Many people think of Portugal’s Algarve region, with its golden beaches, as excellent place for a vacation in the sun. Lisbon and Porto offer fantastic city break options—yet just over an hour north of Porto lies a completely different world. Peneda-Gerês National Park, or simply Gerês, is Portugal’s first and only national park and covers more than 270 square miles up to the northwestern Spanish border.
In Gerês you’ll find remote, granite built hamlets where shepherds tend their cattle, goats, and ponies. If you’re lucky you could glimpse wild boar and even wolves in the mountainous holly, birch, juniper, and pine forests; there’s even a breed of flower found nowhere else on Earth: the Serra do Gerês iris.
The park’s proximity to Porto makes a it possible to visit on a day trip, but to grasp its sheer size and beauty, we recommend staying for a weekend or longer.
A History of the Park
Established in 1971 to ensure the ancient customs of the region were kept intact, the area included in Gerês is several thousand years old. The earliest signs of habitation are from 6000 B.C. as evidenced by the Neolithic tombs that dot the landscape. Roman roads, bridges, and milestone markers show visitors the once-prominent Roman influence and from the 12th century onwards, the formerly inhospitable mountainous regions were ploughed and cultivated ready to plant a variety of crops, resulting in a beautiful patchwork effect of fields and pastures.
The village of Vilarinho das Furnas was flooded in 1970 to make way for a dam, ruins of which can still be seen at low tide. A year after the flooding, the Portuguese Parliament, recognizing the need to protect the environment and traditional way of life, passed a law and Gerês was created. Now the park activities include scientific research, education, and eco-tourism. Since 1997, it has been recognized by various organizations as an area of special interest.
Flora and Fauna in Peneda-Gerês National Park
The forested areas are made up of English and Pyrenean oaks and birch, while the remaining land is covered in gorse and heather. Hipericão and Carqueja herbs are used for making tea, and are available for purchase at most shops and restaurants.
The native Barrosã cattle, distinctive with their long horns often growing over 39 inches (a meter) in length, are tended by the shepherds of the region and can be seen roaming the fields and roads. The dark chestnut Garrano horse is another indigenous creature wandering the pastures.
The official symbol of Gerês is the roe deer—they come in large numbers to find food and shelter in the more inhabited villages. If you’re lucky, you could come across a rare sighting of an Iberian wolf, which, after near extinction due to over hunting, is slowly making a comeback. Other animals include the Spanish Ibex—small with curved horns—and several bird species including the European Honey Buzzard, often seen circling its prey in the mountains.
Top Villages in Peneda-Gerês National Park
There are about 22 remote villages in the park. Some aren't much more than a group of houses, but others offer more tourist facilities.
Braga is the largest village, more of a town. It’s was founded in the Iron Age and is Portugal’s most important religious center as well as one of the country's oldest and most fought over settlements. You can reach it in a 45 minute drive from Porto. Sights include the prominent cathedral located opposite the Archbishop’s Palace, and several other religious buildings like the Mosteiro de São Martinho de Tibães—an old Benedictine monastery that offers guided tours.
In total there are 35 churches in Braga and in 2012 the town was voted “European Youth Capital.” You’ll find pedestrianized streets and squares dotted with locals enjoying the many coffee shops and cafes. Braga is also the park’s headquarters so you’ll be able to find maps, hiking guides, and other general information.
Caldas do Gerês, the park's main spa resort, is nestled in a wooded valley. At the end of the main street, therapeutic waters flow from a rock and it’s not unusual to find people queuing to drink it, although in theory only those with a doctor’s prescription are supposed to due to the water's high mineral content. As well as being the main hotel, Águas do Gerês offers a selection of unusual spa treatments such as volcanic rock massages.
Rio Caldo sits in a bowl surrounded by mountains. The large reservoir offers many water sports with Lindoso, another reservoir town, surrounded by mountains and very close to the Spanish border. Lindoso’s castle ruins aren’t really the most prominent attraction—that would be the 19th-century granite grain storage silos (espigueiros). There are more than 50, spread out on the slopes of the castle wall, and they lend a spooky feel to the landscape with a stone cross atop each one.
Soajo is a much smaller and more traditional village and also has a cluster of espigueiros. It’s the center for rural tourism with goat herders and black-clad widows sitting in the village square.
Waterfalls and Hikes in Peneda-Gerês National Park
Gerês has several waterfalls that can be hiked to. There’s a 2-mile path from the panoramic viewing point of Pedra Bela, overlooking the Caniçada Reservoir, and this takes you to Arado waterfalls—a popular picnic and swim spot.
Faja das Barjas is known locally as Tahiti waterfalls and is just as popular in the winter with its high level of water gushing down from the mountains.
There are plenty of scenic walks in the park to suit all levels. The Trilho da Preguiça Route is one of the easiest and prettiest. It starts about 2 miles north of Caldes do Gerês and makes its way up through woodland to a viewpoint, then descends into a valley with streams and smaller waterfalls along the way.
The small village of Campo do Gerês is a good basecamp as it’s surrounded by yet more woodland. Here you’ll find an organized campsite where a 90-minute hike takes you to natural bathing pools.
Where to Stay
Housing options suit all budgets ranging from homely guest houses such as Casa do Adro—an 18th-century house in the village of Soajo where the family makes its own wine—to a luxury converted 12th century Cistercian monastery, the Pousada de Amares. Wander through its cloisters and gardens, or swim in the pool. There’s the aforementioned campsite and Pousada de Juventude—once the dam construction workers’ accommodation, now a youth hostel offering dorms and double en-suite rooms.
- The busiest season is summer when locals visit on weekends and during summer breaks.
- Butterflies and lizards can be seen in abundance from spring to fall.
- The Park is free to enter and the best way to visit is by car—public buses are few and far between inside the park, and there’s no direct bus route from Porto, the nearest city. Because of this, it’s recommended to take a guided tour, with options of day tours from Porto, weekend breaks or longer, with Oporto Adventure Tours.