Most people don’t seem to know much about the Azores Islands, though the name is somewhat familiar. Where are the islands? Are the Azores safe? Are they part of Portugal? Are they a country? I will try to answer these and other questions, based on my personal experience.

The first time I ever heard of the Azores Islands was in when I was a youth traveling through Portugal. It was the spring of 1974 and the Carnation Revolution had just taken place. It was a most amazing time, for sure. 

The Portuguese people had been ruled by a fascist government for decades and suddenly there was total liberty. It took some time and adjusting, but I am happy to report that Portugal and the Azores are doing quite well.

Where are the Azores Islands?

Basically, out in the middle of the Atlantic ocean!

For those in the USA and Canada, if you were to draw a line from Philadelphia to Portugal and travel two-thirds of the way toward Portugal, you would find yourself in the archipelago known as The Azores. 

In terms of actual distance, they are a whopping 2,400 miles from the USA and 900 miles from Portugal. In kilometers that is 1,450 km from Lisbon and 3,900 km from the USA.

That is their location on a map, but there is more to the story. The Azores archipelago happens to sit on a tectonic plate sandwiched between three other major tectonic plates in the Atlantic ocean. These three major plates: the North American, African and Eurasian plates are slowly moving away from one another. 

Right at the junction, like a floating raft, lie the Azores. This is quite evident when you are on the islands because they are obviously completely volcanic in nature. It might seem alarming to be floating on a plate trapped between 3 other huge plates, but things move slowly in geological terms.

 

 

Walking trail sign
tall trees
Lagoinha sign

 

The Azores Islands are also in the path of the Gulf Stream as it returns from the North Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico. This current, combined with other currents is known as the Azores Confluence Zone

One effect of this is the temperate climate of the islands. It is seldom very hot and never very cold. I have been on Terceira Island in January and went about in shirt sleeves, though a lot of the locals had winter parkas on! Even when it is chilly, you can be sure that the sun will break through and soon you feel almost hot. 

The location of the Azores Islands has also been extremely important in history. Much could be said of the spice trade, the age of exploration, pirates, the last part of Portugal to remain free from Spanish domination, and the critical role of the islands during WWll.

Are The Azores Part Of Portugal?

Yes, and they are proud of it. They are also very closely tied to the USA and Canada because so many have migrated to the North America over the years. 

The Azores are considered an Autonomous Region of Portugal though I’ve never really figured out what this actually means in day to day life. The Azorean people hold Portuguese passports and are citizens with all the rights of the mainland. They vote and pay taxes like everyone else and receive the same benefits from the government. 

The Azores have their own local governing bodies and have control over many aspects of their local affairs, while still retaining the rights and privileges of Portuguese citizenship.

The Azores Islands are part of the EU, which seems to benefit them greatly. As I understand it, to qualify as a member of the EU it is necessary to meet various standards, including safe drinking water, standardized roads and signage, medical facilities, etc. For tiny islands the infrastructure is very good and always improving. There are many construction sites, parks, playgrounds, etc with small billboards crediting the EU for funding and support.

Many young people go to the mainland to study and work. There are local universities on some islands, but, with such a small population the options and facilities are limited. There is a great love for the beauty and tranquility of the islands and, from our experience, young people want to live and work in the Azores.  Many we talk with gained their higher education on the mainland, but then find a way to return to live on Terceira.

 

Are The Azores Safe?

Yes. Of course, wherever there are humans there is crime and vice, but the Azores have comparatively little of either. 

One man told me that there was no car theft on the island because there was no place to go with a stolen car! Yet I did meet a tourist who actually had her car stolen right after she rented it. It turned out to be joyriding teens and her car was quickly found nearby.

During one of our visits to Terceira I noticed the utter lack of police presence. So I started looking for some sign of the police. Two days later I saw several in downtown Angra, joking with one another.

There is also something known as the GNR, or Republican National Guard. This is a military presence throughout Portugal, including the Azores. One of their roles is to maintain public law and order throughout the country. 

Compared to many other places in the world, the Azores are incredibly safe. For one thing, everybody seems to know each other or be related in one way or another. When you live on an island, it is hard to be a crook because you really have nowhere to hide. 

The main issue regarding safety seems to be domestic violence. Our good friend in São Mateus is a lawyer who deals with this in her practice. 

Many tourists remark that women are able to safely walk around at night, even alone. For sure, in general, the Azores Islands are quite safe.

 

Are The Azores Islands Atlantis?

As a youth visiting Portugal in 1974, the only thing I knew about the Azores was that some people believed they were remnants of Atlantis, the lost continent written about by Plato in 360 BC.

When my wife got notice of a travel deal to the Azores, she asked me if I knew anything about them. I told her what little I knew, including the romantic notion that the nine volcanic islands were part of fabled Atlantis.

Who knows? People devoted to the discovery of such esoteric stories are determined to prove such things, maybe they are right, maybe not. We would all love to learn about an ideal society and possibly discover genuine evidence of its existence. 

Apparently a Portuguese sailor discovered a huge underwater pyramid between the islands of São Miguel and Terceira. This was announced on TV and investigated by the Portuguese Navy. Oddly, there is not much to be found regarding this event in the news these days. This naturally feeds the government suppression theories and stokes the imagination of what might be.

Someday I might try to take a look for myself, since the underwater pyramid is relatively close to our house in Terceira.

Are The Azores Volcanoes Active?

Yes, there are active volcanoes in the Azores Islands. However, nobody I have met seems the least bit concerned. There are 18 active volcanoes and 8 more underwater. They are considered active, but not threatening.

There was an underwater eruption near the island of Faial in 1957 that devastated part of the island and also added new land in the process. The volcano is named Capelinho and is in the parish of Capelo. There is a very interesting museum on site and I highly recommend visiting it.

Near the parish of Serreta, the island of Terceira, an underwater eruption occurred over an extended period of time from 1998-2000. I spoke with residents who recalled sitting on their porch watching the fiery, steaming show. When I asked if they were afraid they just shrugged it off as if “when my time comes, it comes, only God knows”. 

It is fascinating to visit this area and imagine the incredible heat and pressure required to produce such strange rock formations.

 

Are The Azores Tropical?

No, the Azores Islands have a sub-tropical atlantic climate that doesn’t vary much from season to season. For the locals the seasons are quite varied, but for someone living in Vermont it seems pretty much like Spring most of the time. 

Many tourists from Spain and mainland Portugal love to come to the islands during the summer to escape the scorching heat of home. 

From month to month the high temperature varies by only 6℃, or 12℉. This is a little misleading however. The Azoreans love to say that they have “four seasons every day”! Personally, I find that when the sun is brightly shining on the islands it feels quite warm. The opposite is also true: when the sun is shrouded by clouds and the fog is present it feels colder than the temperature would lead you to believe. 

My permanent weather forecast for Terceira is: “Cloudy today with a probability of sunshine”. 

The Azores have many types of rain as well. From a very fine mist to bigger droplets, then all the way to slashing rain that floods the streets. Next thing you know it’s sunny again!

Typically hurricanes or cyclones die out before they reach the islands. This appears to be changing due to warming seawater. Storms simply have more solar energy to power them and this year, 2019, saw a huge hurricane hit the islands. Most of the damage was on the most remote islands, Corvo and Flores. 

Terceira island suffered some localized damage in Serretinha. We investigated this and discovered that one of our favorite swimming areas was the hardest hit. There were also damaged stone walls and roadways. Overall people commented that it was just another storm.