Rota Vicentina – The Fisherman’s trail

2020 was supposed to be a year of big adventures for us. We had Australia, Kilimanjaro, or Peru in our plans. But then the global pandemic of Covid-19 came… It shook our daily lives and messed up our dreams but on the other hand directed us to a wonderful place which otherwise would have gone unnoticed simply because it is so… close.

Rota Vicentina and more specifically its’ Fisherman’s trail, situated in South West Portugal, is a gorgeous coastal trail which we hiked in 9 days. Officially its’ 226 km are divided into 13 sections, but we skipped the initial 10 km and merged some days together squeezing it in the time frame we had. Although 210 km of a fairly flat terrain might not sound very challenging, but you should never underestimate the sand… and the Portuguese summer!

This is how our adventure of the pandemic summer went…

(We will have a separate blog post about preparation and practical side of the hike for those who are as crazy as us and want to do it.)

August 21 // Porto Covo – Vila Nova de Milfontes
The hard start

20,1 km, 200 m up and down.

The alarm was set to 5:30 a.m. but we woke up before 5. The anxiety about the upcoming adventure clearly kicked in. I still couldn’t believe that we were actually going for ANY adventure after being in a lock down for over 5 months…

Quick shower to wash of the light hangover after nice Portuguese drinks last night, even quicker breakfast and 4 long hours driving to our starting point in Porto Covo.

The closer we got to the coast the worse the weather became until it finally started raining. We didn’t expect that. The weather forecast was showing no rain in the upcoming 10 days! We didn’t have any waterproof gear and were doomed to get wet… Luckily enough the rain stopped while we were doing our initial shopping for the snacks and having a second breakfast at a bit more appropriate hour. 11:30 we were finally ready to start the hike.

The trail was easy to find and to follow. But not easy to walk. We started in the center of the village and just a few minutes later were walking in the wild coast (and even came across with a wild and nude photo session on our way!).

The first kilometer was OK, mainly walking on a sandy but hard path. Just a few minutes after Pedro said “well, this sand is not so bad” the fun part began! The white, shiny, and soft dunes made us realize that this was not going to be an easy day. It also made us appreciate our trail running gaiters. We bought them specifically for this hike and they were worth every cent.

We moved quite slowly having to stop for the photos every 5 minutes. It was simply too beautiful! Meanwhile, the sky was getting clear very fast and in no time we had to grab our sun protectors. The heat hours were starting and our pace reduced even more.

First 3 or 4 hours we were crossing one beach after another. Portuguese coastline has an outstandingly beautiful combination of white sand and rocks. But it is not an easy terrain to walk as you have to do lots of small climbs and walk in soft dunes instead of the wet beach sand which is harder and flatter. The beaches here depend a lot on the tides and some of them simply disappear with a high tide. We were lucky to have majority of our hikes (though not the first day) during the low tide which opened up the submerged rocks and once in a while allowed us to avoid unnecessary climbs.  

More or less halfway, we found a perfect spot to rest our feet and have an improvised snack lunch, watching people trying to kill themselves taking a photo on the wet rocks while the tide was going higher and higher. In general, we didn’t see many people on the way. In the trail we were basically all alone and only crossed people in the official beaches. It was August after all, even coronavirus can’t change that.

The second part of the day looked even more impressing, with rocky cliffs getting higher and the Atlantic getting wilder. We saw some local fishermen standing on those cliffs so calmly like if nothing was happening. I guess they are used to this wild force of nature and it doesn’t give them chills anymore. But it did to us.

By the end of the day we were so tired of the sand that we almost started hating it. Do not underestimate walking in the sand… It was a very beautiful but very tiring 7,5 hours hike.

We reached the camping in Vila Nova de Milfontes like zombies. I guess an extremely early start of the day didn’t help either. Yet, after setting up the tent and resting our backs from the jumbo backpacks, we set out for a walk in the village in the quest for our dinner and some information on crossing the river.

With stomachs full, we crawled back into our tent and fell asleep in less than 5 minutes.

