Azores, sustainability, wet wipes and water
World´s first sustainable archipelago
If you have already been to, or are planning your trip to the Azores, you may have noticed the word “sustainable” coming up. In fact, we are very proud to announce that Azores is officially certified as the world’s first sustainable archipelago by the Global Council for Sustainable Tourism.
We consider this title as an honor to our ways of living and thinking. In Fun-Activities we aim to help to keep our island sustainable for generations to come.
However, what does the word sustainable mean?
How can we practice sustainability in our daily lives?
We live from tourism and we have witnessed a strong growth in this sector in São Miguel island in the last few years. Of course, this is something good. There are more possibilities for young people to find work on the island. Many old houses have been renovated and serve as nice places to stay. Shops and restaurants have more clients, new walking trails are opened and more.
We also notice long lines of badly parked rental cars close to the viewpoints. We see cans full of trash. There are unofficial trails lingering in protected areas where people carelessly tread, and so on…
As such we fully understand that it is our duty and work to keep the things organized and preserved.
What we believe in?
In Fun-Activities we believe that tourism is good only if it has a positive impact on the people living here and the island in general. We believe in a solution which is satisfactory for all the parts affected and we work for this every day.
We have started several projects for local people like clean-up activities and participate in governmental programs. However, there is something that we do daily that affects all of us in an almost invisible manner. And everybody who is on any tour with us is encouraged to contribute.
Maybe you have noticed our guides picking up something from the ground or taking out from the water. We do it on the walking trails and whilst kayaking or coasteering. Many of us carry a small plastic bag. We use it to gather daily bits and pieces of garbage left behind by others that have passed before us. Sometimes it can be as small as the cap of a water bottle or candy wrapper. Sometimes it is something big – like a bag with somebody’s picnic trash.The truth is,almost every day we collect something from our hiking trails and waters and keep the places cleaner for the next people going that way.
Can you guess the most uncomfortable things to find and collect?
Did you guessed – masks? As a sign of time, there are more and more lost masks on the trails. Sometimes already old and dusty, sometimes still clean. With or without broken straps. They are obligatory in closed spaces and optional outside. As they are light and small, they are easily pulled out together with a phone or water bottle. When they are pulled up to your arm, the strap can get broken and they get lost. Masks are dangerous to birds ,as well as for marine life when they are blown out to sea. For the next person to come along they are uncomfortable to pick up, as we don’t know who was using them and how long ago it was last used.
The second and maybe the most uncomfortable thing to clean – wet wipes.
Everybody knows what they can be used for, especially the ones behind a bush. As we don’t carry cloves with us,unfortunately they stay behind.
Hence our plea:
Carry together with the toiletries a small plastic bag. In need to use nature as a restroom, you can put paper or wet wipes inside the bag and leave it in the nearest garbage pin, where it will be taken care of. If you don’t have the bag, instead of the wet wipes, consider carrying and using just simple toilet paper. Our climate is humid and paper disintegrates fast, making it more comfortable for all of us.
But, do you know, what garbage can be found the most and in the most places??
Plastic, more precisely, plastic bottles.
We all need water. And we carry it with us everywhere. We use the water, but sometimes we don’t think about the weight of it.
In 2019,more than 624 000 people visited this island during 365 days. Even if we divide it equally, we have about 1700 new visitors per day. What if all of them buy a bottle of water daily?
To understand this problem, we need to understand what happens with the plastic in our islands
Have you noticed, how our garbage bins are marked? Separation has been made easy.
Problem is, we don’t recycle. After collecting, sorting and packaging, we need to send it all back to the mainland. Of course, it has its cost. On the other hand, empty plastic is light. In the days of strong wind it is enough to have open garbage cans where subsequently the bottles fly out and end up in the sea. Almost every day our kayaking and coasteering guides pull something out from the water and transport empty bottles, bags and other rubbish back to the land.
Azores is still one of the cleanest places, but things have changed and we notice it.
Five years ago, when we started our company, our concern was and continues to be, the well-being of our clients. On every tour we carried and offered bottles of water, and every evening we were disposing of some empty or half empty ones. Many times we noticed people having their own reusable bottles. Often we had the unused plastic ones carried back and forth for several days, staying in the hot car,until we emptied them and disposed of them. The vision of such an amount of garbage started to bother us and we tried to find a better way of managing this. One idea was to buy big bottles, to fill the smaller and reusable ones. Still, we ended up not using half of the water and instead of small bottles we now had bigger ones in our hand.
