Portugal is famous for its Algarve coast, beautiful though often crammed with holiday homes and resort hotels.
This article is not about the Algarve.
It’s about that other Portuguese coast, the Alentejo, which I love for its pure character and unspoiled nature.
The Alentejo coast lacks any cities or major development and is mostly the domain of hikers, surfers, and campervanners.
The best way to get to know the Alentejo coast is really to hike. The Rota Vicentina is a network of hiking trails spanning 750km, all through scenic lands with only small-scale farming and the odd rural village. Along the coast there are many tall limestone formations, coves, and rocky cliffs. It’s really a fantastic slice of Portugal to trek through.
I recently hiked part of the Rota Vicentina and loved slow-traveling through this part of Portugal.
Here, I will share a couple of tips for getting the most out of hiking the Rota Vicentina.
1. There are two main routes
Rather than being just one trail, the Rota Vicentina encompasses many different trails through the Alentejo coast.
First, there is the Fisherman’s Trail (above). It is the most popular trail, so you’re likely to see some other hikers heading the same way. It runs through lots of dunes and past gnarly cliffs. You’ll pass many seaside towns that are near wild or sparsely developed beaches. Not all of it is along the coast, though: some of the middle sections go through the countryside.
There is also the Historical Way, which runs further inland, intersecting with the Fisherman’s Trail in the middle at Odeceixe. It’s less known, particularly the northern parts, but you definitely shouldn’t discount this trail. I felt the hiking along the Historical Way was often quite a bit more eventful and varied, passing through low-intensity farmland, oak tree forests, past creeks and rivers, and sometimes over hills and small mountains. Lots of cute rural villages are on this trail.
Finally, there are numerous smaller local circular routes, which let you easily snack the Rota Vicentina without having to binge the whole thing.
To have the most variety, I combined several days worth of Historical Way with several days of Fisherman’s Trail. I really liked mixing the two routes.
However, it seems the most typical thing to do is to hike the Fisherman’s Trail north to south (but you can go both directions). The rocky cliffs on the coast are certainly more dramatic than the more bucolic interior of the Alentejo, though I honestly loved both equally.
2. You can cherry-pick your trails
Feeling intimidated by over 750km of trails? Don’t worry.
Not everyone might have the stomach (or time) for 10 days or more of trekking, which is what it takes to go north to south or vice versa. Luckily, you can also cherry-pick some of Rota Vicentina’s most scenic segments.
Unraveling the routes I found a bit difficult at first, as all parts are promoted equally on the official website. After speaking to a few hikers, a more distinct picture emerged.
On the Fisherman’s Trail, the part between Almograve and Odeceixe is considered by many to be among the most interesting. This is due to the varied topography and diverse plant life (greener than further south near Cabo de São Vicente), as well as the charming seaside towns you’ll encounter. I even met a group of hikers who’d already done the whole route, but came back a second year to do just this part again.
As of 2020, there is a brand new part of the trail in the Algarve between Cabo de São Vicente and the city of Lagos. I didn’t have the chance to hike it, but knowing the topography around those parts from previous trips, I’d say this is probably another highlight of the Fisherman’s Trail that’s worth adding into your route. The topographic profile is however among the most challenging.
On the Historical Way, there seems less of a clear consensus among the hikers I met. Personally, I can only speak about the northern part of the Historical Way. That said, I much enjoyed the parts between São Luis and São Teotonio (via Odemira), with their varied rural landscapes and some lush riparian forests.
Either way, you are under no obligation to hike the entire route. And if your feet ever get too tired, you can always insert a relaxing day or two at the beach.
If you’re really not sure which parts to pick, I would suggest starting in Porto Covo or Vila Nova de Milfontes and heading south to Odeceixe or beyond.
Of course, spending 2 weeks to do the whole thing is the ultimate challenge.
3. It’s best in spring
I walked the Rota Vicentina in early June and thought this was a perfect time to do it. I’ve also been in the Alentejo at other times of the year.
The official recommended walking season for the Rota Vicentina is from September till June. The best time is generally agreed to be spring, followed by autumn, followed by winter. Temperatures are mild in winter (around 10ºC during the day) though they are the rainiest months.
