Faial Nature Park
Comprising nature conservation and tourism isn’t always an easy problem to solve. Especially if the most stunning experiences are in very special protected areas where human presence must be controlled in order not to damage the natural values that are present.
The Faial Caldera Natural Reserve is an internationally recognized protected area, where unique and threatened habitats and species find shelter from human disturbance. IUCN class I Natural Reserve, Ramsar area, Natura 2000 are some of the international recognitions. 7 out of 9 priority habitats in the Azores are located there as well as 2/3 of the endemic species of vascular plants. This high natural value is even more valued by one of the most striking and beautiful landscapes in the Azores: an immense crater of a volcano, 2Km of diameter and a medium depth of 400 meters which makes it one of the top places to visit in Faial island. Until recently, walking trails and visits to the reserve were not orderly organized and a big effort was done by the Faial Nature Park to organize and protect the area.
One of the most interesting experiences in Faial is the descent to the Caldera. This is not a common walking trail. As you go down the 400-meter-high, almost vertical wall you have the chance of observing some of the rarest plants and animals on earth and the incredible geologic features of the inside of a giant volcano crater. The ever changing mossy habitats of the Laurel forest are almost virgin and untouched. The descent to Caldera lasts about 3h30m and has a high degree of difficulty.
Given the need to preserve natural values present in Faial Caldera, with emphasis on the geological, biological and landscape uniqueness of this site a Decree regulating the access to the interior of the Natural Reserve was created (the Caldera Access Regulation – Decree No. 42/2011 of 8 June 2011). Under this Regulation, the maximum capacity of this route is 12 visitors, always accompanied by a certified guide and can be made up to three descents per day. A code of conduct was created and guide certification course with 120 hours was conducted by the Nature Park technical staff. Certification was opened last time in winter 2016 and a record number of 9 local service providers are now allowed to include the trail in their portfolio of activities. Meanwhile, surveillance by Nature Rangers and monitoring by the Faial Botanic Garden was conducted and reinforced on site in order to make sure that the presence of visitors does not have a negative impact on the environment. So far this year 217 visitors made the trail of the descent in 46 groups operated by 7 local companies, which is a record number, tree times higher than previous years. While monitoring shows no significant signs of impacts, several actions of invader plants control were developed and grazing was controlled in the area showing that nature conservation and tourism are possible to manage sustainably and with the benefit of both local business and the environment.