While motoring along the coast on my Benagil boat tour, the guide pointed to a series of boardwalks along the coast remarking, “That’s all part of the Seven Hanging Valleys Hiking Trail,” at which time my ears immediately perked up. I’d not heard of this trail before. Once back to the laptop, I did some research to learn it’s rated as one of the most beautiful hikes in Europe!
The official trail runs between two of the most gorgeous beaches in the Algarve region, Vale Centianes Beach to Marinha Beach. The walk follows the coastline, interrupted only by the courses where over past centuries, water flowed into the sea creating the hanging valleys after which the course was named. These hanging valleys were once the mouths of rivers which created “pour overs” through erosion in the massive limestone cliffs made up of million year old marine invertebrate fossils.
The dissolution of the limestone by surface and ground water has led to the crevasses and cavities, eroding sinkholes which originally separate off creating sea stacks, arches, and erratic karst formations. As the coastline has receded more quickly than the outline of the water course, water now flows into the sea from above, forming what is known as a “hanging valley,” from which the trail gets its name.
The official trail is a little less than seven miles round trip. However, this is another one of those places where you really need a car, as there is no bus service to the official starting point. In order to reach the trailhead, I will need to start in the town of Carvoeiro, a couple of miles before the trail begins, which means hiking the Algar Seco boardwalks and connecting via a stretch of road, which will add another couple of miles to my hike. But accessing by bus also means I can do the hike one way.
The only bus service along this part of the coast is to the midway point, Benagil, and to the furthest most beach, Praia Marinha. But the first bus of the morning doesn’t arrive until 10:00am, and the last bus of the day leaves at 2:30pm. While I could likely make it with no problem, should I miss that last 2:30pm bus, I must hike the entire route back to Carvoeiro in time to make the 5:30pm bus back to Lagos. This would leave me little margin for error in being stranded without a way back to Lagos. That also doesn’t leave me much time for my usual lollygagging, enjoying the scenery, taking lots of photos, and hopefully stopping for a swim at Praia Marinha, reported to be the most beautiful beach in the Algarve. So I decide to hike the trail over two days. I will start at Carvoeiro and hike to Benagil on the first leg. Then return another day to Benagil, picking up where I left off in time to catch the last bus out of Praia Marinha at 2:30pm.
Breaking the hike over two days means I will only walk around three miles each day. However, due to the “hanging valleys” and beach visits along the way, it’s a constant up and down over rugged terrain. So I am grateful not to have to rush, as the midday heat is intense, and the terrain is a knee buster.
By breaking the hike up into two days, that also means I will have time to inch my way into the icy cold Atlantic waters for a swim. I’ve been trying for days to “gut up” and swim at the beach in Lagos, but I just haven’t been able to do it. The water is bracing, and the wind makes getting wet unpleasant. And while I have made it up to thigh-level, my personal rule says “a swim” only counts when head is submerged and feet leave the ocean floor.
On the second leg of the hike, I reach Praia Marinha around noon, leaving me two and a half hours to kill before the last bus at 2:30pm. It will take me that long to finally work up the guts to get in the water. It’s a perfect day, the warm sunlight shimmering on the calm, aquamarine water. I can’t remember a time when a body of water seemed more inviting. But one by one, I watch as people inch toward the waterline, fold their arms while doing a little shiver, then run back to their beach blankets to warm in the sun.
But it’s “do or die” for me as I know I won’t likely encounter a cove this protected from the wind again. I also know there will be no “inching in” or I won’t be able to do it. So with one deep breath and the determination not to stop until my feet leave the ocean floor, and though I come up gasping in shock, I am in!
What a glorious reward at the end of a stunning hike!