Terciera By Mud - Finding the Secret Places Through Mud in the Azores

Outdoor x 4 Magazine, June 10th, 2018

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TERCEIRA BY MUD FINDING THE SECRET PLACES ON AZORES ISLAND THROUGH MUD

By Heide Brandes

The wheels of the Land Rover Defender are spinning uselessly in mud that is more clay than anything, slipping sideways and groaning like a weightlifter trying to break a world record.

The jeep, with its wheel locks on, slides suddenly to the left, the back wheels lodging on a small tree, and beyond that, a hill plummets down off the side of the old man volcano we are mudding our way up on.

Antonio guns the gas again, and sitting in the back, I feel the jolt of the Land Rover as it heaves up once, then twice, only to get stuck again in the thick mud pit we are creating. I imagine an extinct creature trapped in the muck, bellowing and struggling to escape only to mire itself even deeper into danger.

Unlike that doomed animal, I’m laughing.

I’m strapped onto a small, hard bench in the back of the four-wheel drive off-road vehicle, an area I nicknamed “The Rumble Seat” for all its bumps, manhandling and unadorned metal floors and walls. I like the rough stuff, the sensation of being lurched around over rocky, volcanic terrain and catching air when the Land Rover hit a particularly large obstacle.

In the front, our guide Antonio whips the steering wheel left and right, plunging us into ruts filled with water red with mud and avoiding large rocks in the middle of the trail. My friend Katherine, an old hand at “mudding” in pickup trucks in her home state of Texas, is laughing just as hard as I am.

Katherine and I both came to Terceira, one of the islands on the Azores island chain off the coast of Portugal on a deal too good to pass up. From Boston to Terceira, we scored a plane ticket plus seven nights in a hotel for $499 through Azores Getaways.

I’d never even heard of the Azores; I had to look it up on the map, but my favorite corners of the world to explore are unfamiliar, shadowy destinations that I never considered. The island, one of many created by violent volcanic eruptions eons ago in this area, is all mountains created by volcanoes, rolling green pastures fat with happy cattle and blackened shoreline that remind us that we are smack dab in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Exploring this island by four-wheel off-road vehicle only made sense. I wanted to see the places the tourist vans couldn’t reach, and Antonio with Pro Island Tours (http://proislandtour.pt/index.php/en) on Terceira promised us hidden volcanoes, mysterious lava tubes, tucked away lakes in areas so pretty it makes your eyes hurt and more.

At $119 a piece, the full-day off-roading and Jeep tour brought us moments of pure adrenaline in the all-terrain vehicle to places we did not even imagine existed.

WHERE THE WHEELS START Antonio Camara is a friendly guy who grew up on Terceira, and when he picked us up at our hotel, Pousada Forte de Sao Sebastiao (http://www.pousadasofportugal.com/pousadas/angra-do-heroismo), he asked what we had seen already and what we wanted to see. Bouncing along the small roads that crisscross the island, we head for a ridge along the rim of the largest caldera on Terceira, the skeleton of the original volcano that thrust this land out of the sea and into the blue sky millions of years ago.

Katherine and I pile into the Land Rover Defender, while three younger women (two, hailing from Uganda, are members of Terceira professional women’s basketball team) load up in a second Land Rover with a second tour guide, also named Antonio. We nickname him “Little Antonio” because he’s younger and shorter than our Antonio.

The Land Rover Defender was developed in the 1980s from the original Land Rover Series, which was launched in June 1948, and it’s a hot commodity in places where adventurers want to conquer rough terrain.

Fully ready to see the unusual perspectives and scenarios on the Island of Bruma (Terceira Island) in the most radical way, we head up Cerra Ribeirinha toward the caldera rim on this island, passing the thousands of little stone “fences” that house the cattle. Dairy and beef is the main industry on Terceira, and the roughly 80,000 head of cattle outnumber the approximately 60,000 people who live here.

I’ve never seen happier cows in my life. Because the weather is always mild, even in winter, the cows just wander around their stone-barrier fields, munching on grass as green as crayons and never seeing the inside of a barn.

“This is the east rim of the caldera,” Antonio says as we head up to an overlook that takes in a sprawling view of Angra do Heroísmo, one of three regional capitals of the Azores and our homebase city, and the clear, calm ocean beyond. Between us and the ocean are humping fields of green and stone, and even from here you can see the cows lazily living the good life.

Angra Do Heroísmo is one of the most important and protected ports of call from the 15th century. The 400-year-old San Sebastião and San João Baptista fortifications, built either side of the bay, also made this cove a highly-protected and sought after location for the Spanish, the Portuguese and pirates.

The city was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1983, just three years after a massive earthquake hit and damaged the island. It’s also our home base for the week, filled with botanical gardens, a bustling retail scene, restaurants filled with seafood and the world-famous beef and views so pretty your heart weeps.

