Solo in Portugal on the Via Algarviana Trail: Silves -Monchique - Marmelete
In February I embarked on a three-week-long hike across Portugal. 300 km on the Via Algarviana trail took me through some remarkable landscapes and tested my body's abilities and mind's strength.
If you just stumbled on this article, you might want to read a general overview of the fantastic Via Algarviana trail here. Once you are done, check out the first section of hiking Via Algarviana from Alcoutim to Vaqueiros. And the second section from Vaqueiros to Barranco do Velho. And for a dessert - the third section of Via Algarviana from Barranco do Velho to Silves.
All up to date? So you are ready to check out the section from Silves to Marmelete!
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A fresh start on Via Algarviana from Silves
I didn't plan it, but I ended up spending two days in Silves. It proved to be exactly what my body and mind needed - after the break (which was pretty active, sightseeing Silves and taking a trip to the Ocean) I felt refreshed and ready to climb the big mountains of Monchique.
Back in the hostel, I met a fellow solo hiker, Erika from Switzerland, who was also doing the Via Algarviana trek. But before I woke up, she was already gone and hiking! I will never reach that level of commitment - I am so slow in the morning!
To reach Via Algarviana, I had to walk for 2,5 km, as it runs outside of the city. When I was preparing for this section, and now I recalled the description of "undulating path." Undulating it was! Always up and down, left and right - you could see the dirt road like a ribbon on a light breeze in front of you. That kind of hiking doesn't look hard but requires constant effort - some of the ascents up the hills were steep, if not long.
Hiking the ribbon and admiring views
The landscapes were breath-taking, and I enjoyed snapping photos on my way. Some of the slopes sadly showed reminders of wildfires, although Nature was already pushing back, through the blackened remnants of tree trunks and branches. The area in general was quite arid and rocky, providing the flora with a hard environment to live.
After a few hours of hiking through the mostly brown and orange hills, I walked down a long descent to the Odelouca River. I could see a very different kind of mountains ahead of me: a sign of reaching the heights of Serra de Monchique. The trails took me on a regular road for a while, but it didn't seem to be very busy. At one moment one needs to cross the barrier and go down the slope by the river. I almost missed the moment the trail leaves the road.
A surprisingly great wild camping spot
The walk between the river and the road was really nice. The land seemed much more fertile, and there was a lot of greenery and proper grass around. As I was looking for a wild camping spot, I knew this had to be it.
There was no way to hide anywhere, but I knew there was little risk anyone would be walking this way. For a long time, the river was inaccessible - completely overgrown and blocked by thick bushes and thorny plants. Finally, I found a way to reach it, so I decided just to find a sweet spot for my tent.
The place was right under the road, yet still, it was one of the best wild camps I'd had on the Via Algarviana trail. The ground was covered with grass, didn't have many loose rocks or branches, and I had some trees for shelter. The biggest surprise was how dry and warm (in comparison to the previous camps) the night was.
I had a lovely evening, being able to cook dinner and listen to birds.
Silves to the wild spot near the Odelouca River:
19 km (including 2,5 from my hostel to the trail); total altitude gain: 583 m; loss: 576 m.
A late and wet start to a very... vertical day
The next day I was surprised how dry my tent was! I enjoyed my morning coffee and hot oatmeal, but, as usual, started walking way too late - around 10 am. This day proved to be long and very challenging - and I worried I wouldn't make it before the sunset.
I left my wild green camp and moved on. I knew I had some river crossing ahead of me and wondered if I would be able to cross them boots on.
The day started, but soon I enjoyed blinding sunshine. In the beginning, the trail goes on dirt roads through thick woods, providing ample shade. From the three river crossings, I had to take my boots off once. The last time I almost got ankle-deep, but managed to make my way on the side - with the help of trekking poles, of course!
After the river, the trail continued on a much narrower path, near abandoned buildings. I could enjoy the crazy number of wildflowers and streams flowing fast from the slopes. Soon, the trail started to climb steeply, and it basically stayed that way for the whole day.
All the colors of Via Algarviana
With every meter gained in altitude, the landscape changed. The green trees and lush undergrowth disappeared, and I could see more and more dirt and rocks. The previous day when I had the first glimpses of mountains ahead of me, I noticed they looked grey as if covered with snow. Now I knew why: the higher I climbed, the more grey rocks surrounded me.
Climbing on this hot day, with no shade to give some rest with the strong sunshine, made hiking very difficult, I had to stop often to catch a breath. But the views were absolutely stunning! Wherever I turned, I could feed my eyes with constant hills, like creased fabric.
Finally at the top!
It took me about 10 km of an almost constant climb to reach the top. I was running on fumes, my feet hurt and I felt I could not make another step. But I took some happy congratulatory pics, as I was proud I made it to the top.
And then I realized it was not the top at all. Is there anything more annoying than a faux-peak on a tiring hike?
But what could I do? Shake my fist at the mountains?
The good thing was - as you can see in the photos - the views were mind-blowing beautiful. Whichever side I turned, I stared at so much beauty!
I picked myself up and moved on. The trail doesn't actually go directly through the peak of Picota - if you want to reach it, you need to take a path up there. As you can guess, I decided to continue on the Via Algarviana trail over rocks covering the slopes of Picota. At this moment it was actually a bit difficult to find the trail - the marking disappeared, and it was impossible to see any path over rocks.
When I finally knew that I really was on the other side and I had only descent ahead of me, I stopped for a snack. It was close to sunset, but there was no danger in finding the right path down to Monchique, especially that most of it is over a town road.
At the moment of my late afternoon snack, I met another hiker - a rare thing, so I always make a note of it! It was a man hiking solo, judging from his pack, a day hiker.
