Cruising the Rias Baixas of Galicia, Spain
Guides and Pilotage
The Rias Baixas, as the coastal region of Galicia has come to be known, technically consist of the four main estuarine inlets on the Northwest coast of Spain south of Finisterre. Because so much has changed in just a few years, it is important to have the most up-to-date charts, pilot books and guides aboard. The RCCPF Atlantic Spain and Portugal 7th Edition (completely overhauled) and the CA Cruising Almanac (annual) were very useful.
Culturally distinct and easily accessible
When people think of Spain, they conjure up images of flamenco, paella, unbearable heat, and bullfighting. You won’t find any of that in Galicia. Galicians are of Celtic origin and their heritage shares roots with Celtic Brittany, Wales, Ireland and Scotland. Their music is made with bagpipes that look just like the Irish uilleann pipes, drums similar to Irish bodhrans, shells and rhythmic vocals.
Gallego as a language is distinct from Spanish, hence most signs and menus will be written in both (think A Coruna and La Coruna or Baiona and Bayona). Gallego sounds more akin to Portuguese than Spanish. Getting by is not a major issue as most people are very helpful, though English is not that common. Spanish for Cruisers by Kathy Parsons is useful to have aboard for nautical terms, as is Google Translate on your smartphone.
The Camino to Santiago de Campostella is central to life here. You can reach Santiago from almost any port in Galicia, but the easiest and closest point is Portosin. Noia, near Portosin, now virtually inaccessible by boat, was once a major pilgrim port for mariners from Great Britain and Ireland. Just follow the trail of scallop shells and two-sided crosses or cruceiros – one side depicting the crucifixion of Christ, the other the Virgin Mary – that mark the pilgrim paths.
The climate catches some by surprise. Galicia is on the Atlantic coast and shares similarities with the west of Ireland. Being farther south, it is warmer than Ireland even though the days are shorter, but the waters are just as cold. Fog is quite common, especially in the mornings before the sun has a chance to burn it off. The afternoons can be magnificent and warm, before the evening cools it down again. The prevailing winds in Galicia in the summer are northerly, so a southerly route along the Rias is preferable. It rains quite often in Galicia, but not while we were there. Forecasts are delivered via VHF in English and Spanish; in our entire time there, we were only able to actually hear it once.
The schedule of life in Galicia can take a bit of getting used to. Shops open late in the morning, then close for much of the afternoon from about 1400 to 1700, then reopen again for the evening. Dinner is served at 10 pm. But one soon joins the rhythm.
The Rias Baixas have recently secured a Denominación de Origen designation for the albarino grape and excellent white wine produced there. Albarino is a crisp, full bodied wine with sea salt overtones. There are many opportunities to sample the wines, visit vineyards and view the unique method of training grapes on overhead trellises.
The Rias are among the world’s biggest producers of mussels. Giant mussel rafts are common; they are anchored straight down in about 60 feet of water so navigation between the rafts is not a problem. It is perhaps one of the best places to eat seafood in the world, with pulpo (octopus) a traditional favourite, and clams, mussels, lobster, crab, queen scallops, prawns and small fish with or without rice served up in tapas portions. Pork is the meat staple, but vegetables are rarely served; so prepare to be a carnivore, but don’t expect to see a bullfight. We were pleasantly surprised by the prices compared with back home.
The region is blessed with crystal clear aqua waters and miles of white sand beaches, many of which make excellent anchorages. The swimming areas are designated with yellow buoys inside of which anchoring is prohibited. Access to the beaches for dinghies is designated by red and green channel markers through the yellow buoys.
If marinas are your preference, then it pays to join Asociación de Clubes Náuticos de Galicia (ASNAUGA), a collective of 27 yacht clubs with more than 3,000 berths on the north coast and in the Rías on the west coast. ASNAUGA’s passport (cost €5) earns you a 15 per cent reduction on berths in its clubs. Ask at the office of any ASNAUGA club. Install their handy app on your smart phone and you’ll have access to information on all their clubs in the palm of your hand. Visit www.asnauga.com to learn more. Load the app Galician Tides, too. The tidal range is about 10 feet.
