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Pico Island

Pico is the second largest island and is one of the most beautiful and underrated island of the Azores. . The Mountain Island stands majestically in the middle of the Azorean central group.

Pico Island Azores


Ilha do Pico – Portuguese for Pico Island

Pico is an island in the Central Group of the Portuguese Azores noted for its eponymous volcano, Ponta do Pico, which is the highest mountain in Portugal, the Azores, and the highest elevation of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

In the tradition of the Portuguese poet, Raul Brandão, Pico is referred to as the Ilha Preta (“Black Island”), for its black volcanic earth, responsible for its UNESCO-designated historical vineyards that allowed the development of the island.

Pico island, named after it’s imposing mountain, is one of the most beautiful and underrated island of the Azores. Pico is the second largest island. The ‘Mountain Island stands majestically in the middle of the Azorean central group, at about 4.5 nautical miles from Faial Island and 11 miles from S. Jorge Island. It is approximately 167 square miles (433 km2).

Pico island history was built on the destiny of is whale hunting and winery traditions. The famous Pico wines and the UESCO world patrimony designated vineyards, as well as wooden boat building, are contemporary fixtures of Pico. Whale hunting, long gone, gave way to a movement of fair treatment study and observation of whales, dolphins, and other sea mammals. Whale and dolphin watching trips can be organized from Madalena or Lajes. Volcanic eruptions ended 300 years ago and Pico is considered a dormant volcano, adding to the mystique of the island, and serving as a magnet for scientists.

The Pico island landscape is a sublime mixture of lava rock and exotic vegetation in an ever changing scenery that envelopes this scarcely populated island. Pico features some of the best swimming holes in the Azores, and every so often an occasional sand beach appears. Pico is also the ideal island to trek, hike, jog, walk, bird watch, whale and dolphin watch, swim, fish, ride bikes and moto-quad bikes. Speleology is also a favorite pastime of Pico and its visitors.

Pico is an Island where calm and peace can be found around every corner, yet there’s always the choice of escaping to the village and experience the bustling culture or the occasional festival. Trips to Faial and S. Jorge are one ferry trip away. While it takes no time to know the smaller Faial Island, it takes a long time to get to know Pico as it is the type of destination where one must get out of the car to explore all that it has to offer.

After depositing herds on the island in the first half of the 15th Century, the first colonies were formed around 1460 from settlers from the north of Portugal (by way of Terceira and Graciosa). Its first Captain-Donatário was Álvaro de Ornelas, but who never took up his role on the island, as it was incorporated into Captaincy of Faial. Lajes was its first entitled village, closely followed by São Roque in 1542. Its settlers were initially occupied with wheat cultivation in addition to the exploration of the woad industry (based on lichens that were exported to Flanders to produce commercial dyes), and heavily influenced by export industries of its island neighbor, Faial.

Quickly, the viticulture industry, helped by the rich soils and microclimates had allowed to expand the lands cultivating grapes. Its development would occur uninterrupted along the margins of history except for volcanic eruptions during the 18th Century; the viticulture and “orange cycle” would expand the activities on the island throughout the period. In 1723 Madalena is elevated to the status of “town”, confirming its economic importance to the island, and its commercial links to Faial (Horta had been the residence of many of the island’s property-owners and winemakers). Pico’s famous verdelho, for more than two centuries, was appreciated in many countries (including England and in the Americas and even reached the palaces of the Russian czars). But, the spread of powdery mildew and phylloxera during the middle of the 19th Century destroyed many of the vineyards creating a crisis on the island that lasted until the 20th Century.

The presence of American whalers in the waters of the Azores introduced a new economy at the end of the 18th Century that would serve to stabilize the economy, until new casts were introduced on the island. Whaling became the primary industry around the island until the 1970s.

Pico is the second largest island of the Azores

The island is 17.5 km south of São Jorge and just 7 km east of Faial, in the Central Group of islands, an area that is colloquially known as o Triangulo (The Triangle). Pico is 46 kilometers long, and at its maximum extent about 16 kilometers wide, rising from its center to the west in the summit of the stratovolcano of Pico; making it the second largest of the Azores islands. Along the central plain of volcano cones to the eastern coast the landscape is pitted with the remnants of craters and lake-filled cones, and dominated by the ancient volcano of Topo. Geomorphologically, the island is composed of three units:

map of pico

  • Topo Volcano – Located on the southeastern coast, it corresponds to an ancient volcano destroyed by erosion and landslides;
  • Plain of Achada – Extending from Topo to the stratovolcano the Achada Plain is an axial zone comprising spatter and lava cones along a mountainous ridge filled with lake-filled craters, dense scrub and forests. Cones in this region are oriented along a west-northwest and south-southeast axis along a path east to west between the other volcanic structures;
  • Pico Volcano – It occupies the western portion of the island, and corresponds to the central volcano with a 2,341-metre (7,680 ft) altitude. Along its flanks are diverse lava and spatter cones that are formed along radial fractures and faults.
    Generally, the island of Pico’s tectonic structures are oriented along a west-northwest to east-southeast and a northeast to southwest axis. The main axis controls the main structures, especially the main mountain of Pico, while the secondary axises affect the radial fractures and faults along the central plain and eastern volcano.

