Recently, we headed to Central Portugal to try out several adventure activities near Porto, from whitewater rafting to hiking.
The rush of white water, huge rocks and boulders to descend and magnificent heights to reach. All of this combined with the tinkle of cowbells, vistas around every bend and idyllic rural stays makes Portugal’s central rural region a little-known adventure activity hotspot.
Located just a couple of hours drive south of Porto, this central region is filled with rivers, mountains and rocky geoparks, just perfect for myriad of adventure activities. In just a few days, we visited the UNESCO World Heritage Arouca Geopark, flew down the river braving whitewater rafting, whizzed around a historic city in a tuk-tuk, hiked past high-rise waterfalls and trekked to the top of a mountain, where we were treated to expansive rural views. Add this to one of the world’s rarest geological phenomena – the Birthing Stones’ (more about this geological wonder later) and you can see why we instantly fell in love with this region.
All this and wine, oh yes, lots of wine. While Arouca’s river flows, wine gushes throughout central Portugal. Just over an hour southeast of Porto, this central region hosts many vineyards producing sumptuous local wines, as well as cute rural retreats. Find out what we got up to during our four days in central Portugal with Hotéis Rurais.
Hiking the Paiva Walkways
The first of our adventure activities near Porto began with the Paiva Walkways in the Arouca Geopark. We were astounded that we virtually had this place of outstanding natural beauty all to ourselves. In contrast to peak times, we arrived on a weekday morning in March, and there was literally no one. During busy times, it’s essential to book your entry to the park as numbers are restricted. Taking advantage of the off-peak bliss, we headed out with our geologist guide and travel companions, Pedro and Fernando of Hotels Rurais.
The Paiva Walkway was completed by architecture firm Trimetrica , in 2015. The eight-kilometre long elevated wooden platform was created so as not to impede wildlife’s path. For us, it also meant we wouldn’t have a run-in with any slippery serpents – certainly a bonus. Our guide, told us all about its indigenous biodiversity as we strolled comfortably alongside the Paiva River, between two towering mountainsides.
The gentle ebb of the river was a relief as we thought about the whitewater rafting we would do later. After a while, we came arrived at a viewpoint looking onto the spectacular Cascada de Aguieiras. Gallons of water bound down the mountainside into the foaming river below, providing a gleaming strip within a panoramic vista.
Gliding down spectacular whitewater rapids
The second of our adventure activities near Porto was to complete the length of Paiva Walkway by rafting the river down below. We soon sighted the inflatable rafts which would carry us the rest of the way down the river. We were welcomed by Clube do Paiva, our river rafting guides. After I had a funny Mr Bean moment of exploring which limb goes where, when putting on the neoprene wetsuit, we eventually got our kit on and into the raft. After our traumatic white rafting experience of Australia, we were feeling a little tense, find out why. “It’ll be good fun” Pedro had attempted to assure us. We were relieved that this time with Clube do Paiva, we were given a thorough briefing of what to expect and the word “flipping” had not been mentioned… yet.
Fully prepped and feeling comfortable, myself and Pedro took the helm, being the first to face the frothing waters head on. We glided gently, before the orders of “forward”, “left brake”, “everyone brake” and “relax” came from the back. Then we exhaled and cruised again before the next rapid. It was a journey of admiring the beautiful surrounds, combined with the adrenalin rush of navigating rapids and rocks. At one point, we were ordered to evacuate the raft as it was too dangerous for novices to pass through a rocky and fearsome drop. We followed the raft with our gaze as the empty raft flew through the rapid, relieved that we didn’t have a repeat of that time Down Under. Even though it was March, we were steaming hot and surprisingly hadn’t fallen in during the whole activity. We decided to take a voluntary dip to cool off at the end of our trip.
Seeing the wonder of the Birthing Stones
Birthing Stones, what are they? That was our response when told about them by our geologist guide. We had already heard about the largest trilobites being found in Arouca, but not these. We arrived at the mountaintop village of Castanheira, home of this geological phenomenon – otherwise known as the Pedras Parideiras. At first, we admired the age-old tradition of a staunch cow herder calling in her cattle at sunset, then stopped to take in this brief step back in time as cowbells chimed.
Around this village, a major discovery was found – shiny black stones which pop out of huge granite boulders. Although it’s somewhat of a mystery as to why these huge grey blocks ‘give birth’ to black, quartz-centred stones, it’s thought to be a result of this mountain’s biosphere. As temperatures drop, the stones pop to the surface of the granite rock, giving a cookie dough, studded with chocolate chips, look. After watching a 3D video of their history we went to the spot where they appear. A local woman with a small pickaxe, slyly asked us if we’d like to buy one of the precious stones. The stones, of course, are protected, however, so we politely refused. We could see many holes where the stones had already been extracted and we wondered if people would still be able to see them in years to come. We felt lucky to have been able to.
Dining, wining and staying in rural hotels
The Arouca Geopark is not far from Porto, Portugal’s second most visited city, but to experience the region authentically, a rural hotel is the way to go. We stayed in many rural retreats on our trip and found it the best way to be close to nature, eat well and get away from the bustle of towns.
Our first night we stayed at the Hotel Rural Quinta de Novais. Originally a late 18th-century traditional farmhouse, it’s now been converted to receive guests. Boasting a seasonal swimming pool, mini gym, and a fine restaurant, we really felt comfortable here.
Central Portugal also surprised us with its food. At dinner, we were served mashed cod and leafy greens in a cute bread basket, as well as a prawn pie. We knew that this area takes advantage of its local, land-based produce, but what we didn’t expect was the dishes we were presented with here.
After whizzing around Viseu with Vistuk Viseu, whilst learning about the cathedral, city history and getting a nice gift of hazelnut-shaped egg sweets (traditionally made by nuns), we arrived at Hotel Rural Quinta do Medronheiro, a luxury, 37-acre retreat with its own mini-bodega and vineyard. We wandered through the charming grounds before dinner, gazing at the vines and local cows as they stared back at us. At dinner, we were supplied again with enough food to feed a football team, this time a very slow-roasted veal cooked in a traditional wood fire for eight hours. Falling off the bone, the meat certainly was a great treat. We gladly helped it on its way with some of their taste bud pleasing wines. The scenery, dotted with leafy trees, ponds and local animals, make this hotel a real rural experience.
We certainly didn’t expect to find a rural hotel near the seaside, however, Hotel Rural Quinta d’Anta is just that. Located in an old rice mill, set inland from surf hotspots such as Figueira da Foz Beach, this activity-based hotel is definitely worth a visit. The next morning, as the surf wasn’t quite up, we enjoyed a yoga session beside the breezy hotel pool, complete with a palm tree backdrop. I was happy that I managed a headstand, albeit with a lot of help!
Whitewater rafting, hiking, mountain climbing, yoga and surfing are just a few of the adventure activities you can try in rural Central Portugal. And what’s more, as it’s such as under-visited region by foreign tourists, you won’t have to share its stunning landscapes with many others.