Island weather can be temperamental and the climate on São Miguel is no exception. Luckily there is a tour for every weather condition – since we couldn’t go canyoning or hiking, our guides from Azores Adventures took us on an abandoned places tour. When we did the tour, it was still not on their website’s official offering, so it was really quite improvised.
Nevertheless, it was a great idea and provided for some magical camera moments. There is no better time to do an abandoned places tour than when the skies are grey and the ground is covered in a thick layer of fog and mist.
Truth be told, along the coast, the sun was still shining. However, the higher you climb up into the mountains, the deeper into the clouds you go. Because it’s a mountainous island, clouds hang over the landscape all the time, as air is pushed up against the mountains and cools when it gets to a higher altitude. These clouds are therefore concentrated around the volcano peaks.
Monte Palace Hotel
São Miguel has a famous ruin called the Monte Palace Hotel. It was built in the 80’s to attract travellers from all over the world and to put the Azores on the international tourist map. The Azores now is on the map of every tourist that loves nature and it has no shortage of boutique hotels, converted monasteries and charming bed and breakfasts, which the typical eco-tourist will find more appealing than a behemoth like the Monte Palace hotel… but this was back then and travellers had different tastes.
The hotel and the grounds are worth visiting just for the view alone. To get there, you have to take the road to go to Sete Cidades. Along the way, you’ll see a sign for Vista do Rei, which translates to View of the King, which is the view you get from the Monte Palace. On a sunny day, you’ll get to see the charming parish of Sete Cidades, its beautiful, blue lagoon and the surrounding greenery stretching out all around before transitioning into the azure waters of the Atlantic ocean.
The history is that this place was opened in 1989 for its very short tenure of one year before having to close down. The main reason being that it wasn’t too well serviced by anything since the nearest town was Sete Cidades, some miles below, and that the weather was more often dull and damp, rather than sunny, with clouds often obscuring the beautiful view, which was supposed to be the hotel’s main attraction.
Since its demise, some teenagers have since turned it into a Fall Out style paintball playground and play dangerous games in the premises. According to our guide, there has been one death due to this stupidity when some kid missteped in the dark and fell through an empty elevator shaft.
The ruins are dangerous to explore since everything is crumbling, so we recommend caution when visiting the inside of the hotel. I personally wouldn’t recommend going deeper in, it smells of piss and isn’t very impressive. The most interesting view is from the outside, when you can contemplate how quickly nature and the elements have come to dominated over this man made structure.
São Miguel Aqueducts
These are not Roman Aqueducts, whatever the interwebs may tell you. Apparently a number of people have, like me, instinctively mistaken them to have been built by the Romans, because, you know, Aqueducts = Romans. The Romans of course never made it to São Miguel, since it was discovered by the Portuguese in 1427. They arrived to an island that was uninhabited by any indigenous peoples, so we can safely assume the Romans were never here. It would be an interesting alternative history story if they did though!
These aqueducts (which I assume are unused) were very special due to their bright orange colour, the result of the lichens that grow over all abandoned things on this island.
I thought the aqueducts were some of the most beautiful structures I had ever seen. Stepping out of the car and climbing up the wet, grassy slope that led to their arches was truly a magical moment. If there is one thing I absolutely love seeing on hikes, it is the abandoned human structure covered in lush green vegetation, hidden in deep fog and mist. Another such beautiful place in Portugal is the Convent de Capuchos in Sintra, a place a short drive away from Lisbon.
Abandoned Power Station
There are also a number of abandoned factories in the Azores. These days, you don’t see much industry on the islands, which focus primarily on tourism and agriculture – it’s a little like the world of Sherri Tepper’s novel, Grass. A few rich families own a lot of the land, producing products like tea and hay for horses, while everyone else caters to the tourist industry. Not that it’s a bad thing really, the population on the Azores is small, since most Azoreans move to mainland Portugal. The lack of industry here keeps the landscape beautiful.
However, there are a lot of abandoned buildings once put to industrial purposes that are no longer in service. We visited two of them, both located quite some distance above sea level.
The first one was a short hike downhill from a small parking space on the side of the road that leads up to the aqueduct. The hike is pretty easy, but you have to be careful as the ground is always damp here, and can be slippery and muddy at times. There was a lot of vegetation though, so the roots of little saplings could be used to gain a good foothold.
Getting to the power plant itself was an adventure. We had to duck under overhanging branches and knock back the branches of bushes that obstructed our way until we came to one of the entrances on the side of the rather steep slope.
It was likely much more accessible before, but right now, it just seemed odd that someone would build a power plant on such steep a slope. Perhaps they did not have much choice.
Inside, it felt like some strange cyberpunk temple. A cross between Tomb Raider’s jungle missions and Fallout. There were all sorts of piping above and below and what looked like pressure valves, and lattices made of iron tubes. Since I know nothing about power plants I didn’t know what any of it was for. For me, it might as well have been a movie set for the home base of a bunch of guerrilla fighters.
What I loved most about the place were the window views looking out from the overgrown interior of the factory into the overgrown jungle on the other side. Really, they are the same jungle, and we were outdoors whether we stood on the “inside” of the factory, or on the other side. Nevertheless, our brains still make this distinction that the side we were on was more of an “inside” than the view the window looked out upon.
Unidentified Abandoned Factory
The other factory we visited was accessible by the road, although we had to climb a low wall to get past the locked gate.
This one had a lot of open spaces and was on a large piece of flat ground. Like the aquaducts, it was covered in that vivid orange lichen, making it look as if it was painted that way. To be honest, it looked more like a prison camp than an abandoned factory.
This place was much less overgrown. Either it had been abandoned later than the previous place, or simply it was in a location that was much less wild. Perhaps both.
If our guides told us what these places once produced, I no longer remember.
Drill Graffiti Art
The final place we saw was an old building that looked like a fort. The attraction of this place was the beautiful graffiti on one side of the wall, of a woman with a serene expression, cradling a baby.
The art is made with a pneumatic hammer drill and must have taken considerable skill and control to produce. Not to mention guts! It must have been quite a task to get that high up onto the side of the wall, wield a drill and somehow make such controlled, emotive art.
São Miguel, however, has quite a lot of art like that, beautiful sculptures and reliefs made with powertools like drills and chainsaws, like the ones that surround Furnas Lake.
I think whoever did it had a great idea, to turn an ugly ruin into a beautiful work of art. Oftentimes simple ideas in architecture, like this one, are the best.