For an easy winter escape from the rainy and often chilly conditions in Lisbon, take a long weekend, or a whole week, for a little walk along the Algarve coast. No matter where you choose to begin the Rota Vicentina (the trail actually begins in Sines in the Alentejo), well-marked trails will take you along the coast and through towns both large and small, delivering you to the sacred ground of Cabo São Vicente, where the body of the patron saint of Lisbon washed ashore 1700 years ago or so.
Atlas found there were some sections worth skipping and some shortcuts worth taking, some things best left at home and some luxury items essential for a proper trip. Polish up your boots (or tune up your bike) and let’s get going.
Tips: Walk or Bike? Camp or Hotel? Is it SAFE?!
Don’t go in the summer, it’s way too hot and downright dangerous. Winter is totally fine but can get rainy. The Historical Way is almost entirely doable by bike, ideally a mountain one. The Fisherman’s Way is less so, but if you don’t mind walking or carrying the bike for a few minutes here and there, go for it, it’s splendid. Camping along the Rota Vicentina is possible, but the legal campsites are mostly out of the way. Illegal camping is, well, illegal, but some people still do it.
You’ll save your feet and shoulders, and probably smell better, by going from room to room. The easiest method is to stroll into town, punch up your favorite hotel-finding site online, and find a room. The better, and almost always cheaper, method is to call ahead to the alojamento local establishments, some of which are described below. Expect to pay around 30€ for a private room for one or two people, less for dorms in hostels. Some towns only have alojamento local, and not all hotel sites list them. But you can always ask when you get into town.
ATMs are in almost every town, but they don’t always have money. There are few people on the trail, and the ones you’ll meet are likely hard-working fishermen and farmers, although there’s the occasional lost hippy from Norway playing bongos. Naked. All perfectly harmless.
Don’t overdo it, is our advice. If you’re not camping, a day pack should be more than enough for one person. Compass, map (although the trail is very well marked, and see below if you know how to use GPX tracks instead), emergency blanket (the ultra-light aluminum-foil one), 1- to 2-liter water container, knife for cheese and bread, cork screw for wine, moleskin or tape and disinfectant for blisters, sunscreen, chapstick, ibuprofen if you get achy. Wool socks (the weather jumps up and down through the day, the grass is always wet in the morning during the winter), light wool or synthetic base layer, comfortably walking pants, warm sweater or fleece, mandatory rain jacket and optional rain pants, hat, gloves only if you have very poor circulation, sunhat or bandana, sunglasses, sunscreen, t-shirt or tank-top for when it gets really hot, maybe shorts if you do that sort of thing. Optional: swimsuit.
The water was warm enough for a quick swim in January around Carrapateira. But you can also find a secluded beach to go in the buff. You’ll be able to wash your clothes in the evening at all the hotels/hostels, but they won’t dry until long into the next day, which is fine. Water’s safe to drink everywhere, unless specifically signposted as not potable, and there’s a place to refill every few hours. There’s always a tasca open in town, but the food may be simple. There’s still little need to carry anything more than snacks. There are also some grocery stores along the way.
Atlas’ Rota Vicentina Walk
We began by taking the Rede Express bus for four hours from Sete Rios to Aljezur the afternoon before the day we planned to begin. While in Aljezur, we recommend stopping at a Multibanco, since very few places accept credit cards and you may not find another point to get cash until you reach Carrapateira, a 30-plus-km walk away. The same goes for groceries if you want to cook, as this is the last decent supermarket until then as well. Aljezur has a great little family restaurant, Pont’a Pé, where everything we’ve tasted on two visits has been just perfect.
A 10€ taxi can get you to Vale da Telha (we recommend skipping the walk along the highway for nine kilometers to get there) where you can find comfortable lodging at Casa das Palmeiras, owned by a very kind yet no-nonsense German woman with two very sweet (and quiet!) black schnauzers.
Day 1: Vale da Telha to Monte Chabouco, 20km
We began the day at around 11h and headed north (yes, north) five kilometers along a gravel road to Praia de Monte Clérigo. It’s an ultra-scenic point looking out over the Atlantic with a large sandy beach and gentle, yet surf-able waves. Once there on the coast, we picked up the Rota Vicentina where a wooden fence opened up on the clifftop, and the parallel blue-and-green-stripe markers guided us to our southward path.
