Santa Maria

Santa Maria Portuguese for Saint Mary, is an island located in the eastern group of the Azores archipelago (south of the island of São Miguel) and the southernmost island in the Azores. The island is primarily known for its white sand beaches, distinct chimneys, and dry warm weather.

It is located in the southeast corner of the Azores archipelago, 100 km south of São Miguel, and 600 km from the island of Flores (the western most island in the archipelago). Geologically, it is the oldest island in the archipelago, with formations that are 8.12 million years old.  Due to its age, and no historical evidence of volcanism, the geography of the island tends to be more mature and includes larger deposits of sediments then can be found on the other islands of the archipelago. Similarly, marine fossils have been discovered on the island (in Prainha and Lagoinhas) that date back 117-130 million years (the Pleistocene epoch), and others (in Ponta do Castelo) dating back 5 millions of years (to the end of Miocene and beginning of the Paleocene. These deposits are evidence of an older island environment associated with both volcanic and sedimentary development. Generally, Santa Maria is known for the lack of volcanism during period of human intervention, although seismic events are common due to its proximity to the Glória Fault, an offshoot of the Azores-Gibraltar Transform Fault.

The island is 97.4 km², with an ovular shape, extending from the northwest to southeast generally characterized by two geomorphological regions:

  • A dry clay plain in the west, occupying two-thirds of the island, with its highest point 277 meters above sea level (near Piquinhos). Due to the impermeability of the soils, this regions is arid with fewer leafy plants or grasses. To the north and south the principal points of colonization occurred (Anjos and Vila do Porto, respectively), and 65% of the current population resides in this region, which includes the parishes of Vila do Porto, São Pedro and Almagreira. Airport lands represent the largest use of the space, as the Santa Maria airport is located along the western coast taking advantage of the plain and lack of natural obstacles. River valleys along the north and south divide many of the communities.
  • The eastern one-third of the island is composed of eroded hills and mountains, covered by areas of thick vegetation, pasture lands and river valleys. The tallest points on the island, Pico Alto (590 m), Cavacas (491 m) and Caldeira (481 m) are located in this region, which includes the parishes of Santa Bárbara and Santo Espírito, the more rural and agricultural lands on the island. This is a region of higher levels of humidity, with greater instances of wind, fog and precipitation, resulting in rich vegetation and endemic plant species.

Volcanic in origin, the geology of the island is characterized by a substrata of basalt deformed by a series of fractures in a northwest-southeast orientation. This is interlaced with lode and deposits of mafic silicate material. In addition, there are several calcium encrusted fossil deposits associated with marine formations, during a period of formation associated with Surtseyan activity. The presence of these deposits, unique in the Azores, gave rise to the lime (calcium oxide) industry during the 19th century.

The fossil deposits, usually located approximately 40 m above sea level, have generated great interest in the scientific community, resulting in several palaeontological studies in the 18th century, including Georg Hartung (1860), Reiss (1862), Bronn (1860), Mayer (1864), Friedlander (1929) and José Agostinho (1937). The Regional Nature Reserve of Figueiral and Prainha, which includes the Natural Monument of Pedreira do Campo, were created by decree of the Regional Assembly in order to preserve and protect this area of natural geological interest.

Soils in the drier western region are predominantly red clay, a consequence of natural alterations associated with pyroclastic deposits during the Palaeocene period, when the island’s climate was warmer and more humid, and the median sea level was 100 meters below current sea levels. These conditions allowed the formation of a fine clay, used later to support the pottery industry and export market (primarily to Vila Franca do Campo and Lagoa on São Miguel to be used as matéria prima of their traditional pottery. In Barreiro da Faneca, the Regional Assembly decreed a protected plain of this arid soil in order to protect and preserve its characteristics.

Generally, the island coast is ringed by steep cliffs, finding their prominence in the area of Rocha Alta (340 m). In addition, several protected bays along the coast shelter white sand beaches or are guarded by many rocky islets. These include the villages of São Lourenço (and its islet), Praia Formosa (and its long sandy beaches) or the craggy islet of Lagoínhas in the north coast. Forestry, covering about 19 hectares, is confined to high-density Cryptomeria trees planted along the slopes of Pico Alto, and unkept parcels of wild plants dominated by mock orange (Pittosporum undulatum), common juniper (Juniperus communis), and laurel (Laurus azorica).

Much like other islands of the Azores, there are many pedestrian walking trails and hiking circuits throughout the island. The hiking circuits allow the user to experience a range of diverse ecosystems and protected areas of the island that are not easily accessible to most tourists.

