Imagine you’re flying over the Atlantic, heading for an island getaway on the way to Europe - and at the push of a button, you could make the sea disappear.
The button’s in front of you, and there’s a window to your left. You’re flying at a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet - and 10.6 kilometres below, the blue sea stretches to the horizon in every direction, with not a cloud in the sky. It’s perfect conditions to do the world’s greatest vanishing trick.
Now, you may want to hold onto something. This is going to be dramatic.
You push the button - and the world falls away beneath you.
You’re now flying over a rocky desert, the exposed bottom of the ocean, and you gulp because it’s so, so far below, much further than you’re used to seeing from the window of a plane.
In relative terms, you’ve leapt from 35,000 feet to nearly 50,000 - a full 15 kilometres high, higher than any commercial airliner ever flies today.
Your heart in your mouth, you look down. And ahead in the distance are mountains - a line of them maybe 500 or 600 kilometres long, thrusting into the air on a scale you’d normally associated with the Himalayas or the Karakoram. But you’re in the middle of the Atlantic (or what used to be it, anyway). What is this?
Welcome to the Azores, one of the world’s most spectacular mountain ranges, hiding under the guise of a beautiful, sleepy archipelago a thousand miles or more from anywhere else.
Technically speaking, you’re flying into Portugal right now. The Portuguese mainland is another 930 miles to the east, but along with the island of Madeira, the Azores are autonomous regions of Portugal, and the 250,000 inhabitants have forged their regional identity from continental Portuguese ways of doing things.
As you get lower, and the terrain starts to approach the kind of distance you’re used to seeing out of an airliner window, one mountain in particular catches your eye - the biggest of them all by far. If the Atlantic was still below you it’d be impressive enough, but without it, the full glory of this epic massif is revealed.
According to the Guinness Book of Records, Mount Pico of the Azores is the highest underwater mountain face in the world. Above sea level, it rises an impressive 7,700 feet (2.3km) as an almost perfect volcanic cone with a sharp top. Underwater, however, it plunges deeper than it rises above sea level, descending 3km to the nearby sea floor, and eventually a total of 6,000 metres to the Atlantic’s lowest point to the far south. It’s a monster of a mountain.
(Not the biggest, though. If there were no seas, you wouldn’t hear much about Everest, because Hawaii’s Mauna Kea would be attracting all the world’s thrill-seeking climbers. It climbs over 33,000 feet from the sea floor - meaning if you flew over it at normal cruising height, you’d skim over the top by just a few hundred metres. And for the truly intrepid, the mind-boggling ascent of Ojos del Salado, highest mountain in Chile, awaits: from the bottom of the nearby Atacama Trench, it’s a gut-wrenching climb of thirteen and a half kilometres into the sky.)
You descend further, and the now-dry beaches, green lakes, prairies and volcanic hillsides of the Azores come into focus. Everything looks lush and alive: a paradise, suspended above the distant sea floor, a vast distance from anywhere that looks even remotely similar.
But why here?
The clue is the ragged line running along the ocean floor to the north and the south of the islands - a trench, surrounded by rock that’s rucked and creased, like bed linen that needs a good tug. The Azores are here because this is where continents are made.
Every year, magma deep under the earth’s crust oozes out along this break in the rock, formed from the edges of the two tectonic plates that make up Europe and North America. Every year, a little more of each rises from the depths and is squeezed out to either side, pushing the continents in opposite directions at roughly the rate it takes your fingernails to grow.
In a remarkably literal sense, this is where the Western World is being made.
The Azores is formed from this constructive plate boundary (known as the Mid Atlantic Ridge), which forms the spine of the Atlantic, all the way down beyond the southernmost extents of Africa and South America, and northwards through Iceland (where it breaks the surface and can be explored on land) and beyond to the northeast of Greenland.
It’s part of the world’s biggest mountain chain, stretching a total of 65,000km along our sea floors, making it one of Earth’s biggest geological features - and we hardly get to see any of it, because of all that blue-grey wobbling stuff in the way.
Here; though, it’s different. The 9 islands of the Azores, formed from the tips of underwater mountains, are a stunning glimpse of what’s under the waves.
But as the plane comes into land, let’s push that magic button again, and put the Atlantic back where it belongs.
(Take a deep breath, because planet Earth is about to leap thousands of metres into the air towards you.)
Suddenly you’re watching sunlit bluegreen water race past, turning to dark yellow sand and climbing into volcanic highlands. This is how the Azores are meant to be enjoyed: a dazzlingly gorgeous scatter of islands, each a little different to its neighbours, some rugged and suited to hiking, some low and lined with the kinds of beaches it’s so easy to pleasantly fritter away a day on.
There are very European-looking towns sat next to tea plantations. There are colossal cliff-lined bays and flooded craters that wouldn’t look out of place in British Columbia.
There’s so much - and in a way, it’s a relief you can’t see the rest, now under that electric blue water. It’d just be too much to take in.
But sometimes, allow yourself to stand on a cliff edge, looking out to sea - and let your imagination take it all away, until you’re standing on top of the world’s greatest mountain range, seeing a sight no human will ever see. Because wouldn’t that be something?
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