Hiking is one of the many inexpensive, and easy-to-do, pleasures of travelling. Some are simple excursions while others are more challenging all day outings that you pay dearly for the following day. Then there are those times when simply getting to, and returning from, the trail-head can present its own unique challenges. In our case it was attempting to get from Porto, Portugal to the trail-head of the Paiva River boardwalk, roughly two hours away. Turns out it was an exercise in patience combined with the kindness of strangers along with a healthy dose of good luck and a cab driver named Thelma.
Our journey began with an hour-long early morning bus ride to a small village high in the mountains. Our research indicated that from there we would be able to take a cab to the park and the trailhead. This all sounded great to us until the bus driver, not at his morning best, dropped us off at the final stop. And there we stood, with 25 miles still to go, not a taxi in sight and no clue as to what to do next. Fortunately for us there was a local woman willing to help us navigate what could have easily been a rabbit hole. After the bus driver explained to her where we intended to go she walked up a small hill to a group of 10 or so people waiting outside what appeared to be the villages main gathering spot. It was then that the fun began!
Once informed by the good Samaritan of our dilemma all nine women and one man began a spirited conversation as to how best to help us. Fernanada was doing her level best to communicate in Spanish over the cacophony of voices until suddenly the lone man simply walked away. Thinking he was done with all the craziness one of the women told us that he was going to his house to call a cab on our behalf. Five minutes later a woman pulls up. “That was fast!” we thought, until we realized that the woman was an exercise instructor that the group, all in their seventies and eighties, were waiting on to begin their daily workout. It is not difficult to understand how surreal, and hysterical, this all was to us.
Then, ten minutes later, up the hill, comes our taxi. It is Thelma in a Mercedes Benz with a couple hundred thousand miles on the odometer. Ferni rides shotgun to translate as I pile into the back seat still laughing. No need to speak Porto-Spanish with Thelma however as it turns out she is a local school teacher who spoke near-perfect English. Over the next 30 or so minutes she provided us with a running history of her family, the details of a horrific bridge collapse over the Douro River in 2001 that took the lives of over 60 people, her take on UBER drivers, along with a snapshot of village life where everyone knows everyone. She was funny, humble and a true pleasure to enjoy a ride up the mountain with.
Once at the trailhead we paid the nominal fee and began our journey on the 9km walkway. Our route began at the river beach at Espiunca and terminated at another popular beach in Areinho. The wooden walkway clings to the mountainside as it follows the wild and undulating river. It is a masterpiece of engineering in wood, metal and cables that at times defies your senses. It dips and rises, fades in and out of the sun’s rays and offers many vertiginous views of the raging river below. Along the way there are several lookouts where you can pause to take in the grandeur of the river and the canyon that it courses through as well as the amazing walkway itself. It is simply breathtaking.
The walkway also has a wood suspension bridge which provides views over the river and from the opposite side. There are also dozens of staircases, some of which are simply a flight or two while others are multiple, thigh burning, tests of endurance as well as your appetite for heights. And below it all the river rages on with dozens upon dozens of rapids that defy classification. This is truly the definition of an “untouched” landscape set in an authentic natural sanctuary, made all the more special by being here in the “off” season.
Two hours in and nearing the end of the hike we could barely make out what was the longest straight line segment of the walkway, clinging precariously to the mountain. This view gave us some real perspective on the immensity of where we were, both in terms of the natural setting, as well as the incredible engineering needed to build the walkway. What is hidden from view are the many additional staircases that we would encounter along the last stretch before approaching the final zig zagging, oxygen sucking, set to the summit.
Once at the summit, and after our heart rates normalized, we had the most amazing view back down the canyon and the river. Across the river from the summit a large waterfall was bursting from the side of the mountain and rushing headlong to the river. You could clearly hear it, even over the roar of the river below.
We made it!
Looking up on either side of the river we noticed two very large “Y” shaped concrete towers with cables strung between them. These towers are the beginning of what will become one of Europe’s longest glass bottom suspension bridges with an estimated completion date of mid-summer 2020.
There was a small kiosk at the summit where a guard stamped our ticket, more to keep an accurate headcount of hikers for the day, than for any real security reasons. He then informed us that we had two options. One was to return the same way we came and the second was to continue on for another 1km. to the beach in Areinho where taxis wait to return hikers to their final destinations. We chose to continue on for the last kilometer (all downhill!) and take a cab for the 30 minute ride to the town of Arouca where we would catch two buses to arrive back in Porto. We pressed on to Areinho.
After a lunch of grilled cheese sandwiches, chips and a cold beer near the beach at Areinho we met up with Antonio, our cab driver, for the ride to Arouca. Again, Ferni was riding in the front seat as I camped out in the back to enjoy the downhill views while listening to Tony’s rambling conversation about this mountain range or that village or whatever came to mind. He immediately took to Ferni and wanted to share as much information with her in a mix of Portuguse and English. Halfway through the ride he asked us if we would like to drink some wine.
A novel, yet unsettling, idea coming from a cab driver!
His timing was very coincidental as he more or less asked just as he was pulling into the driveway of his home. How convenient. We exited the cab and headed for his barn where there were 2 stainless steel tanks of…what else…Tony’s homemade red wine! He found a dirty, wine stained, coffee cup, rinsed it out, filled it and offered it to me. Then he stood there pensively looking at me and waiting for my response. “You like” he asked?
Again…this was our cab driver offering us wine while he was on duty! A serious understanding of a cab driver’s responsibilities is obviously not written into their playbook here in the mountains! We shared his wine…declined a second cup…and loaded (no pun) back into his cab for the final leg of our journey to the bus stop.
At the bus station we bid Tony farewell (now more glassy eyed than when we first met him) and waited for the first of two buses back to Porto. From our early morning departure to arriving back in Porto the entire 11 hour day made for an adventure we will not soon forget!
Looking back we would not change a thing about our day-long adventure. Well…maybe another cup of Tony’s homemade red wine wouldn’t have hurt!
Travel tips and ideas
As you read in our story getting there by bus and taxi can be tricky. The alternative is renting a car for a day. The roads are narrow but well maintained. GPS may not work across the entire journey . Best recource for options and directions as well as opening times and fees is the Paiva Walkways Official Web Site
Best time to visit
If you don’t like crowds then the off season, from late October to Mid February is be the best time. It was for us!
There are restaurants on both entrances with snacks and some hot food.