Often, the picturesque places you see on postcards and computer backgrounds can seem a bit underwhelming when you experience them in real life. (After all, most things look better after a being edited a bit and with the saturation turned all the way up.) But rarely, you will find a place so extraordinary that even the incredible photos you had seen online fail to do justice. Lagos is the epitome of that kind of place. In planning for this trip, the Internet was literally polluted with photos of the rocky cliffs and emerald waters on the Algarve Coast that were so otherworldly. As we made the long journey through the Portuguese hills and countryside on our way to the coast, I had hoped to myself that Lagos would live up to the very high expectations I had for it.
We made a long drive through the windy hilly topography of the Portugese countryside. Since we arrived too late in the day to salvage any beach time, we decided to explore the historic downtown and treat ourselves to a memorable meal. After a brief walk on along the straw market at the port at sunset, we found ourselves in a dimly lit Michellin-rated restaurant, enjoying some of the most exquisitely prepared food I ever had, soaking in the ambiance of candlelight and white glove hospitality. While we are usually frugal travelers, for this meal, we decided to disregard prices and order everything that our heart desired…with extra white truffles for good measure. It was a delectable and lavish meal that was worth every penny (or more accurately, every Euro.) Once our plates and martini glasses were emptied, we ventured out to see what a night on the town in Lagos might entail.
As soon as we exited the restaurant and continued toward the town center, I actually began to feel a bit overdressed. While I was expecting the glitz and glamour of Monaco, the downtown areas of Lagos was incredibly casual, with vibes more reminiscent of Key West than Monte Carlo. And while it was significantly more laid back than I had expected, this was certainly not a bad thing. Lagos was no stuffy resort town, but rather a vibrant coastal party town bursting at the seams with bars, restaurants, and music. The streets were narrow, and many were blanketed with string lights illuminating the sidewalk seating and shops that lines the sides.
The makeup of the town was an eclectic split between wealthy older travelers and bohemian international backpackers (who stayed in one of the countless hostels found on every side street…or just slept on the beach of the temperate coast.) Barefoot bohemians played instruments, belly dancers jingles, and other acrobats performed in the streets while tourist sat at wine bars or in the town square to listen.
As we often do, we found a rooftop bar to get a lay of the land, and before we knew it, one thing led to another and we found ourselves dancing at 3am in a wild backpacker bar where everyone must have assumed we were 22 and studying abroad. It was an unexpected night that quickly escalated from 5-star dining to Jager-bombs – which was a good indication of just how diverse Lagos was.
Somehow, despite our wild night out, we woke early and refreshed – eager to finally see the famed coast we had read so much about. Our apartment was the last building on the edge of a cliff, so it only took a few steps before we got a glimpse of the beach below. In the tranquil hours of morning, while the sun was rising, we stood along the ledge and were the only people as far as the eye could see. And what we saw was nothing short of awe inspiring. We climbed down steep steps to the first beach we came upon. The sand and cliffs above gleamed in shades of red and amber, which contrasted against the crystal green and blue waters that gently lapped at the shore. As per usual, I wasted no time before I was waist deep in the Atlantic with the cliffs at my back enjoying the cool water. We walked along the shoreline, in and out of caves and beneath overhangs. As I gazed out at our deserted beach, I realized that this place was nothing like the photos we had spent months pining for…it was much better.
We spend the remainder of the day beach hopping. As the morning turned to afternoon, the rays of the sun grew stronger and the sand began filling in with umbrellas and towels. I was so glad that we had beat the sleepy crowds so that we could have a few hours with the beach all to ourselves.
I alternated between naps beneath the sunshine to rejuvenating swims into the clear waters to cool off. Once we had done this rotation a few times, we would climb back up the steps and along the cliff to the next beach along the coast and repeat the process. Each beach we approached had different rock formations and caves along its shore, and just when I thought one beach couldn’t get any more stunning, we would relocate to the next one, which seemed better than the last. After a few beaches, we found a more crowded beach with a boardwalk and cafe, where we had a fresh lunch and beers, just steps from where our towels lay waiting for our return.
As we continued along from beach to beach, the hikes along the cliffside path became a bit more treacherous. With only flip flops and a bathing suit, I wasn’t exactly dressed for the expedition, but I knew that if we traveled by road instead of by trail, we would miss out of the spectacular views from each ledge. And so carefully, we inched ahead, stopping along the way to snap photos.
