’t identify the non-bottlenose dolphins. But I did hear that there are much fewer dolphins and whales here this year since their main food source has moved, likely due to global warming.

I also caught some facts about the company: It’s the only one with a boat that is made of wood, which is better for animal watching (it has different vibrations than steel or plastic, so the animals come closer?) but a hell of a lot harder to maintain. You can also trust that the owner/captain knows his stuff, since he sailed by himself across the Atlantic. Overall, you can tell he has a lot of passion for his job, and he’s also very familiar with the area and the animals, which was evident in the number of animals we saw on the tour.

Conclusion? Definitely glad that I went on the tour and gave whale watching another shot. While I was a little underwhelmed with whale watching in Mirissa, it was most certainly worth it in Sao Miguel! Weather might have played a part since it was dreary on the day I went in Mirissa, but there’s a clear reason why the Azores is a top whale watching destination. And home ot lots of other intersting creatures as well (just stay clear of the Man of War!)

The Natural Wonders of Sao Miguel

Lagoa das Sete Cidades on Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal

With its lush green plants and clear turquoise waters, every picture I saw of Sao Miguel and the Azores was more gorgeous than the last. Finally time to see the island paradise in person!

Sete Cidades

Sete Cidades is the perhaps the most famous attraction on Sao Miguel, and one that you definitely want to see with clear skies! It is a small town in the center of a volcanic crater, situated next to two lakes, one green and one blue.

Lagoa das Sete Cidades on Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal

The legend surrounding the two lakes involves a beautiful but sheltered princess. Her father, the king, watched her like a hawk and forbade her from leaving the castle. However, she slipped out and heard a beautiful song that led her to a young shepard playing a flute. The two fell in love, and they went to the king so that the boy could ask him for the princess’s hand in marriage. The king did not take the news well, angrily forbidding the princess from seeing the shepard again. However, she snuck out later that day to see him one last time, and the two of them cried all afternoon in each other’s arms. The princess’s eyes were green, and the shepard’s eyes were blue, and their tears formed lakes of those same colors.

Actually, I believe the green lake just has a different ecology with more of a certain algae. But the romantic story is a lot more appealing!

The best view of the lakes is from up around the rim of the dormant volcano. This is where you get the stunning pictures of the path straight out to paradise!

Lagoa das Sete Cidades on Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal

Lagoa de Fogo

Lagoa de Fogo is the second most famous lake on Sao Miguel. It’s also in the crater of a dormant volcano almost smack in the center of the island. It’s higher up than the Lagoa de Sete Cidades so its harder to catch it in good weather, but I lucked out!

Lagoa de Fogo in Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal

To get the most out of the good weather, I hiked from a viewpoint down to the lake itself. It’s amazing to see the lake up close – the water looks so cool and clear that you just want to jump in it, but I don’t think that’s technically allowed because it’s a nature reserve. The lake is also a seagull sanctuary, because there are so few humans around to bother them.

Lagoa de Fogo in Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal

Lagoa de Furnas

A third and final lake! This one is the Lagoa de Furnas, right next to the Furnas hot springs. As with the others, the view of the lake from above is stunning:

Lagoa das Furnas on Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal

Lagoa das Furnas on Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal

However, it’s also easy to get down to the lake itself, where you can see what makes it unique: the hot springs! Right across from the lake is a roped off area with springs of bubbling and spewing mud.

Hot springs next to Lagoa das Furnas on Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal

In this area, locals cook the famous cozido das Furnas. It’s basically a bunch of meat and vegetables put in a pot that is buried near the hot springs for a few hours to cook. It’s not a rare delicacy and it tastes exactly like it sounds, but how often do you get to eat food cooked by the earth?

Cozido from Furnas on Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal

Locals can apparently bring their own pots, leave them to cook, and then retrieve them later. Restaurants in Furnas also use this space, and leave quite clever advertising. If you’re curious to try some cozido, you know where to go!

Hot springs next to Lagoa das Furnas on Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal

Furnas

A visit to Sao Miguel isn’t complete without a soak in the hot springs. There are multiple places to choose from all around the island, but I went to Poca da Dona Beija, which had many pools of different temperatures (the highest is 39 degrees Celsius) to choose from.

Hot springs at Furnas

The water leaves orange iron deposits that have built up over time.

Nordeste

With some extra time, I drove to the far East side of the island, Nordeste. All along the way, there are gorgeous viewpoints that allow you to see a different side of the island:

Sao Miguel in the Azores, Portugal

Nordeste on Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal


Having seen Sao Miguel in person, now I know that the pictures really don’t do it justice. It’s hard to believe that so much beauty exists on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Best of all, it’s still relatively untouched and extremely well preserved. The perfect island paradise!

Arrival in Sao Miguel and Azores Tips

The beach on Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal

When researching where to go in Portugal, the Azores islands immediately caught my eye. The Azores are a cluster of 9 islands out in the Atlantic, about a quarter of the way from Portugal to North America. The bright green and blue photos from the Azores are unreal, and the islanders have done a great job of preserving the island’s natural beauty. The best part, though, is that it’s not as crowded of an island paradise as Hawaii and the other large tropical escapes. Sold!

Sao Miguel, the biggest and most popular of the 9 islands, is where I started. It didn’t take me long to catch on to the two most important parts of life and travel on the island: transportation and weather.