Similar to the geomorphological structures described above, the volcanic landforms have been identified by Madeira (1998) in the following units:

  • Volcanic Complex of Lajes – pertains to the oldest volcanic structures, comprising volcanoes, lavas and debris that are between 35-300,000 million years old; it makes up the structures of the eastern part of the island, including the ancient volcano of Topo.
  • Volcanic Complex of Calheta de Nesquim – dating to about 230,000 million years ago, this is a fissural zone of cones and basaltic lavas, associated with the Achada Plain, and the many faults along the central plateau of the island.
  • Volcanic Complex of Madalena – the most recent volcanic complex, with both geological and historical eruptions; it includes the basaltic stratovolcano of Pico, but also many of the cones, faults and lava fields that circle the 2,351 meter summit.

The last volcanic eruption (which is debatable) occurred in 1963, in a small submarine eruption off the northwest coast (north of Cachorro in Santa Luzia). Prior to this, major volcanic activity was only evident in lava fields generated in the areas of Prainha (1562–64), Santa Luzia (1718), São João (1718) and Silveira (1720). The paths of the lava flows are still visible, those in the 16th Century and 1718 were particularly substantial, extending for over 10 km. Today, the only visible evidence of active volcanism appears on the summit of Pico, in the base and interior of the Piqueninho (the mini-peak on the summit); there are irregular emissions from cracks in this zone. Additionally, there are emissions on the eastern flanks between 1500 and 2000 meters altitude. There have also been found areas of de-gasification along the a fault associated with the Lagoa do Capitão and another in the Topo Volcano, as well as a spring rich in CO2 in the area of Silveira.

Pico, much like the other islands, are susceptible to seismic events, although their epicenters have primarily been localized in the Faial-Pico or Pico-São Jorge Channels. The strongest earthquake registered in the last 30 years occurred on July 9, 1998, and had its epicenter 5 kilometers northeast of Ponta da Ribeirinha, on the island of Faial, reaching a 5.8 magnitude. It was felt on Pico, with a maximum intensity level of VII on the Mercalli scale; some homes were damaged and possessions were buffeted. Other violent earthquakes which have affected the island include: the 1957-58 seismic events associated with the eruption of the Capelinhos volcano (on Faial), the February 1964 earthquake on the island of São Jorge, and the 1926 earthquake, whose epicenter was registered in the Faial-Pico Channel.

The island supported a substantial whaling industry until 1980. The position of the island on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge means that deep water is very close. Active industries include tourism, shipbuilding and wine production. Landscape of the Pico Island Vineyard Culture has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2004. It has several notable wines, that are commercialized in Portugal and exported abroad.

Besides the Holy Ghost Festivals that are celebrated on all the islands, the people of Pico dedicate special attention to their devotion for the Senhor Bom Jesus Milagroso. The festivities take place at São Mateus just before or after August 6th, and are based on the veneration of the pilgrims for a figure from Brazil that is exhibited in the Bom Jesus Milagroso Sanctuary. In the town of Madalena, the festival dedicated to the patron saint of the municipality, Saint Maria Madalena, includes religious, sporting and cultural activities during the month of July.

In São Roque, the event called Cais de Agosto combines musical shows with displays of handicrafts and sporting events. In Lajes, the Semana dos Baleeiros (Whaling Week) brings together the homage paid to those who participated in this important event of the history of the Azores and an eclectic programme that takes place at the end of the summer. In September, Madalena offers the Festas da Vindima (Grape-picking Festival), with dances and ethnographic events centred on wine production.

The whaling canoe races are a symbol of Pico. The regattas, on wood boats made for six rowers, are often present in the various festivities that take place on the island and are created competitions between crews from all over the island and the other islands of the triangle

Red and white wines that are produced in Pico are known and appreciated throughout the whole of the Archipelago. Recently, efforts have been made to recover the past heritage of the verdelho wine production.

The wine cooperative can be visited in Areia Larga. It stores the local wine production that is already made from new types of grapes. The fig and loquat spirits also have some fans, and old copper distillers in working condition can still be found. Liqueurs such as Angelica and other fruit liqueurs are on offer for those with a sweet tooth.

Pico island has always been a big producer of fruits. Its figs once opened are a bright scarlet red inside and are very famous. Local honey is produced from the flower of the Australian cheesewood and the soft cheese (made from cow’s milk) from São João is delicious.

There is a wonderful Octopus dish, stewed in cheirowine, sausage with taro root, boiled beef and fish broth.

Torresmos de porco (small browned rashers of bacon), morcela (blood sausage), linguiça com inhames (Portuguese sausage with yams) and molha de carne (a meat speciality) are the main dishes of a cuisine which, with caldo de peixe (fish soup), delights all food lovers.

Those who like shell-fish will find lobsters, deep-water crabs and cavacos on many menus.

Massa sovada (sweet bread), rosquilhas, vesperas and arroz doce are the typical sweets of the island, connected with the Holy Ghost Festivals.

Pico wine, the “verdelho”
Grown on the rich lava soil, sheltered from the wind by walls of rough, dark stone and warmed by the golden rays from the sun, the grapes acquire a sweetness and taste of honey. Once squeezed, they produce a dry white wine with an alcohol content of around 15 to 17 degrees.  After ageing this serves as an excellent appetizer.

In the last century this wine was exported to many countries in Europe and America and even reached the tables of the Russian Court. The vineyards, which mark the landscape of the island, also produce a dry, fresh, light and fruity wine that is the ideal companion for fish or shellfish,

The red vinho de cheiro whose presence is compulsory on tables on feast days.


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