When I told friends I was going on a geocaching holiday in the Alentejo region of Portugal, they asked me if there was much cash to be made. Blissfully ignorant and not entirely sure what they meant, I looked up the term online and discovered that geocaching is, to paraphrase the sport’s website, ‘an outdoor treasure hunt where players try to locate hidden containers, called geocaches, using a smartphone or GPS’. So orienteering then, with added technology. Not a problem – or so I thought.
Born in 2000 as a result of improvements to GPS, more than a million people go geocaching in the UK alone, with several times as many worldwide. To add a touch of spice to the adventure, I’d booked to join a group geocaching out of self-drive houseboats on the largest man-made lake in Europe. And so, after meeting my four boating companions in the marina and a brief lesson in steering, we headed for a small island for our first attempt at the sport. Hitching our boat to a tree, we followed Adam, our geocaching mentor, through buzzing, humming, aniseed-scented undergrowth. Eventually we gave up the search after Adam announced that we’d been ‘muggled’. I was perplexed to say the least.
Later that evening, I finally discovered what he meant over dinner at Sabores da Estrella, an eatery whose traditional stone façade hides a very hip dining space with chunky wooden tables overlooking the reed-fringed banks of Lake Alqueva. Appetites whetted by a long day of hunting for geo-treasure, we tucked into strips of marinated octopus; delicious slices of crispy duck and the golf ball-sized choux pastries oozing with hot chocolate sauce, as Adam explained that muggling, far from being something to do with Harry Potter, means that someone else has arrived at the cache before you. No wonder he looked so frustrated. Stumbling back to the boat after supper, we hoped to have better luck the next day.
The next morning, after a brief argument to decide who’s steering, we headed for our next geocache spot. Adam – who edits a magazine dedicated to the sport and caches every day of the year – scrutinised the skyline from up on deck, while ex-policeman Jeff studied the map and journalist Melinda surveyed the burnt remains of our barbecue lunch. Having lost the steering argument, I clung to the wheel and searched the lake’s surface for windmill tops, castle turrets and other navigational hazards that were left behind when the Alqueva dam was created a decade ago.
After drifting for several hours through a landscape littered with cork trees and storks resting on the tips of tattered churches, we moor near the ancient walled village of Monsaraz. Hunting through medieval streets in the shadow of the city’s imposing castle we found our first real cache. Adam pulled out a tupperware container, while I craned over his shoulder excitedly, expecting to see diamonds. Instead, there was a notebook and the stub of a pencil with which he carefully recorded the time and date of our visit. Was I disappointed? Yes I was a little, but as Adam told me, the real thrill of caching is finding places that you might not have discovered otherwise and this proved true ten minutes later when I stumbled upon a string of amazing boutiques in a side street directly north of the cache.
One of the world’s first starlight tourism destinations, the Alentejo’s vast dark skies bring stargazers flocking to spot their favourite planets. After dinner in a lakeside café that evening, we made for one of the region’s hotels equipped with professional-quality star gazing gear. Through the telescopes, we spotted Saturn and various planetary acolytes, before heading back to our vessel with stars in our eyes.
Regretfully quitting the boat the following morning, we checked into M’Ar De Ar Muralhas: a centrally-located Evora hotel where we spent our final day in the Alentejo. Classed by the Portuguese themselves as one of the country’s most liveable conurbations, the Unesco Heritage-classed town of Evora is a delightful pickle of crumbling architecture and 17th century palaces. Hunting for geocaches was fun, but while diamonds were nowhere to be seen, I did find some real treasure – the charming streets of Evora, and the tiny hidden villages of the Alentejo.
NEED TO KNOW…
Prices for a four-night geocaching experience start at £887 per person, based on two sharing. The total includes return flights with TAP Portugal from London Heathrow to Lisbon, car rental, three nights on a houseboat (self-catering) and one night at Hotel M’Ar De Ar Muralhas, Évora (bed and breakfast). For more info contact Sunvil Discovery.