Down to Monchique
The walk down was monotonous and steep. My feet hurt pretty badly, but I was happy that I booked a place in the local B&B. When I reached the town, it was already after sunset, and I couldn't find the bloody place. The address on booking was not showing well on the map. When I finally reached it, there was no one there. I called after a while, but no one was picking up. After about an hour I finally reached someone, who didn't speak good English, so I had a hard time understanding. It took a while to understand that it's a no-staff hotel and all the information I needed I received in an e-mail with codes to safe boxes, etc. Most of the time I had no internet in the mountains and didn't check the e-mail during the short moment I caught some signal.
No rest for the wicked
Anyway, I finally got to my tiny room which was freezing cold. I was exhausted which always makes one feel colder. It took me quite a while under the blankets to brave the cold bathroom and take a shower. There is nothing like a hot shower! Everything started to look better. I could jump on the bed and start downloading a few photos from the day's hike to my phone to post on twitter or FB. And that's when the camera bounced off the blanket I pulled and fell on the tiled floor.
You know I love photography, and I just bought this camera last year and the new lenses just a couple of months ago. I was terrified and lost my breath for a moment. I picked up the camera, and it seemed OK - just a small ring fell off the front of the lens. I turned the camera on and off, tried to take a photo - all worked. I couldn't believe how lucky I was! I can't even imagine losing my camera, photography means so much to me! And I wouldn't be able to afford to buy a replacement any time soon. What a relief!
But it was not the end of this night's bad luck.
When I tried to go to sleep, there was still loud noises outside. I thought it was from one of the pubs or restaurants around the center of Monchique. The room had only single-sheet windows (one reason why it was so cold), so there was not much in terms of soundproofing.
I hoped they would go home soon. They didn't. I realized there must be some street party - it was a weekend during Carnaval, a big thing in Portugal. So the loud party noises (I felt like they were just behind my doors) were up to 4-5 am! I tried stuffing my ears with toilet paper in desperation! Nothing worked. In the morning I was probably more exhausted than the day before.
Wild camping spot near the Odelouca River to Monchique
15, 5 km; total ascent: 953 m; total descent: 536 m.
Grumpy morning in Monchique
I woke up completely exhausted. I was glad there was breakfast included, and as I gave them a two-day notice on my gluten-free needs, I hope there would be something. Nope. Only deliciously looking gluten all over the place. So my tired, angry self had to be satisfied with a few slices of cheese. When finally someone came who looked like she worked there, I inquired about anything gluten-free like rice or corn cakes she found an open pack of stale and inedible corn cakes. YUCK.
Before I hit the trail, I went to do some shopping and bought crazy heavy stuff like oranges. (I love oranges!). I didn't stress much about starting early, as I had about 15 km to hike and not too much climbing. But I left a bit too late.
The climb starts already in the town which is built on the slope, so there is always up on down there. When I was walking up, I met a group of hikers or runners on their leisurely way down after a morning hike or a run up the mountain.
At the top of the Algarve!
The hike was not as tough as I worried it would be - Monchique is already a high starting point, so the difference isn't as bad as with climbing the lower Picota. Although I sweated and breathed hard on the way up, I enjoyed to views of farm lands and cork oak trees. I'd read there were a restaurant and a chapel on the top, so I had my hopes high for a lovely coffee as a reward for all the effort.
When I finally reached Foia - the highest peak in Algarve, it was already well past noon. As there is a road leading to it, there were a lot of people enjoying the view and walking around. There was indeed a restaurant, a chapel and some other buildings connected with antennas and such.
As I was on the highest spot in Algarve, it was obvious the only way after that was down. So I decided to relax, eat lunch and read a bit. When I was done, it was suddenly way after 2 pm. Where did the time go? Usually, it wouldn't be all that bad but it was still early March, and the sunset was to come in about four hours. I planned to wild camp that night, so I knew I would better move on.
When I was leaving the huge parking place, and I took the wrong road and had to add to the needed distance to reach the correct trail.
Under dark clouds through a green theater
The Via Algarviana trail took me quickly into a fantastic colossal theater created by human hands. Similarly to other places all over the world, farmers tried to create some flat fields, digging into the mountains' slopes.
To add to the dramatic landscape, there were dark clouds thickly covering the sky. At one point cows started to slowly pass me on my way, the queens of this land.
Soon after the green theater and the cute cows, I could enjoy examples of a more modern kind of human engineering: wind turbines. I am strangely fascinated by them, they make striking impression against the skies. Although I couldn’t hide my anxiety when walking directly under them - my long-lasting fear of ceiling fans with images of its pieces flying into my neck magnify with the massive turbines. So I walked pretty quickly by them!
I kept on walking but started to wonder about my night sleep. I knew rain was to come soon, as that was in my forecast for the next two-three days. I also knew there was nothing in Marmelete itself, so I could either find a spot before reaching it or cross it and hope to see something there. It was getting late, cold, and my feet were killing me.
I checked, and suddenly I noticed that there was an accommodation just 2 km from where I was - just off the trail. I knew I already blew my budget for this trip and that it would be tough to find a suitable camping spot anywhere (the terrain was really unfriendly, there were farms nearby, etc.). I booked the spot (thank you, internet!) and moved to the place, going away from Marmelete.
Pampering myself in Marmelete
I had to wait a bit for the owner, but when I got in, all was good in the world. The price was steep, but at least I got a lot for it. The place was cute AF, my room's one wall was all window with a beautiful view of the valley. There was a shared kitchen with a dining room where I could prepare my meals, and - the most important thing - there was a washing machine! My clothes were filthy, so I was thrilled I could wash them all, take a hot shower, eat a meal, read and relax. I had a very restful night and was ready to face the last section of my Via Algarviana adventure!
Monchique - accommodation near Marmelete
13 km; total ascent: 610 m; total descent: 536 m.