Man hiking near Castelo Melhor, Portugal

I love the fact that my work includes developing walking holidays with a Portuguese tour operator. I get to go on amazing hikes in the Portuguese countryside and write the descriptions and route instructions for their clients. And blog about the experience!

One of their latest self-guided hiking tours covers two very special and remote parts of northern Portugal, namely the Douro International Natural Park and the Côa Valley Archaeological Park. If you want to get off-the-beaten-track and experience authentic Portugal, this is the place to come. 

Côa and Douro Rivers, Côa Valley Archaeological Park, Portugal
Côa and Douro Rivers converge, Côa Valley Archaeological Park, Portugal

The Douro and the Côa Rivers converge below the Côa Museum, which is the end point of the final hike on this 1-week walking holiday in the Upper Douro Valley, but that’s not the only connection between these two protected areas.

Both contain Paleolithic rock engravings that are more than 10,000 years old. In fact, there are so many engravings in the Côa Valley Archaeological Park that UNESCO has recognised parts of it as a World Heritage Site.

They also share dramatic rock formations, spectacular views, medieval architecture and age-old traditions and practices that are still in evidence as you walk from village to village.

Horse and other animals, night visit, rock art, Penascosa, Foz Côa
Horse and other animals, night visit, rock art, Penascosa, Foz Côa

I thoroughly enjoyed this hiking vacation in northeast Portugal and there are extra activities, beyond the walks, that make this particular programme truly special and unique so I’m excited to share it with you.

The full programme (details below) involves scenic train transfers from Porto as well as time in the city. I’ve written about things to do in Porto before so for the purposes of this article, I’ll focus on the experience of the walking parts of the tour.

Hiking in Douro International Natural Park

I had seen the dramatic cliffs that rise up from the Douro as it curves north from the small town of Freixo de Espada à Cinta when I took a boat trip through the Douro International a few years previously. I loved the rugged scenery so I was excited to get to know the natural park a little better on foot.

The first two walking days of the programme allowed me to do just that.

Linear hike from Mazouco to Freixo de Espada à Cinta

The first hiking day (Day 3 of the itinerary) took us from the open plains above the village of Mazouco all the way to the medieval town of Freixo de Espada à Cinta and on to our country farmhouse accommodation.

I loved the rolling countryside as we began the walk but once we got closer to Mazouco, the views of the Douro River and glimpses of the steep rocky cliffs that border it further upstream got my attention.

View of Douro River near Mazouco, Douro International Natural Park, Portugal
View of Douro River near Mazouco, Douro International Natural Park, Portugal
Mazouco village, Douro International Natural Park, Portugal
Mazouco village, Douro International Natural Park, Portugal

After Mazouco, we were back out into increasingly untamed countryside until patches of vineyards and almond trees signalled that we were getting closer to Freixo de Espada à Cinta. There’s something quite special about walking to a village that has a 15th century tower dominating its skyline.

Freixo de Espada à Cinta, Portugal
Freixo de Espada à Cinta, Portugal

As well as enjoying revisiting this old village, with its Manueline architecture and dedications to local poet, Guerra Junqueira, I have to admit to being surprised by the number of public toilets around! We counted three within a few hundred metres! Cafés, sadly, are harder to find.

You can read more about the delights of Freixo de Espada à Cinta in this article, including how it got it’s unusual name.

Manueline doorway, parish church, Freixo de Espada à Cinta, Portugal
Manueline doorway, parish church, Freixo de Espada à Cinta, Portugal

If the weather had been better (we only just made it to the accommodation before the rain started), I would have been straight in the pool at our farmhouse accommodation. As it was, a warming shower and a home-cooked meal of locally-sourced lamb and home-grown vegetables rounded off the day very nicely.

Tempted already? Fill in the enquiry form at the bottom of this article for more details.