Galicia is a favourite stopping point for yachts crossing the Atlantic from Europe. Our first visit to Galicia was in 2009 when work was underway on several major marina developments. Things have progressed impressively. There are multiple new facilities at short distances apart. It makes cruising very predictable and reliable. Fuel and water are readily available at many marinas. If you don’t want to bring your own boat across, chartering is possible through Sailway in Vigo (http://sailway.es/) and via private charter. Flights to Santiago and Vigo make the region easily accessible and more cruisers from Britain and Ireland are choosing to leave their yachts over winter.
In the two months we spent sailing in the Rias, we never felt anything but welcome and never felt concern about safety. It was an altogether pleasant and memorable experience.
Each of the rias has much to offer. Think Scotland with far better weather.
Just inside Cape Finisterre (Cabo Fisterra in Galician) below the charmingly named Costa del Morte, is Ria de Corcubion. Technically, it’s not part of the Rias Baixas. Hills all around this small Ria protect it from the northerly winds that predominate this time of year. At the head is the ancient village of Corcubion flanked by a small city called Cee. Tourists are rare except for a few pilgrims walking the Camino as it winds through to Finisterre. It’s a very real place where life hasn’t changed much in centuries. In fact, in mid-July, Corcubion is transformed into a medieval town and everyone in the old town plays their parts. Corcubion has a secure anchorage, no marina, a pontoon for small boats and all the basics – restaurants, a small convenience store, superb butcher, fish shop, and vegetable and fruit stand. Cee, a longish walk or a short bike ride away, has everything else including a giant supermarket in a modern shopping mall. We dropped anchor and stayed for almost a week, feeling very welcome. Only two other yachts anchored overnight during our stay.
We next sailed over to Ezaro and anchored off the beach. One can go by dinghy past the bridge into a secluded inlet of the river where there’s a small boat marina. We walked through the beautifully appointed park, past the hydroelectric plant to the waterfall. It must have been quite the swimming hole before it became a popular park. We spent another day at anchor in Sardineiro watching the men diving for scallops all around us as the fog rolled in for the night. Then it was time to weigh anchor and head back south.
In the Ria de Muros e Noia, a first-rate marina facility can be found at the Real Club Nautico de Portosin. They have an extraordinarily helpful multi-lingual, English speaking staff, and a stable of good mechanics, electricians and others who the staff is willing to coordinate on your behalf. The laundry and shower facilities are top notch. The bar and restaurant overlooking the marina is a fabulous meeting point for crews. The town has a few restaurants, a ferreteria (hardware store), a bank, and a supermarket that delivers to your boat if you spend more than €50. There are two lovely beaches within walking distance from the marina, and a beautiful long beach with fine white sand and impossibly aqua and blue waters the other side of town on the Atlantic face.
Muros across the Ria from Portosin also has a good new gated marina. The anchorage outside the marina is nicely protected and has access to shore via a massive slipway. It is an ancient town undergoing a resurgence. There are many nice restaurants and old winding streets to explore. Narrow alleys lead up the hill to a mariniero style church (built like a ship) with more statues in it than we’ve ever seen. It is the home of the street festival of Our Lady of Carmen in July. Processions, fireworks, food and daylong music are part of the tradition.
Ria de Arousa is the largest with the most ports and anchorages to explore. The islands of the Salvora archipelago which sit in its mouth are part of the National Park system (see sidebar). En route from one Ria to another, careful navigation is required to avoid the many granite boulders that dot the coast. Santa Uxia de Ribiera is a busy fishing port with a small yacht club marina. Pobra do Caraminal marina is quite convenient to the town, but many of the planned amenities are not yet available. Caraminal’s waterfront is tree lined and inviting and the old town boasts a lovely church and high walled estates that remain private. Caraminal also has multiple supermercados on the waterfront including a giant Gadis about half way along the long stretch of white sand beach.
