The following article was published in Canoe Kayak UK magazine a few years back, in a the wake of a WW paddling trip to Portugal…
Chris W on the Rio Paiva
Es Mi Primera Ves!
How and Why to paddle in Portugal
The things I don’t know, you could write a book. Not so long ago, just such a book appeared in my lap; a kayaking guidebook to Portugal. In my ignorance, I had assumed that Portugal was comprised totally of beaches and Algarve-style resorts. Reading ‘Portugal Kayak’, I was genuinely amazed to discover that this small country has mountains and rivers, whitewater ones at that. A trip was hurriedly planned for last winter, but then aborted when we discovered that they were having an uncharacteristic drought. This winter we tried again, and enjoyed a splendid trip which will last in our memories, both for the paddling and for the country itself.
This article will hopefully provide you with all the ammunition required to plan and enjoy your own paddling trip to this small but attractive European nation. Oh yes, the title? ‘Es mi primera ves’ came from the Lonely Planet Portuguese Phrasebook and means, ‘It’s my first time’.
The rivers are all in northern Portugal, which is simply beautiful. The scenery and landscape are regularly gobsmacking. Craggy granite mountains and moorland. Crumbling rural villages clinging to hillsides. Grapevine trellises roofing cobbled streets. Steep terraces working the most inhospitable landscapes. Old ladies dressed all in black prodding cows with sticks. Elaborate Catholic statues, shrines and churches. You will barely believe that you are in Western Europe. In upland areas, many young people have left for an ‘easier’ life in the cities. Up to 75% of the population is over 60 and seeing these elderly folk tending their ever-decreasing farmland is a moving sight.
Andy Levick gets a helping hand
The Portuguese paddling experience has been compared in magazine articles to a number of exotic destinations, rather unconvincingly. The striking thing is actually how familiar much of the paddling feels; British paddlers will find Portuguese rivers to be something of a homecoming. Indeed, we feel that Portugal is best seen as an attractive (and warmer) alternative to the annual club trip to honeypots like Scotland or North Wales. The rivers are rain-fed (yes, like us the local paddlers obsess over weather forecasts) and although there are sections that hold their water for a couple of weeks after rain, you definitely need some precipitation to get the best from your trip. Just like here, most trips are characterised by low and medium volume boulder gardens, with some sections of granite slides and waterfalls. The granite hills and valleys often resemble our very own Dartmoor, albeit scaled up with terraces and vineyards superimposed!
The crucial point where Portuguese rivers differ is in their seriousness. Many sections are located in deep and isolated valleys where walking out would not be appealing, even if you actually knew where you were going! The obscure roads and tracks that access these rivers can also be slow to locate and shuttle, meaning that even motivated groups can find themselves launching later in the day than is ideal. Load up with food, splits, head torches, group shelters, matches and suchlike; treat every trip as a mini-expedition. Creek boats are recommended on most rivers, unless dicing with boulder siphon death in your playboat appeals. Take good footwear as the granite riverbanks can be slippy.
Claire C-L on the Paiva
Portuguese paddlers are proud to show off their rivers to visiting paddlers and are amazingly welcoming, friendly and helpful. The community is small and close-knit; news of kayaking estranjas in the country spreads quickly, not least because some of the baggage handlers at Porto Airport are paddlers! Don’t be surprised if you find yourself invited to dine with the locals, or even to stay at their clubhouses and homes. The locals also use a network of observers to keep abreast of changing water levels around the country.
Portugal isn’t so far away that you can’t get there in your own vehicle; options include taking a ferry across the Channel and driving right through France and Spain, or the epic 24+ hour ferry crossing from Portsmouth/Plymouth to Santander in Spain. The long-haul journey may well make sense if you are planning on an extended stay.
Provided you don’t mind making the planet uninhabitable for your grandchildren, flying to Portugal makes the most sense for shorter trips. Ryanair (www.ryanair.com) can get you to Porto (Portugal’s conveniently located second city) from Liverpool, Bristol, Birmingham and Stansted. Flights from the first three locations are somewhat sporadic, often forcing you to fly from Britain’s Least Conveniently Located Airport(TM). Ryanair are of course cheap as chips, but charge a hefty £25 each way for your kayaks. These can be booked on via their website and can weigh up to 32 kilos, so canny folk will stuff their normal baggage into the cockpit.
Lizzie G on the Rio Mouro
We didn’t see much evidence of functioning public transport in the outlying regions of Portugal; you need your own vehicle.
Car hire is cheap through the likes of Holiday Autos (www.holidayautos.co.uk) or Europcar (www.europcar.co.uk). The problem is finding a vehicle that has roofracks, of which there are none. We phoned repeatedly and were told this each time, until eventually someone relented and told us what we wanted to hear. However, at Porto airport we discovered that we should have paid attention; there really aren’t any hire cars with roofracks! The simplest solution is to hire a van; our small van came for the same price as the car we’d originally hired, could stow four boats diagonally in the rear but was a bit squished for seating. Another option is to use a Handirack (www.handirackuk.com), a rather nasty inflatable roofrack system which won’t protect the car (or kayaks) very well for extended use. The true kayak travel connoisseur will hire a car with rails (e.g. Renault Megane Station wagon) and bring his own Thule roof bars to Portugal. A bit of engineering with plastic cable ties and roofrack straps, and Presto, you have a Totally Bombproof* roofrack system that can carry loads of boats.