Linear hike Calçada de Alpajares to Freixo de Espada à Cinta

I was excited about finally getting to walk the Calçada de Alpajares Roman road (Day 4 of the itinerary) but I had no idea just how incredible the landscape is around this national treasure. The taxi ride to our starting point revealed wavy schistous rock formations that were simply amazing.

Dramatic rock formations near Calçada de Alpujarres, Freixo de Espada à Cinta
Dramatic rock formations near Calçada de Alpajares, Freixo de Espada à Cinta

The walk towards Calçada de Alpajares and uphill on the ancient zig-zag trail was full of geological wonders as well as some of the local birdlife. Endangered species such as Egyptian and griffon vultures, black storks, red kites, peregrine falcons and golden eagles live in these rocks and several of them were circling above us while we walked. 

Calçada de Alpajares hiking trail, Douro International Natural Park, Portugal
Calçada de Alpajares hiking trail, Douro International Natural Park, Portugal

Beyond Calçada de Alpajares lies the village of Poiares, which we walked through, followed by more beautiful and varied, albeit not quite as dramatic, countryside all the way back to our accommodation.

Cactus plantation near Poiares, Douro International Natural Park, Portugal
Cactus plantation near Poiares, Douro International Natural Park, Portugal
Countryside near Freixo de Espada à Cinta. Forest, vineyards, olive plantations
Countryside near Freixo de Espada à Cinta
Man on a donkey, Freixo de Espada à Cinta
Man on a donkey, Freixo de Espada à Cinta

Transition from the Douro International to the Côa Valley

The third hike (Day 5) in this walking holiday starts in the riverside village of Barca D’Alva, which used to be the end of the line for trains coming from Porto. Now, most visitors arrive on Douro River cruises. 

Not us, though. We arrived by car, after making a detour to Penedo Durão, a massive cliff that offers breathtaking views of the Douro International and Arribes del Duero Natural Parks with the rolling hills of Castelo e Leon and the impressive Saucelle dam. 

Views from Penedo Durão, Freixo de Espada à Cinta, Portugal
Views from Penedo Durão, Freixo de Espada à Cinta, Portugal
Views of rocks, Douro River Saucelle Dam and across to Spain from Penedo Durão, Freixo de Espada à Cinta, Portugal
Views across to Spain from Penedo Durão, Freixo de Espada à Cinta, Portugal

After walking alongside the Douro River for a short while, we turned off to walk through vineyards and then olive plantations until the landscape became wilder and uncultivated.

Vineyards, Barca D'Alva, Douro, Portugal
Vineyards, Barca D’Alva, Douro
Countryside around Barca D'Alva, Douro
Countryside around Barca D’Alva, Douro

This trail connects the village of Vilar de Amargo, where we were spending the night, with the Douro and the farming estates in between. Day labourers from the village would follow the route, offering their services to the big farms during busy periods.

A few kilometres into the walk, the landscape changed again, becoming even wilder and strewn with granite boulders. I had great fun spotting faces and animals in the rocks. I even saw an ocellated lizard, which are quite common in this rocky region.

Turtle-shaped rocks, Côa Valley Archaeological Park, Portugal
Turtle rock, Côa Valley Archaeological Park, Portugal
Ocellated lizard under a rock
Ocellated lizard under a rock
Vineyards in a rocky landscape
Where there’s a will, there’s wine. Vineyards near Vilar de Amargo

The village is full of cobbled lanes and stone cottages, with elderly residents catching the afternoon sun and the latest gossip as they sit on benches outside their homes.

Our cottage was on the route for one of the local shepherds and their flock of sheep so I got to see and hear them passing to their grazing grounds each morning. Some of the sheep were impatient and taking sneaky chunks out of the fig leaves.  

Sheep on their way to grazing pastures, Vilar de Amargo
Sheep on their way to grazing pastures, Vilar de Amargo

Historical villages in the Côa Valley

Being so close to the border with Spain, there are several medieval castles and villages in the Côa Valley. The one we were heading to on the fourth walking day (Day 6 of the itinerary) is called Castelo Melhor. Unlike other castles, this one has not been restored so the ruined remains are an unadulterated example of defensive architecture from the 13th century.

