Islands of the Atlantic- Açores Part 2

Being the largest of the three islands and the last island that makes up the Açores triangle, Pico Island stands tall among its peers. Not only is it the tallest mountain in Portugal, it is also the highest in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Pico Island is creatively named after Mount Pico, which means peak in Portuguese. Covered shore to shore by black volcanic soil, this island is the most recently formed island of the Açores and the second largest in the entire archipelago, estimated to be around 300,000 years old. Composed of Shield Volcanos along the eastern side of the island and the major Stratovolcano to the west, it is flanked by numerous spatter and lava cones along the mountainous ridge. What used to be craters along this plateau have recently captured rainwater and transformed into lakes, with dense shrub and forests all around. Forests filled with large cedar wood, sour cherry, laurels, and a species of yew wood which can only be found here.

Having had a relatively calm 300,000 years of existence, Pico Islands landscape has morphed from post-apocalyptic lava fields to one in which life can once again flourish. Although the area around the main Mount Pico continues to be that of lava rocks and soil, the rest of the island has really been able to adapt to a new reality. From the newly created grasslands which have taken over the nutrient rich black soil in the east, the lake-filled craters all through the central plateau, the forest cover along its North coast, Pico Island truly is a scene of two worlds colliding.

Travelling along the Estrada Nacional 3, a road which intersects the island from West to East, you can easily witness this transformation firsthand. To get to this road, you must first make your way to the oceanside village of Madalena. Having opted for the ferry which connects Faial Island to Pico, and being blessed with a relatively clear day, the 30-minute journey went by in what felt like seconds. With spectacular views of Faial Island behind us and the excitement of what laid ahead, we turned to look at Pico Island only to be greeted by a behemoth of a mountain towering above us. As we edged closer to the island, the scenery, and the excitement of setting foot on the island only intensified. Words will not do justice to the feelings that took ahold of us. Wanting to quickly get off the boat and explore the natural wonders in front of us we finally arrived at the quaint fishing village, grabbed a car, and set off to discover what this island had to offer.

The journey towards Pico Island sets the scene for what we were going to witness throughout the day, but nothing could really prepare us for the views of this stratovolcano while standing at its base and gazing up at the steep solitary volcanic cone covered by clouds. Making the journey from West to East and along the Estrada Nacional 3, you are surrounded on both sides by desolate fields of old lava which once ran down along the now quiescent volcano. For those of you who are not volcanologists, this basically means that Mount Pico is in a state of inactivity…dormant. Further along the road and with Mount Pico to your right, the landscape begins to change. This transformation brings with it such a contrast that it is hard to believe that we continue to be on the same island. The fields of old lava are now endless fields of rugged grassy green pastures. We have reached the Achada Plateau. A plateau that boasts the most amazing views of Mount Pico, with its picturesque crater lakes, forests, and grassland…years away from the landscape witnessed just a few minutes prior. Roaming around the plateau, you can find lava cones jutting out of the grasslands, abandoned craters invaded by shrubbery and the occasional independent cow who has decided to abandon its farm and live a life of solitude. Seeing these cows roam free sends a sense of envy through us, waking up everyday to these views…what else could we want?

Cows roaming free

Heading further East we arrive at the century old shield volcano section of the island, with its unlevel terrain, the effect of lava flow creating layers over the years. This landscape continues until we finally reach the eastern shores. A natural rock pool greets us, almost as if summoning us to take a dip. We buckle under the pressure and decide, what better way to end this trip traversing this magical island.

Pico Island, has been under pressure from various human activities, from the destruction of virgin forest to give way to additional farmland— estimated at almost 50% conversion towards pasture for dairy cows in the last decade alone, and the use of chemical components which have compromised freshwater quality. These activities have been occurring since the island’s settlers moved in but have intensified in the more recent years. Strong impacts have been felt on breeding seabird populations, once roaming free around Pico island, now resorting to secluded islets for these purposes. Lax regulation and the inflow of subsidies, grants and quotas from the EU have been to blame for this increase in degradation. It is vital that we raise awareness about this natural wonder as to assist in the reversal of these policies. It would be a shame for this island to no longer exist in its current glory for the future generations to cherish and explore! Generation Clean!

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