By Erika Owen
Updated: January 24, 2017
Erika Owen

Portugal only has one national park, but it has so many different and unique experiences you could plan an entire vacation around it.

The best way to take in Peneda-Gerês National Park, especially if you're a first-time visitor, is by signing up with a group tour.

There are plenty in the area, but I chose to make the journey with Oporto Adventure Tours, which donates part of your tour fee to self-sustaining villages in the park.

Going with a guide also opens your visit to a wealth of history, wildlife and fauna facts, and off-the-beaten path hiking trails. But there are plenty of other reasons to make this a stop on your next trip to Portugal.

You Can Learn to Make Bread in a Centuries-old Village

If you're looking for a completely authentic experience—and a break from hiking—in the national park, head to Ermida. This village is centuries old, and is incredibly untouched by tourism.

Our particular tour included some time with Iva, an 81-year-old woman who invited us into her kitchen and taught us the ropes of making traditional bread with flour, water, and salt.

The entire village is a throwback—stone ruins line cobblestone roadways, and you'll often come across curious dogs, goats, and horses taking a stroll.

You Can Swim in Waterfalls

This is where a tour guide comes in handy—climbing the rock formations that lead up to the park's waterfalls is not a solo task. The water is warm all through the summer months, but adventurous hikers can take a dip into the cooler months. In November, the water was only tolerable for a couple of minutes, but as they say: when in Rome Portugal.

The two waterfalls we visited were easily accessible, after a short hike. The best part: no crowds.

You Can See the Most Stunning Vistas, Minus the Crowds

The entire park is 271 square miles. To put that in some sort of perspective, that's about the size of 350,000 hockey rinks. While it's not the largest national park in the world by any means, you still felt relatively secluded no matter where you are.

Specific outlooks will attract a handful of people, but you're not going to wait very long to have the entire vista to yourself for a few minutes.

You Can See Endangered Species

There are many parts of this park that require a special permit to enter because of endangered plants and animals. This is a big part of why you won't find any big crowds on the hiking trails. Some tour guides are also equipped with this special permit, meaning they can bring you to these special places.

Ask about the 10 endangered bats you can see, the grey wolves, the 627 endangered flora species, and the Barrosão ox, among many others. And don't miss the Garrano ponies, which are not endangered, but are one of the park's most famous and oldest inhabitants.

You Can Eat at a Panoramic Restaurant

During our tour, we took a break at Cafe Restaurante Fojo dos Lobos. This restaurant has a deck area with views that belong on any bucket list.

You will find tons of friendly locals enjoying lunch and a drink. If you're looking to try traditional Portuguese food—caldo verde, rabanada, presunto, local cheese, and, of course, wine. This is the spot to give your feet a bit of a break.

You Can Enjoy Beautiful Architecture Among Wilderness

Portugal has its fair share of stunning bridges—just head to Porto for proof—and this national park is no exception.

Not only will you find ancient houses and roads, you'll also see a fair share of Roman bridges that date back hundreds of years. One to add to your bucket list: Misarela Bridge, which crosses Rio Rabagão in Braga.

You Can See Hundreds of Years of Village Development

While the ancient aesthetic of the park is well maintained, the entire region has been through a lot of change. Humans have been living in the area since between 6000 B.C. and 3000 B.C.—the mountainous region is especially tough to inhabitate, so the exact time is not known.

You can see the various layers of human interaction, specifically with the many agricultural fields and its link to deforestation. Find the right tour guide, and you'll find yourself ending the day with a history lesson.