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.