Continuing for another seven-and-a-half kilometers along the well-marked trail to Arrifana, we passed over the odd muddy patch (flip-flops are ideal for this stretch, if any footwear at all) but mostly along sandy trails flanked by succulents and seaside shrubbery with a view of the super-blue ocean peeking over the rocky edge of the cliffs to our right.
The town of Arrifana is small, but a surfer’s paradise. There were only a handful of cafes in town and all but one was closed, so our decision for where to have lunch was easy. After a pizza and a beer, we plodded off over coastal grassy slopes and through a forest of eucalyptus and pine toward Monte Chabouco, only deviating from the route for one kilometer downhill to get to the best lodging we had the entire trip: Monte Chabouco Alojamento Local. We arrived at the gate at 18h.
This family-run lodge has a family and double room available, each with its own fully-equipped kitchen and dining room with a built-in charcoal grill. This was the moment we wished we had brought some steaks to grill on the pit in our suite. Having only brought along our emergency tosta mista, we took a chance and asked our hosts if they had any dinner we could purchase, as there is no grocery store even remotely nearby.
An hour or so later, the very kind lady in charge brought us three eggs, a cup of rice, a can of sausages, a bag of chips, and a bottle of wine from her father’s vineyard. “The essentials,” she said, apologetically, not understanding how she had just turned our evening into a memorable feast, however simple. We slept like kings that night while our bathroom-laundered socks dried on the line outside and awoke to juice, bread, cheese, and ham waiting for us on the table. The owners staunchly refused extra payment of any kind, no matter how adamantly we insisted.
Day 2: Monte Chabouco to Carrapateira, 14km
We got a late start on our second day, but since the hike would be relatively short, we felt comfortable pushing our departure back. This segment of the walk was done entirely on-route, through lush, gorgeous farmland, some abandoned grazing fields, and, thankfully, some distant beekeeping sites. The route had changed from Rota Vicentina to Rota Histórica, which is marked by red and white parallel stripes, but is just as easy to navigate.
Some areas are guarded by dogs who, while loud, are mostly friendly and stayed a comfortable distance away. If you’re not a dog whisperer like this correspondent seems to be, take a cue from my partner who armed himself with a large rock or two just in case things got hairy.
The last bit of the walk into town was not very enjoyable as it goes along the highway for about two kilometers if not more, but since it’s private property on either side of the road there wasn’t much choice in the matter. We passed a surf hostel about halfway along the last bit where we saw hippies congregating, but neither of us picked up any stones. They seemed harmless enough.
We came into town hungry, reminding ourselves that our emergency tosta mista was not getting any younger. However, the bottle of wine we had been discussing at length over the past several kilometers was just out of our reach: the one mini-market in town was closed for siesta. We decided that instead of our planned picnic we would treat ourselves to a prato do dia at Restaurante Mazagão in the main square, since a table outside had opened up and it was in a sunny spot.
We made fast friends with the owner, Fernando, who recommended some fantastic wine from the Beira Baixa region and let us sample some of his favorite Alentejanos to boot. Fed and rosy, we decided to make a run to the coast before checking into our room for the night, so we made our way up the hill to try and catch the sunset.
We opted for a possibly illegal dune-run (though there were no signs to that effect) instead of following the road, which ended up being a remarkably enjoyable decision as we slid down sandy slopes, jumped over wild shrubs, and followed random animal tracks out to the dusky, fire-lit coastline that awaited us. This walk, though you will have to do it again the next morning, is highly recommended, as the sky and its reflection on the water are truly magical.
We returned to town and dropped off our bags at the lovely Casa da Estela where Dona Estela made us feel right at home and showed us her communal kitchen full of goodies (cheese, yogurt, cereals, port wine) — all free for the taking. She told us that not only does she care for weary travelers, she also feeds the some 20-odd cats that roam the area. Judging by the size of these beasts, she’s not the only one.
Day 3: Carrapateira to Vila do Bispo, 18km
After a free breakfast from Dona Estela’s magical fridge (of course we said no again to our emergency toasta mista), we set off for the coast again, this time under the morning sun. The waves were wilder, but the scenery was just as stunning as the evening before, though in a different palette.
