Canyoning in the Azores

Turn up at the airport on Flores Island in summer, and chances are you’ll see drifts of people arriving laden with waterproofs and hiking boots instead of wheelie suitcases and flip flops. They’re here for one thing: canyoning. For many, this adrenaline activity isn’t just an exhilarating footnote to their holiday in the Azores; it’s the whole reason they’re visiting.

But what is canyoning? Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to use a harness and ropes to explore islands like Flores, São Miguel and São Jorge, sliding along riverbanks, rappelling down volcanic rock faces, scrambling through eucalyptus and laurel forests, and springing into the ocean from waterfalls that range from 40m to over 200m high. Expect to get wet.

“It’s challenging because normally you’re out of your comfort zone,” says Paulo Medeiros, co-founder and guide at our canyoning specialists Fun Activities Azores. “But being out of your comfort zone is what brings you joy and energy.”

The Azores has a route for almost every ability. “Canyoning is basically for every age,” says Paulo. “We normally start from 16 up to 80s. Which route just depends on your fitness.”
Being out of your comfort zone is what brings you joy and energy.
Our canyoning holidays in the Azores are run by experts like Paulo who know all the ropes and can calmly guide you through said ropes. Paulo started guiding professionally in 2001, after spending his teenage years scrambling along the rivers and waterfalls of the Azores. Passionate about sharing his love of his spectacular home, he co-founded Fun Activities Azores with his friend and cousin João in 2015.

More than anything, canyoning guides are pros at helping you overcome any obstacles – whether that’s a fallen tree trunk or pesky nerves when leaning back for your first rappel.

“The great thing about canyoning is that we have lots of people chatting away with happy faces,” says Paulo. “You know that they’re out of their comfort zone and the feeling of doing these sorts of things in nature is bringing them happiness. That’s why it’s one of the most successful activities, receiving great reviews. Guests really enjoy it; it’s something special.”

“This is probably one of the best feelings that a guide can have,” Paulo adds.

Creating new routes on São Miguel

In recent years, São Miguel’s popularity with adrenaline seekers has got the better of it, so in 2017 Paulo and his fellow guides joined up with the parish of Lomba de São Pedro in the north-east of the island. Here, they began a project to create a new canyoning and hiking route designed to ease the pressure on more well-known spots where car parks were packed and paths were wearing down.

“When we discovered this place near Lomba de São Pedro, we were amazed,” says Paulo. “It was beautiful.”

It wasn’t a secret that they wanted to keep to themselves, so they soon started prepping the route for tourists and the Azores canyoning community. The team sought permissions with the government, cleaned up, created canyoning pitches, and tried out different ways of scaling the landscape. They even discovered and resurrected trails that had grown over years ago.

They had two aims in mind: reduce overtourism and share the boon of tourism income with communities who had in the past lost out on it – and they worked alongside the local farming and fishing communities at every step.
I don’t know any other company that is doing a project like this in canyoning in the Azores.
The team at Fun Activities Azores shared their route-building skills with people from the small town nearby, who in turn used their skills to help maintain the route. Paulo was particularly keen to work with marginalised people struggling with social exclusion. Part of the income from the route goes directly to the town.

“We call it our place because it’s our project and it’s really working,” says Paulo. “Now we have other companies doing this route too, which is great. The feedback is always amazing… I don’t know any other company that is doing a project like this in canyoning in the Azores.”

The route itself descends into the forests of São Miguel. Rivers rush over rocky riverbeds, mossy boulders double as slippery stepping stones, and waterfalls drop from fern-covered ledges into glassy pools. Catch it in summer, and chances are you’ll be walking through the laurel, holly, juniper and eucalyptus forests in the dappled sunshine.

Although open to visiting canyoners, the route isn’t quite finished. “The end point is when we see that it’s settled and ready,” says Paulo. They’re still working on the small print, hammering out the details that’ll make sure future income from tourism is invested directly in the area. “This is our biggest concern... we want to make sure that we use the money in the way that is best. We will be happy when we see that it is going on its own.”

Where to go canyoning in the Azores

Canyoning largely sticks to three islands: Flores, São Miguel and São Jorge. Each island has a different terrain suitable for different abilities. You’ll often start in Ponta Delgada on São Miguel – the hub for international flights – and either base yourself there or fly to another island such as Flores.

“Canyoning allows you to discover places that are impossible to see otherwise,” says Paulo. “It really takes you to some wild parts of the islands.”

Flores

The celebrated Rendezvous International Canyoning (RIC) took place in Flores in 2016 – a sure sign that this island isn’t just the best place in the Azores for canyoning, but one of the best places in the world. Canyoning guides travel from all over the globe to experience the giddiness of rappelling down canyons and jumping from oceanside waterfalls here.