The Illa Arousa connected by bridge to the mainland has a couple of very nice anchorages, one just inside the Punta Caballo where the lighthouse is now a high end restaurant. The small fishing port Xufre has excellent haulout facilities. Nito, the owner of the yard is a yachtsman and keen to assist. He even has a car for use of yachtsmen using his facilities. There is a small anchorage by the wooded point but otherwise one might tie up to the pontoons at the yard inside the breakwater, space permitting.
Sailing into the Ria de Pontevedra, one sails past the Illas de Ons National Park (see notes) through the Paso de Fagilda, avoiding the rather treacherous rocks strewn about. San Vicente del Mar has an interesting marina at the Club Nautico with fine restaurant and access to some of the nicest beaches in the Rias. Combarro at the head of the Ria has a very nice new marina that has a massive outer concrete pontoon with 3 meters depth. The charts show the approaches as shallow but we found plenty of room to anchor off the pontoon in about 20 feet of water at high tide. We later moved into the marina which offered very reasonable rates. The town has a unique area along the waterfront dating back centuries where the shops, restaurants and bars are carved into the rock walls. It also has many hórreos, or grain storage bins. The tapas and wines flow well into the night. It is a bit touristy but lively.
The little island on the approach to Combarro, Illa Tambo, is now part of the National Park system but permission to anchor is not required. The anchorage there is rather pleasant away from the busy industrial port of Marin. Cambados on the opposite side is an architectural treasure. Compared with some other Galician towns that seem to have little planning, this town appears devoid of the truly unattractive construction found elsewhere. Everything is in its correct place and the main street (and bodega-lined courtyard at its entrance) is aesthetically pleasing. It is considered the home of albarino wine and there are numerous wine bars, a wine museum and winery in the Castillo, and a large church at the head of large central plaza. Alas, the harbour is shallow so anchoring way out and dealing with the swell created by the busy mussel service fleet is the only option. A marina is planned.
In a southerly wind, the small Ria de Aldan at the southwestern end of Ria de Pontevedra provides good shelter and holding, although the Ria is quite full of mussel rafts and vessels anchoring off on weekends. The water in Ria de Aldan is the warmest of all the Rias due to the long stretches of sand that heat it up when the tide comes in. The village has all the basics plus a couple of very good restaurants and a beach bar. Take a walk up the hillside streets to the village of O Hio to take in the spectacular vistas and see the most magnificently carved cruceiro in Spain.
The last of the Rias is the Ria de Vigo, at the mouth of the Ria are the Illas Cíes (see sidebar). Just inside the Canal de Norte is the Ensenada de Barra, a lovely anchorage with wooded hills and long beaches. The beach farthest to port is one of the major nudist beaches in the area. Just up from Barra is Cangas, a fishing port with small welcoming marina and a shoreside fresh food market plus all amenities. Across is Vigo, an industrial port and ancient city with much charm and boating heritage. The Real Club Nautico is in the heart of the old city and welcomes visitors to its small marina. Tree lined avenues, parks, interesting architecture and top notch restaurants beckon. Occasionally, cruise ships come in midday with an influx of tourists who leave in the evening and peace reigns again. Vigo and neighbouring Bouzos have everything one might need, including a good chandlery and trustworthy boatyards such as Astilleros Lagos. Several larger and newer marinas with good services can be found several miles out of town.
The highlight of a Rias cruise is often the Ensenada de Baiona (or Bayona in Spanish). At the heart of the harbour is an ancient fortified promontory now owned and run by the state as one of the top-notch Parador hotels. The Monte Real Club de Yates de Bayona is at the base of the fort. This spectacular setting includes a magnificent clubhouse which is for the use of the members only, but the marina now welcomes visitors. It has an excellent fuel dock, showers, laundry service, and deck for food and cocktails. The town is chock full of restaurants and shops. Free concerts are held throughout the summer. A bicycle path runs the length of town and out to the beaches and the mountain top sculpture of our Lady of the Rocks who protects mariners heading out to sea. It is well worth the climb up to see the views of Baiona. A walk along the ancient walls of the fort affording 360 degree views of the region is mandatory. A visit by car is highly recommended to the hills on the border of Portugal where a prehistoric Celtic city, Castro de Santa Tegra (or Tecla), overlooking the Rio Miño, has been unearthed.