August 22 // Vila Nova de Milfontes – Zambujeira do Mar
Beating the records

34 km, 550 m up and down

Like if yesterday was not enough, we’d decided to merge two days together. There was no camping in Almograve and we needed to merge some days anyway to fit in our tight schedule. Knowing that the day would be long we decided to grab a taxi to reach the start of the trail on the other side of the river, thus saving our feet from few pointless km on the car road. The driver said that we already did the sandiest section of the whole trail so it should be easier from now on. But merging two days into one is never easy!

We started fairly early to take advantage of the fresh morning weather. The hike to Almograve was almost a sprint! There was still a lot of sand in our path but clearly less than the day before. We also took advantage of a low tide and cut a good corner going straight line on the beach just before Almograve. We did have to climb up back at Praia dos Picos as the rock cliffs cut off the beach path eventually. Those were very wild beaches not meant for tourists and quite difficult to reach as you have to do some light climbing holding old ropes to get in or out of the beach.

After getting our well deserved refreshments in the beach bar of Almograve, we’ve started the second part of the day just at midday. To be fair, we didn’t know if we would make it to the end and were ready to do some wild camping if needed (which meant carrying excessive amount of water to cook dinner and breakfast, as well as to have some for the next day until we would reach civilization).

The path took us through some gorgeous cliffs where the sand started to gain a bit different, more orange color.

Despite all of the amazing views our tiredness started kicking in and the pain of fresh blisters was getting worse. The heat was definitely playing a part too. Around halfway into our second section of the day we entered the time of inner struggles. “Let’s just reach that cliff and reevaluate the situation”…

We don’t like to give up, so we kept pushing ourselves to the limit. Pedro gave me the grand award of “motivational speaker” (I’m sure he was being sarcastic…). But we kept moving forward, silently suffering the pains. After reaching the tiny fisherman’s village Porto das Barcas the wild path changed into a road. A very long road. A never ending road which eventually would take us to Zambujeira do Mar. We reached it right when the sun was setting down and still managed to divert to the coast to see the sunset and adding few more hundreds of meters to our count of the day.

The camping in Zambujeira do Mar is a bit outside the village. We were so tired and desperate that we tried to get a taxi to reach it, but had no luck and were forced to continue on foot. I’m sure this was our longest hike in one day with jumbo backpacks from all of our trips. We rewarded our trashed bodies with some crappy pizzas and beer, and then fell asleep with no alarm set for the next day.

August 23 // Zambujeira do Mar – Odeceixe
The day of ups and downs

16,4 km, 380 m up and down

After such a strong start on the first two days it was supposed to be an easy day. But to be fair I suffered soooo much! The heat (33°C) and the profile of the trail were simply killing me on our third day of the hike.

The trail was somewhat wilder today, taking us through some sections of very thick bushes where the path was barely visible. Due to the pandemic the trails were not cleaned this year and the nature was taking over fast. And although it was giving us some shadow once in a while (which was deeply appreciated), it also gave quite a few scratches on our bare legs.

Once we reached Odeceixe we had a moment of contemplation while having a couple of cold beers. The path here is cut off by quite a wide but fairly shallow river which we were expecting to cross. It is totally doable with a low tide. But by the time we arrived the tide was growing fast and the water reached almost waist deep. After studying the tide and the way to the camping we’ve decided to call it a day and grab a ride to the camping. We didn’t lose anything by doing so as the rest of the hike goes almost 5 km on the car road. Such an early finish of the day gave us enough time to relax, have nice showers, treat our blisters and hit the sack just after sunset.

August 24 // Odeceixe – (almost) Aljezur
Take it easy

19 km, 300 m up, 270 m down

We started the day extremely early. In order to save ourselves again from 5 km walk on the road, we booked a ride back to the trail where we left it (just on the other side of the river). The car was only available at 6:45 thus we had to start the day and silently pack the tent still in darkness.

The morning was very fresh and humid. The first hour came with the sun, but the humidity was so high that by the time we stopped for breakfast everything was quite literally in the clouds.

The trail after Odeceixe started to change quite significantly. There were more dirt road walks, more trees and bushes, less sand and also less coast. The path started diverting us a bit more into the interior side of Portugal. We knew that the most popular part of the whole trail is from Porto Covo to Odeceixe, which we had just finished. But we didn’t mind the change of the type of the paths. Our feet really appreciated a harder road.

