After a spending a long summer seeming to do nothing but work, it was really nice to get a few days off for some playboating on the Minho river on the Portuguese / Spanish border..........
A few of us had been to Portugal last Autumn on a river running trip, and we couldn't believe the quality of the whitewater we'd found. All of us who had been reckoned that we'd discovered an untapped nirvana of European rivers. On that trip we found ourselves on the Minho river as a warm up paddle. It was running quite high and apart from a couple of big holes was pretty much washed out, the locals however assured us that during the lower water of the summer months the Minho offers up some excellent playboating. As the rivers we'd found in Portugal had been so good we thought we'd take them at their word so vowed to return for a spot of relaxed playing in the sun. (a rough trip report from the Autumn trip can be found here by the way www.thewhitebits.co.uk/Portugal%20Paddling/portugalindex.htm).
After a very small bit of organisation our team of Donna, Matt, Grandad, Mulski, Pearce, Vicky, and I headed to the Minho at the end of August. As usual we couldn't keep it simple and we all flew into different airports at different times! Donna, Pearce, Vicky and I flew into Santiago Airport in Spain, the other guys flew into Porto in Portugal. We all flew Ryanair who were pretty good really. I hadn't been to Santiago airport before and it's quite nice. It small and it seems to cater well for all kinds of people doing outdoor type sports as the terminal was full of surfers, walkers, climbers, and of course our small contigent of boaters. After a little bit of faff we all made it to our rendevous at the campsite, which was actually on the Spanish side of the Minho in a little village called Caniza.
First thing in the morning at our campsite, note nobody is out of bed
At the campsite we were also joined by Raul (an old friend from Spanish Pyrennes trips), and a good friend that we made in Portugal last year - Jorge.
Jorge is really passionate about both boating and his local Portuguese rivers. He runs a kayak business in Portugal (www.pagayak.com) and gets on the water as much as he can, which seems to be just about every day! Jorge helped us out over the first few days with which spots would be working best a different water levels. He also drank a lot of beer, which is always nice......
Jorge relaxes at the end of the day.......with a beer
During the trip we tended to spend the daylight hours on the Portuguese side of the river in a little town called Melgaco. At night we would head back up to the hill (and into Spanish Caniza). Melgaco is a really pretty place with quite a large medieval quarter. It has a small boating community based around the Minho river, is really cheap, and the people friendly. If you want you can stay in the youth hostel in the village (about 11 euros per night B & B). We stayed in the hostel last Autumn and it's more like a hotel than a hostel, it's really nice. We opted to camp on this trip as it seemed we should take advantage of the daily temperatures which were between 32 to 37 degrees celcius! It's worth noting for autumn/winter river runners that within 15 - 30 minutes of Melgaco there's some classic creeking.
Donna at one of the look out points in Melgaco
The tower in the centre of Melgaco
Swatton has a look from one the huge fortifications in the village
The Minho is dam controlled and the amount of water released depends on how much power is being generated in Spain. This usually means lower water at the weekend. The amount of water being released affects which playspots will be working. The release typically varies in the summer months from 25 to 300 cumecs, with the river going to 300 during office hours in the week and dropping to 25 in the evenings and on the weekends. Surprisingly with such a wide variation in water levels there is something which will work at pretty much every level. There's even stuff which starts to come in as the river hits big winter levels, but that's really another story. All of the spots are created by man made ledges which were built in order to catch eels as they migrate up river. Some of the traps still see a small bit of use. Each playspot is seperated by flat water, so you can either park and play or surf one place for a while, then paddle on to the next one (depending on the levels). During the time we were there we mostly played between Melgaco and Arbo, a 4km stretch which gave us several different waves and holes. It was invaluble to have Jorge there as he could point us in the right direction depending on the level.
Arbo put in/ take out - you can work out the level here, I think this shows about 125 cumecs
We started our paddling off over the weekend, which brought us a 25 cumec release. This meant that it was hole time. There are several small holes which are good for a warm up. These spots were small but deep, and were perfect for getting the limbs going. They were all within 5 minutes drive of Melgaco.
Raul throws ends in one of the warm up holes
After warming up you can head about 500 metres down stream of Arbo to a hole which has been the site of both Portuguese and Spanish freestyle championships. I cannot tell you enough how much fun this hole is. It's deep, fluffy, and goes both ways. It's a medium sized pile, and intially looks quite beefy, however it's got to be one of the most friendly holes I have ever played in. We got ourselves into all sorts of stupid postions during the week and not one beating was handed out. This spot serves up every possible hole move, cartwheels, loops, tricky whu's etc. The queue never got anymore than 5 people and only 2 of them would be locals. There's also a nice beach beside the hole where you can swim to cool off, drink beer, and have a snack. Very very nice. I've got to give credit to Swatton here, he really worked the hole well, and was pulling off some of the biggest loops I have ever seen. We really had a fun time here. I hope to post some better pictures of the hole soon which do it a bit more justice.
Bob gets all twisted up in the bottom hole
If the hole isn't enough and you want to chill out there's a small wave 100m upstream. This is where another playwave forms as the water hits 125 cumecs (more on this later).
Vicky chills out on the wave
So we settled into a routine for the week, get up, eat, chill out, swim, play, drink, and eat some more. It really was sweet. From Monday to Friday the dam released more water, and the Minho play wave started to come into play. It's at the same place of the wave I mentioned above. This works at about 125 cumecs, and it's hard to tell you how good this wave is. There's a massive eddy on river right, and one paddle stroke will put you on it. It's not the biggest wave in the world but is super smooth, you can spin and blunt to your hearts content on this feature. The wave almost seems magnetic, and even when you think you've washed off the back, it just seems to suck you right back on there - cool. Again queues are not really the done thing around here. The most people we ever shared the eddy with were 2 body boarders.
Pearce hits the front surf
Swatton goes for the blunt
Body boarder stands up for a bit
So we settled into a really nice routine, which was made even better by the food and drink. Everything was fresh, and simply cooked. It was also really cheap, a meal with simple starter, main course, desert, and wine, was usually working out at about 7 euros each. We had all kinds of meat, veg, seafood, stews, and hams. The wine of the region was excellent, Alvarinho is the name of the local white wine (Vino Verde - but not as you know it), also available was Verde Tinto (red wine version of Vino Verde, you can't get this outside of this region).
The gang sits down for an Al Freshco meal
Bob helps out a local lady with cooking up some of the best freakin octopus we've ever tasted
Mulski tucks into the best freakin octopus
Cooking up some steak
Which Swatton washes down with some Verde Tinto
All in all an awesome trip. The weather was superb, and the boating really good fun. If you're after somewhere to spend a few days playboating in a really chilled environment, I can't reccomend it enough. Remember also as the river rises the big holes and waves further upstream start to work. There's not that many places this close to the UK that will allow you such reliable sunny play. I'm now pretty convinced that Northern Portugal has to be one of Europes top paddling destinations as there's something worthwhile to do all year round.........
Below are few more pics of our little trip.
Bob enters the bottom hole
Donna drinks more local wine
Inside a Minho rock formation
Grandad with an interesting choice of meal.......
Some Minho scenery