Despite being in the center of Portugal, Serra da Malcata Natural reserve is one of the most secluded regions in the country. There are barely any paved roads, and there are no villages inside the reserve – though there are a few on its surroundings, Vale do Espinho, Malcata, Meimão, and Meimoa. Besides, it’s clearly a region that received very few tourists. Even during high season, it’s perfectly possible to hike for 2 or 3 hours and don’t see anyone else…
About Serra da Malcata Natural Reserve
Created in 1981, Malcata Reserve extends over 16 348 acres of land in the municipalities of Sabugal and Penamacor and bordering Spain (Serra da Gata) to the East. This reserve was created to protect the Iberian Lynx, which is considered the world’s most threatened feline and the carnivorous in biggest danger in Europe.
Malcata natural reserve is characterized by the absence of houses and an almost inexistence of paved roads, which allowed nature to developed by itself. The mountain range is almost fully covered with trees, particularly riparian forest and Mediterranean scrub areas. The most usual trees in the park are the strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), the black oak, the maritime pine, and the holm oak.
The reserve also has a few water courses, the most important being Coa, Bazágueda, and Meimoa. The Coa (world-famous for its paleolic art close to its mouth) rises slightly to the north of the reserve and for a few km serves the border of it. The Meimoa starts in the mountains of Malcata and its reservoir is at the western end of the reserve. Finally, the Bazágueda River is a tributary of the Erges, which in turn leads to the Tagus.
Searching for the Iberian Lynx
If there’s one thing Malaca is famous for is the Lynx – the animal that serves as the symbol of the Natural Reserve. Malcata Lynx is the Portuguese version of the Loch Ness monster, but with a huge difference: there are many more people arguing they saw the Scottish monster than a Lynx in Malcata.
Jokes aside, catching sight of a Lynx in Malcata is very difficult, if not impossible at all, as the last recorded sight was decades ago… There are many reasons to visit malcata, but expecting to see a lynx isn’t one of them.
About the Iberian-Lynx
The Iberian Lynx is the only carnívorous mammal endemic to the Iberian Peninsula, and it’s a beautiful animal with fluffy ears, long legs, short tail, and brown/yellow color and spots. Yet, the most striking features are its fur around the face (looking like a long beard) and the tuft of black fur on to of its trianguar ears.
With 85 to 110 centimeters long, height up to 60 cm, and weight to 27 kg, the Iberian lynx is a relatively small animal, and much smaller than the Eurasian Lynx. Briefly, it looks like a “small leopard-elf”.
The Iberian Lynx enjoys calm regions, without human presence, and short but dense vegetation where it can hunt for wild rabbits and hares.
The Animals of Malcata
The Lynx was the main reason to create the reserve, but it protects much more than just the Iberian lynx. It is practically impossible to see the Lynx here, but it is quite possible to see some of the other animals that make up the diverse fauna of this Nature Reserve such as the black vulture, the black stork, the otters, and even the wild boars. Other animals, much more difficult to spot animals, but also present in Malcata are the wildcat, the red fox, the genet, and the red squirrel.
During our last trip to Malcata, we had a rare opportunity to see a red fox crossing the road, which was a big surprise. We also saw a huge bird flying around, which we suppose was a black vulture (due to the size) but couldn’t be sure. We really aren’t specialists in birds. anyway, if you enjoy the adventure of spotting animals in nature, this reserve is one of the best places to go in Portugal.
How to visit Serra da Malcata Natural Reserve?
Despite not being by any means a tourist hot spot – it only had 2253 visitors in 2017 – there are several ways of tour it and exploring its several facets.
Malcata by car
As we said earlier, there are very few paved roads. In fact, we only know two. One that goes from the Malcata village crosses the reserve for a few km and then exits on a bridge over the Coa River, close to Quadrazais. On google maps, it’s marked as Rua Carvalheira de Jorge. However, honestly, this part is maybe the least interesting part of the reserve, though it’s a possibility to cross it in any car.
The other paved road enters the reserve through the south, a few km after Meimoa village. This road is sometimes indicated as the N332, and it goes well into the reserve, passing through some beautiful spots. It was on this road that we saw our red fox. The only problem is that after some kilometers into the reserve it changes to a dirt road. It doesn’t have many potholes, but we decided no to risk our car into it, though we saw two other small cars going into it easily. So, if you decide to risk it you probably won’t have too many problems, and if you have a high clearance car than it should be an easy and pleasant drive.
All the other roads we saw and tried in Malcata are dirt roads, the quality of them varies a lot. We can’t recommend you to do them on a normal car, but with a 4×4 or an SUV can you’ll probably be fine.
Serra da Malcata on foot
The best way to explore Malcata is hiking. You can park your car in one of the many dirt roads entering the reserve, or when the paved road ends and simply start walking. This way, you’ll have time to enjoy the natural beauty and the probability of seeing animals increases.
There are several signaled trails, which means you can follow them rather easily. Nevertheless, you should take a GPS in case you get lost or one the trails is not well maintained.
