Sometimes, the concrete jungle can get a little much, so it’s important to remember that nature lurks around every corner — you just have to know where to look. One often-unexpected animal that can be found close to Lisbon is the flamingo. Yes, these strange pink stilt-walkers are just a hop skip and a jump away.
Like any good Lisbon story, this one starts in Cais do Sodré. Why? Because unless you have a car to take you to the actual nature reserve, you’re going to need to catch a boat.
The Journey: Logistics
The ferry departs to Montijo pretty regularly, but nowhere near as often as to Cacilhas, so you’ll want to check the departure times and, more importantly, the return times. As of October 2018, the last ferry to depart Montijo on weekdays is at 22h30, Saturdays at 21h10, and Sundays and holidays 20h45.
It’s worth noting that in addition to the ferry, there is a bus that goes between Montijo, Alcochete, and Oriente in Lisbon. So, if you miss the last boat back, don’t panic! That said, try to avoid it, because ferries are much nicer and, as of yet, the bus it not Atlas-tested.
The ride across the river lasts about 30 minutes and takes you to Montijo Ferry Terminal, which isn’t actually anywhere near the city of Montijo. For those of you who don’t mind hiking highways, you can walk to Alcochete via Samouco and then take a couple of buses back. But, messing about with transfers as you’re rushing for the last ferry is no fun, and I say that from experience.
Instead, take the bus that will be waiting outside the ferry terminal to the center of Montijo — just tell the driver where you’re heading and get out at what looks like the bus terminal. Here, you can wander about and get a feel for what towns outside of Lisbon are like. Gentrification is yet to crawl its way over there so tumble-down buildings and horse-drawn carts aren’t uncommon.
From Montijo bus station, you need to catch either the 412 to Freeport or the aforementioned 431 to Lisbon. Both of these stop in Alcochete, which is where you are trying to go. Alcochete is a nice little town by the river, but if you time your stops right, you won’t really enter it at all as you need to get off just before and head to the M501 via Rua 25 de Abril. Walk down the M501, and just as you’re getting out of Alcochete, you will come to a small winding sidestreet that heads off to the right. This, urban adventurers, is where you’ll get your nature fix.
The Wild Life (as in – Flamingos!)
The sideroad, bordered by bamboo, leads you into the beginning of the salt fields. The building works and traffic seems to fall away behind you as a variety of seabirds swoop through the air. Look out over the waterways as the surface ripples with fish and egrets stalk above them. Peer into the hedgerows that teem with birds as small as your thumb and grasshoppers as big as your fist. Take some time to enjoy it! But, continue on your way to find our real quarry.
After a few minutes of walking, you will start to see the salt basins proper. And, you should begin to notice that they are peppered with pink and white birds, standing, swimming, and generally loping about the water. Well done, you’ve found the flamingos! Now is the time to whip out your camera and smile excitedly at the fact that you’ve found some urban wildlife!
The Flor de Sal
As you continue on your path, you’ll pass half-abandoned farms with makeshift gates and raggedy dogs, but, eventually, you end up at the Salinas do Samouco. Here, they offer tours that show you how the famous flor de sal is produced, as well as giving you a better look at the flamingos, and all the other wildlife, that inhabit the basins.
Take your time and enjoy the tour, or, if like me you didn’t have a group of ten, nor the forethought to get there early enough, get on your way.
You’ll have to go back on yourself down the little winding road — don’t forget to take another look at the flamingos — and onto the M501. At this point, you have a choice. Choice one: head back to Alcochete, enjoy this pretty riverside town, and take a bus back to the ferry like a non-adventurous giver-upper. Choice two: keep on trekking to get a new perspective on things.
So, you’ve chosen to keep on trekking? Good. Welcome to the road. As you walk along the M501 be careful of cars, this is not pedestrianized, and if you aren’t cautious, it could prove dangerous. For anybody who has done any hitchhiking, you’ll probably be fine.
The entire walk is along roads, but with eyes open and camera in hand, you get a glimpse of a Portugal that you might not otherwise see. The salt basins stretch out to your right, and to your left are barren fields and distant houses. Your journey takes you through what seems to be a farming region falling into disrepair as buildings crumble and barns are left abandoned.
Also, there are donkeys! They hang out in a field on your right (still the land of Salinas do Samouco) and are very inquisitive. Beware, there is a water-filled ditch between you and them. Don’t be a hero.
Just because you are no longer in the salt basins, doesn’t mean that you can’t see the wildlife that dwells there. Make sure to keep an eye out for more flamingos and other seabirds as you walk along.
You’ll pass allotments and fences, random bus stops and bits of old tyre, and eventually come to Ponte Vasco da Gama. It’s interesting to see it from that angle, as while it normally dominates the Lisbon landscape, from down amongst the fields it seems almost smaller. The bridge also marks the entrance to Samouco.
This town has a strange mix of houses with a variety of architectural styles, ages, and colors. Semi-modernized, it feels like a seaside town that’s never been in season. The farming roots are evident, whether it be the antique equipment that adorns the walls or the outdoor-only dogs that appear in every other driveway.
As you wind your way through Samouco, head in the direction of Rua Ruy de Sousa Vinagre. This road has a rather spectacular semi-abandoned villa that is worth checking out, and is also the way out of town. As you walk further along Ruy de Sousa, the houses start to fall away, and you are met by a paddock, or rather the horses who dwell there. They are quick to examine new faces and will more than likely take off at a gallop in what is clearly some major showboating.
Continue onward and you will eventually come to an unnamed dirt road that runs parallel to the military base. This will take you all the way back to the ferry terminal.
Hop on the boat, head back to Lisbon, and enjoy a well-earned beer while regaling your friends with tales of adventure and photos of barely distinguishable flamingos.
Or, if that all sounds awful, just rent a car and go to the nature reserve, it’s probably nicer anyway.