I don’t think there is outdoor junkie who would be avoiding Hawaii. Somewhere in the back of our mind there is always a wish to go there. Not just because there is always warm weather, but for me also because there are some beautiful canyons. But Hawaii are quite far away if you are typical European… So it is time to find an alternative.
By being canyoning enthusiast I’ve had heard about the island Flores in 2016. But first time I encountered it’s name I didn’t put that many attention to it. I knew there was CIMA going on (Portugese international canyoning meeting), but it just didn’t feel as the thing I would be willing to go. But couple of months later (in December 2016) I’ve meet my friend Thomas in Ljubljana. He was showing me the photos and videos of the canyons with all the enthusiasm. Euphorically he added that Flores is known as European version of Hawaii. My interest picked up. When I got home I started doing the research. And it looked amazing. I was stoked and I had to go to the island. I meet with Thomas again on May and asked him if he would need a photographer for guided cayoning trip to Flores in September. It didn’t took long for him to take me aboard. And it didn’t took me long to buy a plane ticket, just to make sure that nothing comes across.
I waited for quite some time. Of course I had practiced my canyoning photography skills in the meantime but I was ready to go in the middle of September. The trip to get there, was really a long one. It took me 36 hours to get from Ljubljana to Flores Island. I figured out that even flying to Hawaii would be shorter. But are there that many canyons? And does it feel like exclusive travel or more of an over-crowded tourist destination? On first question I could answer with maybe, but the answer for the second one is: no, for sure!
I can’t remember the time when I was happier in my life than on the moment the plane touched the ground and when I saw the beauty of the island. I’ve seen many beautiful places but Flores… Flores was/is something extraordinary. Everything is so green and there is so many flowers (no wonder the island was named like that). But the most important thing – the water is flowing from everywhere. On its surface of 142 square kilometers (17 x 12 km) there is 35 known canyons (Descente-canyon.com, june 2018). The whole Slovenia has 33 canyons! And in general the canyons are much nicer on Flores than in Slovenia. Combination of black rock and green vegetation around the canyons make an amazing scenery. Everything had to be shot and my camera was like on fire. When I came home from the 9 day trip there was 4000 photos to edit. It took me couple of months to do it :). But it was worth it. Couple of them is now used by Edelrid, the canyoning gear manufacturer and others are used on the Purelements website.
But why is Flores so beautiful? First things first… Flores, along with the island of Corvo, is situated on the North American Continental Plate of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and belongs to the western group of islands in the Azores archipelago. The island developed initially from a submarine volcano that constructed small calderas and numerous pyroclastic cones. Following a long period of quiescence beginning about 200,000 years ago, several young craters and associated lava flows erupted during the Holocene epoch, including two about 3000 years ago. The island has deep valleys and high peaks; Morro Alto is the highest place on the island, reaching an altitude of 914 m. In many situations where water collected in volcanic calderas (or caldeiras in Portuguese), lakes were formed: there are seven of these lakes on the island. During the summer, the island is covered with thousands of hydrangeas, which have large blue or pink flowers.
Another reason why the island is so beautiful is it remoteness and sustainable tourism policy. It was discovered in 1452 by the navigator Diogo de Teive. It was first inhabited between 1480 and 1490. But the population didn’t peak up fast. Island is isolated and by being the last stop on the way to America from Europe the waters of Flores were frequently raided by pirates. The inhabitants where robbed and women were raped. But the stubborn ones stayed on the island and lived of agriculture. Many of them were recruited as whalers in the 19th century. In July 1962, the French laid the foundations for a missile tracking installation on the island, which was inaugurated in October 1966. In the following years, a hospital, a power station, and an airport were established, which brought a financial upswing to the entire island. After the French left the island in 1994, tourism became the island’s dominant industry. But everything is well studied and the local regulations don’t allow locals to build new buildings for the touristic purposes. So this will hopefully prevent mass tourism. I just wouldn’t like Flores to become the next Madeira…
So beside falling in love with natural beauty, winding narrow roads, countless flowers and friendly people I felt in love with the canyons. Every one of them has different characteristics and had filled a special place in my canyon collection. It was my first time doing the vulcanic canyons, my first time observing the sunset in the canyon, my first time being picked by the boat at the end of the trip etc. So this was really one of a kind adventure. In the following paragraphs I will describe all the canyons that we did.
