It is no secret that the Lagoa area of the Algarve has some of the most beautiful coastal scenery in the country and much has been written about coastal walks along the cliff tops, most famously the ‘seven hanging valleys trail’ from Centeanes to Marinha, but to really appreciate the beautiful red and yellow-brown cliffs, stunning rock formations, cove beaches and secret caves with hidden beaches and unearthly sinkholes, you really need to see it from the sea. However, I suffer from seasickness and for many years have avoided boats, but I decided that I really needed to overcome this phobia to enjoy some of nature’s best designs. So, dosed with seasickness tablets, we booked ourselves on one of the regular ‘visit the caves’ boat trips which depart from Carvoeiro beach. The next boat was due to leave in 10 minutes, which gave us a good opportunity to watch the returning boat being brought onto the sand for the passengers to disembark. This was quite a complicated operation as the boat was turned around in the sea for it to reverse up to the shore and then be dragged onto the beach by a pulley and two men. Once the passengers had disembarked, the boat then re-entered the sea for the next set of passengers to board. Wearing the cumbersome, obligatory, orange life jacket I inelegantly climbed onto the boat, getting my sandals soaked in the process (luckily they were waterproof and had good soles).
The boats that are used for these trips are former fishing boats. They are very prettily decorated in a traditional style and have names such as Rainha da Paz (Queen of Peace), Glorioso (Glory), Pardal (Sparrow) and Arrelias (Annoyances), but they are not built for comfort (nine passengers can just about fit on the wooden benches). We were on Nossa Senhora da Rocha (Our Lady of the Rock) with Captain Jorge, who ably steered the boat into some impossibly narrow cave entrances. I lost count of the number of caves that we went into – at least 10 – in the hour and a half trip. Many of the caves have blurred into each other in my memory, as most had interior walls made up of layers of purple, brown, green and grey stone and a secret beach at the back of the cave. Many also had sinkholes at the top, which is a distinctive geological feature of this area produced by water eroding the surface of the ground above the cave causing it to collapse. But there were some highlights, which Captain Jorge pointed out and told us the names the locals have given some of these features, such as ‘The Paradise’, a secluded beach only accessible from the sea though a narrow opening in the cliff; a cave, ‘The Heart’, with a heart-shaped sinkhole; another, ‘Devil’s Eyes’, with two sinkholes, which when the sun shines through these holes look like a pair of flashing eyes; and the pièce de résistance, the Algar de Benagil (also known as Algar do José Rodeira), which is listed as one of The Guardian‘s ’10 of the world’s best natural wonders … that you’ve probably never heard of’. By far the biggest of all the caves, the Algar de Benagil (algar means ‘sinkhole’) has another-worldly quality about it. The large sinkhole lets in the sun, which shines in a perfect circle on the beach below, reminiscent in appearance of the spaceship in the 1977 film, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The walls inside the cave are striated in shades of gold, silver and bronze, giving it a regal quality. If Neptune had a summer palace, this would be it There are two entrances and our boat entered the cave through both, allowing us to see it from all angles. There is a surprisingly large beach inside the cave and many people had made their own way into the cave by swimming, paddle boarding or sailing in a dinghy. Due to the fame of this cave, we had to share this experience with several other tourist boats which had come from Centeanes beach and Benagil beach.
The boat closely hugs the coastline as it makes its way from Carvoeiro to Benagil, giving an excellent view of the craggy cliffs with their distinctive rock formations, such as ‘A Boneca’ (the doll) at Algar Seco and the profile of a face which appears on a cliff just past Centeanes beach. The trip gave me a sense of the fragility of these rocks, as the cracks on the cliffs and inside the caves are quite pronounced and I could clearly see large sea stacks (eroded rocks in the sea) and even perfect circles of rock beneath the sea inside caves, which had come from the top of the cave where the sinkhole now is. We passed the pretty beaches of Vale de Covo, Centeanes and Carvalho, which are all surrounded by steep cliffs and only accessible by steps that have been built into the cliffs, and one small beach that is still inaccessible. In the past these beaches would only have been reached by scrambling down the cliff face, so no wonder they were associated with pirates (Carvalho beach is nicknamed ‘Smugglers’ Cove’). At Carvalho beach we were lucky enough to see a row of cliff jumpers lined up on a rock ready to dive in. This is becoming a popular sport among the local young men, which requires skill, knowledge of the sea in this area and a certain amount of fearlessness.
Our trip ended at the Algar de Benagil and on the return to Carvoeiro, Captain Jorge took the boat further out to sea and speeded it up. This was when several passengers turned a bit green. It can be a bit of a rough ride, even on a calm day, but I’m glad to say that my seasickness tablet worked and I stepped off the boat at Carvoeiro beach very glad that I had faced my fear and seen one of Lagoa’s most stunning features.
Boat trips leave regularly from Carvoeiro beach. Tickets are sold on the boardwalk next to the beach, near the toilets. As of 2016, there are two trips on offer: the one to Benagil costs €20 per person and is advertised as taking 1 hour 10 minutes; the one to Marinha costs €25 per person and is advertised as taking 1 hour 30 minutes. In reality the trips can take longer.
The sea can be rough, so if you suffer from seasickness take a tablet before going on the trip.
Wear waterproof shoes with non-slippy soles, for boarding the boat.