words and photos by Tim Wiggins
I first came here last December – seeking respite from the cold and grey of the UK winter. Then, the region delivered unquestionably; with 18-degree temperatures and dusty trails, explored on a rental mountain bike. That first trip also opened my eyes to an iconic point-to-point bikepacking adventure that could be staged in this unique landscape…
The Via Algarviana is an ancient hiking route, spanning the Algarve from the Guadiana River on the Spanish border to the Cabo de São Vincente lighthouse at the south western tip of Portugal (and Europe). The route takes in the rolling hills of the Algarve interior, the high Monchique Serra mountain range, and finishes amongst the vast sand dunes of the Atlantic coast. I wondered, could I ride this? On a gravel bike?
A local friend and bike shop owner affirmed that it would certainly be possible to take on the Algarviana on a 3T Exploro; with just a bit of tweaking of the route, and a mindset ready for an ever undulating and often challenging ride.
The plan was set. In early March we flew out to Faro and caught a transfer to the peaceful village of Alcoutim, at the eastern extremity of the Algarve. Dining on bacalao and chips that evening, sat next to the peaceful river, we discussed what lay ahead – three epic days of gravel, to cross a country and reach the deep blue Atlantic beyond…
The next morning, the route takes us at once uphill from the sleeping village of Alcoutim. The sun rises over the still Guadiana river, and the morning mist hovers in the valley.
Within an hour the sun’s rays have broken through; warming the dark red earth, as our tyres make tracks westwards on the twisting trail. The region we are riding through presents another side of the Algarve—far removed from the tourist hotspots on the southern coast. Here, the farmland and rolling hills go on for miles; punctuated only by the occasional remote farm or chapel. We are beautifully alone.
As the morning unfolds, the temperature rises to a pleasant 22 degrees, and we ride deeper and deeper into the Algarve interior. The further we go, the steeper the ascents and descents become, and the rockier and more technical the trail. It is soon a case of shifting to the lowest gear on every hill, before summiting the dirt road and hanging off the back of your saddle for the obstacle course of a descent that follows. We are grinning from ear to ear.
The sustenance in Cachopo is much needed; from this point the trails become even more remote, and the gradients even more extreme. At one point I am tearing down a broad sandy trail; then suddenly the track pitches downwards, becomes punctuated with rocks, and drops steeply down to the river crossing below; I skid round the harpin with heart pounding, as the adrenaline flows.
The endless peaks and valleys keep coming as the late afternoon turns to early evening. The low sun illuminates red clouds of dust kicked up by our tyres and creates stunning vistas on every hilltop in the fading light.
It is beginning to get dark as we pull into our friendly rural guesthouse in the small town of Querença. We wash the dust from our legs and stumble up into the town square to dine on fresh fish and polenta. What an incredible start to this adventure.
Day two on the Via Algarviana provides another changing landscape—starting with villages and towns, but then progressing again into remoteness, as you head into the Monchique Serra mountains.
Our ride begins on undulating hills through the villages of Salir, Benafim, and Alte. These rural provinces are quiet and peaceful in the early morning calm. It is after passing through the town of São Bartholomew though, that we ride into something truly spectacular…
The route heads north west and drops down to the shore of the Rio Arde reservoir—a vast network of stunning azure lakes created by a series of huge dams. Our path weaves along the shoreline—far away from civilization—the sound of thousands of birds the only soundtrack to our ride.
After Rio Arde, the trail climbs steeply again on a network of dirt road hairpins; taking you high onto the peaks, to provide you with panoramic views. This beautiful region was victim to some of the worst forest fires in Portugal, and the effects are still clear on the charred route markers and burnt tree stumps that line the path. Luckily, nature seems to be rejuvenating itself at a remarkable rate.
From the high peaks we descend to the large town of Silves. Here we find a local restaurant to rejuvenate hungry legs. It seems worth pausing to enjoy the great architecture and restock supplies; because next we head into the high mountains…
From Silves there is no flat. We head north on gravel paths that take us skyward for more than twelve kilometres—deep into the Monchique mountains. The huge solar farm at the summit must be tapping into some serious sunshine—for up here there is nowhere to shelter or hide. The views though, are truly spectacular.
By late afternoon, after a steep and twisting descent, we are grateful to be turning onto a rare section of tarmac road. Here begins the final climb of the day—a ten-kilometre road pass towards the Picota mountain peak. At the summit, we think we can glimpse the sea on the distant horizon—pausing to take photos and regain our breath. Then, with weary legs and building appetites, it is time to descend into the gorge below; to find our evening lodgings in the mountain spa resort of Caldas de Monchique.
The final day on the XPDTN3 Algarviana offers up another utterly unique terrain; from the high Monchique peaks to the Atlantic coast…
The day begins with the biggest climb of the trip, to the highest peak in the Algarve—the Fóia.
The hairpins twist and turn up the mountainside as we climb higher and higher in the rising sun. The temperature is falling now though, as the altitude and strong westerly wind begin to take effect. We are 900 metres above sea level when we finally reach the summit; rewarded with a sure sight of the Atlantic beyond, and the knowledge that from mountain top to coast it can only (mostly) be downhill.
Indeed, the descent down to the village of Marmlette is blisteringly fast; with wide open gravel tracks allowing you to tear through the landscape at speed. Even from Marmlette the downhill continues, taking us onwards to the surfers’ paradise Aljezur, with its beautiful castle and cobbled streets.
Then, before we know it, we are riding through the sand dunes and out to the windswept Atlantic coast. It is a struggle to stand, let alone pedal, against the unrelenting wind; but the views are a sublime distraction as we make our way southwards through the vast network of dunes.
After one final push into the mother of all headwinds, we arrive at the Cabo de São Vincente lighthouse.
Stood outside the lighthouse gates, we reflect on what an incredibly diverse and beautiful journey the Via Algarviana has provided—the Guadiana River seems like a distant memory now, and a thousand miles from this remote tip of Europe.
The Algarve has lived up to its nickname – ‘Europe’s Secret’. It has surprised us—with riding more challenging, more diverse, and more spectacular than we had dreamt of. Add the Algarviana to your bucket list.
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