If the Azorean weather can’t come to us, can’t we just go there? Of course. In five hours you can be on a secluded group of islands right in the middle of the Atlantic.
Julia, our photographer Maria, and I don’t set out on this journey completely unprepared. Out of the total nine inhabited volcanic islands the two most easterly called Sao Miguel and Santa Maria are renowned for being an enduro paradise. Our Azorean friends Andre and Andre are waiting for us at the airport in Sao Miguel, the largest of the islands. They grab our bags, load them into the car and take us to our accommodation for the night.
Our two guides pick us up in the morning while it’s still dark. As the sun’s first rays reach out over the eastern horizon, we stand 947 metres above sea level on Pico da Barrosa, the highest point on the island. Below us, there’s a beautiful display of colours - light green illuminating a circular lake framed by a white sandy beach. The darkening forest reveals its contours and radiates surreal rich green tones that stand out against the azure blue sky. We can’t take our eyes off the colours.
The guide waves a bunch of local enduro bikers past who want to ride the island’s longest trail before work. Then it’s our turn. We leave the crater-shaped lake on our left and follow the path along a ridge. Riding for a while with a view of the sea, the trail suddenly plunges into dense vegetation. It’s a tunnel of roots and lianas.
To begin with, the blue sky shines through the dense network and then the lush greenery takes over. The trail turns into a roller coaster with no emergency exit. Right turn then left turn. The tyres grip down into a peat-like soil from which a root protrudes every now and again. Each time I’m caught by a berm, then after the bend comes a drop. I was just able to dodge the last one.
All of a sudden an open meadow appears: time to apply the brakes. I nearly ride into Andre and Julia who have just let a pair of Azorean cows go past. 200,000 cows live on Sao Miguel. That’s one cow for every inhabitant. As we come to a stop at the small port of Caloura, Andre 1 is waiting for us with the shuttle. We drive halfway up to Pico da Barrosa. In the bend, a wooden sign points towards a popular downhill course.
“If the descent becomes too difficult, keep to the left. That’s where we’ve installed Chickenways,” explains our guide. And it’s not just at one spot that I’m glad about this. After the descent, we continue down the street to Riberia Grande. The biggest town on Sao Miguel’s north coast is a small place with lots of sandy beaches and small black dots on the water… surfers!
We follow Andre into a place called Casa de Pasto. It’s a bar that is not immediately recognisable from the outside. Inside, however, the dining room is packed and plates of hearty home-cooked food are being served. We manage to get the last empty table and without being asked are given a carafe of red wine. Andre immediately covers it with his hand. “Careful, this wine can’t be imported into the EU due to its high alcohol content. We only drink it mixed with Laranjada, our Maracuja-Lemonade, otherwise you’ll get hallucinations.” This concoction tastes delicious. It goes perfectly with the meat stew and fried squid.
There’s pineapple for dessert, which is unbelievably fresh and juicy. “If you want, I’ll show you the greenhouses later. They belong to my father,” garbles Andre with two pieces in his mouth.
After three days there’s a change of scenery: we climb aboard a small propeller plane and fly over to Santa Maria. It’s the southernmost island in the Azores and not particularly large. If Sao Miguel is about the size of La Palma in the Canaries, then Santa Maria is not even half the size of the island of Elba off the coast of Italy. We touch down on an oversized runway and realise Santa Maria is much hotter, drier and unfortunately much flatter than Sao Miguel.
We are welcomed by our new guides Hugo and Miguel. They can already see the doubt on our faces and try to allay our worries: “It’s only flat in the west. On the east of the island, there are 600 metre-high mountains with fantastic trails.”
Pico Alto is, at 587 metres, the highest peak in Santa Maria. Its mountain range runs from north to south, from the flat west to the hilly east. Hugo points to the faint lines that disappear into the jungle. “There are seven trails for you here at Pico.” The first is called Aeroplane Trail, which starts at Point Zero. In 1989 a Boeing 707 crashed into Pico during fog. All 145 passengers were killed. There’s a memorial plaque marking the tragic accident.
As we set off, an open roller coaster awaits us which leads to a flow trail through the jungle full of small and big surprises in the form of roots, steps, drops and berm. Every now and then we’re struck on the face by small thorns. The last section of the trail curves into a narrow bend through a cactus-filled landscape. At midday, we stop at a small bar in the bay of Praia Formosa for a ‘café Pingal’ – an espresso with a dash of milk. A postman rattles around the corner on a scooter.
Hugo greets him warmly and introduces us to the man in the grey uniform: Nuno Aguiar aka Káká, downhill biker of the moment. He moved from Sao Miguel to Santa Maria a few years ago and began searching for trails using old military maps. That’s how he discovered the ones on Pico Alto, which were, at that time, completely overgrown. Using a shovel and an axe he was able to expose the trails. Unfortunately, due to his job and family, he is unable to spend as much time on his bike, which is why Hugo has taken over the job of looking after the trails. He ensures that they are used regularly. However, he occasionally closes some of the more frequently used trails to allow them to regenerate.
On the way up to Pico we make the most of as many trails as possible before gently descending to San Lorenzo in the evening. We order ‘Cerveja de Pressao’, a local draft beer at a colourfully painted beach bar and enjoy spectacular views of the Atlantic waves. We definitely need to come back here again before this bike paradise becomes too popular.