Updated: Jun 14, 2019
Santa Maria is the southernmost island in the archipelago of the Azores, and it was the first of the islands settled. I recently spent more time on it exploring the island and my heritage there. Here are five sights to give you a good initial sense of the island.
1. Vila do Porto
The biggest town on the island and (as the name might suggest) main port, Vila do Porto is a vibrant community just a short ways from the airport. It's also the oldest settlement in the Azores. Watch the sea from the walls of the forts or wander the medieval streets and explore the churches, pubs, and cafes.
To Get There: If you're coming to Santa Maria by sea, you'll likely arrive right at Vila do Porto. From the airport, it's about a ten minute drive southeast on EN1-2A.
2. Praia Formosa
Praia Formosa is at the middle of the southern edge of the island. This Blue Flag beach is white sand streaked with the black sand more commonly seen on the islands - a result of their volcanic heritage. It's surrounded by rolling green hills and a charming beachside town. Look around carefully for the ruins of the old fort of São João Baptista on the beach, too! The fort was initially worked on at the request of the island inhabitants, who wanted protection from English privateers and Algerian Barbary coast pirates in the late 16th and early 17th centuries.
To Get There: Praia Formosa is a short drive east of Vila do Porto via EN1-2A. At the Mini Mercado Clotilde in Almagreira, take a right to leave EN1-2A and follow the main road as it winds its way to the sea.
3. Pico Alto
During my stay on Santa Maria, I climbed up Pico Alto at various times around dawn, afternoon, and sunset. No matter what time you go, views are sure to stun if it's clear. This summit is the highest point on the island, and from it you can see almost the entirety of the isle. Notice how to the east the land is more forested and mountainous, while to the west, the landscape is more arid and flat. See if you can spot the "Red Desert" (see number 5 on this list).
To Get There: Pico Alto is a relatively short hike up a path and sets of stairs. The starting point is accessible by car via a fairly smooth, paved road that winds its way up into the forested hills of the island. There's a small parking area at the base of the summit with a flight of stairs that begins to ascend to the top.
4. Cascata do Aveiro
Cascata do Aveiro remains one of my all-time favorite waterfalls. A short drive through Maia dead ends by the sea, where a large alcove in the cliffs hides this stunning cascade. There are small spaces to park nearby if needed, then you can walk a short path into the alcove to get closer to the waterfall. (You should already see it from the main road.) There you'll find pools and streams of water, traces of old terrace vineyards clinging to the surrounding cliffside, this wonderful waterfall, and plenty of ducks guarding the area! The ducks swarmed when I first arrived, but they caused no trouble. This was an incredibly peaceful and beautiful spot. I loved the privacy of the alcove, the soothing power of the waterfall, the moss-covered volcanic rock, and the proximity to the sea.
To Get There: From Maia on the southeast end of the island, it's just a short walk to the end of the road at the edge of town. You should be able to see (and hear!) the waterfall as you cross over a small bridge near the end. The waterfall is also part of a longer pedestrian trail that stretches from Santo Espirito to Maia, and is accessible as a sight along the way there too.
Also in Maia: Saltwater pools and old lighthouse Farol da Maia nearby
5. The Red Desert (Barreiro da Faneca)
When I arrived on Santa Maria, a woman who looked incredibly like she could be a long-lost aunt of mine asked if I'd seen the "red desert," and I was intrigued. Located on the north side of the island, Barreiro da Faneca (or the "red desert") is a stunning (though relatively small) swath of barren red ground that does indeed live up to its name. The vibrant color comes from clays formed by pyroclastic rocks, and it's worth a look. The surrounding area makes for a lovely walk as well through fields and groves of laurisilva. Go to experience an even quieter side of the island and some simple but stark beauty.
To Get There: The red desert is accessible from EN2-2. Going from Vila do Porto, take EN1-2A north of the city until it links up with EN2-2 near Sao Pedro. Close to the desert, it can be a little tricky to tell you're going the right way, and the dirt roads may be muddy if there's recently been a storm. Exercise caution in the rainy season to avoid getting stuck.
There is of course plenty more to see and do on this small but special island. It's also worth nothing that there are plenty of trails connecting these sights and, given the small size of the island, seeing more of it by foot if you have time and are prepared is a wonderful, very doable adventure. For those with the time and desire to do so, there's a great 78km route around the whole island called the Grand Route of Santa Maria.
Remember to be a responsible tourist and adventurer! Do your best to practice sustainable tourism and respect the culture and lands of which you're a guest.