Praia da Vitória, another city located on a large bay on the east coast, was founded around 1456 as Vila da Praia. It received its present name from Queen Maria II in 1837 after the first victory of the Liberals over the Royalists on August 1829.

Legend also has it that when the Spanish invaded in July 1581, the town earned its name “Victory Beach,” when 1,000 soldiers came ashore and were met by hand-to-hand resistance by the locals.

An Augustinian Friar called Pedro turned the tide of the battle, by releasing the wild bulls that were used in bullfighting and the running of the bulls against the Spaniards. Talk to the locals, however, and the legend has it that a woman went up to the hills and released more than a 1,000 head of cattle that were driven against the enemy positions. The terrified Spaniards fell back and were pursued to the beach, where almost all of them lost their lives in the fighting or drowned while trying to reach their boats.

“She is still celebrated today,” Antonio says.

In fact, the bull and the history of running the bulls on Terceira is such an important part of the island’s personality that the bull running is still held from May through October through the streets of Praia and Angra. It’s a terrifying thing to watch, even just on video, of bulls slamming into crowds of running men, tossing victims up in the air like gooey sacks of blood and bone.

A CHANGING WORLD

Also in Praia da Vitória is the American Lajes Air Base, which was a major economic driver for the island. In 2014, nearly overnight, most of the 1,380 Americans living in Praia da Vitória were sent home as part of a plan to cut U.S. expenses there and hundreds of locals were left unemployed in the town of 22,000.

The economy suffered, but gave rise to the new growing industry of tourism on Terceira. Antonio is part of that new movement, though he was one of those who felt the effects of the base’s demise.

“I owned a pizza restaurant for 30 years,” Antonio said. “But when the times were bad, I had to close. I like doing this though. I like giving the tours and talking to visitors.”

Nowadays, Antonio basically runs the Pro Island Tours jeep and 4x4 tours. And he’s good at it, constantly throwing out tidbits of history or pointing out little-known secrets of the island.

One of those secrets - one that is causing a bit of controversy on Terceira - is the discovery of what could possibly be a Roman or Carthaginian burial site.

A carved rock, apparently man-made and found by archeologists on Terceira, is believed to be more than 900 years old and predates the Portuguese occupation of the Azores, discovered uninhabited by the Portuguese around 1427.

“This is very controversial,” Antonio says as he helps us up the steep, grassy incline to the burial room. Inside, small square shelves were carved into the rock walls, the perfect size for urns which may or may not have existed. Today, only spider webs and scrubby plants call the mysterious room home.

“The place was discovered when part of the cliff fell,” he said. “See, look here, it almost looks like a tunnel, doesn’t it.”

We slip and slide our way down the sheer hill back to the Land Rovers to go explore a hiking trail and small, hidden volcano that Antonio says the locals don’t even know about. Pulling over on the side, we tromp as a group straight up the side of the volcano, dodging thick arms of native and non-native trees and plants.

The basketball girls are laughing and begging for a break as Little Antonio leads the way at a lung-torturing speed. The mud is slippery, and our legs scream at the having to climb, climb, climb without the switchbacks that are common on American trails. “I heard about this trail a few years ago and came out here to find it,” Antonio said.

The view is astonishing in its primitive purity. Though it’s a small volcano, it is tucked prettily away from the view of the road, its basin filled with blooming algae water. Catching our breath, we just take it in.

After a short jaunt to what Antonio called “the haunted forest,” we stopped at a picnic area near Serreta on the western coast, a rest stop pretty enough to be its own state park, to have an outdoor traditional barbecue lunch of pork, steak, the traditional clay-pot specialty beef roast of alcatra and, of course, wine.

Lots of wine.

Working hands as rough as the volcanic stone over the fire is an old man with a stern face. His name is Papa No Smile because, well, he doesn’t smile. Ever.

He used to work in the pizza restaurant for Antonio, and now he cooks up the barbecue meat as tender as the wrinkles on the backs of his hands and tolerates the tipsy attempts of tourists like us to get him to smile.

But he makes a mean alcatra. A staple in any Portuguese home, Alcatra is a pot roast that’s traditionally cooked in large clay pots and is so incredibly tender that it’s almost like butter. Combined with the island wine, by time we head back to the Land Rovers, we’re stuffed and slightly tipsy, giggling over our attempts to make Papa No Smile actually smile. We failed at that.

Riding in a rough vehicle with a belly full of wine makes for an interesting couple of hours. On a hike to a covert and gorgeous little lake, our merry party stumbled through the wild blackberry brambles, laughing so hard we couldn’t breathe when one of the ladies kept snagging her hair and sweater on the prickly thorns.

We wouldn’t have found any of these obscure little gems and sights in the regular vans that haul tourists across the island.