Transportation

Transportation to the islands is extremely easy and cheap, as Ryan Air operates flights to the biggest islands for its famous low fares. Transportation between islands, however, is under a monopoly by Sata (the Azores airline) and Atlantico (the Azores ferry). A flight between any of the islands goes for a flat rate of around $100. The ferry’s not much cheaper at around $50, and it only operates between certain islands, in certain directions, on certain days of the week.

Transportation isn’t difficult on the islands themselves, but I discovered very quickly that you NEED a car. I don’t know what I expected – I certainly didn’t think that I would be able to walk to volcanic craters, but public transportation is lacking, at best. There are bus lines to the biggest sights, but they often still require a fair amount of hiking to reach. There are also only a few buses there and a few buses back, so you can conceivably only pick one place to go per day.

On my first day in Sao Miguel, when I was still debating whether to rent a car, I decided to make a trip to the beach. I was in Ponta Delgada, the biggest town on the biggest island, so surely the beach must be accessible and nearby, right? Nope, instead it took me half an hour to walk to the bus stop, 20 minutes on the bus, an hour of waiting for a return bus with no posted schedule, and another 50 minutes to get back to the hostel once the bus finally did arrive.

The black sand beach was wonderful to sit on! Not to swim at, though, because the Atlantic waters are not exactly warm.

The beach on Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal

At the beach in Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal

But yes, car.

Fortunately, it’s usually fairly easy to meet people to rent a car or tag along with at hostels. The cheapest cars usually start at around 25 euros/day, but those also sell out relatively quickly. I managed to book a car for 30 euros/day from a sketchy flyer that I got from the airport information desk, but the car and the company were completely legitimate (and extraordinarily nice, because I knocked a side mirror clean off the car…but that’s another story). However, another guy at the hostel who came just a couple of days later had trouble finding any car at all, even one in the 50+ euro/day range. So if you’re going to the islands, especially during the summer, book early!

Weather

Weather, understandably, matters a lot on an island. Rain cuts all plans short, but clouds also drain the spirit of the island. Water, after all, reflects the sky, and all the bright greens and blues become dull greens and gray.

Case in point: half blue, half gray:

Sao Miguel beach, Azores, Portugal

I kept a watchful eye on the weather report for the week that I was in the Azores. Ultimately I’m not sure if it did much good, because the day that was predicted to be the worst turned out to be the clearest and most gorgeous day of all. Go figure.

But I did learn some helpful island weather tips from a pilot friend that I made at the hostel. Clouds that form overnight take some time to burn off, so it’s usually clearer toward midday than in the morning. This is the opposite of the weather pattern that I’m used to of mornings being clear and thunderstorms rolling in in the afternoon…but then again, that applies to the mountains, which are extremely different from islands. When clouds form on the island, they will usually form on one side of the hills and then slowly get pushed up and over to the other side.

Overall, though, the weather is fairly unpredictable and can change drastically from moment to moment. So getting out early isn’t necessarily better, and even if it’s cloudy now, sit for an hour and you might just get a clear view. To help with planning, though, there’s also a live camera to check on the weather at key island locations in real time. A very useful tool to have!


Armed with these lessons and tips, I was ready to explore Sao Miguel!

Sao Jorge Castle

View from Sao Jorge Castle in Lisbon, Portugal

As the “City of Seven Hills,” Lisbon has several miradouros, or viewpoints. The best, however, is from the Sao Jorge Castle, situated on a high point on top of the Alfama district. The castle was built by the Moors in the 11th century and then used as a royal residence for Portugese kings from the 12th-16th centuries.

Unlike the other miradouros, it costs 8 euros to enter the castle complex and see the view. It’s worth seeing at least once, though:

View from Sao Jorge Castle in Lisbon, Portugal

The ticket also includes the castle ruins. The castle itself isn’t open, so you can only walk along the top amongst the various towers. They each afford a slightly different view of Lisbon.

Sao Jorge Castle in Lisbon, Portugal

View from Sao Jorge Castle in Lisbon, Portugal

All of this is nice, but it probably wouldn’t have justified the ticket price if it weren’t for my favorite part of the San Jorge Castle: the Camera Obscura, located on the top of one of the towers:

Camera Obscura at the Sao Jorge Castle in Lisbon, Portugal

The Camera Obscura is essentially a large scale submarine periscope installed in one of the towers. It uses a system of lens and mirrors to project a close up view of the city onto a large convex table. Just the science involved is really cool – pulling the table up focuses the projection on buildings in the distance, while pushing it down focuses on buildings that are closer….or the other way around. One of the two.

Camera Obscura at the Sao Jorge Castle in Lisbon, Portugal

Unfortunately, you don’t get to personally operate the Camera Obscura. Only the guide is allowed to touch it, but s/he also gives about a 15 minute tour of Lisbon as s/he shows the 360 degree view of the city.

Even despite having gone on a detailed walking tour of Lisbon already, I still got a lot of great information from the tour. For instance, the red bridge that looks suspiciously like the Golden Gate Bridge was, in fact, built by the same company. It was named the Salazar bridge initially, but after the Carnation Revolution, it was rechristianed the April 25th bridge after the date of revolution.

The tours run every 20 minutes, and they cycle through English, Spanish, Portugese, and French (these are definitely some multilingual guides!). The area is also pretty small, so they only allow 20 people in at a time. This means that the line starts building as soon as the previous group enters, especially because if you miss the tour in your language, it’s a full hour and 20 minutes before they run another one.

So go to the San Jorge castle to see the view, and make sure you don’t miss the Camera Obscura! It needs ample sunlight to operate, so it closes at 5pm and also on rainy/overly cloudy days. Plan accordingly!