Travel is treacherous. Seriously, it should rip a page from America’s drug commercial culture and come up with its own disclaimer.
Ask yourself if “travel” is right for you. Side effects may include an intense feeling of invincibility, false courage, newfound swagger, and the transformative powers of someone new. Selective amnesia and lost comprehension of your natural abilities may also occur. If you experience any of these symptoms, seek treatment immediately and consult the rational part of your brain to see if you should continue taking “travel”.
These most often occur once you ascend overseas and breach your psychological barrier with an overabundance of confidence. It’s difficult to put into words, but there’s something about travel that – for lack of a better term – makes you an inane idiot.
Travelers have an inclination to seek out those “once-in-a-lifetime” experiences when they’re on the road and more often than not, these include some sort of thrill factor. Exotic places such as Dubai and Queenstown thrive off throwing people over bridges and buildings, South Africa submerges humans via a cage into Great White Shark-infested waters, and Bolivia legally makes it possible for anyone to tempt fate and traverse the Death Road.
When in Rome, right?
I’m not resistant to this travelers’ arrogance; for I whole-heartedly consider myself untouchable when abroad. In New York City, I won’t dare take the subway home after midnight; yet I’m perfectly comfortable hitching a ride in Liverpool, spending the night with a stranger in Dublin, confronting wild dingoes in heat on Fraser Island, and riding motorbikes around the unruly no-way-in-hell-are-there-traffic-laws-here streets of Ho Chi Minh City (this is going to be a fun phone conversation with mom and dad once this goes live).
The latest side effect flared up on my recent trip to Portugal when I had an out of body experience as I saw myself being flung off cliffs, sliding through waterfalls, scrambling from rock to rock, flying down homemade ziplines, and accruing more hematomas than a dainty peach – all while experiencing canyoning for the first time.
Peneda-Geres National Park
I like to make believe I’m a natural-born outdoorsman because I have a thing for mountains and their ensuing natural beauty coupled with consolations of solitude. Spending at least one day exploring a country’s unique terrestrial landscape is something I make a concerted effort to do on every journey.
Portugal isn’t exactly known in the guidebook as the “Adventure Capital of the World”. Hell, it probably wouldn’t even make Lonely Planet’s “Top 40 Natural Park Destinations” list.
But nestled in the far northeastern corner of the country is a little known pocket of paradise that embraces the title of Portugal’s only national park and stuns with its unfiltered beauty.
Peneda-Geres National Park has a long history of sparse human inhabitance spanning 7,000 years. Megalithic and Celtic ruins still hang about while the geographical reach of the Romans is demonstrated in places like Portela do Homem with its collection of ancient milestones. It’s also home to a smattering of quaint mountain villages such as Soajo and Lindoso that make for ideal places to relish in the tranquility of the park.
All of these are serenely set into a backdrop of beautiful scenery shaped by an exceptionally varied climate that results in a display of rare flora and fauna intermingled within a flowing system of rivers, creeks, and lagoons. It’s no wonder this park offers the best hiking experience in Portugal.
Getting around by car is easily your best option for exploring this expansive park but if you’re anything like me and wish to spare the world from your atrocious driving skills, there are a few companies that use nearby Porto or Braga as a base for day tours.
I came across Oporto Adventure Tours who offered an excursion inclusive of hiking, swimming, and traveling to a traditional highland village. I was just about to press inquire when I noticed another option – Canyoning.
I had no clue what that was but the pictures looked pretty and what’s travelling without a little adventure?
So I thought why not?
I mean it can’t be that much different from hiking right? And I love hiking. It’ll be fine.
It’s just that loving something doesn’t mean you’re actually good at it. I find that I often forget I’m allergic to exercise until I’m about halfway up a mountain and too far beyond the acceptable threshold for turning back.
A fact that I most definitely forgot as I climbed into the van waiting outside my hostel in Porto.
Oporto Adventure Tours had paired us with Toboga who would lead our canyoning expedition and the small group included seven other brave travelers from all over the world. As we made our way to the park, we introduced ourselves and found we were a melting pot of cultures with representatives from Belgium, Romania, Saudi Arabia, India and the United States.
We then proceeded to get to know each other extremely well as we reached the top of the mountain and were told to strip down along the side of the road and change into the provided wetsuits and harnesses (though I did not look nearly as badass as I thought I would. Only Jennifer Lawrence channeling Katniss Everdeen can pull off the smoldering sexy wetsuit look).
