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Santa Maria ( , "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 in the islands for its white sand beaches, distinct chimneys, and dry warm weather that makes them unique in the portuguese islands.


The first records of a group of islands in the Atlantic (aside from the legends of Atlantis) came from the voyages of Portuguese sailors during the reigns of King Denis (1279-1325) and his successor King Afonso IV (1325-1357). These were unsubstantiated accounts and unofficial, until 1427 when pilot Diogo de Silves found the island of Santa Maria (at that time referred to on nautical charts as ""Ilha dos Lobos"" or ""Ilha do Ovo"") during his journey to Madeiramarker. Myth tells that on the day of the islands discovery, that Gonçalo Velho Cabral and his crew were celebrating mass (on the feast day of the Virgin Mary), when one of the lookouts spotted the distant island, declaring "Santa Maria". The name would become linked permanently to the island. Santa Maria was discovered in 1432 by Gonçalo Velho Cabral (rather then the pilot Silves) since discoveries were not "recognized officially" until declared so by the Portuguese crown. The year previous, Gonçalo Velho Cabral had discovered the small rock outcropping of the Formigasmarker northeast of Santa Maria.

With the support of D. Isabel, the same Gonçalo Velho was also nominated to be the first Captain-major of the island of Santa Maria and later São Miguel, where he arrived in 1439 with colonists, bringing their families and some cattle. By 1460, the chronicler Diogo Gomes de Sintra identified the island as "Ilha de Gonçalo Velho". Colonization progressed between 1443 and 1447, principally from the Portuguese Alentejo and Algarve, who populated the northern coast along the Baía dos Anjos ("Angels Bay") and later in the area of Vila do Portomarker (in the southwest coast). Vila do Porto would become the larger municipality by 1470. By the end of the 16th century, Santa Maria was divided into three parishes: Nossa Senhora da Assunção (Vila do Porto), Santa Bárbaramarker and Santo Espíritomarker.

Similar to other islands of the archipelago, Santa Maria was a victim of repeated attacks by privateers and pirates. In 1480, a Castilian carrack with 40 men disembarked in the port of Vila do Porto, were they were confronted by residents under the command of the Captain-Major João Soares de Albergaria, who took to hurl rocks from the cliffs above Calhau da Roupa. João Soares was eventually captured by the Spaniardsmarker, who took him in irons as a prisoner to Castillo. For this reason, the population was very hostile to the traveling Christopher Columbus who disembarked in the Baía dos Anjos in February 1493, returning from his famous "discovery" of the New World. Several of his crew were captured, and complex negotiations were undertaken to liberate the same. A mass was celebrated by him and his party in the old chapel before he returned to Spain. Although relatively far from the routes used by ships traveling to India, the island was repeatedly attacked by French pirates (1553), the island assaulted by French troops (1576), the English (1589) and Moors (1616 and 1675). By the 17th Century, a series of fortifications were constructed along the coast to defend the populous from these attacks, including the Fort de São Brás (Vila do Porto) and the (ruined) Fort of São João Baptista (Praia Formosa).

When the 1580 crisis of succession ushered in the Iberian Union in Portugal, the island initially supported D. António I of Portugal, but with pressure from Philipe I in the Azores, António declined even to disembark in Santa Maria. During this period, the island came to depend on the Governor General of the Azores. After the Restoration (1640), the news was greeted with celebrations and excesses by the Captain-Major Brás de Sousa.

During the Portuguese Civil War (1828-1834) the citizens supported the rights of Maria II to the throne of Portugal, which differed immensely from the Governor General of the Azores (on the island of São Miguel) who supported Miguel. The Captain-major even attempted to raise arms from Terceira, insofar as sending a carrack to collect the weapons. In the interim, the São Miguel administration changed sides in the conflict. By the following year, several Marienses joined the expeditionary force disembarking on the continent along Arnosa de Pampelido beach (near Praia da Mémoria, Perafita, Matosinhos) during one of the crucial battles of the Civil War.


Barreiro da Fanceca
São Lourenço Islet


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 Mioceno 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, a offshoot of the Azores-Gibraltar Transform Fault.

The island is 97,4 km² , with a ovular shape, extending from the northwest to southeast generally characterized by two geomorpholocial 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 advantge 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 depoists, 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 paleontological 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 tha 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, 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).

Human Geography

Due to the varying geomorphology, the population built homes dispersed throughout the island, forming small nuclei along zones with access to potable water (in the west) and in the valleys (in the east). Traditional homes were constructed from the ubiquitous black volcanic rock, painted white, with doors and windows accented in the available colors of the day. The chimneys of these homes are unique since, heavily influenced by styles from the Alentejo and Algarve, these were ornate or simple, but generally different from house to house.