By talking with people we realized how more and more of our clients are aware of the problem and were having their personal bottle, many times filled with local tap water, which in São Miguel is perfectly good to drink.
Like this we arrived to our resolution.
During our activities we do not offer bottled water. In case of full day activities, we are happy to provide pik-nik or snacks. We make sure to use paper wraps and reusable cutlery/lunch boxes or paper bags. We make sure the litter will return with us and get disposed of properly.
All our activities have a list of things to bring with you, where water is mentioned. In any case if it happens that you don’t have your own bottle, or haven’t had time to buy water yet, we are happy to stop by some shop. For us, it is not about the small expense of buying a bottle of water, but about the belief that big changes start with small actions and we all can contribute by minimizing waste and reusing items, while we hope for your understanding and collaboration.
And if you, like us, do believe that something as small as the flutter of a butterfly’s wing can cause a typhoon across the world,then for sure not buying one bottle of water can make the world a whole lot cleaner place to live in.
What does a low season look like for us?
Here in the Azores, we notice two seasons –
Summer or high season, which normally starts with Easter and lasts till around the end of October. Main signs of which are tourists, buses and rental cars, grilling along the side of the road and summer festivals, both musical and religious.
For us, this is the season when we tend to lose track of time; our days are divided between rivers, bicycles and canoes. Work is constant and gives you a kick of good humor and a tired body by the end of the day.
Winter or low season, which reigns the rest of the months. Time to hear some Portuguese in the streets again, and get a bit more organized. Grilling gets replaced with dinners in restaurants or at somebody’s home. Tourists are still here, but not so many big groups. Rainy days with hot water pools and grass growing everywhere.
One might think that this is the time for us to relax, gain some weight, sleep in late and enjoy blissful long mornings and sometimes work a little bit.
But what happens before we step out of the car to meet you and (hopefully soon again) shake your hand to start the next adventure?
Is the nature guide some kind of hibernating species or is there something more than meets the eye?
Time to Reflect
Due to the situation in the world, Azores has now had, what we are calling three winter seasons in a row.
However, this does not mean that we are at a standstill. There is always a lot for us to do to prepare for the coming year.
Everything starts immediately after October or November. We look back over the season, gather together and make our conclusions. What worked very well, what needs a bit of improvement and is there something that went wrong and why. Everybody has their say and this functions as well as a vision board for the next season. We recheck our normal procedures, see if there is something that could be made simpler for the guides and for the guests. Remembering safety and reconfirming with the guides our normal rules.
It’s also a time to count and check all the equipment. Many things are used on a daily basis during the summer period and constantly checked during our normal workday. But winter is the time for repairing and replacing anything broken or too old. Ropes need to be inspected closely and sometimes we need to cut them shorter or buy new ones for the new season. Neoprene suits can need some light repairs and shoes may need some mending. Some things are too old and need to be replaced, while others need to be saved and stored properly. The same goes for the bicycles; some parts need greasing, some parts cleaning and some need repair. All together it can be a bit of a messy time until everything is counted, ordered, repaired, cleaned, tried and tested and ready to go for the next adventure.
Behind the Scenes
The biggest part of the winter work is made behind the desk. Homepage needs refreshments, website need to be updated, photos need to be sorted. Publications need to be made. This is the time, when the guides clean their hands and start to work more with their head. There are platforms and programs and loads of emails. New projects and ideas, insurances and fees, taxes and rules. Partnerships, collaborations and courses to be made. Some days when you send one mail and get four to follow it looks like a never-ending task, other days it looks fun or challenging.
After a while, everybody starts to complain that they need some action, and that’s the best time to bring in some practical lessons, or exploration. Sometimes we invite specialists of some activities like coasteering or canyoning to teach us new techniques and polish up on the old, or we go out and try to open new routes to get access to the rivers and try them out for potential tours. We study maps and explore real landscapes, which brings a lot of adrenaline and fun.
When the weather is good, we film or take photos for promotion, and then we spend countless hours of editing, repeating, searching for music, until we get two minutes of something we like.
Of course, there is outdoor maintenance to be done also. From time to time; we clean rivers, make a safety check of cramps and screws on our canyoning routes, and move some fallen trees. We re-walk our trails to check their condition after periods of heavy wind and rain. Besides this, we spend some time at the sea side cleaning-up beaches from washed up debris. These kinds of activities are good to test and teach new guides, as we get to know each other better, share our knowledge with each other and learn more about our field of work together.