Castelo Melhor, Côa Valley, Portugal
Castelo Melhor, Côa Valley, Portugal

Before reaching Castelo Melhor, there are a couple of other villages of note and a whole lot of lovely scenery. The most impressive of these villages, Almendra, dates back to the Iron Age and was an important and wealthy place right up until the 19th century. The many monuments and impressive buildings dotted around the village are evidence of its significance.

Bust of King Manuel, Almendra
Bust of King Manuel, Almendra
Fancy manor house, Almendra
Fancy manor house, Almendra

Castelo Melhor is home to an information centre for the Côa Valley Archaeological Park, although it was closed when we visited. Nearby we found a delightful shop called Terra D’Oiro, which has lots of local produce and handicrafts for sale.

Terra D'Oiro shop, Castelo Melhor
Terra D’Oiro shop, Castelo Melhor

Although Paulo and I didn’t do it on this occasion, the full walking holiday programme includes a visit to a local sheep cheese producer where you’ll get to watch the process of making cheese and taste an array of local produce.

There’s even more fun to be had before bedtime with a nighttime visit to Penascosa to see Paleolithic rock art on the banks of the Côa River. I’ve done this on a previous occasion and it was a magical and unforgettable experience, evocative of bygone times when nomadic tribes would gather around a fire and tell stories about the drawings carved into the schist stone.

Overlaid animals, rock art at night, Foz Côa
Overlaid animals, rock art at night, Foz Côa

Côa Museum and hot springs (Day 7)

We set off from our cottage before 9 am and, after being dropped off by the taxi driver, we walked from Castelo Melhor to the impressive hilltop Côa Museum, which offers splendid views of both the Douro and Côa Rivers.

Côa and Douro Rivers from the Côa Museum, Portugal
Côa and Douro Rivers from the Côa Museum

It also contains a wealth of information about the Paleolithic rock art in this area and some examples that were transported to the museum for protection. It also has a great restaurant so we had lunch there as a reward for climbing the hill.

Côa Museum from below
Côa Museum from below

Before getting there, we climbed towards a hilltop chapel that afforded impressive views back across the Côa countryside and then on, through largely untamed lands, towards the Côa River. 

Hilltop chapel, Castelo Melhor, Portugal
Hilltop chapel, Castelo Melhor, Portugal
Magnificent cork oak trees near Algodres, portugal
Magnificent cork oak trees near Algodres
Countryside and schist quarry, Côa Valley, Portugal
Countryside and schist quarry, Côa Valley, Portugal
Orgal village, Côa Valley, Portugal
Orgal village, Côa Valley, Portugal

The final night of the programme is in a boutique hotel near the historical centre of Torre de Moncorvo, which gives you the chance to explore at leisure, or hang out with locals in a café.

See the full suggested itinerary, pricing and enquiry form

Best time of year to do this hiking vacation in northeast Portugal

Being so far from the coast, this part of Portugal gets extremely hot in the summer and I was a little concerned that, when Paulo and I did this in late June, the temperatures would be unbearable. Fortunately, we were in luck with an unseasonably cool week.

The landscape was already quite dry, as you can see from my photos, so I would normally recommend doing this walking holiday in spring or autumn for the best experience. 

If you do this Douro International and Côa Valley walking holiday in late February or early March, you’ll catch the almond blossoms and perhaps the related festival in Vila Nova de Foz Côa (more about that in this article).

The spring flowers will be in their full glory in April and early May. By mid October and into November, the intense heat of the summer months will have faded, making it comfortable and safe for hiking again.

How difficult is it?

Hills are unavoidable and this is not a suitable hiking vacation for someone who is unaccustomed to walking for several hours per day on uneven terrain. There are plenty of flatter sections to balance things out so if you’re reasonably fit, this is a satisfyingly moderate level of challenge overall.

Where does this Douro and Côa experience happen?

