Travel + Leisure Staff

Europe may not be known for its vast, untamed spaces, but in Eastern Portugal, the Côa Valley is transforming the way people experience nature.

For more than 22,000 years, humans have occupied this land—the Paleolithic rock drawings are proof. But in recent decades, the historic site has been abandoned, as people flock toward more metropolitan areas for work.

In their absence, nature has returned. Cork trees and chaparral bushes have risen from the earth, and short-toed eagles fly overhead. Wild Maronesa cattle and horses roam the land. With time, Iberian wolves may return, too. Across the border in Spain, there are wolf-watching tours underway.

In the Côa Valley, visitors will find Faia Brava: a nature 2,200-acre nature reserve dotted with tented camps. It’s not the safari-style experience you’d expect from the Australian Outback or Africa’s Sahara desert. But to promote the environmental philosophy of “rewilding,” in which territories once subdued by humans are “returned to their natural, undomesticated state,” many are hoping that eco-tourism will help restore these habitats.

Visitors exploring this section of Portugal can also bed down in one of the three canvas tents at Star Camp. With running water and a king-size bed, Star Camp offers a luxurious perch from which guests can admire the imposing granite hills.   

While much of the region is yielding to native species and its rugged, indigenous self, there’s still plenty of culture and history for travelers to enjoy in the Côa Valley. At the Quinta de Ervamoira, you can sip wine from the vineyards as delicious as that harvested from the Douro Valley. Nearby are those ancient rock etchings that tell of a time when the land was dominated by ancestral animals, like extinct aurochs, rare Iberian Ibex, and skittish roe deer.

Somehow, in a region swarming with people, a sliver of land has emerged as a sanctuary for Portugal’s most resilient flora and fauna. And with the help of activists—and travelers eager for an adventurous outdoors experience—the Côa Valley could emerge from this modern era as one of the most untouched and natural places on the continent.

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