“Flores is my favourite place for canyoning,” says Paulo. “I look for this adrenalin rush.”

The routes in Flores can be more demanding than those on other islands – which is part of the charm for many. The higher terrain offers the chance to use a range of canyoning techniques. The biggest waterfall is as tall as the Golden Gate Bridge, and experienced canyoners can spend two hours traversing from pitch to pitch on ropes.

Waterfalls also drop from canyons Alquevins and Barrosas into the ocean, with a leap and a splash into the Atlantic the white-knuckle grand finale. A boat awaits to pick you up and take you back to the cosy harbour to warm up.

Flores is a small island, so adventurers can explore several routes over a week, including easier, shorter paths like the Além Inferior – an easy canyon where your guides can give you the lay of the land and teach you the dos and don’ts of canyoning.

São Miguel

São Miguel is the biggest island in the Azores, home to the capital Ponta Delgada. The landscapes are more diverse than other islands, with a choice of routes covering a range of abilities. This is probably where you’ll go if you’re a beginner, family or trying canyoning as part of a multi activity holiday in the Azores.

“The good thing about tours on São Miguel island is that you don’t have to do anything,” says Paulo. “There are alternatives.”

Although more accessible, over half of São Miguel remains wild. Waterfalls as tall as castles fall through the forests and rivers range from easy to challenging. Ribeira dos Caldeirões Natural Park is a favourite spot, where you can rappel down waterfalls and paddle in the pools below.

São Jorge

São Jorge is another international star, even hosting the Rendezvous International Canyoning (RIC) in 2015. Stretched out between Pico and Terceira, the island is famous for its long vertical descents. Other routes tick off waterfalls, caves, canyons, rivers and ocean, hovering somewhere between Flores and São Miguel in terms of difficulty.

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If you'd like to chat about Azores or need help finding a holiday to suit you we're very happy to help.

What are canyoning holidays in the Azores like?

Small group vs tailor made

Small group canyoning holidays spend between five and seven days concentrating on exploring routes as a group of up to eight people, travelling on set dates and following a carefully designed itinerary. The itinerary is still flexible, mind you. The guides will pick your exact route on the week, depending on the weather conditions and group’s abilities. Sometimes, you’ll get the chance to split into two groups so that more experienced canyoners can set off on advanced routes, while others choose another activity or easier route.

Tailor made canyoning trips are better for families, as they can be completely tweaked to your clan’s needs.

Alternatively, you can join a multi activity holiday where canyoning is one of many activities on the itinerary. These can be small group holidays of 4-21 people or tailor made trips designed in collaboration with you, taking in your likes and dislikes.

Whichever type of trip you choose, accommodation, transfers (including flights or ferries between islands), guides, most meals and many activities are included. If you’re on a multi activity holiday, it’s worth double-checking exactly which activities are included and which may require an extra payment.
It’s a pleasure to see families do canyoning. They start the canyoning as a normal family and they finish the canyoning more united.
– Paulo Medeiros, from our partner Fun Activities Azores

Is canyoning good for families?

Canyoning is great for families. You can either join a ready-made family canyoning tour (watch out for the minimum age guidance; it’s often 16) or go on a tailor made trip where our partners will match you up with routes that suit the range of abilities in your family. São Miguel is the best island for families because there are so many alternative routes. Tours are completely adaptable here – handy when you’ve got very young children (or, more likely, nervous parents).

Local guides like Paulo still remember the thrill of exploring their islands when they themselves were children. “I started exploring the Azores when I was quite young,” says Paulo. “I went out with my friends when we were 10 or 12, exploring rivers and things like that. I remember this feeling of adventure, starting to learn the possibilities of what we could do.”

Are other activities included?

Multi activity holidays include a bevy of activities that range from snorkelling with dolphins and kayaking on crater lakes to hiking on clifftop paths and wine tasting in volcanic vineyards. Whale watching is the most popular activity in the Azores and can be included in almost every tour. Read our guide on things to do in the Azores for more ideas.

When should I go?

Most canyoning holidays in the Azores run from May to October. The water levels can be too dangerous and unpredictable during the rainy winter months for anyone other than experts. Late May to October is the best time to go canyoning in Flores. Winter into the beginning of spring isn’t recommended, as the winter rains cause strong river currents and waterfall drops. São Jorge is best avoided in summer, when the water levels drop much lower than other islands.

Responsible Travel would like to thank Azores Tourism for their sponsorship of this guide.
Photo credits: [Page banner: Fun Activities Azores Adventure] [All images courtesy of: Fun Activities Azores Adventure]