Walking Holidays in the Algarve

Spectacular coastal scenery around Benagil

By Julie Dawn Fox

With over 100 walking trails, the Algarve offers a fantastic variety of walking experiences and is the perfect base for a walking holiday. To the west there are spectacular coastal walks reminiscent of Wales, and to the east the scenery is flatter, but the wetlands offer excellent bird-watching habitat.

Walking may not be the first thing that springs to mind when you think of the Algarve, Portugal's southern coastal region. Visitors are usually drawn here by the pleasant climate and spectacular beaches but for those who enjoy slightly more active holidays, the Algarve is an excellent choice of destination.

Depending on where you go, the Algarve offers boardwalk paths across wetlands and sand dunes, cliff top coastal tracks with views of dramatic rock formations, hikes through forests and to mountaintops for breathtaking views, treks across salt pans, or strolls through the countryside to villages where traditional small scale farming practices are still an everyday part of life.

Flamingos and flatlands in the east

The salt pans that surround the sleepy little town of Castro Marim create a patchwork of shallow pools and are a haven for water-loving birds, especially flamingos. Although there are now relatively few active salinas (salt producing units) in the Algarve, these have been operational since Roman times. Castro Marim

There is a 12km circular walk around the salt pans, past the processing plant and its mounds of drying salt crystals towards the railway track then back along the river to the access road. The path also leads you through fields of olive and almond trees, with views of the hilltop castle and fortifications of Castro Marim which are also worthy of closer inspection either before or after your walk.

A couple of kilometers from Castro Marim is the popular coastal resort of Monte Gordo which has a good selection of bars and restaurants open throughout the year.

Mountains and forests of Monchique

The Algarve's highest peak is Foia, at 902m, which makes it quite chilly at the top. If you can overlook the rather ugly buildings and telecom structures and concentrate on the spectacular panoramic views, it's well worth the climb. On a clear day, you can see Cape St Vincent, the most westerly point of mainland Europe. You can either walk up the mountain from the centre of Monchique via the ruins of Convento de Nossa Senhora de Desterro or drive up to the Foia viewpoint on the EM 266-3 where a signposted 7km circular walk starts.

Alternatively, you could walk down from Monchique to the charming little spa village of Caldas de Monchique. A short walk option is to walk through the forest from the thermal springs at Caldas de Monchique following the levadas as far as the watermill before heading back to the village along the same path.

Hanging valleys and craggy coastlines

The full cliff top walk between Praia de Vale Centeanes and Praia da Marinha is 12km there and back but if that's too much, you can just do a shorter section. A good place to start is at Praia do Carvalho or Praia de Benagil then head east towards Praia da Marinha.

The full walk features seven hanging valleys but these curious rock formations are by no means the most beautiful aspect of the walk. You'll also discover secret golden sandy coves, blowholes and weather-worn stacks of rock which have long been separated from the cliff edge. Look out for wild thyme and pretty flowers such as orchids.

The Wild West

Cows grazing near Raposeira

Spring is one of the best times to visit the Algarve - between late February and May the weather is generally pleasantly warm and sunny and the fields are filled with a profusion of colourful blooms.

A stroll through the fields near Raposeira may or may not lead you to discover the megalithic stone monuments promised by the road signs. It will, however, bring you up close and personal with peaceful tan-coloured cows and glorious wildflowers. Alternatively, a walk along the cliff tops at Sagres will reveal sheer drops and very different flowers.

Boardwalks and beaches

If you really can't bear to be parted from the beach for long, you might prefer to take the ferry from Olhão to Ilha da Culatra where you can spend a couple of hours exploring the sandy island via the wooden walkway over the marsh and through the dunes and a walk along the beach to the wetlands for a lovely view over the Ria Formosa natural park.

The Algarve Way

Serious walkers can hike the entire length of the Algarve, between Alcoutim in the East to Cape St Vincent in the West. The markers for this route differ in colour from the shorter trails; the Grande Rota (GR13) uses red and white stripes as opposed to the more common red and yellow route markers. The 300km trail is divided into 14 sections so you can pick and choose to suit your needs and interests.

Tips and resources for walking in the Algarve

Sagres cliffs

The landscape of the Algarve varies considerably so with a little research, you can easily find a walk that appeals to you. Although it is possible to reach some of the trails by public transport, you'll have much greater flexibility with a car. Just check to see whether or not the trail you're interested in is circular. If it isn't, you'll need to factor in the return journey to wherever you parked. If you are relying on public transport, check timetables carefully, especially at weekends and during school holidays as services may be less frequent or non-existent.

Many of the walks have little shade, which means you really shouldn't attempt them in the hottest months of July and August, except perhaps an easy coastal walk that provides a refreshing breeze. Even outside of the summer months, you should use sun cream and wear a hat and sensible walking shoes if you're doing anything other than a boardwalk.

In winter months, although it's rarely cold, always check the weather forecast to avoid getting caught up in a nasty storm and be prepared for changes in temperature at high altitudes. Don't count on finding a shop or café en route, so take plenty of water with you, and something to eat if you're going on a long walk.

Some of the walking trails, such as those on the Rota Vicentina on the west coast and the Algarve Way are well signposted and maintained. Others can be more confusing so always try to get hold of a copy of a trail route that gives you practical instructions and directions. Turismo de Portugal have produced an excellent Algarve walking trails guide. Another good resource is "Algarve Walks and Car Tours" by Brian and Eileen Anderson.

Alternatively, ask at your hotel or tourist information centre for leaflets or go with a guide or walking group.

Wherever you walk, always take a mobile phone in case of an emergency. Dial 112 in Portugal for emergency services.