Foz Coa is a small city in the interior of Portugal, located where the Coa River merges into the Douro. In fact, “Foz Coa” in Portuguese literally means Coa mouth. Despite the fact that the whole scenery in Foz Coa is astonishing, the biggest attraction in Foz Coa is clearly the Coa Archeological Park and Museum. Here we will explain how to visit the paleolithic engravings and everything you need to know about it.
What are the Foz Coa engravings?
The Coa Valley is an incredible open-air Paleolithic archaeological site with hundreds of panels with thousands of figures that were carved in the rocks over several millenniums.
The engravings depict mainly horses and bovines but also a few other animals(caprines and fishes), humans, and even abstract figures, dating from 22 000 to 10 000 years B.C. Typically they were engraved on vertical shale surfaces, facing east with sizes varying from 15 to 180cm. They were carved, incised, and picked, and sometimes using several of these techniques.
The Prehistoric Rock-Art Site of the Côa Valley is a huge open-air museum spread over more than 17 km along the Coa River, but only 3 are open to the public, Canada do Inferno, Ribeira de Piscos and Panascosa. It is considered the biggest open-air site of paleolithic art in the world, a ray of light into the obscure paleolithic age and a key to understanding the beginning of civilization.
We need to note that the rock art of Foz Coa is impressive for its rareness, age, extension, and variety, but they are not “spectacular”. You will be amazed by how old the rock-art is and what they have endured, though probably not with how genius most of the drawings are, da while others are even difficult to see if you don’t know that they are there…
The Foz Coa dam and the discovery of the engravings
The discovery of the engravings is very curious, and one of the most memorable stories of the 90s in Portugal.
It is true that the local shepherds and millers knew about the existence of the engravings and they would even draw along them and there’s also evidence of 30’s newspaper article talking about these engravings. Nevertheless, the official discovery of the engravings was in the 90s during a mandatory archeological prospection for the construction of the huge dam.
The construction of the Dam and creation of its associated reservoir would have immerged and destroyed the rock cliff drawings. Thus, the archeologists who discovered the engravings started a movement to save them, while the company in charge of building the dam wanted to continue.
This resulted in months of news, lobbying from both sides, and a battle between people who wanted the Dam and those who wanted to save the engravings. In the end, and after a huge pressure of the international community the dam project was halted and the archeologists continued to discover more and more engravings.
In 1998 UNESCO declared the Coa Valley a UNESCO heritage site which helped consolidate its status. It’s said to be the fastest process of classification ever done by UNESCO. As per UNESCO:
“The Upper Paleolithic rock art of the Côa Valley is an exceptional illustration of the sudden development of our creative genius during the dawn of human cultural development”
“The rock art of the Côa Valley exceptionally demonstrates the social, economic and spiritual life of our prehistoric ancestors”
The whole process helped to change the way Portugal sees and manages its heritage and culture.
Is it possible to visit the engravings independently?
No. You are not allowed to visit the Coa engravings by yourself. You need to take a tour with an official guide. It can be a guide from the museum or a private (authorized one). We have always scheduled the visit with the Coa Museum but ended using a private guide as the Museum tours were full.
How to visit the engravings of the coa valley?
As we said above, you need to go on a tour, there are guards close to engravings and you’ll only be allowed to enter the areas if you with a guide. This is mostly to protect the engravings from being destroyed or damaged, but you should also note that it would be very difficult to see the rock art without the guide and you wouldn’t understand much it. There are a rocks with several layers of drawings, sometimes several animals, other times the same animal drawed to convey movement.
Out of the 80 different rock art sites, there are only 3 areas that can be visited by the public, Canada do Inferno, which was the first group of engravings to be discovered, very close to Vila Nova de Foz Côa, Ribeira de Piscos, at Muxagata, and Penascosa, close to the village of Castelo Melhor.
The Coa Valley became very popular, both among Portuguese and foreigners. The tours are usually full and the tickets sell out quickly. We suggest you call (or e-mail) the Coa Museum and schedule your visit as soon as you know when you want to visit.
What to expect during the Coa rock art tours?
During the tours, you’ll be taken to a major rock art site and shown the rocks with the engravings. The tour will explain their relevance, their artistic and archeological value. There’s a lot of information in the Coa Museum, but seeing the originals live and having someone explaining the techniques, the significance, the certainties and doubts of the archeologists has a much bigger impact.
We visited the rock art twice and went to Canada do Inferno and Panascosa and enjoyed them both. The groups are always small, usually 8 or fewer people. You’ll possibly encounter other groups during the tour, but there’s no need to worry, it never gets crowded.
The guided tours cost 16 Euros per person, and take place every day, during mornings or afternoon depending on the site. Canada do Inferno and Ribeira de Piscos are during the morning, while Panascosa are in the afternoon.
Canada do Inferno
The tour to Canada do Inferno starts in the Coa Museum. During this tour, you’ll pass through the area where the Coa Dam was being built. We still get to see that a lot of the work was already being done. The drive here is longer but faster as it’s always tarmac or cobblestones.