We arrived to the final beach, Praia do Pinhão, which was the shining gem of the stretch. A wooden staircase comprised of hundreds of steps led us down to the beach, which was surrounded on all sides with massive caverns and rocks formations protruding from the water almost out to the horizon. We stayed on this beach under the shelter of a large cave until the sun began to sink in the sky and the beachgoers collected their things. By sunset, yet again, we had nearly the entire beachfront to ourselves. I hated to leave this incredible spot, which looked like a scene from another world, but I knew that after an entire day hiking away from town, we had a long journey back. Instead of traversing the rocky facade, my feet rejoiced when we opted for a sandy Uber ride back to instead. We returned home salty, sun kissed, and exhausted from the day, but pushed through our fatigue to make reservations at a famous steakhouse. After another incredible meal and a nightcap on the balcony beneath the moon, I collapsed in bed and was comatose before my head had a chance to hit the pillow.
The next morning we were early to rise again. We ventured out to a new stretch of beach- this time driving about 20 minutes away to experience the most famous site on the coast. The Benagil beach was the home of the most famed sea cavern in Europe, which was situated south of an accompanying beach nestled under a cliff. We beat the crowds and parked along the side of a dirt road to climb down to the beach below. From the beach, there were many arches erecting from the waters, but the famous Benagil cave was just out of sight. We had done our research and learned that the only two ways to access the cave were: charter a boat with a guide (which did not even enter the cave for fear of crashing into the rocks in the waves)…or a rigorous swim. The swim was highly discouraged by all the guides we had read, but I am stubborn (and a strong swimmer) and knew I would regret being so close without entering the cave for myself. And so, we swam out into the sea around the arches and formations until we could hardly see the shore in the distance. After what felt like an eternity of swimming, we saw the cave and the small boats full of tourists bobbing outside the entrance. It was very satisfying when we swam past the boats and onlookers into the shallows of the cave beyond their view. While the waves coming in an out of the cave were rough, we were able to stand and climb inside and catch our breath as we snapped a few blurry photos of the once-in-a-lifetime scenery from small beach inside illuminated by a natural circular hole in the top of the domed cave where the sun shone though [*waterproof cell phones truly came in clutch for this.]
The swim back was less enjoyable, as I opted for a shortcut though an arched passage, which resulted in me getting pushed by the waves into the sharp rocks a few times. In the end, my exhaustion and minor scrapes were very worthwhile, as I knew we had experienced something special from a vantage point that few people get to see. After sunbathing and recovering, we headed back up the stairs to drive to another beach.
In an exchange that was nothing short of serendipitous, on the way up the steps to the dirt road above, I heard someone calling out my name. I almost didn’t believe it as I saw another attorney from my law firm coming down the stairs in our direction waving at me. We stopped and caught up and marveled at the uncanny coincidence of running into someone who works two offices down from my own randomly in such a remote place on the other side of the world (*a small world indeed.)
When we finally got back to our car in late afternoon, I found my cell phone buzzing continuously with messages and calls. I picked it up to hear the frantic exclamations of our AirBnb host wondering where we were and why we had not vacated. We had been so profoundly immersed in the wonder of the Algarve that we had completely lost track of time and mixed up our dates – so it turned out that we were several hours late for check out. Being such seasoned and organized travelers, I couldn’t believe how out of character it was for both of us to have had such a misstep. At the time, I was a bit stressed as we rushed back to collect our belongings so the next guests could check in. Looking back on it, I have to laugh at the scene of me speeding into the parking lot and bounding up the stairs in a bikini still soaked in sea water to quickly gather up everything we had into our arms and run back out the stairs as our host watched with an expression of confusion and disapproval from the doorway.
Luckily, Portuguese people proved to be gracious and understanding. After my profuse apology, the host even wrote a positive review of me on AirBnb. The car rental company laughed and greeted us with a smile when we finally arrived many hours late to our drop-off in Lisbon, and our host at our next apartment was equally as accommodating. In the end, our lackadaisical error had little consequence, and in fact gave us one extra very epic day to explore the coast. Our time in the Algarve was packed to the brim, and I wished we could have stayed longer. Lagos gave new meeting to the adage that you can truly “lose yourself” when you become so entrenched in the spirit of adventure in such a remarkable place.