Politically, the island is one municipality, Vila do Porto, with a poulation of 5,578 habitants (2001), divided into five parishes:
  • Vila do Portomarker; which includes one-third of the island, covering the western plain, the Airport and local communities such as Anjos and Santana encompassing 2,997 of the islands citizens.
  • São Pedromarker; the northern parish which includes the communities of Fátima, Paul and Pilar: 841 inhabitants (2001);
  • Almagreiramarker; the southern dry zone and transitional space that includes Praia Formosa and parts of the mountainous areas of Monteiro and Bom Despacho: 537 inhabitants (2001)
  • Santo Espíritomarker: the eastern corner covering Maia, Glória and Fontinhas: 723 inhabitants (2001)
  • Santa Bárbaramarker, the northern and eastern parish that includes Lagoínhas, Norte and the São Lourenço: 480 inhabitants (2001).


Due to its low profile, the island is distinctly 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's economy passed through much of the cyclical evolution associated with the Azores. Initially, the economy was based on the production of wheat and woad, until the 16th century, evolving slowly to a subsistence economy based on cereal crops. This was also a period of pottery production, and export of the fine red clay to artisans on São Miguel (for the production of the same).

Generally isolated from the traffic between the New World and Europe the island depended heavily on agriculture until the 20th century, when US forces established the Airport in Ginjal. It became an international link after 1944, taking on a central position in trans-Atlantic air traffic during the mid-20th century. The island became dependent, almost absolutely, on the airport: first, during the phase of construction (when Marienses were involved in the construction or support) and later when air traffic control in the north atlantic corridor was based in Santa Maria (FIR Oceânica de Santa Maria). For many decades, the airport at Santa Maria was the gateway to and from the Azores until the construction or renovation of smaller fields on other islands. Evolutions in the aviation industry (primarily of long-range airliners) removed the importance of Santa Maria as a trans-Atlantic stop, and other airports (such as those in Lajes, Horta and Ponta Delgada), better equipped and logistically advanced diminished the importance of activities on Santa Maria. The European Space Agencymarker (ESA) established a satellite tracking station at the end of the 20th century, rekindling the debate on the island's dependency on the aviation sector.

In comparison with the other islands, the raising of cattle and milk production never attained the same level of dependency. Regardless, agriculture is still the predominant activity in the municipality, occupying 47.6% of the land. This activity is usually confined to small ventures, involving forging plants, small pastures and permanent holdings. Secondary industries are dominated by civil construction, sawmills, tile and block factories, artisan/handicraft producers and fishing. There are several commercial species of fish in the waters around Santa Maria, such as Sheepshead, Vejas, Red Snapper, Grouper, Wrasse, Mackarel, Achovies, Needlefish and Frigate tuna.

As with the rest of the Azores, tourism makes-up an important tertiary sector, associated with nautical activities such as sailing, windsurfing, water-skiing, sport fishing (Tuna, Swordfish, and Grouper) and scuba-diving, beach activities, pedestrian hiking and, for some, rabbit hunting. São Lourenço, Praia Formosa, Maia and Anjos are know as summer tourist centers, attracting visitors to the beaches, natural pools, summer cottages/homes and festivals.

Culture, Tradition & Tourism


Mariense culture, much like the rest of the Azores, is heavily influenced by traditional religious festivals and feasts. In particular, the festival of the "Divino Espírito Santo", closely tied to the 14th Century Queen Isabel, was implanted during the island's colonization by the Order of Christ and Franciscan monks and continues to mark the islands' calendars. These festivals include a religious ceremony, the "crowning" of one or more children with a silver-plated crown adorned with the symbols of the Holy Spirit, and culminates with a grand feast on seventh Sunday following Pentecost. On the occasion of these feasts, a traditional soup of bread soaked in a meat broth is distributed freely at the "Irmandades" and "Impérios" across the island.

In addition to parochial celebrations associated with local saints, the island celebrates the festival of Senhor Santo Cristo dos Milagres. On August 15th of each year, the municipality also celebrates a festival in honour of Nossa Senhora da Assunção (Our Lady of the Assumption), the patron saint of Vila do Porto.

During the last week of August, Praia Formosa is home to a world music festival: Máre de Agosto. The beach community is regularly overrun with tourists and local visitors, who travel to the island to listen to world music acts, who in the past have included: John Lee Hooker Jr., Kíla, Skatalites, Angélique Kidjo, Rui Veloso and Gentlemen.

Annual festivities com to a private close with the festival of the Confraria dos Escravos da Cadainha, in Anjos, at the beginning of September. A secular celebration, it is a fraternal private social and cultural event that celebrates the defense of Santa Maria (and in particular Anjos) from pirate attacks. It is a supported by the Centro Cultural Cristóvão Colombo.


