Solo in Portugal on the Via Algarviana Trail: From Vaqueiros to Barranco do Velho
This is the second part describing my adventures on Via Algarviana in Portugal. You can read the overview of the whole Via Algarviana trail here and check the first four days on the trail here.
Not so solo anymore
I woke up to a very cloudy and chilly day in Vaqueiros. I had my breakfast waiting in the restaurant down the street, so I packed almost wholly and walked to see what they had for me.
The day before I explained my diet issues and showed a card in Portuguese on a gluten-free diet. It's not very popular around here, and I am happy I had that card.
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I got an omelet and a few slices of cheese, which I devoured in less than three minutes. And hardly felt anything. So, although I felt anxious and a bit embarrassed, I asked for another portion of the same. With an extra glass of coffee.
I paid $30 for the night and breakfast, so it was acceptable, with the accommodation on the modest (and cold) side.
Vaqueiros is a lovely village with a church and the main square. After taking a few photos of it and helping a group of tourists to take a picture, I moved on my way.
I was happy I put a long-sleeve with a hood on that day, as it was rather windy.
A puppy goes for a long walk
This time I didn't walk alone - right from the beginning a young dog accompanied me. I expected him to turn back any minute, but he kept on walking. I didn't call him or encourage him in any way - he just decided to join me on my hike.
The trail took me on many steep climbs and offered views of the industrial kind. I already got used to the ubiquitous colossal wind turbines, which I find strangely beautiful. Additionally, I could observe huge electrical towers with wires, as there was an electric plant nearby.
After a couple of miles, I started to get worried about the puppy who really didn't want to go back. I know some dogs are used to walking from village to village, but I didn't want it to get lost. I started to discourage it - shout and wave my arms, so it turns back home. But he just looked at me like I was crazy, and then kept on going. I even tried to scare him off by throwing a few rocks in his general direction (not him obviously). When he noticed the stones would not reach him, he chilled and kept on following me - now in a safe distance.
My map reading skills need dusting
My plan for the day was to reach the shelter in Cachopo, called Casas Baixas. I'd read about it in a guide, it was a local initiative to bring tourist into the depopulated villages. They turned three old schools into bunk shelters and created local trails with clear markings. As it was the fifth day of my hiking, I thought it would be the perfect moment to take a day off. Additionally, I've noticed the forecast was rather gloomy - heavy rains were to come over the next two days.
When I finally reached Cachopo, I sat in a cafe over a cup of coffee. The dog tried to join me, but the owners kicked him out. I told them it was not my dog and I don't know why he walks after me.
When I was sitting there drinking coffee, I read the description of the shelter in the official guide again and realized that I have made a mistake! The hostel was in the village of Casas Baixas that I already passed and not in Cachopo! My brain sometimes really doesn't work correctly.
So I had to decide what to do because it was around 4 pm and I didn't have all that much sunlight left. I could either go back 3.6 km to the shelter or go to the B&B that was there. As I wanted to save and really wanted a day off, I decided to go back.
I walked really fast, annoyed and frustrated how I could have made that mistake if I crossed by a massive map of the shelter system. But not really surprised. I do that kind of errors sometimes - I make some connection in my head (like that the shelter is in Cachopo) and my brain takes it as a fact and stops taking in any additional information that could influence it - like the map I watched when passed it earlier that day.
Taking a day off in Casas Baixas
Anyway, I made the walk back in pretty good time. I reached the village and had no idea how to find the school. The map mentioned above wasn't really all that clear, so I walked into the labyrinth of small houses and narrow streets hoping to see the school. And the dog walked after (and sometimes ahead of) me.
There was hardly anyone there - I only saw two older gentlemen at a corner house, on a small patio. They were smoking cigarettes, eating sunflower seeds and chatting. I passed them and hit a group of loose local dogs - very vocal about protecting their kingdom. They barked really badly and rounded me but what they were really after was the puppy. I had no other choice but to protect him from the vicious band. I think I sealed my fate then: now I was his protector and savior.
