The first thing I have to say is that, over the course of four years exploring and helping create Slow Travel holidays across the country, walking in Peneda-Gerês National Park gave us the best experiences of hiking in Portugal. The second thing I have to say is that putting together and following routes in Peneda-Gerês wasn’t always easy.
However, to be prepared is half the battle when discovering new locations on foot. Here are some tips and information from our experiences of walking in Peneda-Gerês in spring, summer, autumn, and winter.
Where is Peneda-Gerês National Park?
Peneda-Gerês National Park, Portugal’s only national park, sits tucked into the undulating curves of the Spanish/Portuguese border in the far north of the country. Protected landscapes straddle the border in parts – Peneda-Gerês National Park on the Portuguese side, Baixa Limia, Serra do Xurés on the Spanish side.
Getting to the fringes of Peneda-Gerês National Park from Porto is relatively easy. After that, things become more complicated. Roads are decent enough, and enjoyable to drive – if you like country roads that wind through epic scenery and don’t mind giving way to the many animals which get priority – but getting from A to B can be a convoluted business. It’s a bit like negotiating the Highlands part of the West of Scotland. In some instances it can be quicker to drive through Spain to get to some areas of the park than it is to stay on roads in Portugal.
What sort of terrain will hikers encounter walking in Peneda-Gerês?
When it comes to hiking, the appeal of the terrain is vital as far as we are concerned, and walking in Peneda-Gerês doesn’t disappoint. There are rivers and waterfalls, dense forests, trails through pastoral lands, and across exposed mountain tops. This is an attractive, verdant, and diverse part of Portugal, which is partly why it’s our favourite area of the country for hiking.
What is the weather like?
People often consider the north of Spain and Portugal to be on the cooler side, but it’s all relative. I don’t think of either that way. Although Peneda-Gerês is in the north of Portugal, it’s still just further south than the likes of Corsica and Rome, place people don’t generally associate with being cold. Having walked in the area in all four seasons, we found winter and spring most comfortable for walking, with summer being far too hot, and even autumn having occasional uncomfortably hot days. Generally speaking, even in winter months you get warm days in Portugal, but it can be bitterly cold at night. Outside of summer, there is more possibility of rain. But we’ve never experienced much.
Is walking in Peneda-Gerês National Park difficult?
Is the walking difficult? I’d say it was relatively difficult, but not excessively so. The best walking in the park involves decent ascents (reaching over 1000m in some parts) and descents, and there are some seriously steep trails, so it’s not going to suit anybody seeking easy-ish paths with little climbing involved. I’d say it was comparable with some of the walking in the western Canary Islands; the Anaga region of Tenerife, for example.
Are hiking routes easy to follow for independent travellers?
Basically, this question means ‘can I just roll up in Peneda-Gerês and take to the trails without a guide or any directions?’ Personally, I think it would be risky unless you are a very good map reader and have experience of plotting routes. We did it and found routes to suit what we wanted. But a lot of planning had gone into this beforehand as we were putting together a holiday for hiking specialist Inntravel. Plus, for one reason or another, there were a few ‘amendments’ and ‘discarded’ routes during the actual walking of the routes. When we’re doing this as a job, we have time factored in for encountering unexpected problems, and there usually are some ‘problems’ irrespective of where the location is. When someone is on holiday, they don’t have the same luxury.
In our opinion, the infrastructure for walking in Portugal isn’t quite at the level of some other European countries. Subsequently, signposting can be a hit and miss affair. There were plans to improve this on some routes in the park, but it was still lacking the last time we walked there during the pandemic.
My advice to most people would be, to experience the best of Peneda-Gerês, hire a guide or book through a reputable self-guided walking holiday specialist.
Are walking routes varied and interesting?
For us, varied and interesting features are a prerequisite of any good walking route. Peneda-Gerês boasts interesting ingredients by the rucksack-load. A Roman road near Gerês , merchant trails linking villages, pilgrim routes through Peneda and above São Bento, hidden sanctuaries in the middle of the forest, wolf pits around Mezio, tiny granite villages and hamlets such as Soajo and Campo de Gerês, grain stores that look like tombs, bridges over streams and rivers, a spa town, mountain lakes, boulders the size of a titanosaur, free-roaming long-horn cattle, wild horses, and maybe, if you’re as lucky as we were, a wolf.
Are there plenty of accommodation options in Peneda-Gerês?
Quirky, individualistic accommodation is part of the appeal of staying and walking in Peneda-Gerês. There are all sorts, from traditional cottages and rural hotels to pilgrims’ hotels and a converted monastery. But they are all dotted about the place. When we go walking in Peneda-Gerês, we stay in a variety of locations to get the best coverage of the park. Because of the nature and shape of the park, it’s not practical to stay in the one location if you want to experience most of the best walking. It can take a long time to travel from one part of Peneda-Gerês to another, even if on the map it looks a relatively short distance as the crow flies.
If I were to recommend one place to use as a base, it would be the town of Gerês. In my view, the northern part of the park offers the most spectacular walking, but accommodation is limited. Gerês in the south of the park is a nice small town surrounded by forested hills. There’s a good choice of hotels and restaurants. It’s one of the more accessible areas and, as a result, can get busy with Portuguese visitors during some weekends. But that gives it a lively buzz which can make a nice contrast to the sleepy vibes of smaller settlements.
What’s the food like?
It’s surprisingly varied, but maybe not if you’re vegetarian. Meat from Cachena cattle is the big thing in Peneda-Gerês, and there are traditional restaurants serving it in every town. But there’s also good freshwater fish options, and octopus is as popular in these parts as it is in Galicia across the border. Mostly, the food is hearty traditional fare but there’s also quite sophisticated contemporary versions of Portuguese specialities to be found in restaurants in towns like Gerês and Arcos de Valdevez, and the Pousada at Amares. Whatever the dish, moreish batatas a murro (basically smashed potatoes) regularly turns up as the accompaniment. No complains from me for that.
Walking in Peneda-Gerês is hugely rewarding and reveals yet another fascinating face of Portugal. This is an area that remains still undiscovered by many British visitors. There are some routes which are becoming more popular but, to use a word I’ve applied a lot to Peneda-Gerês, that’s relative. When we’ve walked there, we’ve encountered mostly pilgrims, a few other hikers, and hardly heard another British voice.
But it doesn’t give up all its charms easily, Peneda-Gerês makes you work to experience the best it has to offer.