Going more to the south we also were encountering more civilization. Small villages were popping out here and there, the vast dunes were changed by cultivated fields.

Crossing one of the villages we got an unexpected friend, a young dog that started following us for quite a few kilometers. She obviously got lost and we tried to find a way to return her but not with much success. After few attempts to look for help from people or forest guards, we were thinking of taking her to vets in the next bigger village, but the dog decided otherwise and stayed around some houses we crossed. I hope she found her way back home.

In Rogil village we refilled our blister treatment supplies in the pharmacy and had a well-deserved lunch in a restaurant (Museu da Batata Doce) with a wonderful terrace. The rest of the day was just an easy walk (except for the killing summer sun).

The camping of Aljezur was actually few kilometers before the village. We reached it early in the day and had a lazy afternoon, planning the rest of the hike. We’ve decided to divert a bit from the official route and to cut some corners as we didn’t have a particular interest in crossing all the villages. To do so, we had to divert to the Amoreira beach in Aljezur which also had a river to cross. This time we’d studied the schedule of tides in advance to know the best timing for crossing it. Besides, up to Sagres there were no more campings, thus we would need to find a place to stay on the go and know the possible places to refill our water supplies, which is not that easy on this trail.

August 25 // Aljezur – somewhere on the cliff
Back to the wild

21,6 km, 534 m up, 595 m down

The plan of the day was quite easy: reach the river early, cross it as soon as the tide goes down, walk as many km as the day permits, camp.

And it actually was quite easy and relaxed for the major part of the day.

We reached the beach in just an hour walk and had to wait a bit there, as the tide was still halfway to being low. We’ve checked few times the depth of the river and the best place to cross it. Once the deepest part dropped to mid-thigh, we put our backpacks on and made a nice spectacle for the people in the beach. The two weirdoes who chose to suffer on the trail instead of relaxing in the beach all day.

The water was fresh but nothing compared to the freezing rivers of Iceland from last year 🙂

It actually felt pleasant and relieving for our tired feet. On the other hand, crossing the river took us quite some time. We lost almost two hours while waiting for the water to go down and then putting our blisters back in order. The heat hours were about to begin.

The trail was going again more or less by the coast with stunning views of the Portuguese coastline. We’ve crossed quite a few deserted wild beaches that are not meant for lazy tourists.

We walked quite slowly, saving our energy during the heat hours. Arrifana is the official end of this section but it was just a refill point for us. We took our time relaxing with the beer before continuing.

What we hadn’t anticipated was that it would be so difficult to refill water here. Or so expensive. We checked local bars that were around and all water was in 0,5l bottles… we had to buy 12! What a waste of plastic… Although 6 liters of water might sound a lot, but with summer temperatures we were drinking 3 liters a day (each). Besides, we needed extra water to prepare dinner and breakfast and to save some for the next day until we could reach another refill spot.

Boy that water was heavy… My backpack without food or water was around 12 kg. A very light jumbo backpack compared to our usual weights. Yet with 4 liters of water the difference was significant.

The trail after Arrifana went though some roads and dirt roads for quite some time. Nothing spectacular nor private enough to stay overnight. We had to make a stop at 7pm to make a videocall with our girls as one of them turned 10 that day. We stopped in a random place by the road that had some flat area. I remember thinking that worst case scenario we could sleep just there. The landscape was really not welcoming for wild campers – rocks and sticky, thick bushes were covering everything that was not a cultivated ground. I was so missing those soft dunes from the first days!!!

After having a call with our girls I decided to check a tiny path that was going somewhere right from where we were. The map wasn’t showing anything promising, but my gut feeling saved out our night. It took us to a nice cliff with just enough flat place to set a tent or two and not visible from the main road we were following. We couldn’t expect anything better given the terrain and rapidly approaching darkness.

Having our dried food dinner and watching the sunset in the middle of nowhere we finally felt being where we belong.

August 26 // Somewhere on the cliff – Praia da Pena Furada
The day of a pleasant surprise

25 km, 391 m up, 463 m down

Wild camping is not allowed in Portugal, but we were extremely cautious to put the tent up and down in darkness and leave the place with no signs of human stay. We had our breakfast while watching the sunrise and listening to the ocean. It was one of those moments that you want to stop and enjoy for a bit longer. Yet, we finished it quickly and started our day early to take advantage of the morning freshness.