Where’s the key?!
After walking around the little village (a true maze) I asked the gentlemen where the school was. They pointed the direction, and I found the big (in comparison to the others) building just off the center of the village. It had a fence and a wall around it with an overgrown garden. I reached the door, and a moment later I thought I would cry: the doors were closed. It was close to twilight, there was rain to come any minute, and I had no place to go.
I desperately went back to the men and tried to explain (mostly through wild gesticulation) that the doors were closed and if they could help. They talked a while among themselves, and one of them went with me. He started to look around and found the key under a rock! I could jump with joy if I didn't have the heavy backpack on!
I thanked him a lot and entered the building. It was cold like hell (lousy comparison), but it had electricity, beds, working bathroom, and gas cooker. What else would I need?
There was a wood burner inside, so I decided to make use of it. Outside, in the garden, was an oven and a grill, with some wood ready to use. I brought some of it indoors. There were oil heaters inside, but they aren't useful in warming up a big space. I put one into the bathroom so I could undress for the shower.
The dog wanted to get inside with me, and for a few moments, I thought I should take him in, especially with the vicious barking band in the village and storm coming. But I felt I should not do it, as it probably wasn't allowed and I would make him bond with me even stronger. So with a heavy heart, I closed the door in front of his cute little face.
Cold but perfectly decent rest
I made use of the gas cooker and prepared dinner. Pretty soon I was crazy cold and put on not just my fleece, but the down jacket, too. It was so cold! I got the wood burner going, but it took a long time to start giving any warmth. There was also some smoke inside - I closed to doors to the bedroom, so I didn't have to breathe it while sleeping.
I really liked the place. It was small, modest but plenty enough as a shelter for backpackers. The price was $14 per night (I found it much later on). It seems that you should first call and organize your stay, and you can even order meals.
It was lovely to cocoon myself in a sleeping bag with a book after a hot shower. I switched off the alarm clock, to make sure I can sleep as long as possible to give the body proper rest.
Vaqueiros - Cachopo - Casa Baixas
19, 2 km; total ascent: 707 m, total descent: 586 m
The rest day was pretty dull, I guess. I read a lot, and I did laundry (yay!). It was raining hard the whole day, and I felt like the worst bitch for keeping the dog outside. I really hoped he would get tired or annoyed and tried to find another human to take care of him. But I could hear him every now and then close to the door. I think he slept on the steps.
The frustration grows
The next morning, the moment I opened the doors, the dog was on me. He was so happy to see me, but I could not feel any joy back. I felt frustrated and hopeless. I could not take this dog, I could not take care of him, I had no food for him... I had no idea how to help him. Instead of being rested and ready for an adventure, I felt anxious and frustrated.
My plan for the day was to walk to the next shelter in Feitera. This time to reach it I had to make a short detour. The official guide suggests walking all the way to Barrancos but it would a very long distance and impossible for me to make.
It wasn't raining, but everything was still wet from the massive storm. On my way to Cachopo, I had to navigate a fallen tree. It was challenging to cross it, as there was a steep drop on the side of the path. When I finally got through, I had pieces of twigs and green stuff all over me.
Can someone, please, help me with the dog?
I stopped in Cachopo for breakfast. Right away there was a problem with the dog - I explained it wasn't mine and walked after me from Vaqueiros. They seemed to understand and even tied it down! He got some food, and I was relieved! Finally, someone would take care of it and (I hoped) bring it to the owners. Maybe they even knew who he belonged to?
After a filling brunch of omelet and french fries, with a lighthearted mood, I moved on my way to Feitera. It wasn't even 2 minutes when the dog was right next to me. I thought he run away, so I went back (he followed) and asked to take him back. But they didn't want to do it. I just heard "no problem," and they gestured for me just to go.
I had tears in my eyes. After a few minutes of real release that the issue was resolved, the dark clouds were back with a vengeance. I did the walking and taking pictures, but I couldn't feel any pleasure from it. I felt frustration and anger.
