From the lookout point it was possible to take in the whole of the Furnas Valley, hidden away in the interior of the island and only visible once we were right upon it. We could see the rim of the volcanic crater, and the cones shaped by previous eruptions. We looked down on the blue waters of the crater lake. And across the valley, we could see the steam rising from fumaroles and hot springs, reminding us that this ancient landscape was still very much alive, just beneath the surface.
We dropped down to the lake at its northern end, where the mud pools and fumaroles bubbled beside wooden walkways and our kayaks were waiting on the grass at the water’s edge. Stepping into the shallows and the lake was warm around the ankles, a bath-lake temperature on the shore closest to the hot springs. But that was the only way to feel the lake. Agricultural run-off, the introduction of non-native fish and other environmental factors had left Lagoa das Furnas in a precarious state. No swimming was allowed, nor motorised boats, with kayaks and other human-powered craft carefully controlled.
A decade before the lake had been on the edge of collapse. With a water temperature of 37 degrees, it had been turning yellow. The ecological concerns, and those of the tourism industry, could no longer be ignored. Preservation projects were implemented, including the banning of dairy and beef agriculture on the slopes of the crater around the lake as well as oxygen pumps to breathe life beneath the surface. The situation remained fragile, but it seemed to be working.
We paddled out, away from the hot springs towards the centre of the lake. The landscape always seems different from the water, the cliffs of the crater somehow steeper, the trees taller and looming. The sun was shining but the winter wind still had a chill once we were out and away from the protection of the shore, whipping across the surface to create tiny waves but strong enough to turn and move the kayaks if we paused too long for a break.
For a couple of hours we paddled the lake, criss-crossing from one shore to the next, exploring what was to be found between the trees that ran down to the water’s edge. Big houses, built with money made during a long-ago economic boom. A chapel where locals used to pray for protection against pirate attacks, that still threatened the hidden valley in a time when Furnas village was tucked away and remote, a long way from help and yet still a tempting target for those who found their way up the steep trails from the coast.
Back on land we watched the restaurant workers arrive in their vans from the village to lift their huge stewpots out of holes in the ground, where a medley of meat and vegetables was cooking in the boiling water of the fumaroles. We would try it later, with its mineral flavour imparted by the cooking method that is certainly not to everyone’s taste. But Furnas Valley had other attractions to offer, from the rugged beauty of the landscape around town to the hot bathing pools of the botanical garden, where the iron in the water stained our bathing suits and only seemed to come off the skin in order to stain our towels.
The trail through the gardens led us through a magic kingdom of managed decline, where plants from far, far away threatened to overwhelm any available space and the legion of workers seemed to be tasked mainly with holding them back without any real semblance of control. The moss that had spread over all the stone features, the bridges and the lookout points, added to the fairy tale feel, as did the steam from the hot springs that lingered above the treetops, where it mingled with the woodsmoke of the fires that were being used to tame the garden.
From above, Furnas Valley is laid out like the landscape on a model railway, but the secrets of the valley are not visible from a distance. They are found on the lake and at the water’s edge, in the half-hidden pathways that make their way through the botanical gardens, and on the steep trails that climb the side of the volcano’s crater between the tall, looming trees.
Photographs: Katrin Schönig
Words: Paul Scraton