The dark volcanic island of Pico is one of my favorites in the Azores. It’s blessed with picturesque landscapes and has plenty of interesting things to do. I’ve now visited the island twice, giving me a chance to explore it fully.
Known within the Azores as the black island, Pico Island has a distinctive character all of its own. The reason for its nickname becomes clear as soon as you set foot ashore: its soil is black as ink and its windy roads are contoured with walls of dark volcanic rock.
Pico is geologically the youngest of the Azores islands, giving its landscape a grittier feel at times. Against this backdrop, you’ll see many houses painted in a traditional style—black outlines against chalk-white walls, accented with fiery red doors and window frames.
But Pico is also typified by its many vineyards, green hilly landscapes perfect for hiking, and many outdoor adventures. Pico can easily keep you busy for many days. Here are some of the best things to do on Pico Island!
Climb Mount Pico
Pico literally means “peak” in Portuguese, and it’s easy to see why the island was named after its mountain. At 2351 meters of altitude, the dormant volcano is the highest peak in Portugal.
Since it can be seen from many parts of Pico, it will no doubt tempt you to climb it.
As with all volcano climbs, it can be quite tough. Volcanoes are notoriously steep and their trails have few switchbacks. Attempt the ascent if you’re in a good fitness condition and ready for a bit of a challenge.
I did my hike with a guide that I booked through the agency Epico. My guide had climbed a lot of mountains around the world and we’d both traveled a lot in South America, which made for some fun conversations along the way.
You can also do the hike independently, but either way, you must first check in at a small visitor center at Casa de Montanha, where you can check in for the day. The trail and visitor center are well set up.
Sadly, the morning of my ascent proved to be a harsh one for climbing, as cloud cover gave minimal visibility and extreme winds made it hard to keep your balance. I was literally getting blown off the mountain!
I gave it a shot anyway and got pretty far up, our path snaking along thick crusts of ropey basalt. But the cold 70 km/h winds were hard to ignore. Since I wasn’t lucky enough to get a clear view on this day in March, we descended again after a couple of hours, so I never quite got to see Pico’s, well, pico.
Under normal weather it should take about 6 hours to get up and down again, earning you an epic view of Pico and its neighboring islands.
Gruta Torres (and other caves)
Pico is full of caves! They’re a bit different from some limestone caves you may have visited elsewhere. These are lava tube caves, created millennia ago by lava flows.
The easiest cave to visit is Gruta Torres, a large cavern that you can follow down for about half a kilometer. Apart from an initial staircase down to the lower level, this cave is intentionally left undeveloped. There are no artificial lights inside, so you’ll be exploring it with flashlights.
Make sure you book a day or two ahead in the summer high season, as the Gruta Torres provides access to groups on a set schedule. When I visited in the offseason, I could just go inside. When I visited Pico again with some friends in the summer, we could not go in as the schedule was full.
You can book this 8-hour tour of Pico that includes entry to Gruta das Torres, as well as other lakes, lagoons, and caves.
With the help of a guide from the tour company Épico (yes, that’s a portmanteau of epic and Pico) I went to two more hidden caves. Both were in hard-to-find locations in the middle of cattle fields and forests, with their entrances covered entirely in ferns. It gave the whole affair an adventurous feel. This was easily one of the best things I’ve done on Pico Island — and one that not everyone knows about.
Inside were some lava stalagmites, as well as caverns once formed by the gasses of lava flows. In the second cave, there were also some old pieces of ceramic on the ground, and it’s believed that people once used to come to these dark places to collect the freshly filtered rainwater.
Enjoy some delicious seafood
If all that adventuring has left you hungry, don’t worry!
Like all of the Azores, Pico has amazing seafood in spades. I’m now actually picturing fishermen just shovelling fish onto shore with spades — that’s really how much they’ve got. It’s all caught fresh every day.
One of the best places for seafood in the town of Madalena is O Ancoradouro restaurant where you can enjoy some fantastic fish skewers or a sizzling pan of cataplana.
Pico is also an excellent place to try some fresh limpets (in Portuguese: lapas). Here, I had them with local cheese, honey, and local wine. Doesn’t that look great?
Most of the food on Pico is quite traditional Portuguese, a lot of it seafood, but there are a few restaurants offering something different. I enjoyed dining at Casa Ancora, a modern and stylish place with Portuguese fusion food.
Learn about the winemaking on Pico
Pico is a wine-producing island and you can learn a lot about its unique wine-growing history at the Pico Wine Museum.
Growing crops proved difficult in the young and infertile soil of Pico, though the saying goes that on Pico one “learns to make wine out of lava”. To protect the grapevines from the salty sea winds, settlers built piles of lava rocks around small rectangular plots.
The resulting mazes of walls are so typical they have earned parts of the island UNESCO recognition.
The wine-making industry collapsed in the 20th century due to plant disease. It wasn’t until the 90ies that it was reestablished in part with help from the EU. Some tracts of land still have their walled-off plots but are overgrown with scrub, while others are back in full production, with the grapes used mostly to produce white Verdelho wines.
The Pico wine museum explains how the grapes are grown and covers the history of the wines, which were once popular with the Russian royal court. One local wine still bears the name Szar because of this, and Russia remains an unusually key export market for certain Azorean wines.