Losing my footing
On the way out of Cachopo, through a narrow bend and a very steep walkway, I slipped. The cobblestones were covered in green slime which was very slippery after the rain. The backpack went over my head, and there was a risk I would just tumble down. I managed to stay down and get up, to assess the damages. My freshly laundered pants were now covered in green-brown yuckiness. I hit the ground with my left knee and scrapped the skin off. The good thing was, the pants survived - there were just two tiny scratched almost-holes. So all good. Just dirty and the knee hurt a bit.
The frustration was building to dangerous levels, and I knew I was close to a meltdown. The tears filled my eyes many times already, and I had no way to fix the source of my anxiety and frustration.
I walked on almost out of duty than for joy.
Beautiful mountains and challenging hike
The trail was demanding - I was now in the Serra do Caldeirão - the path was steep after a long descent to a lovely river. I met a group of cyclists and later a few guys on motorcycles. After crossing the river the ascent is very long, but it pays back with lovely views. There were again many wind turbines, fitting into the mountain landscapes.
I saw some first signs of wildfires. Although nature mostly sprung back, I could see some burnt tree trunks.
After a while, I saw a signpost showing the way to Feitera, so I left the main Via Algarviana trail and moved to find my night rest. The landscapes were absolutely beautiful! Constantly undulating hills and mountains, tiny villages with a few elderly persons sitting on benches in front of their little houses. I was again welcomed with smiles “bon tard” and waves. The mixture of natural and agricultural growth created fantastic combinations. I enjoyed noticing the specifically local buildings or items, like concrete washing basins, wells with big wheels, or garden ovens.
Getting a ride!
The trail kept on wide dirt roads, and after a few kilometers, a gentleman in a white van stopped by and asked (in Portuguese) where I was going. I figure out what he meant and said Feitera. When he offered a ride, my first reaction was to decline - I was hiking after all. But then I thought, why not? I was walking an additional section of the trail so I could use some help. The dog was around, and even though I said he wasn't mine, he packed the scared puppy inside the van.
During the ride he was telling me about the villages around and some more - it was a pity I couldn't understand much what he was saying. I just tried to smile a lot to cover for the uncomfortable situation.
He let me off at a junction and showed where to go next. I was at the end of Feitera, so I had to find the school. I walked around a bit but couldn't see anything that would be similar to the building I was at last night.
There are other hikers on Via Algarviana!
Finally, I asked some people and realized the school was outside of the village. As I was approaching it, a lady in a car stopped by me and asked if I was a hiker going to a shelter. She was taking care of the shelters and took me to the building.
She kept asking where is the second one and if I was French (all in Portuguese and a few English words, so not that easy). Finally, I understood that she had two French hikers booked and she came with food for them. I was happy she was there so I could pay (in Casas Baixas I left money in the guest book).
She left, and I prepared my own food. Soon the other hikers came. They were also doing the Via Algarviana but in the opposite direction. The used a one wheel cart to carry their big bag. The cart was attached to a special belt and had also handles. A pretty good thing for Via Algarviana with its wide dirt roads.
I washed my pants in the sink to at least get some of the dirt off the left leg. Pretty soon I was ready to get to sleep.
Casa Baixas - Feitera (without the ride)
14 km; total ascent 826m; total descent 683.
The next day we all had a hard time finding the right way to go to reach the Via Algarviana. I couldn't use the same way as I came by car. The poor French couple went back and forth, and they studied the maps to figure out the way.
I went my own way and found the trail after a while. I soon reached another well-maintained dirt road and could admire the views.
The dog was still around me, and nothing I did would make him go away. I tried not to think about him, but couldn't. To make things worse, he found some dead thing and rolled in it. So now he also stunk like hell.
The trail wasn't all that clear, so I just used View Ranger to show me the way to hit the main Via Algarviana. I walked on a paved road for a while, but at least I wouldn't lose time on wrong paths.