Based on the natural resources of clay and wool, the handicraft industry in Santa Maria is centered on pottery, ceramics and wool sweaters, ornate sheets, blankets, towels and other embroidery. Homespun garments include coarse woolen jerseys, embroidered linen shirts, embroidered women's jackets and estamin suits. Similarly, straw hats, baskets and various other objects traditionally made from wood, fish scales, corn flask and metal are sold as souvenirs. These activities have been organized by the Santa Maria Handicrafts Cooperative, which also promotes other unique Mariense products: bread, sweets, pastry-making and weaving.

Traditional music and folk dancing are heavily influenced by the styles of the Beiras and Alentejo region. Several folk groups have developed on the island that reproduce the clothing styles, the music and traditional dance. Due to factors such as the climate and insular environment the style of music, songs, dance and instruments used (such as the viola de arame). Many of the dances have curious names, such as Pézinho da Garça (the Heron's dance), Moda do Moinho de Mão (the dance of the Hand Mill), Alfinete (the Pin), Balão (the Balloon), and Mouros (Moors). The Museu Etnográfico de Santo Espírito is am important place to investigate aspects of the history and culture of the island.

Apart from the Sopas do Impéro (served during Pentecosts), Santa Maria has a rich gastronomic history that includes Sopa de Nabos (a turnip soup), Bolo de Panela (a cake), Caçoila (a thick meat stew in traditional ceramic pot), Molho de Figado (a liver stew/sauce), Sopa de Peixe (a fish soup), and Caldeirada de Peixe (a mixture of fish or seafood in broth and/or bread). Sweet desserts, such as Suspiros (meringues), Melindres (honey cakes), Biscoitos Encanelados, Tigeladas (a pudding), Biscoits de Orelha, Biscoitos Brancos, Biscoitos de Aguardente and Cavacas (sugar-coated biscuits), are also popular.

Similarly, the wines of the São Lourenço foothills, as well as other wines and sweet liqueurs, have been commercialized. These include Vinho Abafadinho and Vinho Abafado (both fortified wine liquers), Licor de Amora(mulberry liquer), Licor de Leito (milk liquer) and Aguardente, which are made using traditional techniques and favored following a dinner.

Cultural Sites & Points of Interest

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 is 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.

There are many examples (public buildings, churches and auxiliary structures, military constructions) of Santa Maria's cultural heritage that have been remodeled, conserved and preserved for their important histo-cultural value. Since Santa Maria was the first island to be colonized, there are older examples of these buildings and structures that lasted longer, due to no historical volcanism and fewer incidences of earthquakes.

Civil and Civic Architecture

  • Casa do Capitão João Soares de Sousa - located in Vila do Porto; vila of one of the Captains-major of Santa Maria.
  • LORAN Station - located in Norte, Santa Bárbara; Longe-Range Navigation Station operated by NATO, deactivated and in ruins since 1980.
  • Whale-Processing Station - located in Maia (Santo Espírito); in ruins since whale-hunting was prohibited
  • Gonçalo Velho Lighthouse - located in Maia (Santo Espírito); also referred to as Maia Lighthouse.
  • Lagar de Diogo Santos Faleiro - located in São Lourenço (Santa Bárbara); carved volcanic rocks used for squeezing grapes into wine.

Military Fortifications

  • Fort of Baía de São Lourenço - located in São Lourenço (Santa Bárbara); ruins (mostly rock) of fort situated beside port of São Lourenço.
  • Fort of Baixa do Vigário - located in Praia Formosa (Almagreira); ruins of fort east of the Bay of Praia.
  • Fort of Figueiral - located in Figuerial (Vila do Porto); ruins over looking the Ponte do Figueiral
  • Fort of Forca
  • Fort of Laje de Vila do Porto - located in Vila do Porto (Vila do Porto)
  • Fort of Maia - located in Maia (Santo Espírito)
  • Fort of Prainha
  • Fort of Nossa Senhora da Praia dos Anjos
  • Fort of São Brás da Vila do Porto - built in the 16th Century, during Spanish occupation, location of the Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Conceição and obelisk to the memory of Comandante Carvalho Araújo.
  • Fort of São João Baptista da Praia Formosa
  • Fort of São João Evangelista
  • Fort of Cabrestante
  • Fort of Marvão