The hike today went a lot through the dirt roads, away from the coast. The views were a bit monotonous but the walk was easy. We got back to the beach only approaching Carrapateira, where we stopped to have our early lunch in a beach bar.

This beach was supposed to have a river as well, but the tide was so low that we didn’t even find it! After having our lazy moment with fresh sandwiches and bolas de Berlin, we forced our lazy bodies back to the trail.

We stayed on the side of the coast instead of going though Carrapateira, not following the official trail for a while. The second part of the day included more cliffs and obviously more views as well, yet the walk itself wasn’t difficult. We didn’t have a clear plan how much we would hike and where we would sleep. We were just walking with an open mind to stop at any decent place we would see.  

We knew there would be a steep down and up climb right in the middle of the trail from Carrapateira to Vila do Bispo and were hoping to find our sleeping place after the climb (not to have to start with it in the morning!), but once we reached this low point it was more than obvious – THIS IS THE PLACE. A small beach surrounded by fairly high cliffs was not an easily reachable place, thus not crowded and perfect to spend a night. There were only 3 couples when we arrived around 4 p.m. and it was obvious they would go back before the sunset. So, we dropped our backpacks, took off our shoes and for once went to enjoy the sand and cold water barefooted, laid down in the beach and felt like real tourists.

Although we were completely alone in the beach after a couple of hours, there were still some fishermen on the cliffs so we didn’t rush to set the tent for the night. Just before sunset we also had an unexpected drone visit, probably checking remote places for illegal activities. We realized that the tide was going up and would reach the peak around midnight. Not being sure of how high it could get, we went a bit to a side and set our tent in the dunes already well in darkness, after the fishermen went back home through the dark slopes right next to our “private beach”.

August 27 // Praia da Pena Furada – Sagres
The cold South

27,2 km, 415 m up, 380 m down

The morning surprised us with a strong fog and significant drop in temperatures. After a week of suffering in the heat it was a bit weird to hike half of a day with long pants and a fleece. Ironically, the more we were approaching the most South-West point of Portugal, the colder and windier it got.

We left our private beach camp early and started the day with a strong climb. We knew that today we would have two fairly significant climbs but the rest of the hike would be flat and easy. Well… we were right about flat and not so right about easy!

Once again we diverted from the main trail and skipped Vila do Bispo. There was a stretched beach that was perfectly walkable on the low tide and we decided to cut a corner there. After all, we prefer walking in the nature than in the villages.

It was a very nice shortcut, but with some surprises at the end. There was supposed to be a restaurant to refill our water supplies, but it was closed with no signs of life whatsoever. On the other hand, at the end of the beach our second climb of the day was waiting for us. The obviously used (although unmarked) trail seemed not suitable for people with vertigo, so we decided to try another option that we saw in the map. As practice shows, not all the trails that are marked in the map actually are in their place. We ended up climbing the hill through the goat trail, full of rocks and stingy bushes. Unfortunately, we had just removed our long pants and changed them for shorts!! We were also starting to run out of water and had to cancel our planned chicken curry travel lunch. At this point I was especially happy that we had a cloudy day and didn’t have to suffer dehydration in the heat of the sun.

Nonetheless, reaching the lighthouse at Cabo de São Vicente wasn’t easy at all. The trail went through wide dirt roads for a while but then the landscape started changing and we had to walk through a very rocky terrain. It was a complete killer for our ankles and knees. The only thought pushing me through was that of a hotdog and a beer we would get at a lighthouse. Actually, the lighthouse was a couple km detour from the main trail, but I refused to continue to Sagres without a refill of energy and water and assumed those extra km instead.

Psychologically it was one of the hardest days, at least for me. When we started planning our hike, we though we’d have less time and were hoping to reach only Sagres or even less. Now we still had to reach Lagos in the upcoming two days (normally done in three) and all the nicest parts were already left behind (or at least we thought so). We were seeing more and more civilization, wild camping part was over and prolonged parts of boring walk in dirt roads and car roads were making it difficult to find psychological strength.

But we made it. We reached the camping of Sagres, which was a bit outside the city as usual and went to sleep with a hope of a better tomorrow.

