A word on renting a car in the Azores. It’s necessary because public transportation is infrequent and won’t get you to the most remote, most stellar places without embezzling hours from your exploration time. If you’re in an AirBnb, your host will likely have a friend who is willing to “lend” you his car for $25/day, and in this case, there’s no need to book in advance.
If you survive the cliffs, hills, and careening drivers, you’ll be glad you didn’t waste your time on the sporadic and time consuming bus system. Read on for some Azorean driving lessons learned.
Hills + cliffs + stick shift = death trap
I rented in Sao Miguel and Graciosa, and took a taxi in Terceira because I was only there for a few hours. Graciosa is small enough that you can traverse the island, including it’s interior, in a few hours. There’s a smooth network of highways across Sao Miguel, but the beauty lies on the backroads, through green hilly hedged fields bursting with hydrangeas, cows living it up in farmers’ fields. In stark contrast, the streets in the city centers are alarmingly narrow, leaving you to hold your breath while you hope you don’t smash either sideview mirror into another car or someone’s house. Careening is the best way to describe the style of driving here; it’s like locals avoid slowing down so they don’t have to downshift for any reason, even a good one, like making a left turn. Not only that, but the ubiquitous San Franciscan-like hills are nerve-wracking to an American used to automatic drive.
The most treacherous of these experiences occurred when I pulled down a lane to get a view of the waterfront, only to realize it was an insanely steep dead-end followed by a cliff leading down into the Atlantic Ocean. A bystander encouraged me to simply reverse back up the lane, but I couldn’t lift my foot from the brake to the gas quickly enough without the car sliding forward, edging closer and closer toward the cliff. A man leisurely smoking a cigarette stared at me blankly. In two minutes time, his entertainment had transformed from a serene sea view to witnessing a woman provoke a death trap. Hesitating to get involved, he eventually took a position behind the car, motioning for me to turn the wheel this way and that while shouting directions in Portuguese. So here I was, doing a 19 point turn in a street that couldn’t have been more than 7 feet wide, sweating profusely from the fear that I might end up trapped in a car under the sea like James Bond, except this was no Lotus Esprit. I cannot believe I, and the car, escaped unscathed.
The quirks of driving in the Azores:
Signs, signs, nowhere are the signs
On both islands the signage confirming you’re on the right track is sparse, and in every case I had to drive much farther than I was comfortable without reassurance that I was headed in the right direction. Rely on your phone’s GPS. Or ask an Azorean farmer for directions.
Blind turns, lane merges and roundabouts
Slow down! And rely on these see-around-the-corner mirrors.
Not nearly as stressful as alternate side parking in Brooklyn, but, people park in the traffic lane, so swerving or slamming on the brake for oncoming traffic is the norm, as already narrow streets become one way.
When you park, hug the wall, and pull in your mirror so it doesn’t become a casualty for the cause.
Cows in truck beds, cows blocking the roads (be careful!), cows in the fields making some delicious Sao Jorge cheese. They’re amusing.
They’re gorgeous and plentiful. I’m thankful for the independence a car provides, so I can ogle these vistas for as long as I like before moving on.
And finally, I was pulled over by a police officer who told me I had made an illegal left. I apologized, but he sighed as loud as a donkey and dramatically rolled his eyes. Whether he was more frustrated by my mistake or my English, I wasn’t sure. Thankfully, that was the extent of our interaction, and he waved me on. Phew.