Algarve Uncovered: Portugal’s Southern Mountains Come Alive with Fresh Hiking Paths

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Exploration

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A product of National Geographic Traveller (UK), this article explores an untouched paradise.

The forest is more than a mere collection of trees; it’s a lively hub of nature. Streams meander between lush branches, covered in water-crowfoot flowers, forming natural pools for turtles and slides for pond skaters. Above wild mint bushes, dragonflies and damselflies engage in a dance, while nightingales serenade from the treetops. As we cross the brook, our guide, Francisco Simões, emphasizes the universal allure of this place.

The creator of AlgarvianRoots, a local walking tour company, Francisco guides me through Monchique, a municipality nestled in the western Algarve’s Serra de Monchique. Some 30 miles from the coastal city of Albufeira, Monchique is far removed from the bustling beachside resorts, boasting the region’s two highest peaks and a unique humid microclimate. According to Francisco, the potential of this mountainous area remains largely undiscovered. Many tourists stick to the coastline, which thrives mainly during the summer, while the mountains offer year-round appeal.

A new initiative, Via Algarviana, aims to tap into this potential. This extensive 186-mile trail, stretching from the Spanish border to the Atlantic, is still under development since its inception in 2009. Recent additions include five trails around Monchique, complete with English maps and a navigation app, making it easier for hikers.

We’re traversing one of these new paths today: a five-mile loop through the forests near Alferce, a small village with traditional white-washed houses just 15 minutes from Monchique. Despite it being a peaceful Sunday morning in April, the village’s vibrant tiles tell tales of local activities like farming and chestnut picking.

The Via Algarviana aims to divert tourists inland, reviving villages like this and halting the migration of young people, thereby preserving traditional ways of life. Early signs of success are emerging, such as plans for an information center near Alferce Castle, and the possibility of converting an old bank into a hostel. Francisco notes, “Something’s changing, and it’s a good thing.”

However, for now, we’re isolated on the trail, winding through thick woods and colorful wildflowers. Only 28, Francisco, a native of Silves, is intimately familiar with the forest, identifying local berries, carob trees, and most passionately, cork oaks. These native trees are significant to Portugal, offering a sustainable source of cork and a rich ecosystem. However, the replacement of these trees with fast-growing eucalyptus is a growing concern.

Our hike becomes challenging as the path narrows and steepens. But the reward is a breathtaking view of the cork oaks and the Sierra de Monchique. Francisco emphasizes the importance of maintaining the area for its beauty and cultural heritage. It’s a slow, patient battle, but one the community is committed to.

How to Plan Your Trip

AlgarvianRoots offers guided hiking tours. Stay at Pure Monchique hotel, close to Monchique’s hiking paths. Rates start from €101 (£87), B&B.

Transportation

Fly to Lisbon, Porto, or Faro from UK cities like London, Manchester, Birmingham, and Edinburgh with British Airways, Ryanair, EasyJet, and TAP Air Portugal. Average flight time: 2.5h-3h. Alternatively, travel by rail through Spain, or utilize Portugal’s easy train and bus systems.

Best Time to Visit

Spring and early autumn offer mild temperatures and vibrant landscapes. Summer is hot and crowded, while winter is cooler. Expect snow in the mountains.

Further Information

Visit the official website of Portugal tourism or consult guides like Lonely Planet Portugal, £16.99, or Walking in Portugal, Cicerone, £16.95.

Published in National Geographic Traveller (UK)’s September 2023 issue.

For subscriptions to National Geographic Traveller (UK), click here (Availability limited to certain countries).

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