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Canoeing the coast of death (Costa da Morte) to the end of the world

David Truzzi-Franconi Ria de Vigo

(Cap Finisterre) via Santiago de Compostela by paddlers: Simon King, Steve Seinet-Martin and David Truzzi-Franconi
By David Truzzi-Franconi

The first full day of our annual canoe adventure ironically found us hauling the canoes on trolleys loaded with three weeks camping gear (170lb in my case)! We were on the Atlantic Coast road in t-shirts on a typically humid Galician day of fog and drizzle.

We had arrived the previous day, collected our Credential (pilgrims passport which requires stamps as proof of journey) from the fortified town of Tui at the head of the River Minho, which delineates the border between Spain and Portugal .That afternoon we relaxed in the square in Caminha, Portugal waiting for the tide to provide us with the right conditions to cross the estuary without being swept out to sea and caught on its notorious sandbanks.

Heading towards Baiona

Heading towards Baiona

Once in Spain a recce confirmed what Google Earth had shown that we would not be able to paddle this stretch in anything other than ideal conditions – it was rocky with a big Atlantic swell and no get-outs for 20 miles. So after a crippling uphill portage we skirted Mt Trega the site of a Celtic hill fort, the mist rolling down its sides making everything drip water and entered a small fishing port in the busy early evening.

A hotel was booked and a heavy night’s sleep ensued from over-eating, which we worked off on the coast road the next morning, which was still wet and misty but warm. The booming of the Atlantic surf on the rocks and the plumes of spray confirmed our decision not to take the whale road and so we wove our way along wooded tracks past isolated communities, setting a chain of dog barking and then along the main road at the mercy of the trucks and coaches.

We stopped at Oia for a stamp in our passports with its abandoned monastery in a landscape dotted with stone grain stores and famous for its wild horses. That evening found us drawing to a halt by a rain-whipped, wind-battered and empty camp site at Mougas – we promptly upgraded to a chalet!

The following morning found us rounding the headland of Cabo Silleiro, sustaining our first puncture and making a steep downhill descent into Baiona whilst struggling to curb the canoes attempt to wrest free and wipe out a car or shopfront! Booking into another hotel we once again made a dozen or so trips with camping gear, dry bags and paddles watched by a bemused receptionist.

Simon  heaving to near Vigo

Simon heaving to near Vigo

Launching the next day opposite the hotel we made our way across the Ria de Baiona to Panxon. At this point we had canoed 3.9 miles and portaged 24.1 miles! In order to avoid the seas off Punta do Meda we hauled the canoes along and across the isthmus up several very steep hills, which took our walking up to 32.8 miles as we trundled into the campsite at Canido on the Cabo Estai. It was another wet day as we set off in the rain to find some food in this joyless place.

Over the following days we paddled across the Rias, passing the walled city of the port of Vigo in the early morning fog whilst trying to avoid homeward bound trawlers; took an enforced night paddle; made our only wild camp on an area of scrub next to some holiday homes (the sprinklers came on during the night in an adjacent property with an arc of water crossing the tents every few minutes!) and surfed on to a beach scattering the bathers and surfers!

We portaged across the peninsulas to avoid the seas at their tips and eventually found our way up the Ria Arousa home to a great many mussel rafts and small craft raking for cockles and clams on its sandbanks and then into the Rio Ulla. We finally ground to a halt establishing a base at its head in a waterside campsite so that we could run light into Santiago de Compostela.We set off in the dark the following morning to catch the flood tide to Padron, the river was alive with fish as we passed under the ancient stone bridge marking the tidal limit and then an enjoyable battle ensued as we fought our way upriver hauling and lining over the rapids and through the rocks eventually locating at a monastery we had been tipped off about.

launching into the River Minho

launching into the River Minho

They were very pleased to see us and most taken with our journey to date, pointing out some of the similarities of our trip to the legend of St James whose body was said to have been bought along the coast and up the Ulla and moored to a stone in the church at Padron. With the boats now moored to the stone in the church,we cooled our feet in the spring before being given a simple meal of local peppers and soup and a quiet night in the dormitory.

We were awoken early in the morning by choral music and ate a frugal breakfast before setting out for Santiago. However, it wasn’t long before we were hauling the canoes uphill again (600ft) high above the river valley followed by a blissful descent through the trees onto a long hot plain with the usual chorus of cockerels and barking dogs. We were surveyed from behind curtains and what they made of three red canoes sliding past in the early morning miles from any water can only be guessed!

Mid-day found us joining up with the main road for the long uphill portage into Santiago. It was 32 degrees and rising and we were dizzy with the heat as we entered the city in the late afternoon. We were unable to resist the temptation to stop for a beer and were soon adopted by an Irish woman who on hearing of our exploits insisted on buying us a drink, then led us to the Pilgrims Office where after much discussion and argument, the woman in charge relented in the overwhelming support from the staff and gave us each a Compostela (you have to walk,ride or cycle for a minimum of 100K note the word paddle does not occur in this list – hence the argument).

Santiago de Compostela

Santiago de Compostela

Wandering the narrow streets hampered with 16-foot canoes, we searched for a room, enquiring at a left luggage office and mentioned jokingly if we could leave the boats here? A phone call and is 5 euros each all right? So, free of our boats for the night we soon booked a basic room, had a celebratory meal and all too soon were on the road again dodging the traffic in the heat. In theory it should have been mainly downhill but we still somehow managed to find plenty of climbs!

Late evening found three canoes parked outside the bar at Herbon, whilst we rehydrated and increased our salt intake before our second night at the Monastery. Someone at the office in Santiago had kindly phoned them to say we were on the way, as we had been interviewed by the press and the monastery had been trying to contact us. We were lucky to get in that night as it was full of eight different nationalities.