I’ve marked the key locations on this map to give you a sense of where it is but, of course, I can’t share the full trail details with you as the route has been especially created by the tour operator. One thing is for sure; this is a unique and very special walking holiday in northern Portugal.

Google Map showing location of Douro International and Côa Valley walking holiday in northern Portugal
Google Map showing location of Douro International and Côa Valley walking holiday in northern Portugal

Full itinerary (can be customised)

Day 1: Arrival in Porto (not included)

  • In-person briefing at your hotel
  • Free time in Porto to explore the sights
  • Accommodation in a 4* hotel

Day 2: Travel to Douro International Natural Park

  • Scenic train ride from Porto to Pocinho and private transfer to your accommodation
  • Accommodation: Farmhouse with outdoor pool
  • Meals: Dinner

Day 3: Linear walk from Mazouco to Freixo de Espada à Cinta (16.8 km | +268m -458m)

  • Offers stunning views of the Douro River, cliffs and surrounding countryside plus free time in the historical village of Freixo de Espada à Cinta
  • Accommodation: Farmhouse with outdoor pool
  • Meals: Breakfast, packed lunch, dinner

Day 4: Linear walk from Mosteiro Stream to Freixo da Espada à Cinta (15.8km | +611m -239m)

  • Follow the Calçada de Alpajares Roman Road through jaw-dropping rock formations and scenery then enjoy the ever-changing countryside on the way back to your lodgings
  • Accommodation: Farmhouse with outdoor pool
  • Meals: Breakfast, packed lunch, dinner

Day 5: Linear walk from Barca D’Alva to Vilar de Amargo (15.2km | +635m -154m)

  • Spectacular views from Penedo Durão before hiking from the Douro River to a remote shepherding village in the rocky hinterlands of the Côa Valley
  • Accommodation: Village cottage
  • Meals: Breakfast, packed lunch

Day 6: Linear walk from Vilar de Armargo to Castelo Melhor (16.1km | +148m -387m)

  • Amazing and varied landscapes on a hike through a series of historical villages
  • Visit to cheese producer with tastings
  • Night visit to rock art site
  • Accommodation: Village cottage
  • Meals: Breakfast, packed lunch, dinner

Day 7: Linear walk from Castelo Melhor to the Côa Museum (12.5km | +351m -423m)

  • Beautiful hike with spectacular views of the Côa and Douro Valleys
  • Free time at the Côa Museum
  • Accommodation: Boutique hotel
  • Meals: Breakfast

Day 8: Return to Porto

  • Scenic train ride from Pocinho to Porto (not included)
  • Meals: Breakfast, packed lunch

What’s included

  • 7 nights’ hand-picked accommodation with breakfast
  • Packed lunch on days 3-8
  • Guided visit to Penascosa rock art site
  • Visit to a cheese producer and tasting of regional products
  • Dinner with drinks on days 2, 3 and 4
  • Train tickets from Porto to Pocinho
  • In-person briefing
  • Detailed route notes
  • App with trail information for use on a smartphone
  • 24-hour emergency contact number (English-speaking)
  • Luggage transfers
  • Transfers to/from trails on Days 3-7
  • Transfers from and to Pocinho train station

What’s not included

  • Travel insurance
  • Flights
  • Train ticket from Pocinho to Porto
  • Transfers between Porto hotel and train station
  • Airport transfers – book these online
  • Meals not mentioned above
  • Gratuities
  • Personal expenses
  • Anything not mentioned in the “included” section above

Available from:

1st February to 30th June and 15th September to 15th November

Price

Per person in a double/twin room: €1190 for 2 people or €970 for up to 4 people
Single room supplement: €358

Make a no-obligation enquiry for your dates by completing the form below. If you take the tour via my referral, I will earn a small commission. The price you pay is the same as going direct.

The team at Portugal Green Walks will contact you directly with more details and the next steps.

Douro International and Côa Valley Walking Holiday Enquiry

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