Several natural landscapes have been preserved or designated points of natural interest by the Regional Government in order to foster conservation and support endemic species of flora and fauna, as well as provide communal forms of recreation and nature interpretation. On the 7 November, the Regional Government legislated the creation (under Regional Legislative Decree 47/2008/A) of the Parque Natural da Ilha de Santa Maria (Nature Park of the Island of Santa Maria) in order to encapsulate and administer the various territorial units into one scheme, the thirteen protected areas include:

Nature Reserves

  • [SMA01] Nature Reserve of the Formigas Islets (Portuguese: Reserva Natural dos Ilhéus das Formigas)
  • [SMA02] Nature Reserve of the Vila Islet (Portuguese: Reserva Natural do Ilhéu da Vila)

Natural Monuments

  • [SMA03] Natural Monument of Pedreira do Campo, Figueiral and Prainha (Portuguese: Monumento Natural da Pedreira do Campo, do Figueiral e Prainha)

Protected Areas for the Management of Habitats and Coast Species

  • [SMA04] Protected Area of the Southwest Coast (Portuguese: Área Protegida para a Gestão de Habitats ou Espécies da Costa Sudoeste)
  • [SMA05] Protected Area of Ponta do Castelo (Portuguese: Área Protegida para a Gestão de Habitats ou Espécies da Ponta do Castelo)
  • [SMA06] Protected Area of Baía do Cura (Portuguese: Área Protegida para a Gestão de Habitats ou Espécies da Baía do Cura)
  • [SMA07] Protected Area of Pico Alto (Portuguese: Área Protegida para a Gestão de Habitats ou Espécies do Pico Alto)

Protected Landscapes

  • [SMA08] Protected Landscape of Barreiro da Faneca (Portuguese: Área de Paisagem Protegida do Barreiro da Faneca)
  • [SMA09] Protected Landscape of Baía de São Lourenço (Portuguese: Área de Paisagem Protegida da Baía de São Lourenço)
  • [SMA10] Protected Landscape of Baía da Maia (Portuguese: Área de Paisagem Protegida da Baía da Maia)

Protected Areas for the Management of Resources

  • [SMA11] Protected Resource Areas of Baía de São Lourenço (Portuguese: Área Protegida de Gestão de Recursos da Baía de São Lourenço)
  • [SMA12] Protected Resource Areas of the North Coast (Portuguese: Área Protegida de Gestão de Recursos da Costa Norte)
  • [SMA13] Protected Resource Areas of the Southern Coast (Portuguese: Área Protegida de Gestão de Recursos da Costa Sul)

In addition, the Direcção Regional dos Recursos Florestais (Regional Directorate for Forest Resources), which is responsible for the administration of forest resources and parks on the island, is responsible for the maintenance and promotion of the following forest reserves, within the designated spaces:

  • Recreational Forest Reserve of Fontinhas (Portuguese: Reserva Florestal de Recreio das Fontinhas)
  • Recreational Forest Reserve of Valverde (Portuguese: Reserva Florestal de Recreio de Valverde)
  • Recreational Forest Reserve of Mata do Alto (Portuguese: Reserva Florestal de Recreio da Mata do Alto)


Due to its low profile, the island is unique in the archipelago, being less influenced by humidity and having a more Mediterranean climate. In the summer it is generally dry and warm and in the winter it is milder with less precipitation. Median temperatures oscillate between 14°C and 22°C. The island received a direct hit from Hurricane Gordon in the early hours of

Politically, the island is one municipality, Vila do Porto, with a population of 5,578 inhabitants (2001), divided into five parishes: August 20, 2012, with winds of 120 km/h gusting to 170 km/. Gordon was a category 2 hurricane shortly before landfall. As a result, extensive preparations were made and there were no deaths and damage was limited to vegetation. The last time a hurricane was named Gordon, it also hit the Azores in 2006. Gordon from 2006 crossed the Azores on Sept. 19-20 as a Category 1 hurricane, producing a wind gust of 82 mph on Santa Maria island.

Tourists generally favor the white sand beaches and rock pools in the communities of Anjos (Vila do Porto), Praia Formosa (Almagreira), Maia (Santo Espírito) and São Lourenço (Santa Bárbara). Praia Formosa, in particular, is known on the island for its white sand beach that stretches across the bay. In the remaining locals original natural rock pools have been replaced by concrete pools with seawater access.

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