Plus, and maybe the most important part – we dream. We bring in new plans and thoughts. Share our ideas about new activities or games. Search on the internet, speak with people, spend hours planning, and if everything looks good, we take a leap. Order some new equipment, try and learn something new and create a new product.
Then, before you know it, summer is at our doorstep. Mainly we notice it by the restlessness in our soul, giving us a sign – the need for people and movement.
It’s about time! let’s have some Fun together!
Spring Is In the Air
With spring in full swing, it’s time to shine on the island of São Miguel, proving how it got its nickname from Ilha Verde. Located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, its isolation helped to maintain the island’s uniqueness, making it home to 56 indigenous species and hundreds of endemic plants. With its fertile volcanic soil and mild climate, it is the perfect habitat for all green things to grow and prosper, making this island one of the richest in biodiversity in Europe.
It is a perfect trip through the island of São Miguel, with roads flanked by a bright pink of the Azaleas and with white spots by Calla Lilly. Along the road there are also hydrangeas that bring soft tones of blue, white and purple in the summer.
Hydrangeas are predominantly used as property markers by local farmers who grow this low maintenance flower around their fields, as can be seen especially in the Sete Cidades area. The use of bamboo, giant reeds and camellias is also common and used to create borders, in addition to acting as robust windbreaks to protect plantations, vineyards and fruit farms from strong salty winds. Ornamental trees and plants like Bougainvillea, Hibiscus and succulent plants with flowers like Aloe add color and personality to many Azorean houses.
Steep slopes and valleys are covered with a carpet of Yellow Ginger Lily, whose beautiful and fragrant flowers are dangerous to the Azorean landscape. Difficult to kill and with seeds blown by the wind, it spread like wildfire across the island, becoming one of the most invasive plants in the region, putting at risk the subsistence of native plants and putting biodiversity at risk. Another innocent-looking but invasive plant is the purple morning glory, which when left unchecked, turns into a dense undergrowth commonly seen in rural areas, smothering any plant in its wake.
Fortunately, there are several Protected Areas around the island that are well protected through local efforts, allowing nature lovers to stroll through forests full of endemic plants and trees, such as the Laurisilva Forest in the northeastern part of the island. This type of forest was previously common throughout Europe, however, it was eliminated by drastic climate change during the Ice Age, leaving the only surviving Laurel Forest to grow in the Macaronesian region. Because it is geographically isolated, with light daily showers, high humidity and insolation, the Laurissilva Forest has had the appropriate environmental conditions to withstand the test of time and is home to several species threatened with extinction. With a dense canopy of trees formed by Loureiro, Cedro-do-Mato Açoriano, Azorean Blueberry and Cereja dos Açores, different species of mosses, ferns and perennial shrubs of Azorean Holly, Buckthorn and Hera dos Açores, it’s really like going back in time while wandering through these forests.
A common scenario in the Northeast of the region are the dense forests of Japanese Critomeria, grown here for the production of sawn wood, as well as the occasional Acacia tree that is used locally for wood and heating.
Over the centuries, several owners have taken great pride and joy in their own private gardens and through their passion for botany and neighborhood competition, they have traveled to the ends of the earth bringing home exotic trees, plants and tropical flowers. Today, some of these botanical gardens are open to the public, where you can take a stroll through sensational nurseries.
Surprisingly, two of these botanical gardens, the António Borges garden and the José do Canto garden, are in the heart of the city of Ponta Delgada, both with a unique landscaping of artificial caves, water lily ponds and hosting one of the largest collections of living plants. from Europe, are well worth your visit. Other exceptional botanical gardens are found in Furnas, including the Parque Terrra Nostra and the charming Jardim Florestal de José do Canto.
Whether you are a simple nature lover like me or have a green thumb, spring is the best time of year to explore, enjoy and learn more about the world we live in, taking a closer look at all the different shades of green that we have surround this fascinating São Miguel Island.
Sete Cidades, one of the most emblematic locations on Sao Miguel Island, and frankly, if you haven’t been there at some point during your trip, then you haven’t really been to Sao Miguel Island.
Sete Cidades, literally translated is “Seven Cities”, however “Cidades” is actually derived from the Latin word “civitas”, meaning a collective of citizens within a community. One popular theory says that the original settlement of 1 Archbishop and 6 Bishops along with 5000 of their followers, established 7 Christian communities here, hence leading to its final name Sete Cidades.
