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Life And Trail Running In Azores

Before racing Ultra Blue Island by Azores Trail Run we decided to discover more about life in Faial and how trail running had an impact on the local community.
faial island northern coastline
A view of the craters on the northern coast

During my trip to the Azores, I decided to stop for one week in Faial, one of the islands composing the Central Archipelago of Azores, and run the Ultra Blue Island by Azores Trail Run. For how much the perceptions and opinions of an outsider can offer a view inside the local community, I wanted to have a chat with someone actually from Faial. This is how I met Andreas.

When I jumped on a Zoom call with Andreas I was expecting a local man from Faial who lived there his whole life and was a true islander. Reality diverged from exactions as it often does. Andreas is originally from Switzerland and he moved to Faial in 2019 with his family, after many years spent in Hungary. He lives just outside Horta, the main town on the island with roughly 10,000 people, where he is restructuring his house while maintaining a banana farm and being a tour guide. He is also responsible to maintain the website, which is a great one-stop destination if you are planning your trip to the island.

Azores islands google maps
Azores on a map

I was expecting someone born and raised in Faial, so this question was not planned. Why did you decide to move to the Azores and Fail specifically five years ago?

In 2008, I came to the Azores for the first time and then I came back in 2016 to run Ultra Blue Island which was my first trail marathon. I did not finish it, because I wasn’t trained enough and the weather conditions were merciless, but this year I will be back at the starting line of the 24k fighting to respect the time cutoffs - laughs. It will be my first race since 2016. The race was an excuse to come back to Faial and I fell in love with the island because of its nature and scenery. In 2018, I came to a moment in life when I had the possibility to move somewhere else and Faial was my choice, after 20 years in Hungary. It is a place to do something different in life.

How would you describe everyday life in Faial? How is it different from life on continental


I chose Faial because I thought it was the right compromise between Sao Miguel, which has a lot of tourists, and a big city like Ponta Delgada, and some of the other islands, which are mainly rural and do not have much to offer besides nature. Faial is in the middle. You can drive around the whole island in 1 hour. It is not too urbanized but it has a town like Horta where you can find everything you need. The island is also well connected both via ferry and plane. It is an isolated paradise.

monte da guia view
A view of the southern coast from Monte da Guia

I would say that life here is very European. You don’t feel like being in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in such a remote place. Life is slower compared to continental Europe and you need to get used to it. You can’t go shopping whenever you want. Everything takes longer. Amazon hasn’t got a next-day delivery service here, but you get everything within one week. If you have a new car that needs to be fixed you must ship it to the main island. It feels a bit like going back to the 80s or 90s when we hadn’t everything we want at any hour of the day.

While reading Horta’s Wikipedia feature, I noticed that the population reduced by 50% in the 21st century compared to 1849. How is this demographic trend affecting life in Faial?

The biggest drop happened in 1957, the volcano erupted and made a lot of people leave. In 10 years we passed from 22 to 15 thousand people. While emigration has been steady during the other periods. Azores are a poor region within Portugal and young people have limited possibilities to get qualified jobs if they decide to stay here. They usually leave for the mainland in order to go to the university.

On the positive side, the Azores rose in popularity among travelers from around the world and they are often identified as the “Hawaii of the Atlantic”. How did tourism change in the Azores in the last few years?

Everyone quotes that title from Forbes in 2015 about Hawaii still today. I think it ranks very well on Google when you search the Azores. Americans travel here with that picture in mind - I was surprised to see some direct flights from the East Coast to Ponta Delgada, but it makes sense looking at where the Azores sits on the map. When I visited Sete Citades in Sao Miguel in 2016, there were only 2 people there. If you go there now there is a long line of cars and buses.

Vulcão dos Capelinho faial island
Vulcão dos Capelinho offers a wild and volcanic landscape

Azores are now on the mass tourism map, but they are still remote compared to many other locations. Without a doubt, tourism brings money to the islands and it is now part of the economy, which relies on agriculture, breeding, and cheese making. You can see more tourist facilities, like restaurants, bars, and hotels, opening every year.

Faial will never become a mass tourism destination because it is not easy to reach. You have to catch a ferry from another island or a plane to the local airport which does not accommodate international flights. You have to work more to get here compared to Sao Miguel for example. We still get a lot of tourists but life on the island has not changed because of them. If it will it will be a slow process.

It has been more than 10 years since the first edition of Ultra Blue Island and it grew massively considering the location of the event. What does it represent for the local community in Faial?

It is the biggest event on the island sport-wise and one of the biggest all around. People are enthusiastic about it. There is not much entertainment in Azores so you have to create it yourself.

The local community is heavily involved in the event. There are two groups working on it, one taking care of marking the course and preserving the state of the trails and another working on the logistics, from food to transportation. For example, the aid stations are arranged by the local Boy Scouts, the army, and volunteers. Around 50 people from the local community are involved in the event.

faial island trail
One of the trail on the west coast

How was the event in 2016, when you attended it for the first time, and how it is today?

In 2016, it was already big and well-organized with a mix of amateur and elite athletes. I don’t feel there has been a huge change. There are more participants and international runners. Around one-third of participants are from abroad plus many Portuguese traveling from the mainland.

The atmosphere is friendly and you can perceive how much it means to the locals. Everyone can run it thanks to the easy cutoff times - this aspect was emphasized in the race brief as well. You don’t need to qualify too, just sign up and come here.

I think it is the best destination in the Azores. It is authentic and it has a lot to offer, from the city to the nature.

The most frequent comment about Ultra Blue Island is “This is a beautiful place, really amazing”. What is the single thing that amazes foreigners coming to Faial?

I think tourists find an interest in remote places that are still authentic. We are in a world that is very urbanized, think about Europe for example. People want to experience a connection with nature. Faial has a lot to offer, from nature and hikes to whale watching. There is also a noticeable portion of travelers being descendants coming back to see where they are originally from.

One last question, why should someone visit Faial?

I think it is the best destination in the Azores. It is authentic and it has a lot to offer, from the city to the nature. You can also take the ferry and be on Pico Island in 15 minutes and come back the same day. There is a bit of everything.

This interview has been edited.


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