Walking the Rota Vicentina along Portugal’s Atlantic Coast

Also known as the Fishermen’s Trail, this 220km walk through the Alentejo and Algarve regions of Portugal never strays far from the sea.

Walker on Clifftop track
Walker on Clifftop track

Local fishermen have used these tracks for centuries to reach the best fishing spots along the coast, but these days they’ve been replaced by surfers and their camper vans. The seascape is spectacular, a fierce Atlantic with huge waves, battering sheer cliffs and embracing long sandy beaches.

Cape St Vincent
Cape St Vincent

The trail starts in Porto Covo, south of Lisbon and ends in Cape St Vincent, the most south-westerly point of Portugal and mainland Europe. The whole walk takes nine days, but I’m missing out the first three due to lack of time and starting at Zambujeira do Mar. I get there by taking a slow train from Lisbon, often on a single track, through the desolate regions of Alentejo and then take a taxi. 

Zambujeira do Mar – Odeceixe 18km

Zambujeira do Mar
Zambujeira do Mar

I leave the little Chapel of Nossa Senhora do Mar and head along the main beach before continuing on the cliffs above. There’s a light drizzle, but it’s warm, and the biggest problem is the sand underfoot which makes walking hard. Soon I’m back down to the beach, and the surf school at Praia do Carvalhal before a few more ups and downs to reach the delightful fishing village of Azenha do Mar. From here it’s a marvellous cliff walk to reach the Seixe Estuary and then inland to Odeceixe. Here I leave the Alentejo, and I cross into the Algarve.

Odeceixe – Aljezur 24 km

Aljezur Castle
Aljezur Castle

The sun is shining, and I follow the river back to the estuary before climbing up on the cliffs. The track sporadically veers away from the coast, perhaps because erosion has made it impassable, and by lunchtime, I’m in the inland town of Rogil, really just a string of houses along a main road. It’s then back to the sea before crossing over a bridge and reaching the hilltop settlement of Alijezur. A castle overlooks its cobbled streets, and this was the last town in the Algarve to be captured by the Christians from the Moors.

Aljezur – Arrifana 19km

After a visit to the castle to admire the wonderful views, I’m soon in the forest, the trees scorched by recent fires. I pass the holiday village of Vale da Telha before taking the road to Praia de Monte Clerigo. It begins to rain heavily, and I battle the strong wind as I follow the clifftops. At Ponta da Atalaia the sea below is in torment, visibility is almost zero, but I battle on, and the rain eases. Arrifana is still an active fishing village and has a good surfing beach. The sun comes out, and suddenly the sea is swamped by surfers.

Arrifana – Carrapateira 24km

I’m slightly worried by an early morning shower but then the rest of the day is dry. On the cliffs today I’m overtaken by motorcyclists scrambling down the loose rocks to the stony beach of Praia do Canal.

I climb inland then take an undocumented track on a deep sandy trail which brings me back to the coast. It gives my feet a tough workout, but it’s worth it as I’m away from traffic and bikers. Bordeira Beach is one of the largest on my walk so far, and I climb over the dunes to reach the town of Carrapateira.

Sandy Cove near Carrapateira

Carrapateira – Vila do Bispo 22km

I walk the length of a Praia do Amado, a large beach full of surfers before climbing up the cliffs. This stretch is home to some deserted sandy coves and is one of the most spectacular of the entire walk. There’s a section of featureless dirt track so turn off to Praia da Barriga, taking the chance that the tide is low enough to allow me the rest of the way along the sand. I kick off my shoes and enjoy the cold water on my toes. The downside is a 4km road walk inland to Vila do Bispo.

Vila do Bispo – Sagres 20km

My final day and it seems a bit of a slog, partly because the landscape is bereft of trees, all flattened by the strong Atlantic winds. Still, there are the usual surfing beaches, and the lighthouse at Cape St Vincent in the distance gradually gets closer. The final track is indistinct but well-marked by cairns, and suddenly I’m at the Cape. After the solitude of the last few days, it’s a bit of a shock to find coachloads of trippers all out for a view of the end of Europe. I take a few pictures, before walking the final 6 km to Sagres, and enjoying a wonderful seafood dinner.

This is a gentle walk, not too demanding, well signed, and the sea views are stunning. Best of all, you’ll have the spectacular cliffs, superb beaches, quaint fishing villages and the wild coastline mostly to yourself.  Go in spring or autumn when it’s not too hot and dip your toes into the sea. Braver souls may go for a swim.

Fact File

FLY: TAP Air Portugal flies direct to Lisbon from London Heathrow daily

PACKAGE: Camino Ways has a Zambujeira do Mar to Sagres trip from £648 per person sharing including seven nights’ accommodation, breakfast, luggage transfers and holiday pack with practical information, as well as access to 24/7 support. Flights, lunch, dinner, transport or insurance not included. Airport transfers can also be arranged from Faro Airport.

GUIDE: Cicerone’s Portugal’s Rota Vicentina has detailed route instructions

Tourist Information: Visit Portugal has information about the country.