I loved hiking in spring for a few reasons:
- All the fields and forests are full of flowers
- It’s sunny but temperatures are not too high (20ºC – 25ºC range)
- The summer beach crowds have not yet descended onto the seaside towns
Why do I mention storks?
Well, they invade the region during this time of year, building nests on top of the cliffs and rocks along the Fisherman’s Trail. This is the only place in the world where such nesting behavior can be observed. Seeing several storks swoop around the shoreline is quite a sight to behold.
Some storks live around the coast year-round (having decided to no longer migrate to Africa), but you’ll need to visit in April till June for a chance to see them nesting on the rocks.
Walking the Rota Vicentina in summer is possible but not typically recommended. The temperatures reach high levels while much of the trail is fully exposed to the searing sun. Accommodation in seaside towns like Vila Nova de Milfontes will also fill up with beachgoers and locals on their summer breaks.
4. You can hop around
Although you can do everything by foot, it is possible to easily hop around the region by bus or taxi.
The national bus network of Rede Expressos has bus connections between Lisbon and Lagos, stopping at many (but not all) towns along the way. There are usually two or three per day and you can book them online.
The regional bus company Rodoviária do Alentejo is another option on weekdays, though I found the schedules on their 1990s website a bit hard to navigate. Their route maps also use the Comic Sans font, which goes against my deeply held beliefs regarding fonts. I’m joking, but probably the best way to figure these out is to visit a local bus station and ask for up-to-date info.
For taxis, a good rule of thumb is that they cost about a Euro per kilometer. Since most legs of the Rota Vicentina are roughly around 20km, you can count on spending 20 Euro, give or take, to skip ahead 1 route section by taxi.
Luggage transfers are also available via Vicentina Transfers. It costs 15 Euro per luggage piece for 1 route section. It’s a nice option if you want to spend a day trekking with just your day-pack.
5. It’s possible to do solo
I hiked the Rota Vicentina solo, which was a wonderful solitary experience.
For the Historical Way, I should mention that there often are no places along the route to eat or buy anything. You need to pack enough water and food with you before you set off. Wayfinding is never difficult as the paths are very well indicated, but having a GPS map (such as the app MAPS.me) never hurts. Although you’re never in true wilderness, with some form of civilization reasonably close by, you might not encounter (m)any other hikers on this route nor any facilities.
On the Fisherman’s Trail it’s more common to find pitstops for food or drink, but still rare, so stock up before you head out. There are a fair bit more hikers on this trail and the towns are more alive as they get many beach tourists as well. If you’re an inexperienced solo hiker, perhaps the Fisherman’s Trail is your best bet for a safe and easy trek.
The technical difficulty of the trails is not so high, apart from maybe a few sections (like Cercal to Sao Luis, or the sections in Algarve). You just need to have plenty of endurance for the longer sections on the route.
It’s difficult for me to say what the atmosphere is on the trail exactly, as I hiked the Rota Vicentina in 2020 shortly following the pandemic lockdowns. But many of the towns have good quality hostels with a friendly atmosphere (even when there were just a few people staying!).
6. You’ll experience the Alentejo
The Rota Vicentina doesn’t just have to be about hiking. If you take it slow, you can do many other things along the way.
I much enjoyed kayaking up the Mira river from Vila Nova de Milfontes. In Sagres, I’ve stayed at a surf hostel, taking surfing lessons at the nearby beaches.
Of course, you can add a beach time pretty much at any time. The beaches along the Alentejo and Vicentine coast are more wild and pure than those in the Algarve. The Atlantic waters are also a bit colder, but that doesn’t have to stop you from taking a refreshing dive.
The fish and seafood are expectedly very fresh and yummy around these parts. You’ll also have your chance to try the regional dish Carne de Porco à Alentejana — pan-fried marinated pork with clams.
The official Rota Vicentina site offers a wealth of information as well as an interactive map. There is no need to purchase their paper guidebook necessarily, as it has the same information as the website. If you’re keen on hiking the Algarve instead, you can also check out the Via Algarviana website.
Stingy Nomads also did a terrific job writing up their experience along the Rota Vicentina, with detailed information for each route segment.
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