Via Algarviana

2017/04/11-26: 270 km Hike from Alcoutim to Cabo de São Vicente
This was a foray into a new kind of slow travel.  The longest continuous hike Chris and I had previously done was through the Stein Valley, British Columbia, in 2003, a remote eight day wilderness trek.  However this recent hike across the Algarve was like our bike tours in that it allowed us to get to know a new culture, as we propelled ourselves steadily across a landscape that has been used by humans for millennia.

For over two weeks, we followed Via Algarviana from east to west across the inland Algarve in southern Portugal. This route known in English as the Algarve Way is part of the European network of long-distance hiking paths known as Grandes Rotas in Portuguese or Grande Randonnées in French. Via Algarviana is the GR 13. It follows trails, farm tracks and minor roads for a possible total length of 300 km from the Spanish border to Cabo de São Vicente at the southwestern tip of Europe.

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Suzanne and TT arrived in Lisbon a day later than expected, and were still jet-lagged as we travelled from Lisbon by train and by taxi to Alcoutim on the Spanish border to start our hike. We stayed in a youth hostel at the trailhead, sharing the premises with a well behaved Algarve Youth Guitar Orchestra. We set out the next day across a rocky heath. The scent and sight of rosemary, sage, and lavender confirmed that we were in the Mediterranean.  Wildflowers surrounded us, with new species at every turn.  Shrubs of rock rose (Cistus spp ) predominated, to the extent that by the end of our hike we considered this bloom to be the emblem of our expedition.  In the early days of the hike, we passed houses of grey schist, walled kitchen gardens, and abandoned windmills.  This is not the developed coastal Algarve, but a quiet inland landscape which has undergone depopulation in recent decades as all but the elderly migrate to larger towns and cities.

DSCN3733 Along the eastern portion of the trail, we passed through villages that were almost abandoned. Sometimes the few remaining elderly residents would greet us.  Many villages no longer have the population to support shops, so restocking our picnic supplies was a challenge.  We quickly realized that minivans which stopped in the village centres and honked their horns were mobile shops, and we learned to move quickly when we saw or heard them. Some sold basic groceries and others were mobile bakeries. We also noticed home care vehicles travelling to serve the basic needs of the elderly residents. Many villages had fountains and benches. We took advantage of these in the heat, appreciating a rest in the shade and chance to fill water bottles or soak our hats.

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Chris, watch your step!!

From rocky heath we moved into a landscape of dry fruit orchards. Here old rock walls created shady green lanes between rows of olive, almond, carob and fig trees. West of Messines, we walked on a track that contoured above a reservoir, then crossed the towering dam and followed a dry gorge below it. “Snake!” I cried, as I watched Chris blithely walk very close to a small basking reptile that we later identified as a Lataste’s viper (Vipera latasteii). Its markings are beautiful, but we watched it with respect. They are venomous and  not often seen, so in a sense we were privileged to spot it.

In the Serra de Monchique, we reached the two highest points of the Algarve:  Picota just before entering the town and Fóia (highest peak in Algarve at 902 m) after leaving it. Each of these summits offered unbroken views to the coast. As we passed through Marmalete, we stopped to peer through the window of a community building that had recently closed. The woman in charge kindly opened the doors so we could learn about a traditional local industry: the distilling of aguardente de medrhono, local liqueur made from the fruit of the “strawberry tree” – actually a type of arbutus. We admired the copper still, watched the film, and sampled the end product. By now the kindness of someone staying late to open a building wasn’t surprising. Everyone we met along the hike in Portugal was welcoming.  We understand that trekking  is seen as a new wave of tourism that will be an economic lifeline for the depopulated interior regions.

We stayed in guest rooms and simple hotels, and we camped for two nights near the end of the trek. Some of the “sectors” between accommodations were as long 30 km, so the fact that we were carrying camping gear allowed us to break one of these long segments into two, and in another case to combine a portion of a long day with a shorter one. We took days off walking, once in Messines after seven days of hiking, and again in Monchique after a tough two 30 km days back to back.

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From the mountain area we descended gradually to an open coastal terrain. For our final day from Vila do Bispo to Cabo de São Vicente, we varied our route to follow a combination of the Historical Way and the Fisherman’s Trail along the Atlantic Coast. We could look down from the cliff tops to islands and rock arches below as we approached our lighthouse endpoint. After obligatory photo sessions, we treated our weary selves to four galãos – espressos with hot milk served in tall glasses.

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It was different sort of self-propelled adventure, and it was good.

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Hike photos are on Flickr.
Wildflower photos are in a separate album on Flickr.

Note:  We plan to follow with a post of practical details for those who might want to do this hike.

Seeing the Sights in San Jose

2017/02/19-24 and 2017/03/10-15:
Our posts about Costa Rica have focused on hiking and natural history. However, we spent time seeing more urban sights than we usually do – both before and after the car and hiking portion of our travels.

