XPDTN3 Algarviana – Exploring Portugal's Secret Gravel

Tim Wiggins Algarve Gravel Riding
Just before the world went into Lockdown in March 2020, I squeezed in a last minute trip to Portugal's Algarve—to explore some of the amazing and unique gravel riding on offer there...

Dust rises, rocks ping from beneath tyres, and the scent of wild rosemary and jasmine fill the air as I barrel down the narrow twisting singletrack to the serene Guadiana River below. This is only my first evening in the Algarve, but I have already added it to my list of 'Gravel Riding Meccas'.

I first came here last December—seeking respite from the cold and grey of the UK winter. Then, the region delivered unquestionably—with 18 Celsius temperatures and dusty trails, explored on a rental mountain bike. That first trip also opened my eyes to an iconic point-to-point bikepacking adventure that could be staged in this unique landscape…

The Via Algarviana is an ancient hiking route spanning the Algarve from the Guadiana River on the Spanish border to the Cabo de São Vincente lighthouse at the south western tip of Portugal (and Europe). The route takes in the rolling hills of the Algarve interior, the high Monchique Serra mountain range, and finishes amongst the vast sand dunes of the Atlantic coast. 

I wondered, could I ride it? On a gravel bike?

Tim Wiggins XPDTN3 Algarve

A local friend and bike shop owner affirmed that it would certainly be possible to take on the Algarviana on the 3T Exploro; with just a few tweaks to the route, and a mindset ready for an ever undulating and often challenging ride.

The plan was set. In early March I flew to Faro and caught a transfer to the peaceful village of Alcoutim at the eastern extremity of the Algarve. Dining on bacalao and chips that evening, sat next to the peaceful river, I pondered what lay ahead—three epic days of gravel to cross a country and reach the deep blue Atlantic beyond…

Tim Wiggins XPDTN3 Algarve

Day One – Alcoutim to Querença

The next morning, the route heads immediately uphill from the sleeping village of Alcoutim. The sun rises over the still Guadiana River and the morning mist hovers in the valley.

Within an hour the sun's rays have broken through; warming the dark red earth as my tyres make tracks westwards on the twisting trail. The region I am riding through presents another side of the Algarve—far removed from the tourist hotspots on the southern coast. Here, the farmland and rolling hills go on for miles, punctuated only by the occasional remote farm or chapel.

As the morning unfolds, the temperature rises to a pleasant 22 degrees and I ride deeper and deeper into the Algarve interior. 

The further you go, the steeper the ascents and descents become, and the rockier and more technical the trail. It is soon a case of shifting to the lowest gear on every hill, before summiting the dirt road and hanging off the back of your saddle for the obstacle course of a descent that follows. I am left grinning from ear to ear.

By late afternoon I reach a local bar in the village of Cachopo. Refuelling on orange cake, espresso, and ice-cream, sat in the shade of a Sagres beer parasol, I do not need to remind myself how close I am to Africa here—you can feel the power of the sun on your dust-caked skin.

The sustenance in Cachopo is much needed; from this point on the trails become even more remote and the gradients even more extreme. At one point I am tearing down a broad sandy trail, then suddenly the track pitches downwards, becomes punctuated with rocks and drops steeply down to the river crossing below. I skid round the hairpin, heart pounding as the adrenaline flows.

The endless peaks and valleys keep coming as the late afternoon turns to early evening. The low sun illuminates red clouds of dust kicked up; creating stunning vistas on every hilltop in the fading light.

It is beginning to get dark as I pull into a friendly rural guesthouse in the small town of Querença. 

After washing the dust from my legs, I stumble into the town square to dine on fresh fish and polenta. What an incredible start to this adventure.

Day Two – Querença to Caldas de Monchique

Day two on the Via Algarviana provides another changing landscape. Starting with villages and towns, it then progresses again into remoteness as you head into the Monchique Serra Mountains.

The ride begins on undulating hills through the villages of Salir, Benafim, and Alte. These rural provinces are quiet and peaceful in the early morning calm. 

It is after passing through the town of São Bartholomew though, that I ride into something truly spectacular…

The route heads north west and drops down to the shore of the Rio Arde reservoir—a vast network of stunning azure lakes created by a series of huge dams. The path weaves along the shoreline, far away from civilisation; the sound of thousands of birds the only soundtrack to the ride.

After Rio Arde, the trail climbs steeply again on a network of dirt road hairpins; taking you high onto the peaks to offer up panoramic views. 

