This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).
Designated protected areas make up almost a quarter of Portugal’s landmass, and while this Iberian country has just one national park — Peneda-Gerês, on the Spanish border in the far north — there are 24 natural parks and other protected landscapes for nature lovers to explore. Often etched with hiking trails that lead you through pine-clad hills, wildflower valleys and high pastures, these areas make prime spots to catch a glimpse of native fauna such as horses, eagles, lizards and even dolphins in the wild.
1. Wild horses in Peneda-Gerês National Park
It’s the 21st century elsewhere, but Peneda-Gerês National Park hasn’t got the memo. Life moves to a traditional beat here, with trails leading to tiny granite villages and high pastures where shepherds drive their flocks. The whoosh of wings might draw your gaze up to golden eagles and honey buzzards, or the stamp of hooves might signal Garrano ponies, a diminutive breed thought to have lived here for 20,000 years. Walk here and you’ll often find yourself on the Geira Roman Road, shepherd’s trails and pilgrimage routes. Knitting them together is the GR 50 Grand Rota Peneda-Gerês, a 120-mile hike, which penetrates the heart of the park. May to September is prime hiking season.
How to do it: Responsible Travel organises eight-day, self-guided walking holidays in Peneda-Gerês, from £678 per person, including accommodation, private transfers, route notes and some lunches.
2. Dolphins in Arrábida Natural Park
Less than an hour’s drive south of Lisbon, Arrábida Natural Park is an unsung coastal beauty. At the foot of chalk cliffs are powder-soft sands, rocky coves and the brilliant blue Atlantic, where dolphins and minke whales frolic; summer is peak season to spot them. Pine-clad hills roll inland, pulsing with hundreds of butterfly species, including the swallowtail, marsh fritillary and Lorquin’s blue. Peregrine falcons and kestrels soar above slopes cloaked in thyme, and olive and pistachio trees, while Bonelli’s eagles nest on the limestone cliffs. You’ll see plenty of birdlife on Portugal’s highest cliff, 381-metre Serra do Risco.
How to do it: Day Dream Experience’s marine biologist-led tours (from €50/£43) give you glimpses of bottlenose and common dolphins and, if you’re really lucky, pilot whales, orcas, sharks and sunfish. Look Around Tours also offers dolphin-watching trips (from €75/£64).
3. Rock lizards in Serra da Estrela Natural Park
Mountain roads corkscrew through granite mountains in Portugal’s north east. Here, the country’s highest peaks tower above glacier-scoured valleys, rivers and lakes. Spring brings an eruption of wildflowers, and by night millions of stars embroider Portugal’s darkest skies. Fauna include foxes, otters, wildcats, boars and the endemic Iberian rock lizard, best observed from February to October. Birds love it here, too, with black storks, eagle owls, Montagu’s harriers, peregrine falcons, northern wheatears and booted eagles to spot. Base yourself in Manteigas for quick access to the Trilhos Verdes (‘Green Trails’), a 120-mile network of footpaths and former shepherd’s trails, ranging from easy strolls to summit treks.
How to do it: 10 Adventures offers an eight-day, self-guided walking tour in Serra da Estrela, from £475 per person, including accommodation, transfers, route maps and notes.
4. Flamingos in Ria Formosa Natural Park
This park in the Algarve is a delicate fretwork of marshes, creeks, dune islands and marbled swirls of golden sand and turquoise sea. Few tourists make it out here, but those who do come silently and with binoculars. On the five-mile, three- to four-hour Ludo Trail, keep an eye out for spoonbills, grey herons, black-winged stilts and shy Mediterranean turtles sunning themselves in the marshes and lagoons. Come between October and March to see the algae-rich salt flats fizzing with glorious, pink flamingos.
How to do it: Nature tour company Formosamar, based in Faro, the capital city of the Algarve, will take you out on the water. Rent a kayak to paddle the backwaters at your own pace or join a two-hour birdwatching boat trip (€35/£30) for excellent chances of sighting a host of feathered species, including white storks, little egrets, black-tailed godwits and oystercatchers.
5. Eagles in Douro International Natural
Park Set on Portugal’s northeastern border with Spain, this natural park is a heaven for wildlife. The terrain is buckled with deep valleys, ravines and ragged cliffs, where wildcats, wolves, roe deer and wild boar run riot. Elusive otters splash in rivers. Endangered bats flit in caves.
There are many miradouros (viewpoints) in these parts, but for soul-stirring views over a rumpled quilt of green and the silver seam of the Douro River as it flows out of Spain, trek up to 550-metre-high Miradouro de Penedo Durão near the village of Freixo de Espada à Cinta. With luck (and a sharp eye), you’ll spot golden eagles, peregrine falcons and griffon vultures wheeling in flawless blue skies.
How to do it: 10 Adventures offers an eight-day, self-guided, moderately challenging walking holiday in the nature park, starting in Miranda do Douro and ending in Porto, including accommodation and luggage transfers, from £775 per person.
To subscribe to National Geographic Traveller (UK) magazine click here. (Available in select countries only).