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Climbing Mount Pico: How to Climb Portugal’s Tallest Mountain

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There are three main things to do on the island of Pico: whale watching, wine tasting, and climbing Mount Pico. Of the three of these, climbing Mount Pico was definitely my favourite. It was also the toughest, but, then again, it’s probably not fair to compare mountain climbing with drinking wine and a boat trip.

View while climbing up Pico

Climbing Pico is actually made up of two mountains: Pico (which was once a volcano) and a very small “mountain” inside the crater that’s called “Piquinho.” Although Piquinho is technically an extra mountain, nobody stops at the crater: pretty much everyone climbs up Piquinho as well (10-15 minutes of scrambling).

Piquinho
Piquinho

When visibility is good on the top of Pico, you’ll be able to see some of the other islands. You’ll almost definitely be able to see Faial but, if you’re lucky, you may be able to see São Jorge and maybe even some of the others as well.

Inside Pico Crater
The crater

A few quick facts

  • As of July 2019, it costs €20 to climb Pico (and Piquinho, which costs a Euro or two extra) during the day. If you want to climb at night, it costs €30.
  • The fee not only covers your entrance to the mountain, but it also means you get a GPS tracker (with a call function) so that the Mountain House can track you. You can also call the mountain if you need help.
  • If you really need help (if you sprain your ankle, for example) the fee covers the cost of the Bombeiros coming to rescue you providing that you’ve stuck to the trail (which is clearly marked with poles). If you don’t stick to the trail, the rescue fee is around €1,200.
  • There are (unnumbered) markers all the way up and, as long as visibility is good, you can easily see the next marker.
  • Although Mount Pico is 2,351 metres above sea level, the climb starts at Casa da Montanha. This is about 1,000 metres up, so the actual climb is around 1050 metres.
  • You get a certificate at the end. 

How hard is it?

MountainElevation
Pico, Portugal2,351 metres (1,050 metres of climbing)
Snowdon, UK1,085 metres
Zugspitze, Germany2,962 metres
Denali, US6,190 metres
Everest8,848 metres

Path along pico

Pico is a pretty tough climb. The best way I can describe it is that it’s like climbing a really long set of stairs for about 3 hours and then going all the way back down again.

Apparently a 3rd of people don’t make it up Pico. Some of this will be due to people not being fit enough, but the majority is probably due to people being unlucky with the weather. The weather in The Azores changes a lot and it obviously can affect you a lot more when you’re on the side of a mountain.

Most people take around 7 hours total to complete it which, on the flat, would be quite a lot of walking. I was able to do it in around 5 hours, but I had been doing a long of walking in the months leading up to it (around 10-15 km per day).

Going down was definitely harder mainly because the ground is often made up of small, loose lava rocks (called biscoitos) and then even finer soil which was almost like sand. The sand-like ground was the hardest, and I fell on my arse at least once.

marker on mount pico

If visibility is good, you won’t get lost. Unnumbered poles mark the way up, and they’re always easy to spot. There will probably also be plenty of other people climbing at the same time as well.

Do I need a guide?

All of the articles that I read (in English) said that you absolutely must have a guide, but I decided to do it without a guide. Here’s why: nearly all of the articles that said “you need a guide” were written by people who’d been given a free guide by a tour company.

I know this because each article had a disclaimer at the end saying that the climb was “sponsored” or “done in collaboration with” XYZ tour company, but of course it didn’t “influence their opinions”. I’m not saying they’re biased or even wrong – having a guide is probably a good idea – but I think it’s wrong to say that you absolutely must have one.

There are a few reasons to get a guide:

  • If you want to be guaranteed entrance (there are only 200 people allowed on the mountain at one time, and guided tours get priority).
  • If you’re not a confident climber.
  • If the weather conditions are likely to be bad.
  • If you haven’t rented a car and need some way of getting to Casa da Montanha anyway.
  • If you don’t have climbing sticks (and feel you’ll need them).
  • If you’d like someone to give you information about the rocks and fauna on the way up.

I think a guide would be a good idea if you’re not a confident climber or if the weather conditions are bad, for example. Having a guide also means that you’ll get picked up from your accommodation and dropped back and, given that your legs will feel like jelly after, that might be a good enough reason in itself.

Being honest, I was actually slightly nervous going into the mountain house as I expected to be told that it was unsafe to go up alone. What I actually found was that plenty of people were doing it without a guide. In fact, I found plenty of families (Germans mainly) who were climbing it with their children (and without a guide). Clearly the articles about climbing Pico that are written in German are very different to the ones written in English.

If you do want to do it with a guide, several companies on Pico offer this with prices ranging from around €50-70, although some include the entrance fee so it works out the same.

Some companies that offer guided tours include:

Should I climb in the day or at night?

Most people climb Pico early in the day like I did, but there are actually three ways that you can climb Pico.

