Mountain bikes are often thought of as vehicles of exploration, a perfect amalgamation of rubber, metal and oil opening doors to uncharted destinations. But realistically, what portion of time spent in the saddle is actually devoted to exploring, in the true sense of the word? My guess, from my own limited experience, is pretty slim. Between rolling on local dirt and glossing over images of perfectly carved singletrack, I can’t help but wonder if my understanding of “exploring” has become somewhat diluted. It feels like ages since I’ve set foot on unfamiliar soil, attempted dialogue in a foreign tongue and breathed in exotic aromas aboard a bike. So when the Azores are pitched as a new riding destination, I am immediately intrigued. There’s something alluring about these islands being way out there, smack in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. And when asking Carlos, our main contact on the island of Sao Miguel, how the riding is, he simply smiles and shrugs: “it’s amazing”.
One week, fresh scars and new tan lines later, I can attest to how well that one word sums up the Azores. Here are the top 3 reasons why:1. Looking to get off the beaten path? Look no further
The Archipelago of the Azores, located 1500 km off the coast of Lisbon, is composed of nine islands of volcanic origin. A quick Google search generates images of green pastures, fishing villages and sandy beaches. Mountain bikes? Not so much. But don’t let that fool you. The riding scene here may not be well documented, but that’s part of the appeal.
Upon meeting Carlos at the airport, I’m greeted with a warm smile and a pat on the back. “Picked the right day!” he exclaims. Indeed, the sun is brimming and the clouds are few. We throw bags and bikes in his van, my legs still stiff from the flight. “See that hill over there?” he asks, pointing in the distance, “we’ll have great views!” That was the first understatement of the trip. As we make our way up Mount Barrosa along narrow roads, I sit stunned by the various shades of green and blue filling the horizon. I can tell Carlos is slightly amused by my oohing and awing, grinning as if to say “you ain’t seen nothing yet.”As we reach the summit and unload the bikes, I gaze towards the emerald blue lake on the opposite side – Lagoa do Fogo, or Fire Lagoon – and the thin line of singletack snaking its way into the forest below. This is going to be one heck of a ride, I think to myself. Let the exploring begin.2. Beauty ‘round every bend
We begin descending a trail the local riders have nicknamed “The Cathedral” – a name I find fitting for the sense of sacredness it seems to bestow. We hobble through rugged sections and sail through smooth, trodden slices of singletrack, all the while embracing the cool ocean breeze coming in from the right and the glistening rays from the lagoon on our left. We break on a few occasions to take in our surroundings, throw a couple high-fives and slow our heart rates down a tad.
As we drop in elevation, the tundra-like terrain transforms into a lush, evergreen forest before spitting us minutes away from Agua d’Alto Beach. We quickly rid ourselves of gear and jerseys and bolt into the sea, washing off dirt, sweat and grime. And while soaking in the sun and laughing over a few cold Sagres with Carlos’ buddies, I’m reminded of why I ride. I never would have made it to the top of that hill had it not been for mountain biking. And that would have been a crying shame. To travel to the Azores is one thing, but to ride here is something else altogether. 3. Experiences like no other
Ever wanted to swim with dolphins? Repel down a waterfall? Kayak in a volcanic lake? The Azores offer countless opportunities to satisfy the keenest of adventure junkies and culture fiends. After a morning of bombing down fresh trails, Carlos and I arrive in the village of Furnas, famished. Here, the island’s primordial beginnings can still be found. An acrid, sulfuric smell accompanies the sight of large tufa mounds as steam emanating from the bowels of the earth clouds the area. For centuries, this volcanic activity has been put to good use: large pots of various meats and vegetables are lowered in man-made caldeiras, covered in earth and retrieved several hours later.
“Hungry?” Carlos asks, rhetorically, as heaping portions of blood sausages, pigs’ ears, chicken thighs, cabbage, sweet potatoes and corn are served in what can only be described as a gluttonous feast. What more could two mountain bikers possibly ask for after an epic ride? Well, perhaps a dip in natural hot springs, which we then proceed to check off our list. Exploring, after all, certainly has its rewards.
Interested in visiting paradise on your mountain bike? Check out www.sacredrides.com/rides/azores/paradise-island