After leaving the car, you’ll have to walk almost 500 meters to the first rocks, but it’s a fairly easy hike. Though, during the tour you’lll have to climb a few stairs to see some of the rocks. Nothing too difficult. This tour shold take about 2 hours.
Besides the dam, the highlight of this tour is what they call rock 1. The rock that originated all of this, the first rock to be discovered and recognized for its value.
Panascosa tour starts in Castelo Melhor, at the park’s reception center. You’ll go about 6km on an all-terrain vehicle on dirt roads before reach a large beach on the Coa Banks. The ride is beautiful with olive and almond trees.
After arriving at the beach you’ll barely have to hike, as the engravings are very close. This is the best site if you don’t want to walk much (500 to 600 meters) and it’s flat. We rate it very easy. It’s usually an afternoon tour and it takes about 1h30 to 2 hours.
Note: if you take this tour, you should take the opportunity to visit Castelo Melhor’s castle. It’s one of those old wonderful ruined places with one hell of a view!
Ribeira de Piscos
As we said, we didn’t visit Ribeira de Piscos yet, but it’s a harder tour, with more than 2km of hiking, so it’s possibly a good fit if you enjoy hiking. It starts and finished in the Coa Museum and take about 2h30.
Is it worth it to visit the Coa Museum?
The Coa Museum is located slightly outside the city of Foz Coa, about 3 Km. It’s far enough for not being advisable to walk. It’s a modern, beautiful building, located on the edge of the mountain top by the mouth of river Coa.
The view is amazing, and it would be worth it to go there just for the views and the nice building. The museum is huge (one of the biggest in Portugal) but it was built with the assumption of integrating itself in the scenery. From there you can see two of the Portuguese world heritages, the Douro wine landscape and the Prehistoric Art of the Côa Valley.
We strongly suggest you visit this museum, but going to the museum isn’t a substitute for taking a tour, it only complements it. After all, the real museum is outdoors, by the river. We believe the best thing is doing both, as the museum is a great way to discover the richness of the Coa and Douro valleys.
A ticket to the museum costs 6 Euros and you should reserve at least an hour to visit it.
Where to stay in Foz Coa?
It’s possible to take a day trip from Porto to Foz Coa by car, however, it will be a long, long day. If you have the time, we suggest you stay one day in Foz Coa (or close) and enjoy the surroundings, besides the Rock Art. The Douro Valley vineyards are beautiful, while the Douro Valley Natural Park is one of the most beautiful natural regions in Portugal. Yet, it’s very little known.
HI Vila Nova de Foz Coa
Hi Foz Coa is a youth hostel with very good conditions. It’s close to Foz Coa but not really in the center of the city. You’ll need to walk for about 5 minutes. The hostel has private and dorm rooms and it’s a very budget-friendly option in Foz Coa. Perfect for backpackers and budget travelers.
Hotel Vale do Coa
Hotel vale do Coa is in the center of the city but it’s a little more expensive. We suggest this if you don’t want to stay in a hostel and don’t mind paying a little more. The rooms are good, but nothing fancy.
Casa do Tablado – Foz Côa
Casa do Tablado is our suggestion if you prefer to book a house instead of a hotel or hostel. It’s great for a family or a couple who wants to be in a private place. The extraordinary high rating from other visitors confirms the quality and comfort of this place!
Best time to visit Foz Coa
Foz Coa is located in interior central Portugal, a region that’s notoriously hot and dry in Summers and cold and rainy in Winters. This is a region that doesn’t receive too many tourists, so you shouldn’t be too worried about the places being crowded. However, you need to book your tour beforehand. You can’t just appear and go along with a guide. Also, during peak season try to book the tour as soon as possible because they sell out!
We believe that the best time to go to Foz Coa is during spring or early Autumn. Winter is the worst time, as it’s very probably that’s raining and it will surely be cold. During Summer it’s usually too hot to really enjoy the tours, but it’s doable as long as you book it with plenty of time.
How to go to Foz Coa
Foz Coa is far from the tourist trail in Portugal and most tourists don’t visit it. Yet, there are a few options to get there. you can get there by car, train and long haul bus.
Car to Foz Coa
This is obviously the easiest and fastest way to get to Foz Coa. There are good highways to the interior and the roads around Foz Coa are good. It should take you about 2 hours from Porto to Foz Coa. With a car it’s possible to do it as a day trip from Porto, but it will take you the full day. You may take the opportunity to visit the Douro Valley.
If you are driving to Foz Coa we suggest you to take the road 222. It has been considered one of the world’s most beautiful roads, though it will take much more than the 2hours we mentioned above.
Train to Foz Coa
The train is a great possibility if you have time and/or don’t want to drive. Note that the train only goes to Pocinho, about 8km from Foz Coa. You’ll need to take a cab to reach Foz Coa. Plus, you’ll need to get a way to go to the museum and other places you may want to visit.
The biggest advantage of the train is that it goes right through the Douro Valley and it’s easily the most beautiful train trips in Portugal. It’s a very pleasent trip.
Bus to Foz Coa
The Bus is another public transportation possibility. It won’t be as wonderful as the train from Porto, but it will take you directly to Foz Coa, instead of Pocinho. Check the bus company site, rede expresso.
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