An Enchanting Prehistoric Forest in the Azores on Sao Miguel Island
The Azores are lush, green islands situated in a remote spot of the Atlantic Ocean, where temperatures are mild and change little from season to season. Renowned for their thermal springs, crater lakes, exotic vegetation, and unique caves that have resulted from ongoing volcanic activity, these islands hold many distinct elements of a delicate Eco-system. The Azores’ climate is heavily influenced by the Gulf Stream, with no frost below elevations of 500 m and average temperatures of 21° C in summer and 14.5° C in winter, which allows these unique forests to flourish. The 9 Azorean islands, due to their remote location in the North Atlantic ocean, make them the most isolated region in the European Union. Since their discovery in the 15th century by Portuguese explorers, these islands have played a key role in transit routes from Europe to the new world. When the initial settlers came, they burnt down many of the laurasilva forests that dominated the entire island landscape to clear the lands for cultivation. The islands have small pockets of their original laurasilva forests that still exist, but have been significantly depleted over the last couple of centuries due to expansion. The remaining laurasilva forests are scarce in Europe and make these islands one of the few regions with these prehistoric forests. Only 2% of the native laurasilva forest still exists in the Azores.
In 1995, a European Union-funded project aimed to restore and expand these unique forests with the region of Pico da Vara on Sao Miguel had been designated a special protection area. It is here in Pico da Vara that has the largest forested area with the highest concentration of endemic and native plants to the Azores. This is a haven for bird watchers and nature lovers; however, it is essential to respect and not interfere with this special area’s environment as a rule. There are many unique hiking trails and summit points to explore in this forest from Nordeste to Povoacao county on the north tip of the island. This is the highest point on the island of Sao Miguel and is popular at all times of the day with people who come and hike to the top to watch the sunrise or during a full moon for the ritual full moon hike.
The Azores are trying to erase 15 years of expansion and deforestation starting in the 1990s when entering the single European market where subsidies and grants were given to turn forested and uncultivated lands into pastures for grazing cows, with minimum quotas to be met. Over 50% of the Azores’ natural forested areas have been converted into pastures between the 1990s and early 2000s.
Over the last couple of years, the local Azorean government has emphasized policies in restoring and maintaining the local flora and fauna in the region due to the importance of preserving their unique Eco-system. The Azores’ people have seen too many beautiful, untouched places get exploited by mass tourism and human settlement and do not want this to be the outcome of their islands. Awarded by National Geographic Traveller as the number 1 island destination for sustainable tourism, the Azores government is working hard to balance tourism, which represents growth and more jobs while not comprising their delicate Eco-system, which is the main reason tourists come in the first place.
If you want to visit this specially protected area, you need to fill out a simple form before with a list of rules of conduct to obey while in this designated area. It just asks you for your name, nationality, date of visit, and how many people. The form is available below as an attachment. The hike is about 8km roundtrip and averages 3 hours in length, depending on your pace. This is truly a bucket-list experience, hiking through these rare prehistoric woods in the middle of the Atlantic ocean. It is here that you will encounter many endemic species to the region. The Laurel forests as they are sometimes referred to play a very important role in the balance of ecology on the island. Whether you are looking to just get away and explore nature or if you want to hike and bird watch then make sure to come to Nordeste and explore this enchanting Laurisilva forest at your own pace.