Setting off next day through the pepper fields (Padron peppers are famous – small green and pointed, and likened to Russian roulette, as every so often you will get one with the intensity of a chilli) we had another puncture on the outskirts of Padron, which meant we had no spares and needed to locate a garage. Hailing a cab and asking to be taken to a garage resulted in being driven across the road! Meanwhile the tourist office had also been told about us,and they presented us with two more certificates in Latin for navigating the Ria Arousa and the Rio Ulla – we think!

That evening found us back at the campsite and as they were no longer cooking we ate frugally from our stores. The next stage of our journey involved us retracing our steps but on the opposite bank of the estuary and working up the coast again to Cap Finisterre. So off we paddled in the mist stopped in Rianxa for a breakfast of squid rolls and then paddled the tidal section of a small river hitting the shallows at Porto Belluso. The canoes were hauled up the bank and the wheels were attached again! Lots more tooting and waving accompanied our long and arduous portage uphill 660ft of ascent to the midway point with the bonus of passing through a plantation of eucalypts and pinewoods, which helped to clear the head.

Simon King, Steve Seinet-Martin and David Truzzi-Franconi

David Truzzi-Franconi, Simon King and Steve Seinet-having a beer

We were skirting the San Marcos Mountains and after 15K reached the medieval port of Noia (legend has it that this is where Noah’s dove returned with an olive branch and thus the ark came to rest on a nearby hill) at the tidal limit of Padronthe River Tambre. In the early evening, Simon and Steve went to find some digs and an hour later they managed to find a hotel with a basement where we could leave the canoes at the top of a steep hill!

A further search for a garage next day to repair the tyres found us at the wonderful Moreno Cycles who quickly and efficiently repaired our tyres by inserting strips of old tyre inside our tyre casings to cover the holes blown in them. Tutting all the time and shaking his head, he charged us 5 euros and bid us farewell. By then the tide had returned allowing us to escape, crossed to Freixo and had a break on a sandy beach in the sun for a change, which allowing to dry some kit. A long paddle brought us to the fishing port of Muros, perched on the edge of Mount Louro at 7.30pm. Another cheap hotel, an excellent meal of Mussels and we were now officially on The Costa da Morte, the town sign proudly proclaimed.

Launching off the port jetty into a choppy sea the next morning, we headed cautiously to the point but we were back within the hour as the wind was increasing and so just for a change we pulled the canoes uphill out of town! A 13-mile long portage along the coast road, pausing occasionally to bail the rain water out of the boats in order to lighten them, found us at Carnota. So far we had pulled the canoes 115 miles and paddled 80 miles at a moving average of 2.9 mph!


We each developed our own coping strategies for these long and hard portages, which usually involved keeping the eyes downcast so you could not see how far you still had to go! Steve favoured a full on get it over with approach whilst Simon dogged his footsteps and I moved uphill in a series of bursts. We were often strung out over a mile and fate was often cruel as cresting a climb would reveal yet another! The sweat stung our eyes and you could literally wring out our t-shirts and the best part was seeing our canoe hulls sticking in the air which signified a rest stop or better still a bar or cafe!

Mid-morning next day found us still in the rain and pulling off the road to launch at Porto de Quilmas into a grey and misty sea. After just an hour we were beached as the fog closed in but morale was boosted by porridge and coffee made by Simon whilst waiting for visibility to improve. We quickly launched into a heavy beam swell and we could see our objective Cap Finisterre in the far distance. We kept paddling whilst our ears attuned to a sudden rush of water indicating a wave wanting to climb in over the side. We were hoping to halve the distance that day but somehow we just kept going. Stopping to assess the situation we reckoned on being only two miles away and finally grinding to a halt on the slip at Finisterre at 6.30pm.

A fiesta was in full swing and it felt like it was for us! We had covered 212 miles, composed of 88.7 canoeing and 123.3 portaging in 14 days! We logged in at the hostel and presented our passports. After questioning we were each issued with a brightly coloured certificate called a Fisterra, we had against all odds done it! After a good night’s sleep I did some shopping in preparation for a meal on the tip of Cap Finisterre. I bought Padron peppers, squid, langoustines and scallops (the symbol of the Caminha trails) and cooked them on the point as the sun set. A harvest Moon rose and the fog rolled in obliterating the sea to the horizon where it was like looking down from an aircraft. We were very lucky to be safe on land and not having to haul a laden canoe along the roads of Spain the next day!


The Caminha – ‘the way of St.James’
There are many routes all ending in Santiago de Compostela, which are open to anybody. Use the Refugios (Pilgrim hostels), which are very cheap (they generally ask for a donation) and supply basic dormitory style accommodation and usually a simple meal. Obviously a lot of pilgrims will be on a spiritual quest but we found ourselves welcome!

A party atmosphere prevails at Cap Finisterre as for many it marks the end of weeks of walking.

The Rias offer good paddling as they are generally sheltered from the Atlantic. The points of the capes are very weather dependent and you will always have to factor in the swell of the Atlantic Ocean and the lack of exits should things go wrong.

We had covered 212 miles and 5,000 feet of ascent by paddling 88.7 miles and hauling the canoes 123.3 miles in 14 days for which we gained a Jacobea, a Pedronia, a Compostela and a Fisterra.

We took two spare wheels and had three punctures, two blowouts with two tyres ruined.

About thepaddlerezine (654 Articles)
Editor of The Paddler magazine and Publisher of Stand Up Paddle Mag UK.

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