We headed south and came to a seasonal fisherman’s village where we found some Moorish ruins at the Povoado Islámico overlooking a modern loading zone. After a quick spin-through, we continued along the cliffs and down a sloping pathway to a beach that was quite popular with surfers in camper vans. Although the commercial area of the beach was closed, there was still plenty of action happening in the barrels of the waves and, as it was lunchtime, we decided to sit and watch for a while as we carefully inspected, and ate, the aforementioned tosta. We figured the bottle of wine we had brought would kill any bacteria that may have come along for the ride. It seemed to do the trick.
The proper trail from this point was taking us inland, so we decided to make our way across the sand and over a rather steep hill covered in loose rock that would keep us close to the water instead. The descent on the other side was not as sketchy, but still required a fair amount of fancy footwork to get down to the next beach, Praia Murração. If you opt to follow the same route, take caution and go slowly. Flip flops here are not recommended.
After losing our beloved drone (do NOT fly lightweight drones on the beach when the wind is unpredictable), we walked up the steep gravel road leading east. The sandy terrain turned to a wooded path after leading us past several abandoned farms and pensions. In between, wind turbines spun lazily on the horizon.
We passed a stretch just outside our final destination where there had been a fight between a bird of prey-or two-with something much bigger. Large grey plumes lay scattered on the ground while bones, picked dry, hid in the grass off to the sides. We walked in silence for a while after, wondering what had gone down there and how long ago it had been.
When we arrived in Vila do Bispo, we found the Hotel Mira Sagres after hearing it had a pool, a sauna, and a steam room on site. For 10€ per person, we had access to them all, and after the past 18km, a suicidal drone, and the questionable tosta, it was the perfect method of decompression. We followed it up with a plate of expertly-prepared percebes (goose barnacles) at Restaurante O Palheiro, and felt giddy and invincible enough to have a whiskey at Bar O Convivio (the only bar open until midnight) before turning in.
Day 4: Vila do Bispo to Sagres, 20km
Exiting the town of Vila do Bispo along the historical trail is a treat in the early morning. Doves coo atop telephone wires as the charming winding roads leading out finally open up to acres and acres of farmland covered by inexplicably green grass. When there was a choice between the red and white trail and the green and blue trails, we always opted for the latter to keep us coastal.
We made a slight detour past some ruins atop a lush hilltop, but otherwise stuck to the Rota Vicentina’s dirt roads until we were suddenly led out ontop of the cliffs again where small pathways wove in and out of one another, ultimately leading toward the zero-kilometer marker at Cabo São Vicente.
We passed a couple of motorcyclists racing down a steep hill to a clean drop-off point over the sea. After their second run, we decided they would, in fact, stop at the end, though over our shoulders lay a miniature pet cemetery among the rocks which didn’t provoke much confidence. We pressed on along gorgeous views and not-so-gorgeous thorny shrubs until the tip of the lighthouse came into sight.
At this point the trail turned downright annoying. With already tired legs, we had to hop, skip, and jump over rounded rocks and loose stone, into miniature sandy pits, thanking our good fortune for temporary stretches of straight-line walking. Once we reached the turn-off that meets the road to the cape, we had only one kilometer left to our destination.
It’s not the grand or exciting arrival you might expect, but there are vendors hocking made-in-Portugal sweaters, and a gift shop that sells Sagres (what else!). The clinking of our glass bottles paying cheers to our achievement gave us the exclamation point we had been looking for. Note: the cafe and shops have odd hours (naturally) so we recommend bringing a snack and perhaps champagne just in case. You never know.
The walk from São Vicente to Sagres is a lackluster six kilometers along the highway, without much to report on other than a fort, an abandoned military complex, and a ceramics shop (closed on Sundays). If you arrive to São Vicente on a weekday, you can skip this part entirely and take the Algarve bus straight to town at 11h15 and 15h05. Otherwise, you’ll need to get to Sagres, from where the last bus to Lagos leaves at 16:15 (as of January 2017).
We decided to head straight back to Lisbon, which required taking two buses: the aforementioned Algarve bus from Sagres (there are several stops, the one we took is down the hill from Restaurante Batedor, which also serves excellent perceves) to Lagos for an hour, and another bus for 4 hours from Lagos to Lisbon via Rede Express. The bus rides weren’t exactly memorable, but that’s only because we slept through them in their entirety. The route hadn’t been demanding really, but the scenery gave us a visual overload that took a few days to sleep off. Or maybe it was just the tosta finally catching up with us.
Maps, GPX tracks for your GPS app, and more info: