Never heard of Barlavento Algarvio? Barlavento (or Western Algarve) is the rocky, rugged part of the Algarve west of Faro. Unlike the flat Sotavento (or Eastern Algarve), Barlavento impresses with its caves, coves, and cliffs. It’s just spectacular and should not be missed on any Portuguese holiday. What’s the best way to discover the most gorgeous and hardest to reach parts of the Algarve? Here are the three ultimate tips that will make your visit to Barlavento an unforgettable experience:
1. Speed boat trip through Barlavento
At the hotel or while walking through tourist centres, you will see many leaflets advertising boat trips through the caves of Barlavento. I booked the two-hour Algarve Cave Tour by rubber dinghy at the TUI BLUE Falesia Hotel. The tours of the various providers are all very similar. The biggest difference is the boat. In some cases it’s a small ship, in others a small dinghy. Tip: Some providers drive into the grottoes and caves, others do not. If you want to catch a glimpse of the interior of the caves along the Barlavento coast, ask if they actually drive into the caves.
I had assumed that my boat would explore inside the caves because it was a small one. In fact, it only went up to the cave entrance and didn’t actually go inside. I was very disappointed. But it was my own fault because I did not explicitly ask for a tour that included the caves. So be smart and ask if your boat is going into the caves. The boats for the cave tours in Barlavento start from the port of Albufeira. The ride is very fast. Mind your sunglasses, caps, and hairstyles!
From the water, you not only get an idea of how far the Barlavento coast stretches, but you’ll also see all the green and blue hues of the water, the reds and oranges of the rocks, the secluded sandy coves, and the fascinating play of light and shadow in the grottoes. On the boat tour, there is a brief explanation of which beach or cave you’re looking at. Amongst others, you’ll find the beaches and cliffs of Galé, Armacao de Pera, Senhora da Rocha, and (probably the most beautiful grotto in Europe) Benagil. You’ve probably already seen the Benagil Sea Cave in a photo. Through a hole in the high rock ceiling, light pours into the dome-shaped grotto, which has a small beach inside. Unfortunately, my boat did not drive in and I was quite jealous of other tourists who had chosen an alternative boat tour. We’ll come to that in the next section. My boat then drove away from the Barlavento shores out to the open sea to look for dolphins. The other excursion boats had the same idea as well, but the dolphins did not feel like showing off.
I would have preferred to spend the time we spent trying to catch a glimpse of dolphins exploring the caves of the Barlavento. The other tourists enjoyed it – me, not so much. If you would like more time for the caves and rock formations, look for a provider that travels into the caves and does not include dolphin watching. Only about an hour of my two-hour tour was spent exploring the Barlavento coast; the rest was spent on dolphin watch. Take two to three hours just for a cave boat tour! Sometimes it pays to invest a bit extra to have a more intense experience. The next way to discover the Barlavento can be customised even further.
2. Discover the Algarve by kayak or paddleboard
At the famous Benagil Grotto, I enviously watched kayakers and paddleboarders paddling into the grotto. How cool is that, exploring the caves on a paddleboard? I tried stand-up paddling and found it very cool. Inside, the explorers left their equipment on the beach to swim in the grotto and snap some great pictures. In the port of Albufeira (and certainly in other places along the Algarve), local companies offer kayaking trips and stand-up paddleboarding on the Barlavento coast. Accompanied by an escort boat and professional instruction by a guide, nothing can go wrong. You can get active, get a tan, be in nature, and see the formations of Barlavento from a completely different and more leisurely perspective than the tourists who just race through the caves.
3. Hiking along the cliffs of the Barlavento coast
If you get sick on a boat trip or if water is generally not your element, a hike along the cliffs is a great alternative. On well-marked and partially secured hiking trails in the Western Algarve, you can discover the coast from above. You can go at your own pace, take countless awesome photos on rocky outcrops that make you wonder when you became such a daredevil (no, really, it’s fun!), have a picnic, take a break in a beach cafe …
The most popular trail on the Algarve is the “Percurso dos Sete Vales Suspensos”, the Path of the Seven Hanging Valleys. It leads 5.7 kilometres from the Praia Vale Centianes Beach to Praia da Marinha. A well-signposted hiking trail awaits you in Barlavento, and you don’t have to be a top athlete to enjoy it. Many of the highlights of Barlavento are located on the Percurso dos Sete Vales Suspensos. You will come across busy and secluded sandy beaches in picturesque bays, cliffs and rock formations whose shapes will enliven your imagination, and many places where you can hear the ocean crashing and rumbling, though you may not be able to see it. Near the lighthouse “Farol de Alfanzina”, there is a huge sinkhole. Don’t worry, it is fenced off and an accidental drop is impossible. The highlight of this hike on the Algarve is certainly the Benagil Sea Cave, which you can peer into through the large skylight hole in the cave’s ceiling. Even though the enormous, cathedral-esque cave with a sandy beach is impressive from above, at this point, you might consider visiting the cave from the beach of Benagil with a paddleboard or kayak (see points 1 and 2) from the inside.
Theoretically, you can walk back the same way and enjoy the coastline of Barlavento from a different perspective. Or you can treat yourself to an ice cream, a cold beer, or whatever you like after the hike in one of the nearby cafes, swim a lap in the turquoise Atlantic, and later take the bus back to your hotel.
Be sure to bring enough water, sunscreen, and sturdy footwear on your Barlavento hike. Be sensible and do not climb over the barriers.