The darkest moments on the trail
I was a storm cloud on feet, frustration in human form. There was no pleasure left, just anguish and anger.
When I reached a small village, I decided to ask someone for help. To take care of the puppy so I can go away. I talked with a young woman who had a dog and looked like it was well-taken care off. When I started to explain she first thought I asked for some dog food and brought some right away (bless her soul), but then she understood. I cut some guy line to make a leash and showed her to take it and tie it down. She took him, and I was so relieved. Finally!
I started to smile and walk down a long path leading to a valley.
Then the dog was right next to me with the horrible stench and fluorescent green string attached, happy like only a puppy can.
And then I broke.
I just couldn't take it anymore, and the tears broke the dams. I cried, I shouted obscenities and tried to get it all out.
It helped a bit, but not much. I was down, beaten, hopeless. I felt absolutely horrible. The challenging trail forcing me to keep on walking up, up, up just added to the feeling of despair.
(In case you do not understand why such a silly thing as a stray dog could cause the meltdown, please have in mind I am on the autism spectrum and suffer from anxiety. Some situations overwhelm me.)
Meeting an unusual hiker
At a small village with a cafe, I stopped for a coffee. It looked like the owner wasn't there, and the elderly gentleman was filling in. It took him a lot of time to prepare the coffee, and I thought he didn't know how. But in the end, I got it. While there I met another hiking lady but with a twist. She didn't hike with a backpack or a one-wheel cart. She hiked with two... donkeys. How cool was that? I realized that I actually met her in Alcoutim - we were both in the hostel, but didn't really talk. So we started at the same time but only now bumped into each other.
The terrain was difficult yet beautiful. I was taking photos, but it didn't bring me much pleasure. I kept on walking but shouted at the dog to stay away. He kept his distance, and at some moments it looked like was just about to turn away - yet the next turn I could see him again.
Wild camping or a hotel?
For a while I considered wild camping but I was really beaten up. The thought of the dog sleeping right next to my tent with its disgusting stench terrified me. I also couldn’t imagine myself eating anything while I had nothing to share with the doggy. So I decided to keep on going and sleep in a hotel that night. It proved a very good idea.
The final stretch to Barranco do Velho was tough. There were some works done - new pipes or something like that, with heavy machinery doing something. So in addition to the hard climbs, now there were vast stretches of soft and thick mud to navigate. At one point I just couldn't cross - the digging machine blocked the path, and I didn't want to risk going around through the deep mud. There was another path leading steeply up to the main road. The trail would hit this road later on anyway, so I decided to do the last 4 km or so to Barranco on the road.
I was crazy tired and walking along the somewhat busy road was far from easy. The dog was scared of the cars, thank goodness, so at least I didn't have to worry he would be hit by a car - he mostly stayed on the side.
I reached Tia Bia restaurant and hotel on my last legs.
I thought it's worth paying for it even if just to be dog-free for a few hours.
Blessed be the dog-loving lady!
After a hot shower, I went down for dinner. The hotel's owner (manager?) came to me to ask about the dog. I was so happy she was speaking excellent English so I could explain the problem. She was adamant that the dog can't stay there - she already had eight dogs at home and couldn’t take any more in. She made some calls and also found out that he had a chip. It was apparent the lady loved dogs and would do whatever is needed to get him back to his home.
Later she came with a note written in Portuguese that I would show to the police in the next town if the dog were still with me - she explained that the owner had the duty to take the dog or would be fined.
They found the owner (I have no idea how), and he was supposed to pick the dog up no later than 8 am the next day. I was elated, I wanted to hug the woman and sing her love songs. I am pretty sure she had no idea what a relief it was that she understood the problem and took care of it.
I went to sleep hoping the dog would be happily reunited with his owners the next day.
During breakfast the next day, the manager told me the dog was gone, the owner picked him up.
Feitera - Barrancos do Velho
21,6 km; total ascent: 868 m, total descent: 879 m