This beautiful region was victim to some of the worst forest fires in Portugal, and the effects are still clear on the charred route markers and burnt tree stumps that line the path. Luckily though, nature seems to be rejuvenating itself at a remarkable rate.

From the high peaks I descend to the large town of Silves—seeking out a local restaurant to rejuvenate hungry legs. It seems worth pausing to enjoy the great architecture and restock supplies; because next you head into the high mountains…

From Silves there is no flat. You head north on gravel paths that take you skyward for more than 12 kilometres—deep into the Monchique mountains. The huge solar farm at the summit must be tapping into some serious sunshine, for up here there is nowhere to shelter or hide. The views are truly spectacular.

By late afternoon, after a steep and twisting descent, I am grateful to turn onto a rare section of tarmac road. Here begins the final climb of the day—a 10 kilometre road pass towards the Picota Mountain peak. 

At the summit, you can glimpse the sea on the distant horizon. Then, with weary legs and a building appetite it is time to descend into the gorge below to find lodgings in the mountain spa resort of Caldas de Monchique.

Day 3 – Caldas de Monchique to Cabo de São Vincente Lighthouse

The final day on the XPDTN3 Algarviana offers up another utterly unique terrain; from the high Monchique peaks to the Atlantic coast…

The day begins with the biggest climb of the trip, to the highest peak in the Algarve—the Fóia.

The hairpins twist and turn up the mountainside as I climb higher and higher in the rising sun. 

At 900 metres above sea level, when I finally reach the summit, I am rewarded with a sure sight of the Atlantic beyond; along with the knowledge that from mountain top to coast it can only (mostly) be downhill.

Indeed, the descent down to the village of Marmlette is blisteringly fast; with wide open gravel tracks allowing you to tear through the landscape at speed. Even from Marmlette the downhill continues, taking you onwards to the surfers' paradise of Aljezur—with its beautiful castle and cobbled streets.

Then, before you know it, you are riding through the sand dunes and out to the windswept Atlantic coast. 

It is a struggle to stand, let alone pedal against the unrelenting wind; but the views are a sublime distraction as I make my way southwards through the vast network of dunes.

After one final push into the mother of all headwinds, I arrive at the Cabo de São Vincente lighthouse.

Stood outside the lighthouse gates, I reflect on what an incredibly diverse and beautiful journey the Via Algarviana has offered—the Guadiana River seems like a distant memory now, and a thousand miles from this remote tip of Europe.

The Algarve lives up to its nickname of 'Europe's Secret'. It has surprised me again, with riding more challenging, more diverse, and more spectacular than I dreamt of. 

Add the Via Algarviana to your bucket list.

XPDTN3 Algarviana Fact Sheet

  • Location: Algarve, Southern Portugal
  • Total trip distance (3 days): 359 kilometres
  • Ascent in metres: 6000 metres
  • Trip info: The three-day route starts from Alcoutim on the Guadiana River, at Portugal's border with Spain. On a mixture of gravel roads, small lanes and singletrack it traverses the country from east to west; finishing at the most south western point of Europe — the Cabo de São Vincente lighthouse. From here I rode back to Lagos and caught the train to Faro.
  • Best time to travel: September to March (it is too hot in the summer months)
  • Type of terrain: Steep hills, with loose rocky ascents and descents. Mixed with rolling gravel/sand double track and backroads.
  • Expected weather: The Algarve gets extraordinarily little rain, except for heavy downpours in November and February. 
  • Gearing guidance: 38T front chainring and 11-42 rear cassette. There are a lot of steep hills!
  • Tyre guidance: 700 x 40c minimum width, with some good tread.
  • Do not forget… Sun cream. You are closer to the equator than most of Europe, which means a higher UV index.
  • Airport: Faro International Airport 
  • Accommodation 
  • Visa: Remember to check whether you need a visa

Route Maps


  1. Looks ace Tim thanks for sharing. Can I ask - day zero doesn't appear in your story - was that just an aperitif?

  2. Brilliant post! Portugal has been my dream destination for many years. But I couldn’t plan a visit to this beautiful country simply because of my extensive work commitments. However, I recently got one month of time off so I am planning to apply for a Portugal Visa Online. I will be taking some useful tips from your blog to finalize the places that I want to see in Portugal. Apart from this, I am pretty excited to try out authentic Portuguese cuisine for the very first time.

  3. Hey Mate,
    What did you do with your bike box whilst you were away on the ride? I'm heading out there this weekend to do XPDTN3 route as well as a bit more riding. Did you contact a bike shop in Faro? Cheers heaps in advance


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