Religious Sanctuaries

  • Convent of São Francisco - located in Vila do Porto (Vila do Porto); constructed in the 17the Century, containing ornate azulejo tiles of the period.
  • Chapel of Jesus, Maria and Joseph - located in São Lourenço (Santa Bárbara)
  • Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte - located in (Santo Espírito)
  • Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Boa Nova - located in Vila do Porto (Vila do Porto)
  • Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Boa Viagem - located near Santana (Vila do Porto]])
  • Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Conceição - located in Largo Sousa e Silva, attached to the Fort of São Brás (Vila do Porto)
  • Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Glória - located in Glória (Santo Espírito)
  • Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Graça - located in Almagreira (Almagreira)
  • Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Piedade - located in Malbusca (Santo Espírito)
  • Chapel of Nossa Senhora da Saúde - located in São Pedro (São Pedro)
  • Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Fátima - located in Fátima (São Pedro); in 1925, the first chapel to constructed following the visions at Cova de Iria (Fátima)
  • Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Lurdes - located in Norte (Santa Bárbara)
  • Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Monserrate - located in Paul (São Pedro)
  • Chapel of Nossa Senhora do Desterro - located in Desterro, São Lourenço (Santa Bárbara)
  • Chapel of Nossa Senhora do Livramento - located along Rua do Livramento, Vila do Porto (Vila do Porto)
  • Chapel of Nossa Senhora do Monte - located in the (private) Quinta do Monte (Almagreira)
  • Chapel of Nossa Senhora do Pilar - located in Pilar (São Pedro)
  • Chapel of Nossa Senhora dos Anjos - located in Anjos (Vila do Porto); considered the oldest religious structure on the island and where Christopher Columbus celebrated a mass in honor of his discovery in the New World.
  • Chapel of Nossa Senhora dos Prazeres - located in Maia (Santo Espírito)
  • Chapel of Nossa Senhora dos Remédios - located in Praia Formosa (Almagreira)
  • Chapel of Nossa Senhora Mãe de Deus - located in Vila do Porto (Vila do Porto)
  • Chapel of Santa Rita - located in a (private) Quinta near Carreira (Almagreira)
  • Chapel of Santo António - located in Santo António (Santo Espírito)
  • Chapel of São Lourenço - located in São Lourenço (Santa Bárbara)
  • Chapel of São Pedro Gonçalves Telmo - located beside the Largo Sousa e Silva (Vila do Porto)
  • Church of Nossa Senhora da Purificação - located in Santo Espírito (Santo Espírito)
  • Church of Nossa Senhora da Vitória - located beside (and joined to) the Convent of São Francisco, Vila do Porto (Vila do Porto)]]
  • Church of Nossa Senhora da Misericórdia - located in Vila do Porto (Vila do Porto)]]
  • Church of Nossa Senhora do Ar - located near Santa Maria airport (Ginjal), Vila do Porto (Vila do Porto)
  • Church of Nossa Senhora do Bom Despacho - located in Bom Despacho (Almagreira)
  • Church of Santa Bárbara - located in Santa Bárbara (Santa Bárbara)]]
  • Church of Santo Antão - located in the Largo de Santo Antão, Vila do Porto (Vila do Porto)
  • Church of São Pedro - located in Largo da Igreja, São Pedro (São Pedro)
  • Church of Recolhimento de Santa Maria Madalena - located in Vila do Porto (Vila do Porto); constructed in 1594 by Father Corvelo Resende who, along with his brothers decided to establish a monastery to the Order of Santa Clara. The first mass was celebrated in 1600.
  • Church of Recolhimento de Santo António - located in Vila do Porto(Vila do Porto)
  • Church of Nossa Senhora da Assunção - located centrally in Vila do Porto (Vila do Porto); built in the 15th Century and remodeled in the 16th Century.

Natural Environments & Protected Zones

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 eco-systems 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.

Natural Features


On 8 February 1989, an American chartered Boeing 707 of Independent Air Flight 1851 crashed at Pico Alto killing all 137 passengers and 7 members of the crew. There was confusion between tower and pilots as to the appropriate altitude during their approach.


Direct flights to the continent (Lisbon) are provided by SATA Azores International out of Santa Maria Airportmarker located close to Vila do Porto. The airport also provides some direct connections to the rest of the archipelago through SATA Air Açores.

A inter-island ferry, owned by Azorean maritime transport operator Atlantico Line, services Santa Maria weekly. Similarly, inaugurated in 2007 the new marina at Vila do Porto allows access to the island.

Taxis, car rental and intra-island bus services are available for those that require access to the other parishes. Pedestrian trails and rural roadways (in various conditions) cris-cross the island allowing access to all communities.

For the traveler, several hotels and rural residences are available. There are three primary hotels on the island: Hotel Colombo (in Flor da Rosa, Vila do Porto), Hotel Santa Maria (in Ginjal, Vila do Porto), and Hotel Praia dos Lobos (in the historic center of Vila do Porto). Also, other rural tourism houses are available, not to mention the Hotel/Residencias Sol e Mar (in Praia Formosa, Almagreira) and for the rustic, the campgrounds of Praia Formosa are also popular. Currently under construction, a new Youth Hostel will be available in the historic center.

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