Além inférior is an entry level canyon. This is where I meet the Azorean canyons. Well, after almost a year I cannot recall all the feelings, but I was amazed by the combination of dark rock and green vegetation around. And the entrance was decorated by yellow flowers named kahili ginger. The canyon itself is quite easy one. Couple of jumps and abseils, a bit of walking on the slippery ground and three hours in the canyon slips by in no time.
José de Fraga
As Badanela being a short canyon, we decided that we want to do another canyon on our first full day on the island. And the best option was José de Fraga which was just couple of clicks away from our hut (well, everything on this island is just couple of km away anyways…). We did hike up on an old path, that was used by the farmers who went up the hill to find some special kind of flowers to feed the cattle. And the amazing thing was that on the way up we saw couple of mills in the middle of the mountain. So people had to bring the grains couple hundred of vertical meters to the mill and then back down to the shore when it was grounded. José de Fraga has more vertical character. It is facing west so we had a privilege to observe sunset in the canyon. That was first time in my life but certainly not the last!
Ribeira dos Ilhéus
In my canyoning career (it is so weird when you say career to your passion 🙂 ) i had never seen something like it. The most diverse canyon there is. It starts like canyon that is nothing special. But then the breath taking scenery comes. The most impressive are basalt columns that where formed during the cooling of a thick lava flow, when the contractional joints or fractures are being formed. If a flow cools relatively rapidly, significant contraction forces build up. While a flow can shrink in the vertical dimension without fracturing, it can’t easily accommodate shrinking in the horizontal direction unless cracks form; the extensive fracture network that develops results in the formation of columns. And the highest waterfall in Ilhéus is finding its way exactly in the middle of such wall.
Then the canyon closes a little and the scene from Avatar kicks in. All green and stuff. Only the people were not so wierd :).
And finally it gets really enclosed and I have the option to take one of my all time favorite photos I made until today.
Like I said, every canyon has its character. Once we reached the Barossas I was a bit fascinated with the color of the water. It was a bit red. That must be because of the rock… And another thing is vegetation. I couldn’t even dream of a nicer scene. But like Ilhéus, Barossas also changes after time. It reaches the tuff structure. Tuff is a type of rock made of volcanic ash ejected from a vent during a volcanic eruption. Following ejection and deposition, the ash is compacted into a solid, but soft rock. That’s why the tuff canyons have soft walls – just like the ones in conglomerate in Sierra de guara.
Highlight of this canyon is certainly the boat pickup in the end. You abseil in the turbulent water and then you have to quickly swim to the boat before you are pushed to the wall by the waves. This is an amazing experience. And then the crazy boat ride happens. The skipper of a boat is really experienced local who knows where he can navigate and pushes his boat to the limits, takes sharp turns and navigates dangerously close to the reefs. Another adrenaline rush.
The last but not least canyon was Alquevins. A bit special because of the hike-in: Obviously the path that we took wasn’t in use for quite some time. There was a lot of vegetation on the path so we had to cut our way in. But that means that the canyon is just more well-earned :). And the payment for this work was amazing. The canyon provides us breath taking views on the shore. And the Basalt forms really nice, hexagnal shapes on the surface of the waterfall that reminds me of a paving stones from my home. The only difference is that those in canyon are much better laid… :).
You know what was the hardest thing in the whole week? Well, it was the fact that everything ends one day. I knew there will be time when we will have to leave it. And on our final day we packed everything and went to the airport. But wind picked up and we couldn’t leave the island. There was no way leaving it with the plane on that day. There was only one med-evac going on and even that with the army helicopter. But we didn’t bother. I was happy that I can spend another day on the island with all expenses covered by the SATA, the Azorean airline. And we got ourselves a little stone cottage where we could sleep. It was premium treatment and I was joking that Flores is like Hotel California – you can check-in any time you want but you can never leave. On the following day the wind was gone and we had to leave. But the memory of this beautiful island will never leave my head. I will for sure be returning there, one day… Maybe I will be even your guide if you book the Azores travel with Purelements.