Once we locked up all of our personal items and got over that first grip of separation anxiety from our cell phones and cameras (luckily the guides brought their own waterproof ones to snap shots of us) we began our trek.
We dove right in and got our feet wet (no pun intended) by submerging into the cold waters of the first lagoon while the instructors breezed through the general safety rules and regulations and clarified that canyoning – simply put – is a way of descending through rivers, gorges, and canyons using a variety of techniques depending on each distinctive terrain.
These vague “techniques” would become very clear (as well as surprising) to me on the way down.
As the basic hiking phase began, I barreled out of the water to make a beeline toward the guide at the very front because I’m annoyingly competitive like that. Plus I had been traveling alone and may have been a little starved for human interaction and as my regular readers know I love chattering with anything that walks – especially local residents.
In a stone’s throw (oops another pun) I quickly discovered this wasn’t your average trekking along a nice and neat weathered trail – we began to quite literally scramble from rock to rock.
The majority of which were drenched with riverwater, moss, and lichen which is basically nature’s way of cautioning “Slippery When Wet”.
Navigating these slick –and oft times loose – boulders triggered an abundance of clumsy falls trailed by new bruises and I found myself beginning to slip (punroll please) into battle over first place.
Then came the first wave of internal panic.
“Ok. This is where we jump to get down.”
Oh no. No no no. Are you f****** kidding me? No way. Nope. Can I go home please?
“Who wants to go first?”
For the first time in my life – Hell no. Nope . No no no. No way.
The first person jumps…
Holy s*** did he hit the ledge? No? Well, it looked like he might.
Then the second…
How high are we? This looks high.
Give it up for the third…
Damn that water is crystal clear.
I mean am I the only one who sees all the boulders beneath the water?? F*** Kristen, you just had to eat that pastry for breakfast didn’t you? It’s your own damn fault if you sink to the bottom and experience death by rock.
Yeah right. Like I’m actually gonna jump. “Of course!”Nope. Not doing it. “I was born ready!”
Down goes the fifth…
Cliff jumping tip – close your mouth when you make the death defying leap. No one wants to be the idiot who inhales water into their lungs and comes up screaming for help. It’s embarrassing. Especially when the guy “rescuing” you is sexy as hell. Trust me on this one.
“Ok guys. Look – see that higher spot? We can climb back up and jump again. You in?”
Mother F***** “Hell yeah, like I would miss that!”
Ugh competitive people are the worst.
Somehow still alive and with all our bones cooperatively intact, we forged on only to find more surprises around the bend as we approached the looming waterfall.
I warily scrutinized the guides as they pulled out ropes and clamps to start securing passage that more or less would have us abseiling down the face of the cliff. Turns out our harnesses were more than just an accessory.
Feeling slightly braver and desperately wanting to recover from the mortifying ‘Help me! Help me!’ incident, I confidently (and a bit prudently) listened as my kickass guide coached me on how to rappel downwards.
I’d expand more but a picture’s worth a thousand words…
The day progressed onward with us stumbling over more rocks, swimming through countless lagoons, and grasping the significance of teamwork that’s involved with canyoning. The guides were tremendous and I could not recommend Toboga enough.
Getting to know their staff was wonderful as they brought so much energy and were tremendously helpful while never being condescending about anyone’s natural (or lack of) ability. Although, there is a slight chance they made fun of my clumsiness and water inhaling talents behind my back (it’s cool though – I would have made fun of me too).
Peneda-Geres National Park is a true hidden jewel with gorgeous mountain views that were uninterrupted by any other tour groups or humans for that matter. Our only visitor was the occasional cow.
This was my absolute favorite experience in all of Portugal. I’m seriously addicted and upon my return I told all my friends that I now aspired to be a professional canyoner (which of course garnered more laughter. I appreciate the support guys).
Oh and did I also mention the zip-lining technique…
Have you ever done anything you normally wouldn’t do while traveling? What did you do and where? Let me know in the comments below!
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The current Travel Dispatch journey kicked off in Panama on Nov 15 and is showcasing a classic “round the world” loop as I weave my way from Latin America to The Balkans, Eastern Europe to the Middle East, and Southeast Asia back to the US over a period of 12 months and with a budget of $25,000. Finally along live by subscribing below!