We’d planned to walk Portugal’s Rota Vicentina in May 2020 … then a worldwide pandemic hit and, like millions across the world, we had to postpone our travel plans indefinitely.
Two years on, we have finally walked the 240-kilometre trail which hugs Portugal’s west coast from Praia de São Torpes in the Alentejo to Lagos in the Algarve. Though considerably shorter than the 300-kilometre Via Algarviana, which we completed seven years ago, we were under no illusion that trail was going to be easier. As we know from experience, coastal routes can be more demanding than walking in the mountains, not least because the majority of descents take you right back down to sea level.
Back in 2015, there were few resources available for walking the Via Algarviana (one of the reasons Harri wrote an English guidebook) and few people were using GPX files for navigation. We navigated using only the directions on the trail’s official website and waymarks on the ground – at one point west of Salir, we ended up walking around in a circle when we inadvertently picked up the waymarking for the opposite direction. Thankfully, in the intervening years things have changed dramatically and the Rota Vicentina has an excellent website that provides all you need to know about walking the trail, including free downloadable GPX files. that you can use in conjunction with hiking apps like Outdoor Active.
When I refer to the trail we hiked, I’m talking about the Fishermen’s Trail. The Rota Vicentina is actually a network of walking trails, which includes two long-distance routes, i.e. the Fishermen’s Trail and the Historical Path, plus 24 circular walks of varying distance and difficulty. We chose the Fishermen’s Trail because it hugs the coastline for almost its entire route and … well, we just like walking coastal paths.
The Fishermen’s Trail
The Fishermen’s Trail is split into 13 one-day stages, with the longest stage just 22.5km (14 miles). This sounds like a walk in the park until you consider the energy-draining sandy terrain (60-70% of the walking is on sandy footpaths or beaches), heat and the lack of shade. When the website describes the trail as ‘somewhat difficult’ they’re not joking!! Furthermore, it’s not recommended for anyone with vertigo or a fear of heights (more on that later).
From talking to our fellow hikers on route (mostly northern Europeans), it seems the most popular section of the trail is from Porto Covo to Odeceixe (75km and four days of walking). Many guided walking holidays offer this section of the Fishermen’s Trail, however it’s very easy to walk without a guide because the route is really well waymarked (and you can use those GPX files for backup).
We wanted to walk the full trail and hiked from Sines to Lagos in 12 days, adding 10km at the beginning of the trek and combining the final three stages into two days of walking (we couldn’t find affordable accommodation in Salema for one night).
Getting to the start
We took advantage of Portugal’s very affordable public transport, first catching a regional bus to Portimão and then catching a second bus to Sines. By booking ahead, we spent under 40 euros to travel the 180km distance, one-way obviously. Unfortunately, our ‘bargain’ travel was cancelled out by our most expensive accommodation of our entire trip, i.e. a 95-euro night at the Hotel Sinerama in Sines. To be fair, we had a lovely room with a full kitchen so it was worth every penny – and besides the only alternative would have been to start walking the trail at 6.30pm and continuing through the night.
Highlights of the Fishermen’s Trail
In terms of scenery, the trail is absolutely stunning (almost) from beginning to end. As we already live on the Portuguese coast, the novelty of walking alongside the Atlantic ocean every day was less intense, but that doesn’t mean we weren’t bowled over by the spectacular landscape, the rugged cliffs and beautiful estuaries with their shallow waters and white sand beaches.
There’s less inland walking, but we were treated to some wonderful footpaths across vast agricultural fields too.
From Porto Covo onwards, there seemed to be hikers everywhere. In fact, at times it felt like we were marching in convoy along the top of the cliffs. This was the polar opposite to our experience on the Via Algarviana where we rarely saw another soul on the trail from one day to the next.
Thankfully, our initial – and rather negative – attitude to joining so many other hikers on this trail quickly changed as we recognised a certain camaraderie developing between those of us with a shared language. After a while, we found ourselves looking forward to the end of the day where we’d recognise familiar faces in local bars and have an opportunity to share the day’s successes and woes over a beer or two. We ‘lost’ most of our new friends after Odeceixe, but picked up some new ones later on.
The official website lists accommodation in alphabetical order, which we didn’t find terribly useful. Instead, Harri used booking.com to find our accommodation.
We were walking towards the end of May and into June, a time when some accommodation providers don’t offer one-night stays, so we booked everything before we set off. There are hostels on route, but we opted for hotels or apartments as we prefer a bedroom with a private bathroom.
Only three places provided breakfast and they were the more expensive stays. The provision of shared kitchen facilities at some accommodations helped us keep eating costs down, although descriptions on booking.com can be somewhat ‘misleading’ as we found out in Sagres. There, our ‘kitchen’ was a microwave plonked on top of a fridge – there was no sign of a hob or even any pans, crockery or cutlery.
The first is entirely our own fault. We walked with full backpacks every day, not realising that for just 15 euros per piece of luggage, we could have ‘hiked like a free spirit’.
Though my own rucksack is now much smaller than in my O Fon i Fynwy and Via Algarviana days, it’s still a significant weight to haul up and down those cliffs and sand dunes. There’s only so much you can leave at home – and you need to carry plenty of water when temperatures soar! Harri, of course, carries much more than me. If only we’d known – or even checked out what was available in advance of setting off.
I wish we’d known about Vicentina Transfers before we set off, because then I wouldn’t have experienced the searing envy of seeing other hikers racing up the hills unencumbered by two weeks’ luggage.
The second ‘downside’ is a personal one. The Rota Vicentina website warns this route is ‘not recommended for people with vertigo or fear of heights’. I don’t mind heights but I’m not too keen on descending steep paths on loose stones where just one misplaced step spells disaster.
Unfortunately, there are a few such sections on this trail, particularly if, like us, you follow the website’s suggestion to take advantage of beach walking at low tide and are forced to clamber off the second beach because the route isn’t viable just an hour after low tide.
On day 11, I lost my footing as I was descending a cliff on the ‘very difficult’ Sagres to Salema stage. Despite taking extreme care and using walking poles, I slipped down a wide, eroded footpath, scratching my upper arm and tearing my rucksack pocket in two places. Certainly, more could be done to improve safety along this popular stretch of coastline, including better waymarking to avoid people inadvertently opting for the most obvious but more dangerous route.
There’s no denying the rugged coastal scenery is spectacular. It was wonderful, too, to see storks nesting in their natural habitat (rather than on chimneys and pylons). However, much of the time the beaches you are passing above are inaccessible – or at least involve a steep and hairy descent.
Having walked the Via Algarviana too, I find myself comparing the two and, in some ways, I think maybe I enjoyed the longer, inland trail more. Possibly that’s because back then everything about Portugal was new and exciting to us, including the food. There were far more challenges to overcome too, i.e. just sorting out accommodation in some of the inland villages involved our hosts ringing ahead on our behalf and we rarely had internet access.
Like some of the popular caminhos, the Rota Vicentina can feel a little ‘touristy’ in comparison, not least because it’s so well-organised. Like the Stingy Nomads, we were also ‘unpleasantly surprised how many people walked the trail’ (we rarely saw another walker on the Via Algarviana, though it may have become more popular in the intervening years). We’re not huge fans of hiking convoys and, as we were walking quite late in the season when the vibrant colours of the spring flowers are fading, we were taken aback just how busy it was. Fortunately, after Odeceixe, there were far fewer hikers on the trail and we even met some who were carrying backpacks.
I’ll be blogging in more detail about the various stages of the Fishermen’s Trail over the next few weeks.
In the meantime, if you’re interested in finding out more visit rotavicentina.com