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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, a remote eight day wilderness trek in British Columbia, in 2003.  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.

Route with the official night stops

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.

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.


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 were 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.

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.

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


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


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 .


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


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.


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.


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.



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.


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 (regularly fed by the hotel, unfortunately) outside.


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.


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.


Ometepe and south to Costa Rica

2017/02/16: Ometepe 90 km
It was time to get on with southward travel, so we left the hostel and Gerry, the amiable Irish host-owner, at 6:a.m., inadvertently leaving behind our granola, oranges, cheese, and my sun hat. We ate watermelon at the roadside and proceeded to the ferry from San Jorge to Moyogalpa on the island of Ometepe, which lies in lake Nicaragua and is dramatically formed by the two volcanoes: Concepcion and Madera. On the hour-long ferry crossing, we chatted with John, a fellow traveller with local contacts. On his advice, we rode about 15 km on the island to stay at a hotel at Charco Verde.


Us on the crossing with the two volcanoes of Ometepe behind

2017/02/17: Butterflies and Walks
Part of the appeal of Charco Verde (“green pond”) was a butterfly enclosure as well as a network of hiking trails through dry tropical forest. We dressed for cycling, planning to hit the road for a day trip after a quick visit to the butterflies. The displays of larvae and chrysalis and the fluttering mariposas in an enclosure kept us peacefully fascinated for far longer than we expected. The bike jaunt could wait a day. We strolled on trails instead, and decided an afternoon siesta was in order after the fairly long and very hot day.

2017/02/18: Island Day Tour 51 km


A petroglyph

Taking along little more than bathing suits and camera, we rode first to petroglyphs and then Ojo del Agua where a depression enhanced by stonework is filled by a natural spring. The water is clear and cool making a really fine swimming hole, and the rope swing was great fun! After our swim, we went to the on-site café where we ate the worst hamburgers we’ve ever eaten. Great location; awful food.

Trundling back past our hotel, we turned down a sandy track to the small museum recommended by our waiter. There a local lad gave us a structured tour of the 1,500 pieces of locally found Prehispanic pottery, describing the technical and artistic advances which define each era in mercilessly rapid-fire Spanish. I congratulated myself on translating about 80% of his spiel for Chris without having to ask the earnest lad for clarification. Phew!


Pottery items found recently in a nearby volcanic mudslide. Road signs would warn of areas where these often occur.


Sandy track to museum

We bought mandarins and passion fruit on the way “home”, chatting to two women (a Brit and a Kiwi at my guess) on rented bikes.

2017/02/19: to San Jose, Costa Rica, taking bus from border

Till recently, there was a ferry from Granada to Ometepe and on to San Carlos at the SE corner of the lake. Taking this might have put us onto a relatively quiet route in Costa Rica, but it’s no longer running. Instead, we got ourselves to the smaller port of San Jose del Sur well in time for a 7:30 a.m. ferry back to San Jorge, and pedalled southward on the Panamericana, a relatively quiet road in Nicaragua.

It was lunchtime as we neared the border. We had cordobas to spend, so we pulled into the last Nicaraguan comedor. I had already sat down while Chris was still looking around warily. We ordered chicken and rice, and ate most of our meal while two very drunk men sat precariously on a wall a few feet away. They swigged clear liquid from a bottle, wrapped their arms around each other to support their swaying selves, and gestured and grimaced at us as they clutched the back of Chris’s chair. He moved to the opposite side of the table.

We prepared to pay and leave, having left some rice and beans and chicken bones on the plates. A desperate-looking local man swept in as if to clear our plates, but sat down instead to gnaw the bones again and eat the leftover rice with our cutlery. We indicated to the concerned waitress that we didn’t mind him eating our leftovers, and she gave him a tortilla as she took the the basket away. As we were leaving, one of the two drunks fell backwards off the wall into an inebriated heap, knocking over several chairs. Things can be tense and strange near borders.

We changed our last 500 cordobas into colones, and pressed on through the various steps of the Nicaraguan exit procedure: two small payments at different locations, another place for an exit stamp that we missed on the first run through, a check point from which we were sent back for having missed the stamp, and then finally a successful pass through the checkpoint.

The Costa Rican side would have been a breeze if we hadn’t been crossing at the same time as a busload of tourists, mainly Ticos returning from Nicaragua. We leaned our bikes in a corner as we approached the immigration counter for our entry stamp. On our entry forms, there was a space for “ticket number”. I understood they wanted to know our means of transport, so here we had both entered “bicicleta”, having come almost 3,000 km from Cancun by that method. The immigration officer queried this, and I pointed to our bikes behind the pile of wheeled suitcases. He raised his eyebrows, and stamped our passports. We were waved past scanners by customs, and emerged into searing heat, loud hawkers of cold drinks, buses and booths selling bus tickets.

Hot and tired, and hard pressed to make the Osa Peninsula (SW Costa Rica) by a date when a naturalist-friend has offered to guide us in the rainforest, we investigated bus options to San Jose. The larger bus was full and departing, so we loaded our bikes and panniers carefully into the underbelly of what one might call an upmarket chicken bus for the six hour run to the capital. As we disembarked and reassembled in a central bus terminal well after nightfall, the cheerful driver asked us to pose for a photo. We stumbled as directed to the nearest hotel, and collapsed into a windowless basement room. We ate a pack of salty banana chips for supper and fell asleep.