The bottom line
Miles of white sandy beaches, clear Caribbean blue waters, lush green valleys, rugged mountains, granite boulders, marinas at regular intervals, protected rias, historic treasures and supreme seafood combine to great effect on Spain’s beautiful Atlantic coast. Bagpipes and baroque cathedrals, regional wines and moderate temperatures, and uncrowded harbours all add to the allure of this superb cruising ground.
Visiting the Parque Nacional Illas Atlánticas
In the 1980s, Spain acquired several archipelagos of islands off the Atlantic coast and established a National Park to ‘preserve’ these islands. The Cortegada Archipelago is well inside the Ria de Arousa. The Salvora Archipelago is in the mouth of the Ria de Arousa. The Ons Archipelago protects the Ria de Pontevedra, and the Cíes Archipelago sits across mouth of the Ria de Vigo. These islands form natural barriers against the forces of the Atlantic, protecting the sealife and shores of the Rias Baixas.
To visit the Salvora, Ons and Cies islands, one can go by ferry or get a permit to anchor a boat in their waters. The permit is acquired as a two-step process. Apply online well in advance and receive a permit that is issued via return email that you must print out and carry aboard. The permit is good for two years. One then goes online and requests permission to visit and anchor in specific islands on specific dates. Permission is given or denied on the spot. Some days are booked out when holiday makers visit en masse. (Hint: the identification number required online is your passport number.) In Salvora, the ranger comes out to check passes. We were not aware of anyone checking vessels in Ons and Cies.
The Illas Cíes get more than 1 million visitors annually via one ferry line alone, so do not expect to be alone. The main islands, Monteagudo (North) and do Faro (lighthouse) or do Medio (Middle) are connected by a causeway. There are well-maintained walking trails all around the islands. The farther away one gets from the ferry terminal, the less humanity one encounters. There are multiple lighthouses, high dunes, bird sanctuaries, curious rock formations, and idyllic beaches more akin to the Caribbean than Atlantic Spain. Inland are massive government run campgrounds where hundreds of tourists can spend the night. The campgrounds even have a convenience store and restaurants. The main anchorage runs along the length of the main beach, rated as the Best Beach in the World by the Guardian. Many of the visiting yachts leave by 8 pm and the anchorages become refuges once again. We chose to anchor off the southern end of the middle island, which gave us shelter from the northerlies and access to shore via a tiny less populated beach.
The smaller of the two main islands in the Illas de Ons is off limits to visitors as a bird sanctuary. Illa de Ons gets fewer visitors than the Cíes, and few go beyond the village at the ferry dock. There is a fine arid walk to a lighthouse and a blow hole on the western end of the island. There is a small population still living on these islands. The anchorage off the beach to the north is quite comfortable; moorings close to the ferry dock in very deep rocky water are spaced very close together so getting an outside mooring is recommended. Most visitors are day trippers.
Perhaps our favourite of the islands was Salvora. The anchorage is attractive with a castle and statue of a mermaid carved on a rock. Like the other islands it is exposed to the east. There’s an inner anchorage for small boats with a pontoon used by the small fast ferry where it is possible to tie off a dinghy. In our opinion Salvora is the most interesting of the islands. Few tourists, lovely walking trails, interesting rock formations, wild horses, a Castillo museum, and an abandoned village. Lovely beach, too, at least at low tide. Oh, and the sword in the stone. Really.
Visiting Santiago de Compostella
There is a train from Vigo to Santiago for pilgrims on a tight time schedule. The crowds in Santiago can be overwhelming in the summer. Numerous restaurants, tourist stands and shops dot the way in to town. The noon pilgrims’ Mass in the ornate cathedral can be overcrowded to capacity so arrival half an hour in advance is advised; we arrived with 15 minutes to spare and got standing room only. The cues to get in behind the alter to touch the shoulders and whisper a question or secret to St. James are enormous, but there is a subterranean walk through in which one can see the ornate tomb in relative privacy. If one is lucky, they will swing the massive incense burner over the crowds, but it doesn’t always happen. Santiago is worth the visit, but we are glad we didn’t walk 300 miles to get there.
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