The initial formation of Sete Cidades began with several underwater volcanic eruptions around 500 000 years ago, and the transition from underwater activity to a regime predominantly sub aero, dates back to more than 250,000 years ago. Through geological findings, we also know that originally Sete Cidades had formed its own island, but it joined the rest of the main island of S. Miguel due to many smaller effusive volcanos in the area, called “Complexo Vulcânico dos Picos” (“Volcanic Complex of Peaks”), where nowadays is Ponta Delgada for example.
The sudden and highly explosive eruption of this volcano, emptied out the magma chamber beneath, which led to the collapse of its cone tip thus forming the caldera we see today, dating back to 36000 years ago. The caldera has a rim diameter of around 5km with high walls of up to 400m, within which is nestled the village of Sete Cidades and the famous lagoons Lagoa Azul and Lagoa Verde.
Lagoa Azul, the “Blue Lagoon“, is bigger and more open, reflecting the sky, and Lagoa Verde, the “Green Lagoon“, reflecting the surrounding greenery of the crater. The legend of these unique colours comes from a sad tale of a blue-eyed princess and a green-eyed shepherd who fell in love. Once their families found out about their romance, they were forbidden from seeing each other again, however, they were granted one final meeting. The princess and the shepherd said their final goodbyes shedding so many tears in heartbreak that they each filled a lake reflecting the colour of their eyes.
This volcanic area can be foggy and drizzling on some days, obstructing the sought-out views, so when planning to visit I do recommend trying to do so at the beginning of your trip, so if you are unlucky with the weather the first-time round, you may be able to enjoy exploring the area on a brighter day. From my experience the ideal time to visit Sete Cidades is between 10am and 3pm as the sun shines the brightest then and the clouds tend to dissipate.
There is plenty to see and do in Sete Cidades, with several hiking trails in the area. One can hike or drive around the big caldera rim,”Cumeira Grande”, starting close to the “Muro das Nove Janelas” (Wall of Nine Windows) which is an old aqueduct system, rebuilt in 1830, to transport fresh water from “Lagoa das Empadadas” and “Lagoa do Canario” in Sete Cidades down to Ponta Delgada, travelling over 12km. This hike offers unobstructed views of the lakes and village below, while enjoying the view towards the rest of the island and the sea. If you’re short on time or want an easier hike, I recommend the “Serra Devassa” hike, which is also one of my personal favourites. The trail feels magical while taking you over mountainous terrain and walking you through the wood of high Japanese Cedar. There is a surprise around every corner, whether it’s a sudden amazing view or observing some of the Azorean endemic flora or coming upon one of the several lagoons and listening to the resident birds; this hike is surely to be enjoyed by everyone. Once here, one must also drop by for a visit to “Lagoa do Canario” and take a peek from the popular viewpoint of “Boca d’Inferno” (Mouth or Entrance to Hell).
Stopping at “Vista do Rei” viewpoint is well worth your time as this spot is clearly fit for royalty. King D. Carlos and Queen D. Amelia paid a visit to the island in 1901 and stopped to take in the view here, giving it its name “Kings View”. A few feet close by is the Hotel Monte Palace which was built in 1989 and only open and in service for a year, after which it was closed and completely abandoned in 2011. Sadly, entering the building is now prohibited due to its severely deteriorated state.
Heading down to the quaint village of Sete Cidades, you will find in its heart, the Parochial Church of Sao Nicolau with its Neo-Gothic style and charming garden. If you want to stop for lunch, there are a few family-owned restaurants here where you can taste the local cuisine, or if you’re early enough there is a local baker who is famous for his freshly baked homemade bread sold directly from his own home, open from 7am till 11am.
Down by the Green and Blue Lakes, you can have a picnic or make your own BBQ as there are a couple of dedicated areas for these purposes, including an official camping site. Want something else to do? Why not rent a bicycle or a kayak while you’re there? Exploring the area by bicycle is the fastest way to get around, and the paths along the lake shores are pretty easy and fun to follow. Renting a kayak or a SUP and passing under the bridge between the two lakes is another relaxing activity with which to explore and see the inside of the Caldera from a whole new perspective. A short trip along “Lagoa Azul” will take you to a tunnel which was constructed in the 1930s to help keep the water levels of the lakes stable to prevent flooding of the village during heavy rain. This tunnel goes through the mountain, extending 1.2km, to the village of Mosteiros where the overflow of water from the lakes comes out into the sea at “Grota do Alqueive”. There is a footpath within the tunnel that may be accessed when water levels are low.
Whatever your method for exploring Sete Cidades, please be aware that this is a Protected Landscape and care must be taken to safeguard its biodiversity. Preservation of this natural wonder will ensure that both locals and tourists will continue to be amazed for many years to come.
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