If you’ve been following my travels, you may have noticed a trend: many of my destinations are chosen solely on the basis of recommendations from friends and strangers. That was certainly the case with Lagos, Portugal.
While I was in Iceland, a crazy (and I mean crazy), chain-smoking Parisian waiter who happened to be staying at my hostel cornered me one evening after I’d spent a long day touring Reykjavik. After asking about my travel plans and learning that I was headed to Lisbon, he spent a full thirty minutes pleading with me to visit the south of Portugal, and specifically Lagos. He went on and on and on about how incredible it was, then asked for my phone and showed me Google images of the beaches. I had to admit that it did look incredible. “You’ve got to go…it’s so beeeauuuutiful!” he said in his thick French accent.
“Ok, you’ve convinced me. I’ll check it out,” I said, reaching for my phone and hoping that answer would satisfy him. But still he went on about Lagos. Finally, I was saved by his smoking habit. When we went outside for a cigarette, I made a quick getaway.
It turned out that this rather bizarre introduction to Lagos was appropriate prologue to my visit there. The crazy French guy was right – the hidden beaches, clear blue waters and rugged cliffs are breathtaking.
But some elements of my visit were just plain odd.
After getting off the bus in Lagos, I tried to follow the instructions the hostel had provided from the bus station, but they were not helpful, and my offline map app was not working correctly. (Here’s a tip: map the route while on wifi and download the map or copy exact directions to your phone ahead of time. You’d think I would have learned this lesson the first time, but no. Stay tuned for a repeat!)
I ended up walking for far too long in the heat with a heavy backpack on my back and a messenger bag over my shoulder. Thanks to some friendly Germans, I eventually found my way to the hostel.
The hostel receptionist was not particularly friendly or helpful, but I chalked it up to a language barrier, and was pleased to find that I was the first to check into my 10-bed dorm. I chose a bottom bunk near a window. Later that afternoon, I met the friendly and helpful hostel manager, who I’ll call Lugo. He told me about several activities scheduled during my stay at the hostel, including a free walking tour and a 25-Euro kayak/sea cave tour. “Great,” I thought, and I signed up for both.
The next morning, I left the hostel with three other girls and Lugo, who was serving as the guide. He asked if we had brought beer along with us. We hadn’t, but he pulled a large bottle from his bag and proceeded to drink it. The “tour” ended up lasting four solid hours in direct sunlight on a particularly warm day. Lugo walked our group along the tops of the cliffs, pointed out secluded beaches and took us into a hidden cave.
The views were stunning, but the walk was long and quite a departure from the free city walking tours filled with historical sites and anecdotal details that most budget travelers are familiar with. Three hours into the s0-called tour, Lugo had purchased three more beers from various bars and restaurants, and we ladies were starving.
Finally, we made it back to our small hostel, satisfied our hunger and proceeded with our day. Lugo continued to drink and smoke in the hostel common areas throughout the afternoon, but we ignored him. I used my time to wander through the streets of old town Lagos, which are filled with cafes, bars and shops.
I enjoyed the ocean breeze and views of the water from the hostel balcony, and I stopped at a sidewalk cafe for a coffee. When I saw an item on the menu I didn’t recognize, I asked the waitress what it was. In broken English, she said it was coffee with a little sweet in it and a little sweet on top. Picturing something like a Starbucks caramel macchiato, I ordered it. It was definitely sweet! But also delicious.
The next day was to be our kayak tour. My roommate, a girl named Sarah who was visiting from Belgium, decided to get up at 6am to see the sun rise. I was not quite so ambitious, but set my alarm for 7am so I would have time to workout on the beach before the tour. In the morning, I heard Sarah pack up and leave on time. Shortly after I got out of bed at 7, I was getting ready in the adjacent bathroom and heard someone knocking on the dorm room door, followed by a man’s voice saying “Saaahrahhh…Stephhhanieee…”
“Weird,” I thought.
But I decided to ignore it, since I was in the bathroom, the room was dark, and it was 7am, long before most hostel guests even think about getting up. A few moments later, I opened the bathroom door and found myself face-to-face with Lugo! He had unlocked the dorm room door and was standing in the dark room looking around. He seemed frantic, and asked where Sarah was.
“She went out at 6 to see the sunrise,” I said.
“That’s impossible!” he said. “I didn’t hear her go out, and I was sitting right there! The sun is rising! I don’t want her to miss it!”
I assured him that she had gone out and would see the sunrise.
“Oh, ok, sorry, sorry,” he said, pulling me into a hug. Startled and repulsed, I immediately pulled away, and kisses, which I assume he meant for my cheek, landed on my neck. I practically pushed him out of the room and locked the door on my way out to the beach.
Later, Sarah told us that she and Lugo met on the stairs that morning. As she was going out at 6am, he was coming in…with a half-empty bottle of white wine. Apparently he was so affected by the alcohol that he hadn’t remembered seeing her.
When we arrived at the beach for the kayak tour, an attractive, muscled Portuguese 30-something named Mario welcomed our group of about 25 people and proceeded to give us a 30-second “lesson.”
“To go forward, go like this…to go backward, go like this…to stop, go like this. Ok? Ok,” he said, flipping the paddle.
The question came from Emily, a girl from northern California who was my kayak partner and had never gotten into a kayak before. I had kayaked once…in San Diego…three years ago. No biggie, except that the ocean was very choppy. Lugo, who had decided to join our tour, was still drinking and had taken a position in the back of a two-man kayak, looking like he could barely sit up.
We successfully got into our kayak and started paddling. The first sea cave on the tour was a “no-go.” Mario’s boss, following the tour group in a motorboat, determined that the waves were too high. Not a surprise considering that the entrance to the cave was almost completely blocked by water. We paddled on. Lugo shouted unintelligible instructions at us between naps in the back of his kayak.
At the second cave, Mario decided that we would go in three at a time instead of taking the entire group at once. “But it’s dangerous,” he said. “So be careful.” Call me crazy, but I don’t believe that sea cave exploration in a kayak is worth risking my life. Emily and I agreed that we would not enter the cave. A few minutes later, Mario called off the cave entrance. “Never mind,” he said, “too dangerous.” Any confidence we might have had in him was rapidly deteriorating.
The third cave seemed safe to enter, so we went in as a group, at the same time that another kayak tour was entering the small space. Within moments, Mario was embroiled in a shouting match with the other guide. They were yelling in Portuguese and pointing angrily, until Mario rapidly turned his kayak around and jetted out of the cave, leaving the other 25 of us to battle the current to exit back through the narrow passageway. Emily and I hit the cave wall a few times, but we eventually made it out.
If Mario’s tour guidance was slim before, it was now nonexistent. He was apparently sulking. Emily and I managed to stay afloat along with the rest of the tour group in spite of the waves. After a short stop at a beautiful sandy beach, accessible only by kayak or steep steps from the top a cliff and inhabited only by a couple sunning in the nude (awkward… for us!), we all elected to have the motorboat tow us back to the beach near our hostel.
After all the canoes were tied to the boat, we were finally able to enjoy a relaxing, scenic ride along the gorgeous cliffs of Lagos. For about 20 minutes. It almost made up for the stressful previous two hours.
At the shore, we gathered our things and headed back toward the hostel. “Well, that was interesting,” I said.
We didn’t wait to see whether Lugo had made it back.
In spite of the drama and the severely inebriated hostel manager, I enjoyed my time in Lagos. It’s tough to beat the incredible ocean views and low prices. In the end, I’m glad I listened to that crazy waiter.