This is my travel story about hiking the Fisherman’s Trail, also known as the Rota Vicentina, in Portugal. We spent 4 days walking this hiking trail along the gorgeous and wild Atlantic coast. It quickly became one of our most favourite trails that we’ve ever walked. In this story I want to give you an impression of what it is like to hike this trail. I have also written a detailed guide to hiking the Fisherman’s Trail for anyone who wants to have practical information about how to hike this trail independently.
Think Portugal’s Algarve. And now think again. Clear from your mind’s eye the imagery of the south coast’s hotel development, supermarket parking lots, water amusement parks and beaches lined with day beds and parasols. Instead, start to conjure up images of sandy trails leading to wild and empty beaches. Add jagged cliffs, and sleepy sea side villages. This is not an imaginary place long lost to tourism and real estate development. This place is real, and it is one of Europe’s last undeveloped and preserved coastlines.
Introducing the Fisherman’s Trail
The Algarve’s west coast that seamlessly transgresses into the territory of the Alentejo as you move further north is part of the Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina. This is a nature reserve stretching along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean for over 100 kilometers. It is as pristine and as wild as it gets, and best of all: it contains a network of hiking trails accessible to walkers only. These trails transport you through some of the finest natural scenery you may ever see.
For centuries, fishermen and local villagers have been forging footpaths over the cliffs and through the sandy dunes of this part of the Atlantic coast. People used the paths to get from one village to the next, or to move from one fishing spot to another. Other than the odd villager or fisherman, no one used to walk these cliffs at the edge of the continent. It is remote, it is wild, and it is relatively unexplored – the official hiking trail was only established in 2013.
Why we decided to walk the Fisherman’s Trail
This is exactly what appealed to my partner and me when we were looking for a long distance trail in Portugal. We wanted to hike a trail that we would be able to complete in one week’s time. After our long distance hiking experiences in Myanmar, Nepal and Scotland, we were eager to walk another multi-day trek. There is nothing like spending full days out in the open,. We love to be exposed to the elements, and to be immersed in the splendour of the natural world. We have developed a slight passion for long distance trails and aim to complete at least one every year.
Hiking the Fisherman’s Trail seemed perfect because it ticked all our boxes. It is possible to complete it in the short time we had available for a hike. Its daily sections are not too long nor too short. It runs through a remote natural area, and it connects villages that offer the beneficial comfort of hot showers, warm meals and good beds to rest our weary bodies at night. The Fisherman’s Trail is part of the larger Rota Vicentina,. This trail connects it to the inland Historical Way that passes through Portugal’s rustic countryside. The part of the trail that hugs the Atlantic Coast consists of four one-day sections. Each are 15 to 22 km in length. It is of a spectacular beauty that must be seen to be believed.
The start – Porto Covo
The start of the hiking trail is from the small fisherman’s town of Porto Covo. Its few streets are lined with two-story cottages with whitewashed walls, red-tiled roofs and their doors and window sills painted a bright blue.
The town with its small church and the few cafes on its main square is appealing, but the real attraction of Porto Covo lies beyond the cobble stone streets. Superb swathes of brilliant sandy beach line the coast beyond the village. The spectacle begins as soon as we climb on the first dune out of the town. We look in a southerly direction along the coastline that we will be following during the next couple of days. Cliffs rise out of the ocean like vertical fortresses. They drop steeply into the waters below where gigantic waves crash onto boulders with a sound much akin to heavy artillery fire. Golden beaches stretch for as far as the eye can see. A salty sea breeze fills our nostrils. The sun rises, illuminating the entire scene in a light of otherworldly clarity.
We are so ready to start hiking that we are unfazed by the fact that much of the Fisherman’s Trail runs through dunes of loose sand. The sandy trails reduce the walk to the principle of ‘two steps forward, one step back’. It doesn’t matter one bit. The scenery impresses us so much that we could have been walking in quicksand and still be delighted. It also helps that we are carrying only our day packs with some essentials. We had arranged for Vicentina Transfers to transport our main luggage. This is a local company that arranges luggage transfer along the entire trail. More about this great service in the section with practical information at the bottom of this travel story.
