Azores: Surfing Santa Iria – is it worth the hike?
It’s amazing how even now, in the 21st century, even in modern Europe, we can still find a couple of beaches with absolutely no roads leading to them. Not even a gravel path or a 4×4 dirt road. To get there, we have to hike.
You can discover a couple of them in the Azores archipelago, and on the Sao Miguel island, there’s one beach particularly interesting for surfers. Most of the tourists don’t even notice when taking pictures from Miradouro de Santa Iria. They are too busy taking selfies and have no time to think about a couple of waves breaking under the rocks.
But any decent surfer who’s done the homework and read the guides knows there is a pretty good surf spot somewhere around Santa Iria.
The question is how to get there and is it worth the hike?
To get there, you’ll need to drive to the nearby town of Ribeirinha. Check out the three local cafés/bars while you’re passing through for authentic local experience… Turn towards the east and park the car in the fields, a couple meters past the last farmhouse. Then it’s about 40 minutes hike, characterized with these two distinct terrain features: A steep downhill through a gorge followed by a rock climbing around the cliff. All of this with a surfboard in your hands, a 100% chance of rain and possibility of getting stuck there because of high tide. It’s no wonder that surfers need to plan this session carefully.
How to decide if it’s good.
The surf forecast is helpful, but because the Azores are in the middle of the ocean, it’s not always reliable. The swell direction changes quickly as does the wind and relatively big tides.
If you’re considering surfing at Santa Iria, here’s a general guide on how to approach it:
First, if you see good waves elsewhere, and it’s not too big or too crowded, don’t hesitate and paddle out. It makes no sense to risk going to Santa Iria if you can have a great surf session at one of the more accessible surf spots around the island.
Check out the forecast again, if its good head to the Miradouro. Ideally, there will be a north-west swell big enough to wrap around the cliff head. The wind is not a huge factor unless it is blowing straight from the north.
It can be pretty hard to estimate the wave size from the top, but you should be seeing some clean lines and waves peeling for longer periods of time. If the lines span through the entire bay, it’s big. If there are waves only breaking very close to the rocks, it’s too small. But be aware that the conditions may change quickly with the tide.
The surfers hike
Once you’ve decided to surf Santa Iria, it’s time to prepare. First, you’ll need to decide on the hiking style:
Make it a quick in & out session and take only your surfboard. This means hiking light, but also losing the comfort of changing from your wetsuit before the return hike, or taking any snacks & other things that you may or may not need.
Prepare everything that’s necessary and enjoy the whole trip. You will need some decent shoes – that are ok to get wet too. I like to take my reef boots as they can be used for surfing too. A backpack with your clothes for change, sunscreen and enough water. A snack & camera are optional. Be aware that the beach is quite small and gets flooded during high tides – keep your stuff on top the tree branches or rocks to avoid getting wet.
Another important factor is timing. Again, there are two options:
Go down, surf, and make it back before the high tide comes. It could mean that you have to leave even if the waves are still ok, and you want to keep surfing. The path gets flooded about 1-2 hours before the high tide peak.
Surf and stay all the time until a couple of hours after the high tide. I recommend taking a book & enough provisions just in case the waves are too fat during the tide peak. Also, it is highly likely that it will rain at least once during the day so take a raincoat too.
Of course, don’t forget to check the sunset time. You don’t want to be climbing back when it’s dark.
The hike itself isn’t that bad. First, you may need to dodge a few cows standing in your way. There is a story about a crazy horse kicking surfboards, but I haven’t seen one yet. Then the path starts to descend steeply down the gorge. With proper hiking shoes and no surfboard to obstruct, it could be a pleasant trek.
But I definitely don’t recommend trying it in your flip-flops.
After you’ve descended all the way to the sea, let’s cross the stream on the right and start walking down the rocky path around the cliff head. Some boulders are quite big and the ocean makes them wet & slippery so be very careful not to slip and ding your surfboard.
As you pass the narrow place, notice the high-water mark on the cliff wall. That should be the warning for not trying it during high tide. Then it’s just about a 200h meters to the beach where people usually expect to find pristine nature and stunning views…
Instead of untouched beauty, you will be greeted by garbage and plastic!
As shocking as it may be, this is the legacy of our plastic way of consuming things. Plastic rubble is a common sign on pretty much every beach around the globe. We could find here stuff from Europe, America as well as Africa. Year after year, it all ends up here, in the middle of the ocean. Unfortunately, no beach cleaning or recycling policies won’t make it go away. To stop producing plastic waste is the only way…
But let’s return to our surfing-hike trip.
How are the waves at Santa Iria?
Once you’ve done the preparation and endured the hiking part, the waves will be your reward!
If you’re lucky, there will be a distinct left point break peeling along the rocks. In the middle, you can find a beach break type of left & right waves, along with more occasional straight-handers & closeouts. And on the far side of the beach is a right-hand slab, more suitable for bodyboarders and experienced surfers.
The only downside are the odd rocks on the bottom that could potentially damage your board or feet, so be careful where you finish your rides or paddle out. Enter & exit in the middle of the beach where there are fewer rocks. There is no clear channel to ease your way out, but you should be able to time your entry between the sets. If you’re paddling in close to the high tide, be aware of the strong shore-break too.
The main break is the left-hand point. Medium sets are the good ones as most of the biggest waves tend to close out somewhere in the middle. But if you’re lucky, it can peel all the way to the far corner of the beach. The takeoff zone is shifty, and it may be hard to catch the waves as they tend to be more fat at the peak. I recommend taking a bigger board if you have the option. The middle section can grow and offers more wall. Don’t overkill the end section, because you could put yourself in danger of encountering a shallow rock as you push towards the beach.
If the waves are good during the weekend, there will be a bunch of locals in the water too. Give them enough respect, and they’ll treat you good. During the week, Santa Iria is often empty.
On a smaller day, the beach break section is perfect for intermediate surfers and even for beginners.
If you have the option, consider wearing reef boots to stay safe. The smaller waves here are so easy that even the local instructors take their students here. Although, I have no idea how they bring those big soft boards down the trek.
One more important thing to remember: Save some energy for your journey back!
Overall, the views are amazing, the waves can be epic and often uncrowded, and the hike could be well worth it – if you’re prepared.