Before the car jaunt, our first foray was to Parque Nacional Simon Bolivar which is both a zoo and a botanical garden. We also saw the Pre-Columbian Gold Museum, and took our time going through Museo Nacional de Costa Rica, located since 1950 in the former military headquarters. The building was available because Costa Rica sensibly disbanded its army in 1948, a redirected financial resources to education and culture. The history of Costa Rica from the 16th to 21st centuries was covered in a permanent exhibition.

For images see our Pre Columbian photo set.

Returning from the car jaunt, we went on a tour of the Teatro Nacional given by an enthusiastic young historian, and later to the Museo del Jade y de la Cultura Preclombina .

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Inside the Teatro, built in the 1890s at the height of Costa Rica’s coffee production wealth.

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Chandelier in the Teatro; San Jose was the third city in the world, after New York and Paris to have public electrical lighting. The ceiling painting was transported from Europe in four sections of canvas.

The Teatro Nacional is an important national cultural icon, and it only a stone’s throw from our hotel. Not having brought formal attire (Those who know us may laugh!) so as to attend an opera performance, on our final day in Costa Rica we went to a piano recital,  part of the Teatro al Medio Dia series.  Manuel Matarrita, a professor of the School of Musical Arts of the University of Costa Rica, presented “Piano Cinematográfico”- Piano Film –  a collection of melodies used as film soundtracks during the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

For more images see our Teatro Nacional photo set.

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Our final days were also spent re-configuring ourselves for air travel. We located cardboard bike boxes at a bike shop nearby, and  carrier bags at the market.

The homeward flights were uneventful, and we have a few weeks of nesting in Vancouver before leaving for Portugal to hike the Via Algarviana.

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Cloud Forest

The Osa Peninsula is tropical rain forest with huge biodiversity, but we felt we needed to get to higher elevations after months of cycling in tropical heat. We’ve spent the past two weeks in various locations in the Central Cordillera, walking in a variety of higher elevation tropical forests with eyes open and camera in hand. The colours and the variety of plants and animals is astounding.

We spent a few days at Talamanca Reserve which abuts Chirripo National Park about 100 km south of San Jose. Apart from the walks and the waterfalls, we had a quiet cabin and the food was excellent. Our stay at this place stands out as the most relaxing and enjoyable of this car trip. We’ve put together an album of photos from our stay.

We learned that you can climb Cerro Chirripo from here, but that it would require more substantial packs and boots than we are carrying in cycling mode.  We’d also need an advance booking at a high cabin, since the summit cannot be reached in a day by most mortals.  At 3820 m, Chirripo is the highest peak in Costa Rica. I think an alpine area in the tropics would be fascinating to see.

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The car we’d rented was far smaller than we’d imagined from the photo. Our pannier bags barely fit into it, and there was no way of safely transporting the bikes. We’d hastily placed them into ad hoc storage at our friendly base camp hotel, but I’d been fretting about them sitting on the roof near a third floor service area. Since our route northward meant going through San Jose, we made a quick stop at to make certain they were OK, and to confirm when we’d return the car and pack up bikes for our flight homeward. Luis of the Orthodontics (to differentiate from Luis with Glasses) reassured me cheerfully with  “Es su garaje” – it’s your garage – in reference to ongoing bike storage.

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We continued to a cabin near Poas Volcano. We’d visited the area thirteen years ago, after hiking in the Osa with our offspring.  We toured the coffee plantation that Chris had seen before but which I had not, and we spent a day strolling to the volcano viewpoint. Then we braved the winding mountain roads (thanking ourselves we weren’t cycling) to la Fortuna, near Arenal National Park. From La Fortuna we did several jaunts.  Natural history highlights included sighting a mother and baby sloth in a tree, as well as watching a hummingbird tend her tiny nest. We finally did something that was more like a hike than the gentle walks: we scrambled up a badly eroded and very muddy trail to Cerro Chato, and descended steeply – clinging to roots –  to the crater lake for a swim. Dormant rock-climbing skills came into play. We kept pace with two twenty-something lasses, American and German, which seemed to surprise them at first. At the lakeside and on the descent, we chatted with them and with an Israeli lass who appeared. (I was the only one who actually swam!) We drove them back to La Fortuna, and set about washing our very muddy selves and clothing.

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At about 10:30 p.m., some young lads returned to the room next to ours; they turned the television on full blast, shouted,  laughed, and horsed around. I detected Quebec French as we waited in vain for them to settle down. When the rowdiness  had only increased at 11:00 p.m., I got dressed and knocked on their door. I faced some surprised looking sixteen year olds who I later ascertained to be grade 11 students from Collège de Montréal . I reminded them firmly yet civilly  that we were only a wall away, and asked if they would try not to disturb us. I mentioned that we’d set our alarm for 5:30 a.m., and would try not to disturb them when we got up. They looked shocked to hear reasonably fluent Anglo-Quebec French in Costa Rica, and to their credit there was an immediate settling down. If I’d seen their teachers at breakfast I would have commended their students’ behaviour.