Ilha do Pessegueiro
One of the first points of interest that comes into view is Ilha do Pessegueiro, a small island on which a fortress was built in the 15th century. Today, swarms of seagulls cover it. However, it is still easy to imagine it as the pirate’s nest it probably once was. The beautiful thing about hiking the Fisherman’s Trail is that it appears to be completely detached from the context of time. The reserve is protected by a law that prohibits any large real estate development. Because of this, the landscape provides few hints about the modern day and age. This is what Europe must have looked like many centuries ago.
The natural environment on this first day’s section is untamed. We see few other people, except on a number of secluded beaches where rolling waves have attracted some lonely surfers. The auditory impact of huge waves crashing on the cliffs is impressive. It only ceases when the trail meanders behind huge sand dunes that isolate all sounds from the ocean. There are some sections of the trail that lead away from the edges due to ‘unstable cliffs’ and increased risk of erosion and falls. It is when we walk on these sheltered paths when the sudden silence comes as a surprise. Further away from the cliffs’ edges we see fields of beautiful wild vegetation like dark green ice plants (a type of succulent) with fiery red tips that light up in the early morning sun.
For lovers of flora and for bird nerds: this trail will capture your attention. Not only for its grandiose views of the coastline, but also for the beautiful and intricate details you will find when looking down at the vegetation. Or perhaps for the different bird species you can spot when looking up. In spring and summer you can see the world’s only population of cliff-nesting white storks here. It must be an amazing sight to behold. Unfortunately for us, the pending autumn means that the storks have already departed for their holiday homes in Africa.
We eat our lunch in the shadow of a tree and re-apply our sun lotion. Despite the late season the sun shines harshly in the middle of the day. The afternoon is filled with more sandy paths and spectacular views. It feels like we are walking in a postcard scene. Picture perfect!
Vila Nova de Milfontes
At the end of the afternoon we suddenly enter a paved road. Here, a smart entrepreneurial spirit has opened a bar that welcomes weary hikers with a cold drink. Some 3.5 kilometers onward we stride into Vila Nova de Milfontes, our first resting stop on this hike. First stop is our beautifully renovated guesthouse in the center of the village for a hot shower (our luggage already waiting for us there – bliss) after which we explore the town.
It perches along the clear Mira river that flows into the sea at the edge of the village. In summer this is a popular destination for beach-going Portuguese. However, outside the high season it is sleepy and quiet, like all the small villages along this coast. There are a number of good dining options though. We feast on a selection of local meats and cheese with honey and nuts, as well as grilled octopus and eggs with asparagus. We turn in early, because a full day of hiking in the salty sea winds empties the mind but also tires the feet.
Day two on the Fisherman’s Trail
Our second day starts with a coffee, croissant and pastel de nata in the village café. The place is crowded with kids getting ready for school and old men reading their newspapers. It takes some time to leave the town and its paved roads behind, because we have to cross a big bridge before being able to get back on the trail. But when we do, we walk through brilliantly green fields and then again along the cliffs.
Today the trail is a bit wider than it was yesterday, permitting us to walk next to each other. It also leads away from the coast a bit more often than it did yesterday. With the absence of the sea breeze, the warm and spicy scent of pine trees and eucalyptus invades our nostrils and takes a shortcut to our brains. These scents are so strong and so zesty. Even without the accompanying images they would immediately remind you of the ocean.
We consume our packed lunch while looking out over strangely shaped rocks. They are the result of centuries of erosion by the ocean waters. We see few other hikers. This trail brings a sense of seclusion that we just love. Before we enter the village of Almograve, we watch a massive hare sprint away from us through the fields. Nature is always at our fingertips when hiking the Fisherman’s Trail. To close our day we walk down to Almograve’s local beach. The sun still shines bright and strong in our faces.
We enjoy getting up early every day and try to start our walks at 08:00. That’s when the sun has just risen and is adding a silvery quality to everything around us. From Almograve the trail leads us immediately out of the village’s backstreets and into the dunes. It is so quiet and peaceful and the only sound we hear is that of the ocean rolling onto shore.
Cliffs and beaches
On this third day we enter an environment that is different than the previous days. The sand dunes and even the cliffs here have a deep red colour. Heather is blooming in its deep purple hues. We look down on a myriad of hidden and deserted little bays, with empty beaches out of a dream. On some of them the water laps fine sands quietly, and on others it crashes onto rocks in thundering waves. Some of them are accessible by steep trails winding down the cliff walls, others can only be reached by boat. Most of them are deserted as we pass them.
