Ecotourism in Portugal’s Sado River Region

Mingling with the Storks and Dolphins in Portugal

By Max Hartshorne

Dolphins off the coast of Portugal near Setubal.
Dolphins off the coast of Portugal near Setubal. photo: Ali Crolius

Europe is not a major destination for North American eco-tourists, who assume that Europe’s 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, ecotourism thrives.

Gateway to the Sado River

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. 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 son.

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-hearth 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 city—a bargain at $88 per night for the whole house. The two bikes hidden behind the cabana were all we needed for transport.

Marshland and Mud

Carrasqueirra’s 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 weren’t 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 a 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 it’s 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. Pedro—26, slender and tanned from practically living on the river—came 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 River’s 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 continent’s ecosystems, Pedro says: “They don’t want the normal holidays, beach, etc. They want to see new things. Plus everybody likes dolphins.” In the Setubal area, the dolphin’s friendly image can be seen everywhere—on tiles, sculptures and paintings, and even on cell phones.

Following the Pod of Dolphins

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.

Pedro’s 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 dolphin’s 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 bi-product, dioxin, in the local air and water. Pedro reported that these toxins had taken their toll on the dolphin 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 Alentejo—the hilly, rich, rolling inland where cork trees and olive groves abound—lies 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 time—another possible effect of global warming.

Storks in their nests in the Sado River Estuary, Portugal.
Storks in their nests in the Sado River Estuary, Portugal.

As 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 continuously 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 Portugal’s 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.

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,

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 accommodations throughout Portugal go to and select “accommodations” then “rural tourism.”

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