We used the lowest four-wheel-drive option to approach Volcan Barva on a rough road the next day, and walked to the peak identifying tapir tracks along the way. This version of cloud forest was unique in that it contained oaks. We’ve created an album of our four volcanoes tour.

We found aesthetic mountain lodging for the last night of our car circuit, but were disgusted when we realized the Italian owner, about our age, happily served up an extreme right wing diatribe with our afternoon coffee. He went as far as to criticize Canada’s policy of accepting refugees, and expressed his profound Islamaphobia crudely and cruelly. (He himself had tried unsuccessfully to immigrate to Canada.) Chris and I sat in silent horror, and quickly bolted to our cabin. Though I proposed finding somewhere else for dinner, Chris insisted we return to the dining room “because we said we would.” As we walked in, Signor Mussolini started again with a distortion of the latest news from Europe. I turned to leave, and Chris followed. We found a pasta place just down the road, and decided to give the next morning’s included breakfast a miss. (The world will soon hear about Signor Mussolini on Trip Advisor)

We stopped for breakfast at a local soda – fast food place – on the way back to San Jose. The young lad who served us our gallo pinto and scrambled eggs was patient with my Spanish, and we chatted pleasantly about sloths and tapirs as we paid the bill. Then we set out to brave the San Jose morning traffic.

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South from San Jose

We had planned for a while to visit our guide friend Mike Boston in the Osa Peninsula. We did a multi day hike in the Osa with Mike 13 years ago with our offspring, then ages 19 and 16. If you ever consider visiting the Osa, we recommend Mike at Osa Aventura. As cycling there would have been unpleasant and dangerous, we rented a small car. Our bikes did not fit in the car, and are sitting on the roof of the hotel in San Jose.

The first night out of San Jose, we stopped in the mountains at a hotel frequented by bird watchers. It was at about 3,000 m and there was a frost overnight. Outside the hotel were hummingbird feeders frequented by four species of hummers. My almost completely unedited selection of photos.

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In the morning after hot chocolate at 6:00 a.m. we went for a walk with a group of binocular-carrying birders in search of the resplendent quetzal. On a seemingly random walk from a farm along a cow path, we spotted the very fancy male and the less resplendent female. Much to my surprise I was able to get a reasonable set of photographs using my hand held camera.

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Male (note long tail feathers going off the bottom of the image)

After two more days of driving, we arrived in the Osa. It was hot and humid. The first night we stayed at a restaurant-hotel nestled between the beach and the mangrove swamp. Our hotel room overlooked the swamp, which was cute to begin with because there were a family of white-faced monkeys associated with the hotel outside.

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But the humidity was extreme and the swamp smelly when the tide went out. The next night we stayed more inland, at a nice hotel, but even there the owner was complaining of the heat, saying at noon that she had changed her shirt three times. She also expressed surprise that anyone could hike in such a heat wave. It was at this point I realized that we were best just to have supper with Mike, skip his proposed hike, and head back to the mountains. Margo, whose stomach was having issues, had arrived at the same conclusion – probably a day earlier. That evening we had a pleasant time catching up with Mike over supper. The following morning at 6:00 a.m. we left the Osa for the relative coolness of the mountains and the cloud forest.

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The Latest Plan

2017/02/20-23: Reorganization in San Jose
There may have been reasons beyond our grey hairs for the Costa Rican immigration officer to raise his eyebrows at our initial plan. We now understand that cycling is prohibited on any road in the country that allows speeds over 80 kmh. Although fully loaded long distance cyclists often get away with cycling on the highways, drivers are not expecting cyclists and the roads have very little shoulder. Getting on a bus from the border to the capital made more sense than we realized at the time, and it’s not going to be easy to get around legally, safely, or enjoyably on a bicycle.

After some consideration, we’ve decided to rent a car and explore Costa Rica by hiking, birdwatching, and snorkelling for about two weeks. We are crossing fingers that our bikes, front wheels removed, will fit into the back of the vehicle. We may even use them, unloaded, to get ourselves up any suitable mountain track we may find.

Chris’s dream was to reach his cousin’s in Brazil. Though the trip length was open-ended, I was never sure I wanted to be away that long and he agreed he’d be (reasonably) content to return to Vancouver from San Jose, having covered most of Central America. Getting home from here is relatively easy as there’s an Air Canada flight, and Chris’s “million miler” status usually helps things go smoothly. Our plan is to do this in mid-March.

One obvious reason for the plan change is our continued struggle with the heat, which would likely worsen through Panama.  We’re still planning an adventure with friends Suzanne and TT, who might have joined us in Colombia in April. We look forward to their company as we walk the Via Algarviana together instead. Although quite a different plan, it is currently a better fit all around.

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