Just a few miles beyond Alcoutim (PT) and Sanlucar de Guadiana (ES), we began our upstream venture with a highly recommended dinghy excursion into the Rio Vascao.
The Rio Vascao borders the southernmost section of Portugal’s Parque Natural do Vale do Guadiana. The Rio Vascao continues beyond our stopping point, yet we’d already carried the dinghy over a small dam and eventually ran out of water where small falls trickled downstream. There are a few park trails and dirt roads that access the Vascao. We harvested pomegranates for a fresh snack and Brian harvested a hat-full of olives for his brine experimenting.
From the Rio Vascao, the next morning we continued ’round a tricky shallow area at Pomarao (PT). Cruisers at Alcoutim had given us visual directions to set a range to best navigate this area. Of course the exact description of these visuals didn’t stick in our minds and we bumped our way through hauling up the centerboard once, twice, all the way to pass the dam. The Guadiana curves at Pomarao and from here onward the river is contained within Portugal, no longer the border between Spain. From Pomarao, we sail through Portugal’s natural park area called Parque Natural do Vale do Guadiana.
The Guadiana River is charted on Navionics from Pomarao (PT) to Cais da Penha d’Aguia (PT), however there are numerous rocks awash and several shallow areas that we encountered on this stretch of water. We were traveling slowly at low water, which made spotting of rocks easy. We’d planned for the incoming tide to be with us as we moved farther upstream. On the Navionics chart, we’d previously added way-points noted in the electronic pilot guide and as we traveled we added our own approximate way-points to indicate hazards. We were cautious to keep a wide berth ’round side-stream outlets where floods could push sediment and rocks into the Guadiana. Basically, staying mid-river kept us in hazard-free, deep water.
Once past Cais da Penha d’Aguia (PT) we sailed off the charts! We were equipped with an electronic pilot guide and satellite photos.
Through the uncharted section of river, we encountered numerous overgrown weirs (low dams built to regulate the river’s flow). The wiers are visible on Navionics as pointy bits of land jutting into the river. We passed over three fords (a shallow place in a river allowing one to walk across at low tide). It is necessary to pass over the fords at high tide. Since the fords are not marked on the chart, we used the satellite photos to determine the deepest sections. The final ford was actually marked with navigational marks; the short stretch of river between Mertola and this ford is traversed by pontoon tour boats out of Mertola. The river continued to narrow as we proceeded.
Mertola’s castle took our breath away once we spotted it around the river’s bend; we had not expected such a sight! Entering the town, we were cautious to stay close to the east riverbank to avoid strewn rocks along the opposite shore (they are obvious even at high tide). We chose an anchorage based on the description in the electronic pilot guide. Nearly immediately, we were approached by two men in a skiff. One of the men communicated with us using our best Spanglish combined with hand gestures. The other man, identified as a river pilot, spoke only Portuguese and he gave Detour a thorough look-over while we talked. They informed us that we’d chosen poorly for our anchorage, and we were advised to follow the river pilot to a more “tranquilo” spot. Past the fortified town, and crumpled River Tower which would have once created an impediment for foreign ships, we continued. The river pilot stopped his skiff, and pointed down. He then remained steady, marking our spot and directing us forward until we were just at the dropping point for the anchor and then he gave the, “OK!” signal. We were grateful.
We didn’t hesitate to explore Mertola, it all seemed so magical! Mertola was a quiet town. Of course, we were visiting well beyond tourist season, yet the museum sites pertaining to the castle and ruins were still open. The opposite end of town had many up-scale shops, a few supermarkets, a hardware store, and several bars and restaurants.
That evening, we had a superb view from our tranquil anchorage!
The next morning, we awoke in a fog. Our beloved castle town had vanished!