Things to do in Serra da Malcata
Kayaking, SUP and canoeing
The dam of Meimoa created a big reservoir that allows you to do several water sports and activities. If you like kayking, canoeing or SUP, this is a very nice place to pratice it, due to the natural beauty, climate, and clear water. You can go up on the reservoir and discover the natural reserve from the water.
Obviously these are activities much more pleasant to do in Summer when temperatures are really high in Malcata. Note that even if you don’t have the equipment, it is possible to rent canoes and boards on Meimão beach, on the right bank of the Meimoa reservoir.
Go to Meimão beach
The beach of Meimão is located on right side of the Meimoa reservoir, relatively close to the dam. This is one of the most pleasant river beaches in Portugal. It has a small area with sand and a much bigger area with grass, trees and lots of shades. Understandably it’s one of the most popular beaches in central portugal, though due to its size it rarely feels crowded.
As usual on these river dam beaches, it has a floating pool (with different depths) and a diving board. There is also a small bar, which serves light meals, drinks and ice cream.
Finally, as we mentioned earlier, you can rent kayaks and SUP boards in order to make the most of the dam’s reservoir.
Hiking in Malcata
Although not well-known, there are several signaled walking trails that take you into the reservoir allowing you to enjoy the natural beauty of the reserve and explore its forrests and woods. Among those we need to mention:
- Capela do Espirito Santo trail – In the northern part of the reserve, by the Coa River, in Quadrazais. Circular course, easy, with only 4.1km
- Salgueirinho trail – In the southern part of the park, it goes through Bazaguedinha. Circular, easy, with 7.1km
- Sobreiral trail – trail along the Meimoa reservoir, and then into the interior of the reserve. Circular, moderate (with a steep climb and descend), with 8.9km.
We find the Sobreiral trail particularly interesting, as it allowed us to enter the deep woodlands of the park, and when we reach the top of the main climb, the views are breathtaking. On the other hand, as it follows the lake, you can also stop and take a refreshing swim in it.
Ride your bike
The mountains of Malcata are also a suitable place to ride your bike. In fact, all those dirt roads we talked before, ones steeper than others, just call your name! It’s relatively easy to create a few routes with different levels of difficulty, including parts of the pedestrian trails we mentioned earlier.
In case you are used to riding for long distances, you can enter the park on the paved road we mentioned and exit the reverse by the dam. If cars do it, you most surely can do it one a bicycle. This route has a long but always paved climb, then you have a fun descend on a dirt road, and finally a flat section by the reservoir. If you don’t want to make such a long effort, you can always leave the car by the reservoir, and cycle your way along the lake and back. The road is pretty flat there.
Virtually everything you can do by bike, you can also do 4×4. If you have one, it will certainly be a fun and much less exhausting way to get to know the Serra da Malcata Nature Reserve. It is also a fun way for people with mobility problems to get to know this Portuguese natural wonder.
Any high clearance vehicle should be able to cross the roads in red on the reserve’s map. Naturally, please avoid making unnecessary noises, and adopt a careful driving. After all, this is a natural reserve, not a rally.
Visit Malcata village
The village of Malcata who gave the name to the reserve and the mountains is well worth a visit. Located on the outskirts of the reserve, it’s a traditional village, with a few schist houses and other more modern. In terms of patrimony, we need to mention the church, the chapel, the community oven, the clock tower, and the cheese shop.
Although it has much fewer inhabitants than 60 years ago, Malcata still is a living village, with more than 300 people living here. It has a nice beach in the reservoir of the Sabugal Dam in the Coa River. It’s fairly similar to the Meimão beach, making it a good alternative in case you feel that Meimão has too many people.
Where to stay in Malcata Natural Reserve?
It’s not possible to stay inside the reserve, as there aren’t villages or lodges in it. Nevertheless, there are villages in the outskirts with several lodging options, and of course the cities of Sabugal and Penamacor.
The village of Meimoa is one of the best options for those wanting to visit the Natural reserve. It’s close to the main paved road and it has a nice river beach to relax.
Meimoa Guesthouse is a great budget option close to Malcata Reserve. It has excellent value for money and offers the possibility of renting a room with a shared kitchen which great for saving even more by cooking our own meals. Check if it’s still available.
On the beach of Meimão there are a few bungalows to rent so you can spend the night there. These have a small kitchen and two rooms, so they are adequate to couples, families, or small groups.
These bungalows are a great option for looking to stay as close to the reserve as possible, though you should note that mobile coverage and internet isn’t great there. Check prices and availability.
Our favorite lodging option in the small village of Sabugal is Hospedaria Robalo. The prices are very reasonable and the breakfast is notoriously good. They have single, double, and quadruple rooms, so it’s suitable for several kinds of travelers.
This hotel is right in the center of Sabugal, so you can easily visit the city and its imposing castle.
In Penamacor we suggest Palace Hotel & Spa Termas de São Tiago. It’s a more upscale option, but if we take into consideration everything it offers it isn’t expensive at all. It is a 4-star hotel, with modern and comfortable rooms.
The entrance to the hotel is absolutely astonishing, with trees alongside the road. You should note that this hotel has a Spa, but you need to pay extra to use it.
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