Green Travel Guide to Azores
Another travel, another look for sustainable options! The collection of Portuguese islands placed on the North Atlantic, Azores, consists of 9 of them: Corvo, Graciosa, Faial, Flores, Pico, Santa Maria, São Jorge, São Miguel and Terceira - and truth be told we only managed to go through four of them and only two in proper depth. Nonetheless, we really want to give you at least a rough idea about their sustainable options and green potential. Literally and figuratively, Azores are probably among the greenest of places that we managed to visit so far. Both for its lush, ever-blooming and rich flora, and for the approach to consumption and production. Dive into our first-hand report of those magical islands and leave us comments if you have your observations!
First of all, we speak of Azores as Portuguese, but actually it is one of the autonomous regions of the country, much like Madeira (yes, where Cristiano Ronaldo was born). We spent our first couple of days in a tiny island of Pico. It is one of the most volcanic islands of Azores with post-eruption rocks and caves built by magma. It is also the home of a dormant volcano, being also the highest point of Portugal, Montanha do Pico. It is doable, and also very popular, to climb this peak since it provides, on a good day, an incredible view over entire island and the ones nearby. The other half of our stay we spent on São Miguel island, which is considered the main one in Azores, with most of industry and also the biggest airport of the archipelago. We only managed to swing by other two islands, Faial and Terceira, but in essence the lifestyle of all Azorean islands can be interpreted together. And of course we do not want to generalise and place all of those incredible places in one bag, so we just limit ourselves to comment on what we observed directly in places that we managed to visit. As always - we will also impose some healthy criticism on ourselves!
Getting to and around Azores (green score: 1/5)
We will not re-discover the wheel here - the ways to get to islands are very standard and limited to plane and cruise boat. Any other, more “green” options are not possible simply because of the distance one must cover to get to Azores - they lie nearly half way to Canada’s Newfoundland. However, one can always remember that some companies offset their carbon release for some trips (find out more about carbon offsetting here). Ryanair is one of them, and admittedly it goes to Azores and it offers very competitive prices… but we personally have other problems with Ryanair. We do not respect the brand much for how they are notorious for not paying their staff and basically for not having respect to customer’s money. What is more, they just entered the top 10 biggest polluters in EU. We leave it to everyone’s consideration, but personally, we skip Ryanair whenever it is possible and drop some extra bugs to more responsible companies (ones that also give you some decent luggage allowance, glass of water on board and do not deliberately split you with your family unless you pay more). We were quite happy to support local airline, SATA Air, but we must admit that landing in Pico left us shaking for a very long time!
Getting around the islands is equally “unsustainable”, as rental cars seem to be the most common and available option. Biking is of course always possible, but sadly not many bikes are visible and around, hostels rarely offer bikes as a means of transport. Islands and their respective cities are also so small, that bike rides are not exactly the safest and easiest ones - especially for those who do not usually bike at all. We have however seen some people hitchhiking through the islands, which is always a good idea! It also helps the fact that rental cars on average stay half empty while being used.
There is no going around about this - there is nothing sustainable about transport aspect of Azores. As tourists and visitors we can only do as much - try to find as many people as possible to rent one car, try to walk as much as we can, bike whenever we feel safe enough and maybe get there by boat. But of course, in this regard tourism equals fumes and traffic pollution.
Food around azores (green score: 4/5)
Quite naturally, because its abundance of cows, goats and sheep, Azores are a collective kingdom of cheese. Nearly all the cheese available to buy around there is produced locally. We normally promote plant-based cuisine and diet, but we have to admit here that we bent towards the Azorean cheese a couple of times while there. We are absolutely not saying that the Azorean cheese is some revolutionary one and is produced locally and ethically. Dairy production always involves exploitation of animals, period. We can only hope, also based from our observations, that cows and goats in local Azorean dairy-producing enterprises are at least a tiny bit more respected and held in slightly better conditions that it is the case normally.
But to those who would accuse us of giving up - we are glad to report that there are vegan options out there too! And not nearly as hard to find as one would think. All restaurants and bars have some sort of vegetarian (and usually just vegan, to make it “easier”) option. We had a favourite place to go for breakfast or brunch in Ponta Delgada, the main city in São Miguel, called Louvre Michaelense. We enjoyed fully vegan brunch there and the added value is in what the cafe/shop offers on its shelves! The local sells only locally produced cosmetics, accessories, food, alcohol… everything that is made slowly, sustainably and right there on one or the other of the islands! A definite must-go for some awesome vegan food and sustainable inspiration! Another place, also based in Ponta Delgada is called Rotas da Ilha Verde, offering only vegetarian and vegan food. The food is locally sourced and delicious, and vegan chocolate mousse is to die for - no joke. We also noticed a recently-opened place called Treze, also only with vegan and vegetarian menu. We did not try this one though, so we will have to take your word for it (for now)!