UNDERGROUND AND OVER MUD

“We’re looking for a dead fig tree in the field,” Antonio said. We lean out of the Land Rover’s windows scanning for the entrance of a lava tube cave in the middle of some farmer’s cattle field that’s not really on any kind of map.

Terceira is littered with lava tubes that can be explored, thanks to the volcanic nature of the Archipelago and the presence of several lava flows of basaltic type. Between the islands of the Azores, nearly 271 natural caves can be found, ranging from lava tubes, volcanic pits, fractures and erosion caves.

Our lava tube cave is tucked under the dead fig tree and looks nearly man-made. Most of the way, we walk standing, but in a few areas, the back screamed as we crouched and shuffled forward through the dark.

We only get so far before the cave becomes a belly-crawling experience, so we turn back.

“Ready to get into the mud?” Antonio asks us.

“That’s why we are here,” Katherine and I squeal, ready to get dirty and explore some of the more inaccessible areas of Terceira.

The full-day Jeep tour takes us on secondary roads, which are not part of the usual tourist itineraries. They are narrow, beaten paths used mostly by farmers, lined either by blue hydrangeas( Hortenses), large trees or rough walls of basaltic stone, which cut the green pastures.

When we get stuck, Katherine and I offer to get out and help push, but Antonio uses a winch system to free the Land Rover, and we continue down steep hills, along rough cliffs and through forests that seem untouched by modern civilization.

The Land Rover handles beautifully, and by time Antonio dropped us off at the pirate-themed bar O Pirata in Angra, we were ready for a few cold beers.

“Tell all your friends about us,” Antonio said, promising to send us some photographs he sent. “Tell them about Terceira and the Azores.”

When You Go WHAT TO DO: Plan a full day with Pro Island Tours Mud Adventure Tour (+351-920-581-523 info@proislandtour.pt, www.proislandtour.pt) with the options of visiting volcanic caves, lagoons, hiking and more. Be prepared for some serious trekking, so wear adequate shoes and some clothes you don’t mind getting dirty. The tour runs from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and includes an outdoor barbecue lunch and unlimited wine. Cost is 95 Euro, or roughly $117. Other tours to check out: • A half-day whale watching excursion through Ocean Emotion in Angra do Heroismo. In the Azores you can find around 27 species of whales and dolphins throughout the year with 99 sightings of whales and dolphins during the last seasons. Approximate cost is about $67 per person. • Arraia Divers’ daily dive trips to a wide range of dive sites that are filled with marine life of all sizes. Cost is approximately $123 per person • Explore an ancient volcano at Algar do Carvao (The Cave) located in the center of Terceira. One of only three remaining intact volcanoes in the world, Algar do Carvao has fern grottos, an interior lake where the magma pool was and stalactities and stalagmites. You have to walk a bunch of stairs, though, so be prepared for that. Cost to enter the cave is $6, but the cave is included on many of the island van and jeep tours. • Swim in the natural swimming lagoons created by volcanic flow along the ocean front at the northern beach town of Praia dos Biscoitos. Again, this site is usually included in tours, but you can easily drive there yourself an indulge in a soothing swim.

WHAT TO EAT: Be sure to indulge in the island’s famous dish, Alcatra, which is a slow-cooked beef roast spiced and cooked in a clay pot. You’ll find nearly every restaurant on the island serves this. In Angra do Heroismo, try Tasca das Tias at Rua de Sao Joao 117, Angra do Heroismo, Terceira 9700-182 (+351 295 628 062) or, for the famous seafood and limpets, visit neighboring Sao Mateus for Beira Mar Sao Mateus. Ti Choa (Grota do Margarida 1, Serreta, Terceira, Portugal, +351 295 906 673) in the island’s northside village of Serreta also makes a delicious alcatra and another local favorite, blood sausage fried to a crisp!

WHERE TO STAY: We stayed at Pousada de Angra do Heroismo - Forte Sao Sebastiao ($70 per night) in Angra Do Heroismo, a 4-star hotel built within one of the ancient forts that helped protect the bay. The hotel is simple, clean and boasts of a great restaurant, a bar and free breakfast. Other hotels to check out include Terceira Mar Hotel ($77 per night average) and the Hotel Caracol ($74 per night) and the five-star Angra Marina Hotel ($58 per night), all of which overlooks the stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean. A nice budget choice is the Banana Eco Camp in Sao Mateus for $17 a night with its cool little cabins and communal areas.

HOW TO GET THERE: We booked our trip through Azores Getaways (https://azoresgetaways.com/en) and ended up paying $499 a person for a direct flight out of Boston Logan into Terceira and lodging for the week, but we booked during the winter months. Most deals range from about $750 to $1,900 depending on how many of the Azores islands you visit and how long your trip is. Groupon Getaways and TripAdvisor also had the deal available earlier this year.

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