Besides the wine museum, I recommend a visit to the Cooperativa Vitivinicola Da Ilha Do Pico. This wine producer allows you to tour its facilities and have a proper tasting.
You can book this full day wine tour that will take you to the Pico wine museum, the vineyards, and takes you into the wine cellars.
Go whale or dolphin watching
The Azores islands are known for the whale- and dolphin populations that pass through the waters at certain times of the year. Peak whale watching season runs from April to September.
I went on a whale watching tour starting at the port of Madalena in Pico. There are several tour operators in town; I went with Pico Sport, which is also a scuba diving shop. We went to see some resident sperm whales, but migrating Humpback Whales and even Blue Whales can be seen at certain times of the year as well.
I spotted numerous sperm whales, observing them as they went for shallow and deep dives and resurfacing at set intervals. We also encountered a sea turtle along the way, and were joined by an enormous pod of bottlenose dolphins (our guide estimated we were surrounded by at least a hundred dolphins). It’s a magical experience that I can’t recommend highly enough.
The tours are all well-regulated and responsible, ensuring they won’t disturb the wildlife. Check out some of the whale and dolphin watching tour options here.
Take a drive around the island
If you can rent a car, it’s worth driving along the coast all around the island and stopping at the cute villages and many miradouros (lookout points) along the way.
The charming town of Lajido is known for its traditional houses and is well worth a stop when driving the northern coastline. Some of the buildings have walls with rocks painted alternatingly in black or white, making them stand out like dalmatians in the black and green landscape. At the back of this town, you can see old mule cart tracks deeply imprinted in some of the hardened lava—a process that must have taken centuries.
Nearby it’s also worth stopping at the hamlet of Cachorro, where there are lava cliffs with a rocky arch and a set of rocks that (if you squint your eyes) looks like a dog’s head. Cachorro is a spot where you can take a little dip in the water during summer.
If you drive along the coast eastward the black volcanic landscapes gradually turn greener. Driving all the way to the eastermost point of the island, you can stop at the Ponta da Ilha lighthouse and enjoy some gnarly coastline and large black volcanic fields.
This is another site where you can see some of the traditional vineyard plots, though now overgrown with natural vegetation. There isn’t much to do here, but I enjoyed checking out the rocky cliffs and walking around the lighthouse for a while.
Looping back along the southern coast, you’ll find some cute former whaling villages, of which Lajes do Pico is especially worth a stop. At the whaling museum, you can learn more about the whaling history of the islands.
One of the nice miradouros or lookout points is at Mistério da Prainha (above). Eruption sites from as far back as the 16th century were originally called “mysteries”, as plate tectonics was not yet understood.
Go hiking on Pico
I only had time to do the Mount Pico hike, but it was clear there were many other lovely hiking trails on Pico that aren’t quite as strenuous. For an overview, visit the official site or check out the user-contributed hikes on Wikiloc.
I loved the higgity-piggity landscapes with pastures with stone walls just east of Madalena, around the Gruta das Torres. If you’re looking for a casual walk, I recommend this 2-hour walk. You’ll go around the pastures and past the stone-walled winemaking areas, and see of the traditional red windmills of the island.
The Lagoa do Capitao is a scenic lake at the center of the island that I enjoyed walking around. You’ll be able to see Mt. Pico looming behind the lake. The lake is also the starting point of a hike through the central highlands that ends at the Convento de São Pedro de Alcântara along the coast.
Get drinks at Cella bar
After some adventure-filled days on Pico, you might want to chill out with a good cocktail. For this, try the Cella bar in Madalena.
Sitting on a coastal cliff, this bar looks like a giant wine barrel that you can sit inside of. Actually, if you look at it from a different perspective, you’ll see it’s a unique bit of modern architecture that connects with the traditional volcanic rock building behind it.
From the top deck, you can view the sunset over the Madalena bay with the island of Sao Jorge in the distance.
Find Pico’s hidden smiling faces
Finally, a little bit of a scavenger hunt! An artist on Pico named Helena Amaral carved out little faces in the volcanic rocks all over the island. You can find over 120 sculptures in more than 30 locations around the island.
You’re bound to see some of these Sorrisos de Pedra (stone smiles) during your time on Pico. Spotting them makes for a fun side-quest while you are exploring.
Some more impressions
Apart from the sights on Pico I’ve just mentioned, it’s also just rewarding to see the varied landscapes and villages.
Some of the green fields have odd little hills in them. These were formed by gas bubbles in lava flows thousands of years ago. Often they’re hollow inside (on my caving tour, I got to explore some of them).
The high contrast building style of black bricks with red painted wood can be seen especially in Lajido.
Although the island is known as the black islands, most parts are actually very lush and green, dotted with villages with whitewashed walls.
Keep in mind that this island is in the middle of the Atlantic. Weather-wise, they say all four seasons can happen on a single day. Although I had 90% sunshine when I visited in August, the weather was constantly changing when I visited in March.
Just after aborting my Pico hike halfway because of high winds and impenetrable mist, the sun was already back out in full force, revealing Mt. Pico once again.
Be sure to pack for rain and sunshine!
Changeable weather aside, I hope you’ll feel inspired to visit Pico! It’s one of my favorite of the Azores islands — a perfect mix of adventure, wine, wildlife, and great food.
For more about the archipelago, hop over to this complete guide to the Azores archipelago.
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