Before our Easter trip to São Miguel, Azores, I’d heard that the Azores islands were volcanic, but had assumed that all the volcanoes there were extinct and didn’t realize we’d see such fascinating volcanic activity. If you’re interested in volcanoes, it’s definitely worth a visit! I lost count of how many volcanoes are in the Azores islands since different websites say different things, but there are a lot, and it seems there are six volcanic zones on São Miguel. As a result the island has many calderas (craters formed by eruptions), each with its own character. Many of the villages are built in and around these volcanoes, and one of these is Furnas.
On our first afternoon, after checking into our accommodation in the suburbs of Vila Franca do Campo, we found our way to Furnas. What a great name considering the steam rising from the ground and boiling water pools (furnace!). Furnas is located inside (INSIDE!) the easternmost of three trachytic stratovolcanoes, Furnas volcano. The other two volcanoes are called Fogo and Sete Cidades.
Furnas volcano is considered dormant, although there was an eruption between 1439 and 1443 shortly after colonists reached the island, and again in 1630. Dormant simply means the volcano is not currently active, but it could wake up again at any time – luckily scientists monitor volcanoes for any signs of activity so that they can warn people well in advance! The Furnas volcano has had explosive eruptions previously, throwing out pumice and ash, and it currently contains two main calderas. You can read more about it here, and see a nice map of the volcanic zones on Sao Miguel. All over the island you can see roads, walls, and buildings built out of the volcanic rock, the coast has black pebbles and rocks and the beaches have dark sand.
Another feature of the Azorean towns (and Portugal in general) that I really like is their fondness for tiles. Most signs are made of tiles, and look at these adorable bus stops!
One of the calderas of Furnas contains a crater lake called Lagoa das Furnas, and on the northern side of the lake are fumaroles and boiling mud pools. A fumarole is an opening in the earth’s crust which emits steam and gases such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen chloride, and hydrogen sulfide. The first thing we noticed when we arrived at the fumaroles was that there were a lot of cats lying around! They’d clearly cottoned onto the fact that the ground was very warm, and you know how cats love warmth. J labelled it as a cat trap, since some of the cats looked like they’d been lying there so long in the fumes that they would never get up, but we saw some of them walking around and heard that there is a donation box in the bathroom where you can leave money to help feed the cats.
It was uncanny to feel the warm earth beneath us. Since it was getting a bit chilly in the evening, it was actually lovely to walk among the sulpherous steam as it was nice and warm. But it’s really uncanny to see the water coming directly from the ground boiling so vigorously.
There was even steam coming from another area near the lake edge – probably new fumaroles pop up over time. Driving around in the area you do see fumes coming out of cracks here and there, and apparently residents have to be careful to keep an eye on carbon dioxide that can seep up from the ground in places.
During the summer months, the locals apparently cook in the hot geothermal soil in this area, making stews of meat and vegetables – this is called Cozido das Furnas.
After we’d had a long look at the fumaroles and torn ourselves away from the alluring, steamy warmth (unlike the cats, who were still happily lying around), it was getting dark and time to head back. However the next day we returned to Furnas to visit the botanical garden near Lake Furnas, as well as more fumaroles and boiling springs on the other side of the village.
As well as the fumarole fields, the volcanic manifestations in the area also include hot springs, and there are many springs and geysers in and around the village. People come for thermal baths and to drink the many different kinds of mineral waters, each with different chemical compositions and tastes. A warm, iron rich stream runs through the town. Volcanic mud is also used for relaxing therapies.
You can imagine when you see the steam rising from cracks in the rocks how all the legends of the underworld and dragons arose from areas with volcanic activity.
We were so busy seeing all corners of the island that we only ended up going to the outdoor thermal baths at Furnas on my birthday, which was on Easter Sunday this year and our last night on São Miguel. What a pity, as we would have loved to go more! I was really cold running from the change room to the pool, and it was amazing to get into the hot water. Clearly there are some benefits to living on a volcano!
Another benefit of living near (or on!) volcanoes of course is how fertile the mineral rich land is. São Miguel looks like one big, beautiful garden.
While we were on Sao Miguel we also went for many walks around the calderas. The landscapes formed by the volcanic activity are amazing, with many cone-shaped hills, crater lakes and cliffs. I’ll share photos from our walks around the calderas in my next post on the Azores!