This Hidden Gem in Portugal Is Home to Some of the Country's Best Hiking Trails
Covered in flat, loose pieces of shale rock, the trail beneath T.J.'s feet shifted with every step. My eyes skeptically followed the steep crevice of rock downwards, where it sloped toward a rocky cove. It wasn't until T.J., our tour guide, pulled the rope out of his backpack that I realized he was serious about our descent. Pointing to a metal stake in the ground installed by the Portuguese fishermen for this exact purpose, he warned us not to trip.
A few hours before, I sat in a sunny square in Lagos, perusing brochures that advertised jet boat excursions to see the famous cliffs of southwestern Portugal from a distance. Instead, I wound up standing amid one of those deceptively large and shadowy nooks of the coastline, warding off the chill of the Atlantic-born gales, stopping to taste wild garlic and thyme, and climbing down to somebody's not-so-secret-anymore fishing spot.
When planning my trip to the Algarve, I wanted an adventure that could get my blood pumping and I found The West Coast Adventure Co., a tour company led by T.J. Eisenstein, an American who has been exploring the fishermen tracks of the Vicentine Coast since he arrived in the Algarve nine years ago. Upon discovering this little-visited corner of the Algarve, T.J. found any way he could to get out to the protected natural park and eventually started bringing small groups on his adventures. Around the same time that T.J. was hitching rides from friends and strangers, the Rota Vicentina Association had just formed to connect and signpost the tracks that generations of fishermen have etched into the clifftops. Their mission was to maintain these historic trails with a sustainable tourism model that protects the cultural and environmental integrity of the awe-inspiring landscape and its cast of dauntless fishermen that called this place o fim de mundo, the end of the world.
Tracks, Not Trails
I gripped the rope tightly in one hand and used the other to balance against the slope as my feet slid with every step on the loose shale. My thighs were burning after a regretful squat routine the day before, and although I wanted to move as quickly as possible, each step had to be made carefully much to the protest of my sore quadriceps. I thought I'd be there forever, until suddenly I was standing upright, looking out at our picnic spot down by the water.
T.J. explained that it's rocky places like this that drive the fishermen to create these tracks. "They're not planned by people sitting around, thinking how do we make a trail," he told Travel + Leisure, "They just evolved because of fishermen trying to get from the tops of the cliffs down to the water."
For many years, the fishermen of the Vicentine Coast were the only ones with the bravery to weather the coast's high winds and tall cliffs for the sake of nabbing the best catch. If you could maneuver to a spot that no one else dared to go to, you could find a bounty of fish and seafood. In this corner of Portugal, bass, bream, octopi, and delectable goose-neck barnacles thrive in the highly oxygenated intertidal zone where whitewater waves crash against the rocks.
A Model for Sustainability
T.J. brought our group back up to the trail safely, but without an experienced guide leading the way, an unwitting hiker could follow an old track into a difficult and dangerous access point. Not all of the tracks on the Vicentine Coast are a part of the official Rota Vicentina Fishermen's Trail, which has been designed to connect the safest and most interesting of the fishermen's tracks into one signposted route that can be explored on your own.
In 2012, the Rota Vicentina set out on a mission to maintain the trails and study the impact of tourism on the landscape, but according to CEO Marta Cabral, they had no idea how quickly things would change in the coming decade. "There were no plans for big hotels here, but suddenly these bed-and-breakfast concepts brought so many people," Cabral told T+L, citing Airbnb and the recent surge of campervan tourism. "The way of doing tourism changed and there was a big impact."
The Rota Vicentina has signposted over 700 kilometers of trails on the Vicentine Coast and in the Southwest Alentejo and Vicentine Coast Natural Park. This includes the Historical Way, which runs through inland towns and villages, and the official Fishermen's Trail, which is one route that connects the best sections of coastal tracks used by local fishermen. In addition to maintaining trails, the association works with the community to connect visitors with local artisans, farmers, and fishermen. Some of these experiences are a part of the Touro Azul, a curated collection of people-focused cultural experiences that range from visiting rural fishing lagoons to walking from farm to sea with a local animal keeper in Vila do Bispo.
Although beautiful, conditions along the Vicentine Coast are harsh, and apart from a fisherman who may have spent a night or two under the stars, it was never inhabited. For Cabral, that's why it's so important to encourage hikers to seek out authentic cultural experiences, "We try to focus our work with the local partners in the main areas of nature, culture, and well-being," she said, adding that the Fisherman's Trail promotes itself organically with its deserted nature and stunning views. "It's unbeatable."
I believed the views were unbeatable, but throughout my adventure day, a hanging cloud persisted. It added a unique surreal quality to the experience, but I wanted the views, too. Taking a page out of my guide's hitchhiking origin story, the next day, I hopped on a bus to Cabo de São Vicente, where I would connect to the Fishermen's Trail at the lighthouse.
The cloud had gone away, and I could see clear to Sagres — my goal of the day six miles away. Walking along the edge was a dizzying experience, even when I put as much distance as possible between myself and the straight, 90-degree drop. Like a long table stretching out into the abyss of the taciturn ocean, the coast really did look like the end of the world.
I stuck to the signposted trail that snaked along the coastline, passing by crumbling fortresses and large beaches with parking lots full of cars and campervans. On the lonely stretches in between, I peered cautiously over the cliffs, imagining all the secrets kept safe within these ancient folds of rock and sea.