Ecotourism in Portugal
with the Storks and Dolphins
of the Sado
By Max Hartshorne
and Ali Crolius
not a major destination for North American ecotourists, who assume that
Europes wildlife was killed off centuries ago. Europeans, on the
other hand, care deeply about their environment and elect significant
numbers of green party representatives to their governments. Among Europeans,
Our September 2001 visit to the tiny village of Carrasqueira was via the
small city of Setubal, the gateway to the wildlife-rich Sado River region
an hour south of Lisbon. The Sado, with its source in the hills of southeastern
Portugal, is the nesting ground or the stopping place for more than 200
species of birds migrating each year between Northern Europe and Africa.
Our stay was arranged by a small travel company called Mil Andancas (www.mil-andancas.pt).
The owners, husband-and-wife team Joaquim and Ana Ferreira, built a cabana
in the middle of a 90,000-acre nature reserve as a home base for ecotourists
to the Costa Azur. They named it Cabana do Tomas Pai after their young
An Isolated Cabana
The cabana is located a half-hour ferry ride across the river from Setubal,
on the peninsula of Troia. Once on the other side, it is still a 20-minute
ride to the cabana. The uninhabited, windblown beaches of the Atlantic
are to our east, the low-lying marshes of the Sado estuary to the west.
Somewhere out in the marshes are the ruins of Cetobriga, a town where
Romans operated a thriving fish-salting trade. With our guide, Mil Andancas
Nuno Soares, we bumped and twisted our way to the fishing hamlet of Carrasquierra
and our cabana.
The main room and kitchen, with a wide-hearthed fireplace, was high-ceilinged,
white-washed, and rustic; the two bedrooms offered chaste twin beds and
a bathroom. Couples come here for a getaway, and families come there to
park themselves for a week away from the big citya bargain at $88
per night for the whole house. The two bikes hidden behind the cabana
were all we needed for transport.
Carrasqueirras streets and shops fizzle out quickly into marsh and
mud, where a wharf weathered, ramshackle, wide enough for one person
to pass zigzags a quarter-kilometer out into the waterway. It is
here that the pescaderos keep their boats, which sit half-tilted in the
mud when the tide is out and are carried aloft when the tide flows in.
When we werent hanging out in one of the fish restaurants, we were
more than happy to be in the cabana. It was built in the traditional style
of the region, with thatched roof and brilliant white stucco trimmed with
blue. The courtyard contained a water pump, a hammock, and a grill.
A second building just across the way, made completely of reeds gathered
from the marshlands, was traditionally used as a second kitchen. Now its
a small museum filled with items of daily use in an earlier time, such
as tools used to dry fish and clothing worn by fishermen. We would see
several of these little museums in our week in Portugal, enough to give
us a peek into local lore.
Dolphins and Storks
Dolphins: No visit to the Reserva Natural do Estuario do Sado is complete
without going out with Pedro Narra, the dolphin man. Pedro26, slender
and tanned from practically living on the rivercame over from his
mooring in Setubal to pick us up. The former hotel and restaurant management
student bought a boat, brushed up on his English, Spanish, and French,
and started his own river-touring business, Vertigea Azul. He has spent
so much time observing the Sado Rivers pod of 34 or so dolphins,
or roazes, that he has names for them all and knows their personalities
and their problems. One dolphin, for instance, has a mouth injury. Pedro
calls it One-Jaw.
More and more Europeans are interested in exploring their continents
ecosystems, Pedro says: They dont want the normal holidays,
beach, etc. They want to see new things. Plus everybody likes the dolphins.
In the Setubal area the dolphins friendly image can be seen everywhereon
tiles, sculptures and paintings, and even on cell phones.
For an hour
and a half we followed the pod of dolphins as they swam slowly toward
the mouth of the Sado, a mile-wide outlet to the sea. They spend the day
in the open Atlantic and return at night, Pedro said. He believes they
know the sound of his outboard motor and allow him to get closer than
other boats. Pedros little inflatable made its way among brightly
colored 8-foot fishing boats from which solitary old men cast lines for
octopus. By harvesting just a few apiece, they promote a sustainable harvest.
But the dolphins future is far from certain. A large paper factory
spews a yellowish haze over the eastern horizon. Hand-lettered signs in
the village protest the deadly paper-making biproduct, dioxin, in the
local air and water. Pedro reported that these toxins had taken their
toll on the golphina population. Each spring several babies are born,
but all but one or two died.
Storks in Roofs
Later in the week, Nuno took us to deeper into the estuary to the east
of Setubal. Between our cabana in Carrasqueira and the Alentejothe
hilly, rich, rolling inland where cork trees and olive groves aboundlies
a vast area where rice is cultivated. Rice-farming families combine their
efforts in cooperatives do arroz.
Storks built their nests atop every available high and flat surface: barn
and house roofs, church steeples, and even smokestacks. For centuries,
they have migrated between Europe and North Africa. But Nuno told us that
this, too, has been changing recently, with the storks remaining in this
region for longer stretches of timeanother possible effect of global
the natural environment shows signs of deterioration, environmental awareness
is growing, Nuno explained, as we drove along the rice farmers dirt
tracks in search of the storks. For example, farmers no longer spread
pesticides on to the rice paddies. One growing movement is the creation
of solares, large family farms where tourists are encouraged to visit
and experience rural culture and farm life.
The jeep tour took us up and down the winding roads among the rice paddies
through farmyards, blackened cork trees, and the dried-out lagoons of
the Sado and Tagus estuaries. Tens of thousands of least bitterns and
purple herons visit this area between September and March en route to
Africa. We drove toward Alcacer do Sol, a small town of about 15,000,
inhabited continously for 5,000 years and watched over by the Moorish
castle perched on the top of a hill above a bend in the gentle Sado river.
One of the most heartwarming sights of this small town, as in Setubal
and all over the country, were the groups of men who gather in the squares,
chatting, laughing and spending time together.
Ecotourism and Farmstays in Portugal
Turismo da Natureza Portugal offers lodging and tourism services throughout
Portugals national protected areas and provides information
on their web site about opportunities to visit rural properties and
solares. Contact: Av Eng. Arantes e Oliveira n 13. 4B Lisboa, 1900-221
Portugal. email, [www.icat.fc.ul.pt
TURIHAB (Associacao do Turismo de Habitacao/Solares de Portugal)
offers listings of solares where travelers can stay on farm properties.
Contact: Praca da Republica, 4990 Ponte de Lima, Portugal; fax 011-351-258-741-444; email, www.turihab.pt.
Privetur, (Associacao Nacional de Turismo de Habitacao), Largo das
Pereiras 4990, Ponte de Lima, Portugal.
Their web site has links to the 106 Privetur farms in Portugal where
travelers can stay and experience the lives of farmers.
For detailed listings of rural accomodations throughout Portugal
go to visitportugal.com and select "accommodations" then "rural tourism."
Hartshorne is the editor of GoNOMAD. Ali Crolius writes and paints in Amherst, Massachusetts.