August 28 // Sagres – Salema
The nude day

22,4 km, 480 m up and down

The South coast of Portugal surprised us in a good way. The landscape was still quite similar (though with much more signs of civilization), but the sea was completely different: water with barely any waves, impressive changes in color and much warmer (though still cold for me 😊). We hiked for a while on some impressive cliffs admiring the views, crossing some small beaches every now and then.

Around lunchtime we stopped in a local fish restaurant before continuing our adventure. I could have such a meal every single day. Yummy!

And remember when I said there were barely people on our way? Well, we managed to meet one of Pedro’s colleagues in the restaurant!! That’s what I call a crazy coincidence 🙂 What are the odds of this to happen? A guy was calmly enjoying lunch with his family when out of nowhere Pedro approached screaming João!!

Right after our wonderful lunch we had to pass some more stretched beaches. In the official description of the route, it was the first place where they explicitly mentioned that this section could be done directly in the beach on a low tide, so our plan was clear. What a surprise we’ve found once we reached it! The beach was full of nude people and the path was cut off by some significant rock formations. Now what??

Looking and feeling a bit lost we tried to climb on those rocks to see what’s behind. And behind we saw more of the rocks to pass. And more nude people. After having a chat with a few of them (seriously, I can’t stop laughing even now remembering this situation) about the path we wanted to take, we’d decided to wait a bit for the tide to go lower, digest our lunch and relax in the beach. No hurry.

We didn’t try to blend in going nude but changed into our swimsuits and jumped into the sea to refresh our bodies. Afterwards we left our backpacks in the beach and went to explore the territory behind the rocks to evaluate if it was crossable at all. Our conclusion was clear: it wouldn’t be easy, but doable.

Thus, after spending around two hours in the beach we put our backpacks back on, ready to get wet. Walking with our big backpacks in the water reaching the but wasn’t easy, especially trying to calculate the coming waves and avoiding the underwater rocks. I ended up with quite a few bloody scratches in my feet, but the adrenaline took away the pain.

Afterwards we had a section of very rocky but already walkable beach until we reached a very long and nice stretch of a completely shallow water. We walked for quite a few kilometers barefooted, wetting our feet in this calm and warm water, until the end of the beach where we were forced to divert and climb another hill to reach Salema (and then a bit more to reach the camping!).

Our last camping of the trip had a surprise prepared for us. It wasn’t easy to find a place for pitching our tent but once we did, it happened to be right next to some nice Spanish people, whom we saw in the beach some days ago on the way. It was getting late and they were so nice that they shared their dinner with us (the chicken curry we’d been carrying around remained untouched once again).

August 29 // Salema – Lagos
Back to civilization

23,8 km, 479 m up, 491 m down

On our last day of the hike, we had to join two short sections of trail again. The first part up to Luz was pretty nice and wild. We had decided to shortcut once again on another rocky beach that normally disappears with a high tide and thus is very private and untouched. Luckily enough, this time we could walk with our shoes on.

The more we were approaching Luz the more people we saw on the trail. We were approaching the touristic part of Portugal and crossing people every few minutes became unavoidable. But as everything in life, it had both advantages and disadvantages. Having civilization so close at hand meant an easy reach of simple life pleasures – nice food and cold deserts!

After this nice treat we only had one bigger climb left and the rest of the path was flat and easy all the way up to Lagos. Lagos is a heavily touristic destination and is very famous for it’s outstanding rock formations and caves that people like to visit in boats. We visited them few years ago with our children too.

Satisfied with our accomplishment, tired like hell but proud of ourselves we walked last kilometers through the city to reach our hotel. After all we deserved one night of proper bed, as well as good dinner and some wonderful sangria.

August 30 // Level up!

The hiking was done. 210 km in 9 days. Now we had to get a transfer back to Porto Covo where we left our car and then another 4 hours back to our beloved village and children.

But something was still missing. As we couldn’t find a magnet with the logo of the hike (and we were looking a lot!), we’ve decided to upgrade to the next level of collecting our hiking trophies. So, we added an extra stop in Lisbon and… got ourselves a tattoo!

Now the memories of this amazing trip will stay with us forever.

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