Caves, Waterfalls and Walks in Portugal

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Part of the cave system in Mira de Aire Portugal
Part of the cave system in Mira de Aire Portugal. Photo by Stephen McNaught

Portugal is fast becoming Europe’s tourism hot spot, with millions flocking to visit cities like Lisbon and Porto. A vibrant culture, friendly people and great weather combine to entice visitors back year after year. However, as any traveler knows, such popularity can also cause the allure of a place to fade.

Mira de Aire – A Taste of Old

It was with the desire to visit lesser known places that I entered the sleepy town of Mira de Aire, which borders the Parque Natural das Serras de Aire e Candeeiros.

Although only an hour north of Lisbon and 20 minutes from the world renown surfing destination of Nazare, there are no tourist throngs to contend with. There are no lines of hotels or souvenir shops selling ‘local’ items made in China.

Centred around the tall-spired church of Nossa Senhora do Amparo, Mira de Aire boasts an untouched, authentic feel that could once be found in Lisbon. Cobbled alleyways twist around muralled walls of Catholic images, passing the occasional café where English might be known but is rarely heard.

Caves in Mira de Aire Portugal
Caves in Mira de Aire Portugal. Photo by Stephen McNaught

The Cave System in Mira de Aire

The town is best known by visitors for its cave system, discovered in 1947. Perhaps, when you think of a cave, a vision of some dark and wet place comes to mind – haunted by spiders and the occasional bat. In fact, the ‘grutas’ of Mira de Aire resemble a subterranean world.

It is so deep that, by the time you reach the end, you must take an elevator! Rivers and waterfalls play a haunting symphony as you wander through a landscape that, seventy years ago, people did not even know existed. Strange geological formations burst from the walls, sparkling mysteriously.

It could be some gothic cathedral, with shapes that resemble gargoyles or sublime sculptures, as dark corridors recede into the unknown. These caves are part of a network that spans some 11 kilometers, although only 600 meters are open to the public.

Some day-trippers come from Lisbon just to visit these caves, maybe stopping off to marvel at the mountainous cleft that overlooks the town. Few know that there are three other cave systems barely minutes from the town – the grutas of Alvados, San Antonio and Moeda – with more natural beauty.

Lagoon at Serras de Aire e Candeeiros Natural Park. Photo by Stephen McNaught
Lagoon at Serras de Aire e Candeeiros Natural Park. Photo by Stephen McNaught

Serras de Aire e Candeeiros Natural Park

Then there is Parque Natural das Serras de Aire e Candeeiros, also called Serras de Aire e Candeeiros Natural Park. It has been denoted a protected area since 1979. It boasts remarkably diverse landscapes. Here you can overlook an outstretched horizon of olive groves or be dazzled by the sparkle of a calcite crystal formation creeping from limestone bedrock. Just an hour further you can stand before a waterfall in complete solitude.

With numerous well-marked trails, the national park is perfect for adventurers. From Mira de Aire, you can simply pick a road and walk. Quickly the road becomes a path, which turns into an ascending trail that will take you over the mountainous cleft of Candeeiros (Candles in English, the rock is white and can ‘shine’ at night).

For those looking for less exertion, there is the option of taking one of the many paths that weave across the ‘O Mar de Minde’. This is actually a flood plain, and in some winter months, you need to dodge many puddles. Even in summer, there are ponds and lagoons. They are too shallow and murky to swim, but an oasis for birds and frogs.

To the east is the neighboring town of Minde; to the West and South, just countryside. Plunging deeper into the national park, paths take you to places like Olhos de Agua – a river beach of crystal water, which bursts from a rocky canyon and subterranean river. On summer weekends many local people go here, but a little walk downstream will take you to other hidden beaches and waterfalls.

There is another cave system too, though this one is unguided and should only be explored with caution and prior caving experience. From Mira de Aire the area can be reached on foot in three hours; by bike, in just one. The best route features views that could fill an Instagram account, or memories to see you through marriage.

Path at Serras de Aire e Candeeiros Natural Park
Following a quiet path at Serras de Aire e Candeeiros Natural Park. Photo by Stephen McNaught

You Might Be in for an Adventure

When I first ascended the path into this landscape, I came across something that would send some people scuttling back into the town. It was a giant snakeskin – just over a meter long. However, there is little chance of an actual encounter with these animals, who are far more scared of humans than humans could be of them.

The most dangerous aspect of the park is the heat. In the summer months, temperatures can peak to 35 degrees. The months of March-June and September-October are the best times to visit if you are looking to avoid the heat.

The Park has a Religious History

The southeast corner of the park intersects pilgrimage trails leading to Fatima and the famous [Santiago do Compostelo]. Fatima is ranked in the top 10 global Catholic pilgrimage sites, with frequent visits from Popes since the first half of the last century. It all began in 1917, when three local children claimed to receive visitations by the Virgin Mary, culminating in an event known as the ‘Miracle of the Sun’.

Thousands of people reported witnessing strange solar activity, saying the sun emitted multiple colors, after being predicted by the children. To this day people are not entirely sure what happened.

Whatever you choose to believe, a visit to nearby Fatima is worthwhile. The tall, white spire of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima with its huge square would not look out of place facing St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Only here there are no security cordons or rows of people. If you are looking for a place of spiritual tranquillity and prayer, this is it.

Bathed in Natural Beauty

As day crosses into the night, another kind of mystery reveals itself. From the cleft of the Candeeiros, looking South, you can easily see the bright arch of the Milky Way.

Millions of suns, shining light-years away, might whisper of other worlds waiting to be discovered.  Perhaps you are looking up into the roof of a cave, speckled with veins of crystal.

Author: Steve McNaught has spent many years travelling the world to places including East Asia, Australasia, South Pacific and Europe. He believes that, with the natural world increasingly under threat, there is a need to safeguard areas through responsible tourism, supporting local people to make income from sustainable practices.