Driving in Portugal can be a novel experience. They have the highest incidence of road accidents in Europe, with around four times the number of annual fatalities of the UK, despite having a tenth of the drivers. Improvements are being made, but the Prime Minister recently described conditions on Portuguese roads as, “Civil war” and an EU report noted that, “The Portuguese drive like car thieves”. The good news is that away from the highways and cities, there is usually little traffic and a reassuringly slow pace. When leaving Porto Airport, note that the locals drive on the wrong side of the road …
*Usual disclaimers apply.
There were a few scratches inside this new brand van when we returned it…
Portugal is the least economically developed country in Western Europe and has always been a bargain for UK visitors. This is changing, with Portugal’s economy benefiting from EU membership and more pertinently, the UK pound recently becoming worthless in the face of the Euro’s relentless climb. In economic terms that paddlers will understand, a bottle of ‘cervejar’ (beer innit) would have cost you c65p last year, now it will cost you c90p.
Food and Drink
Food is a reason in itself to visit the country! Restaurants are cheap and welcoming. The Portuguese eat dinner late, and the diet usually revolves around huge slabs of pork, beef steak or salted fish (bacalhau), accompanied by rice and chips, followed by chocolate mousse. Vegetarians will receive confused blank stares. Note that meals are usually intended to be shared between two, although menus rarely indicate this and hungry paddlers rarely care.
The national beverage is Super Bock (“It’s Super Bock o’clock!”), a hangover-inducing lager. Those with more refined palates will sample the fine local wines; we highly recommend the Vinho Verde. Perhaps surprisingly, the locals don’t much go for the drink that gave their nation its name, preferring instead to ship their port overseas for elderly Brits to enjoy.
The guidebook helpfully suggests wild camping spots for most of the rivers, and (given the great locations involved) this is a tempting option if it’s not too cold. There are however plenty of cheap and welcoming hotels and guesthouses, often costing as little as £10 a night.
When to Go
Northern Portugal has an Atlantic climate; in other words, it is mild and wet like the UK. Portugal receives more of the wet stuff than Devon! Temperatures don’t go low and snow is rare. Wear your UK paddling gear but perhaps live dangerously by removing a thermal layer. The rivers run from November to April, with the heaviest rainfall from December to March. If watching the weather before leaving, follow forecasts for Porto on www.metcheck.com. Perhaps the best compromise of daylight, warmth and water can be found in February?
Chris on the Castro
What to Paddle
There are enough rivers and sections in the guidebook to fill a lifetime of trips, but here are a few suggestions to start you off;
Rio Paiva – This is close to Porto and holds its water for a long time. Numerous sections from Grade 3 to 5 include the Garganta (Gorge) a challenging Grade 4/5 trip which is effectively the Portuguese Dart/Ogwen/Orchy(!). The CCAPB (see below) have their clubhouse at the put-in.
Rio Tua – this major river offers a 20km long Grade 4 trip in a remote scenic canyon, overlooked by a railway line.
Rio Vez – Set in a gloriously scenic valley, this rain-dependent river begins with heroic sections of waterfall action in its upper limits (the ‘Alto’ Vez), offering continuous read and run Grade 3 and 4 lower down the valley.
Rio Castro Laboreiro – forming the border with Spain, the Castro offers several sections for Grade 5 knuckledraggers, boasting big slides, big portages, bouldery choss and a spectacular triple waterfall combo.
Rio Minho – this major river also follows the border and offers a few classic playspots amongst pooldrop Grade 2 and 3 rapids. Water is always released from the huge dam at the put-in, but it’s certainly a case of the more the merrier.
Rio Cavado – a short but sweet section of granite slides and falls. A manic version of Allt a’Chaorainn, for those who know their Scottish ditches.
Rio Mouro – seek this out after rain, an excellent Grade 4 boofarama that fans of Devon’s River Erme will feel at home upon. Don’t miss the takeout bridge, as below is the ‘Bonus’ section of tree-choked Grade 5 and general gnarliness.
www.aguasbravas.net – O Clube de Canoagem de Aguas Bravas de Portugal (the Portuguese White Water Club – CCAPB).
Portugal Kayak – the completely essential guidebook, compiled by members of CCAPB. Good river maps, inspiring pictures and idiosyncratic English translations. Available from www.canotier.com.
Kayak en Galicia – a French/Spanish guidebook to Galicia, the interesting region of Spain located just across the Rio Mino. Includes some Portuguese rivers, but is also useful if you feel like straying further afield. Note that many of the rivers described have received HEP dams since publication! Available from www.canotier.com.
Oceansurf Guidebook: Portugal – remarkably detailed surf guidebook to Portugal, helpful if the rivers run dry. Also includes masses of info on food, accommodation and shopping. Available from www.magicseaweed.com.
Lonely Planet Portuguese Phrasebook – entertainment to break up journeys; especially the ‘Relationships’ section, which helpfully informs you that ‘No te preocupes, lo hago yo.’ means ‘Don’t worry, I’ll do it myself’.
Turinta North of Portugal 1:250 000 Map – the best road map we could find, available from Amazon. Detailed topographic maps can be ordered from www.omnimap.com and are worth considering if you don’t like being lost.
www.ukriversguidebook.co.uk – A website that (I’m led to believe) knows everything about everything.