When it comes to Pico, we had absolutely zero problems to get vegetarian or vegan options, even in meat- and seafood-heavy restaurants. Everyone is extremely welcoming about the food choices and they offer to make dishes according to local ingredients they have. So usually we have been ending up with a generous plate of seasoned potatoes, mix of grilled local veggies, rice etc. For breakfasts, we were happy to have a kitchen in our accommodation, which allowed us to power-up the day with some coconut oatmeal with local jam or fruits. We always love to provide our own breakfasts while travelling, as it brings more variety, saves time and money, and obviously gives us control over the ingredients that we use. We give Azores and us a rather high score here, for the availability and possibility. The fact that so many groceries available to buy are produced locally serves as a natural advantage for the sustainable menu plan!
CONSCIOUS SHOPPING IN AZORES (GREEN SCORE: 4/5)
Broad possibilities for locally-made goods and accessories also give Azores a rather high score here. Cheese, bread, snacks, sweets, alcohol, fruits and vegetables that are not produced directly on a given island, can be at least outsourced from any other Azorean island that happens to make it. Because of their varying geological properties, the islands offer variety of soils and grounds for cultivating different types of crops. Farming is also among the main industries and huge part of land is strictly kept for farming purposes - therefore, cannot be used for building. The local, home-led micro-companies producing food and accessories (for jewellery, pottery etc.) are also usual, supplying the locals and the more savvy tourists. The previously mentioned Louvre Michaelense offers a smorgasbord of locally produced goods. Some small cities both on São Miguel and Pico boast handcrafts and artisanal workshops which can be visited and bought from. As we were informed by some locals, Pico island is especially well-known for amazing carpenters! The options are everywhere, they just need to be found - which is not hard given the very short distances within islands. Everything is easily reachable and everyone is extremely friendly.
Of course, a full-mark score is never possible, as un-sustainable shopping options are everywhere. We sadly realised a couple of so called “Chinese shops” on both islands that we visited. Huge, two-level stores offering incredibly cheap goods made in China reached even Azores. There are also some fast fashion brands available in Ponta Delgada, targeted clearly towards well-off tourists and locals. Although, they constitute a rather small part of consumption choices.
Waste (Green Score: 3/4)
First and most important observation for us was that recycling is everywhere, it just does not seem very thoroughly executed. The bins are there, they even have different colours to mark which one is for which (as they should!), but very often they contain a mix of everything. Households and hotels do not seem to care too much and they do not offer recycling. As the local government continues to assure, recycling is on a constant rise in Azores. The will seems to unquestionably be there, but switching mentalities and executing policies is always a challenge. What seems in place, however, is that local authorities pay a lot of attention to maintaining their heritage sights, and especially natural protected zones, in good conditions. It means that even with rather exploitive tourism, there seem to be solutions in place that limit its negative impacts. For example, in places like Gruta das Torras, a UNESCO-listed system of long caves, only accepts limited numbers of visitants per day, not to destroy the ecosystem of hundreds of microorganisms and bacteria which are alive only there - some of them even unknown to modern biology. It is really ensuring to learn about places that value their natural resources and habitats more than easy profit from countless tourists. The same is true for Montanha do Pico, the main touristic spot on Pico island. Everyone who wishes to climb it needs to go through the Mountain House first, pay the fee, get their own tracking device to accompany them on the way to the top. The trail to the top is very well maintained and the protection services make sure that tourists are still only a small point on the natural beauty landscape, and not imprint their presence all over it.
Azores are a set of incredibly beautiful, isolated islands where it is very easy to forget about the problems of the high-consumption, high-speed continent. As tourists, we should always remember not to interfere too much with natural beauty and resources of places we visit, and Azores are no exception. When hiking, the only thing left behind us should be the shoe-prints, nothing else. Our hearts always break when we see trash in heritage spots and we also found those in Azores. With our “eco tourism” articles, we hope not only to show the readers sustainable sides of spots we visit, but also encourage them to travel more mindfully and respectfully towards societies and ecosystems that they visit. We will surely come back to Azores, we absolutely loved the slow lifestyle of locals and pride from locally-made food and products. We want, and truly hope they will, to see the islands advance in their attempts to become more and more sustainable.