  • During the day (Anytime from sunrise).
  • During the night (Climb during the night so that you arrive at the summit at sunrise).
  • Overnight (Reach the summit and pitch your tent by sunset, sleep overnight, wake up for sunset and then climb back down in time for breakfast).

Although I climbed Pico during the day (and in good weather) without a guide, I would probably get a guide for a night or overnight climb. There are plenty of reasons for this, but one would be for safety and the other would be for equipment. If you’re climbing during the night, you’ll need headlamps and if you’re staying overnight, you’ll need a tent and a sleeping bag.

Buying a tent and a sleeping bag is going to work out quite expensive, so it probably makes more sense to go with a guide.

Some companies that offer guided tours include:

A suggested packing list for climbing Pico

Here’s a list of things that you might want to consider packing for Pico. Some of these I had, and some I was I’d had.

  • Jacket: This isn’t so much to protect you from the rain (although it might rain) but also to act as a windbreaker.
  • Sweater: I took a sweater, which I needed in the beginning, but put in my bag after an hour or two.
  • Leggings or shorts: I wore shorts, but I was a little jealous of the people who had leggings or, even better, the zippered trousers that transform into shorts.
  • Wooly hat: I didn’t have one, but my head was cold first thing in the morning.
  • Climbing sticks: I didn’t use these as I’ve never used them before, but most people were using them. If you go with a guide, they’ll provide them.
  • Sunglasses – At some point you’re probably going to be walking towards the sun, so sunglasses are definitely a good idea.
  • Sunscreen: It’s likely that you’ll be quite exposed to the sun and you risk getting sunburnt.
  • Lip balm: My lips were a bit dry by the end of the climb.
  • Water: Most guides recommend around 1.5 litres as a minimum. I took 3 litres, but it was too much. I only drank a little more than 1.5 litres.
  • Day bag: You’ll need a bag to carry everything.
  • Food: See below.

Note: There’s a Sports Zone near Madalena (map) if you need any of these things. There’s also a Decathlon on São Miguel, if you’re visiting there first.

Food & Drink

Supermarkets on Pico were pretty basic (and expensive), so it was hard to make a decent packed lunch. I settled on peanut butter sandwiches in the end, along with nuts, chocolate, and fruit, but the sandwiches were quite dry. Maybe I should have done the American thing and added some jam (jelly) as well.

Supermarkets close quite early on Pico and probably won’t be open in the morning, so be sure to get your shopping done in advance.

Accommodation near Mount Pico

There isn’t much accommodation near the starting point. The nearest place to stay that I found was this cottage on Airbnb. Just a little bit further is this guesthouse on Airbnb

Both of those properties are near Madalena and next to the EN3 road, which is the best road for getting up to Casa da Montanha. I stayed in São Caetano, which looked closer to Casa da Montanha but the road up was so bad that it actually took me longer to get there than if I’d stayed in Madalena. 

What to do the day before

  • Buy any food or drink that you’ll need for the climb.
  • Make sure your car has petrol.
  • Work out how long it’ll take you to get to the Casa da Montanha, and factor that in.
  • If you’re concerned about what the weather will be like, consider calling Casa da Montanha to ask them (+351 967 303 519)
  • Eat a good meal, but nothing too rich that’ll affect your sleep.
  • Similarly, don’t drink caffeine or anything else that will keep you awake. 
  • Check when sunrise is on Google (if that’s when you’re going up)
  • Get to bed early.

What to do on the day

  • Have a good breakfast.
  • Drive to Casa da Montanha (or get picked up from your accommodation)
  • Check-in and pay (you’ll need ID and the money).
  • Climb Pico!

Tips

  • Only 200 or so people are allowed up Pico at a time. If you don’t get there early, and there are already 200 people on the mountain, you’ll have to wait until other people come down.
  • The later you go, the warmer it will be. In the summer, it’s better to have less time in bed but avoid the heat.
  • If you have a choice of several days to climb Pico, phone Casa da Montanha to ask when the best day would be.
  • There are several routes up to The Mountain House. I let Google Maps take me on the one nearest my accommodation, and the road was terrible – even non-existent at times. I came down via the EN3 road which goes to Madalena and it was much, much better.

Climbing Pico from Faial

It is possible to climb Pico as a daytrip from Faial. The first ferry is normally around 7:30 am, which isn’t as early as most people would like it, but it’s usually still early enough to get there before any major queueing begins.

Once you factor in the ferry from Horta to Madalena (30 minutes) and the taxi or ride with a guide from Madalena to the Casa da Montanha (20-30 minutes), it’s going to be around 08:30 am before you can start.

Renting a car or scooter in Madalena is also an option, but that often means filling out paperwork which will take at least 10-15 minutes. Alternatively, you could also rent the vehicle in Faial and take it on the ferry. 

Given that most people take around 7 hours, this would mean that you finish around 15:30. The last ferry is usually much later, so you shouldn’t be in a rush.

Tip: make sure you have the number of a taxi driver or a way of getting back to Madalena in time for your ferry back to Faial.

Last updated in August 2019.
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