Lunch in Cavaleiro
Also different from the previous two days is that on this day the trail leads through a tiny village at its midway point. Cavaleiro has just a handful of dormant streets. Luckily, it also hosts a local café where hearty food is served to hungry hikers.
We are glad to take refuge in the shady interior where we observe the local village figures. A gigantic man with hairy arms and a saggy pair of pants orders a beer at the counter. He sports a wife beater that reveals an equally hairy backside. Three old grandpas shuffle in, sit down at what is probably their habitual table and without asking they are served with coffees accompanied by a local liquor. One of the old men is fat and cheerful. A second wears a grey grandpa hat, and the third is small and scrawny. They don’t talk, they just drink their coffee and spirits. This lunch break in the civilized world may not be of the same quality of the natural wonders that drew us to walking the Fisherman’s Trail, but it is surely a fine display of local Portuguese village life.
Zambujeira do Mar
We walk for a few more hours in the afternoon when suddenly an eerie scene reveals itself. We see a dense fog rolling over the land in front of us. The ocean is completely obscured from our view. Suddenly the world changes from bright and sunny to misty and grey. It is a strange sensation. Few things are as fickle as coastal climates. We descend down a cliff and walk into a peculiarly empty fishing harbour. It holds a few boats. On the wharf, a couple of fisherman’s sheds sit listlessly, a collection of buoys and nets hanging from their rafters. The mist is only clearing slightly as we walk into Zambujeira do Mar, our destination for tonight.
It is only the next morning, when the fogs have cleared, that we can fully appreciate the beautiful setting of Zambujeira. Wild dunes and a number of large beaches flank the village. From its nearest beach it is an impressive sight to look back upon the town that sits high behind a curving city wall. Its streets are equally curvy. Tiny fisherman’s cottages, some only one story high, sit on each side. In the early morning the sunlight colours their white walls a soft shade of pink.
The last day on the trail
The walk this morning is ethereal. The light of the rising sun illuminates the vegetation that is covered in a layer of dew. Even the sandy paths we walk on have a thin film of moist sand, still wet with the autumn chills of last night. It does not take long for the sun to warm up the earth as well as our bodies however. We soon take off our extra layers of clothing to walk in our shorts and t-shirts again.
Lunch in Azenha do Mar
Like yesterday, the trail leads through a village at just about noon. In Azenha do Mar we fuel up in a local fish restaurant. Portuguese families surround us. Fathers carefully hand-pick from a large water tank the crabs and lobsters that their families will be feasting on. The Portuguese do not take lunch lightly. It is not unusual for them to spend an hour to 1.5 hours enjoying their food. These restaurant pit stops take up more time than eating our pre-packed lunches as we had done on the first two days, so this lunch delays our schedule a bit. This is fine though, because the rhythm of our daily walks have slowed our pace. Perhaps not literally, but mentally I’m easing in a mind-set of slow travel and enjoyment of the little things. A lazy lunch fits this outlook perfectly.
Hiking into Odeceixe
Our final hours of hiking on the Fisherman’s Trail lead us past bays with the clearest waters. They allow views on the black rocks that extend from the cliffs far below the surface. In the mid-afternoon the bay of Odeceixe reveals itself to us. Here, a river’s mouth flows onto the beach and into the ocean. On the sandy bays surfers carry their boards and families enjoy the warm rays of sun. A tiny settlement of white houses towers above the sands. Again: postcard perfect.
Celebrating the end of our hike on the Fisherman’s Trail
We spend our last night in an agriturismo a small distance outside the town. We bask in the sense of accomplishment that comes with finishing a long distance trek. Satisfied, we propose a toast with one of Portugal’s typical green wines. We pet the property’s cats and dogs who are oblivious of the amazing environment they are living in. After dark we gaze at the night sky that is specked with countless flickering stars. There must be as many stars as there are waves in the Atlantic Ocean that was our salty and steady companion for the past four days. The Milky Way shines brightly. Its constellations no longer guide fishermen along the Portuguese coast, but seal a perfect ending to our intense immersion in the last truly wild ocean coast of Europe.
Want to explore this hiking trail yourself? Check out my guide with practical tips and advice about walking the Fisherman’s Trail.
Disclaimer: Vicentina Transfers has sponsored our luggage transfer on our Fisherman’s Trail hiking adventure. However, the recommendation we make for their services is purely based on our honest evaluation of their services. It reflects our own personal and unbiased opinion.