Kayaking on the Douro river across Portugal

In the summer holidays, Sérgio Lucena used to go on kayaking expeditions on the Douro River with his brother.

Fish jumped over the bow of the boat, towering banks rose above. The river was calm – it has been navigable since the mid-20th century, when dams were built along its length.

“Water is my environment – I know the rivers,” says Sérgio. He went on to become a rower on his national team. A long career off the water followed, but he has returned to Portugal’s rivers to offer kayaking trips – he is the founder of our Portuguese partner, 7 Rivers Expeditions. He’s returned to find these traditional landscapes almost exactly as he remembers them.

“We want to show a different perspective of places and communities and give guests an opportunity to live in a very simple way,” he says.

You can kayak the highlights of the Douro, crossing Portugal, passing through some of the country’s most idiosyncratic landscapes. For centuries, wine production in the Douro Valley has left its mark on the hills around the river.

Kayaks offer a perspective that not many seek – from right on the waterline. “In Portugal we don’t have that kind of culture,” says Sérgio, “Portuguese tourists generally look for beaches, for the Algarve, for hotels, luxury. They are not the typical nature tourists, they are looking for other things.” It means that for long stretches, even as you pass wonderful cultural landscapes, the river is very quiet.

Introducing the Douro River

The Douro River starts in the Picos de Urbión, a Spanish mountain range, and most of its length is in Spain. But the river also passes across the width of Portugal to reach the Atlantic Ocean at Porto.

The Portuguese section of the river is best known for the stretch that passes through the Douro Wine region, where the hills rise steeply from the banks, their wine terraces like stepped pyramids. The river moderates the climate in the area and providing excellent growing conditions for grapes.

The region is famous for producing port, which was taken down the Douro by boat in barrels known as pipes. The port was then stored in cellars in Porto before being exported – often over to England.

Can you kayak on the Douro?

The Portugal section of the river is safe and slow-flowing, ideal for downstream paddling; and you can swim, too. A series of dams – there are 15 on the Douro, and five in Portugal proper – were constructed and completed in the latter half of the 20th century. They turned the wild and dangerous Douro into a navigable river.

Before the dams, the Douro flooded to devastating effect on a regular basis, ruining farms, and washing hundreds of pipes of port out to sea. The high water marks on the port cellars at the city of Vila Nova de Gaia, which sits opposite Porto on the mouth of the river, bear witness to these forgotten floods, “The river was very, very wild,” says Sérgio. He remembers when the last dam was built in his childhood.

Dam infrastructure came too late for the Douro Valley port producers, who by then had abandoned their flat bottomed rabelos boats in favour of lorries to transport their wares to Porto. But the dams have come just in time for you, and have made it safe and slow-flowing for downstream paddling.
It’s not a feat of endurance, it’s a feast for the senses. Kayaking the Douro across Portugal is a downstream trip full of delights, designed by a team for whom the water is a second home.

Why kayak on the Douro?

The Portuguese section of the river is more easily navigable than the Spanish section, which is blocked by its own dams.

The wide river is quiet, fun and safe to kayak and there are also a number of smaller tributaries to explore. There’s no white water to navigate – just long stretches of blue and green. Since you’re travelling downstream, it doesn’t have to be strenuous. Sérgio recently accompanied a group in their eighties.

Damned if you do

The damming of the Douro and its tributaries has been criticised. It blocks migratory fish populations, and reduces the number of nutrients available downstream in the river mouth. A quarter of the barriers in the Portugal side of the river basin – which include thousands of smaller structures – are obsolete, and there are calls for some of them to be removed to improve the river’s biodiversity.

For the purposes of leisure exploration, however, they serve a very useful purpose.

Highlights of kayaking on the Douro

As you travel up to the Spanish border from the coast to reach the start of the route, you’ll note that inland Portugal is less populated than its seaside, and the banks of the river are rural and uncultivated. As you progress west by boat, the route then slips into the wine region, where the landscape – whilst still very hilly and dramatic, becomes sculpted and terraced. As you drift out of the wine region and head to Porto, you’ll start to see more populated areas. The cities of Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia stand on either side of the river, cheering you at your finish line – though kayaking stops before the cities, with their increased motorised boat traffic.


As you travel through the Douro Valley, you’ll notice that the wine region is helpfully annotated. Douro Valley estates announce their names, Hollywood-style, from large signs on the hills. The adverts aren’t for nothing – tourists can visit their cellars for a wine tasting. Portugal’s wine is interesting, in that most wines are made from a ‘field blend’ of many different varieties of grape specific to Portugal.

Palaeolithic art

The Côa river, which runs through this valley, is one of the Douro’s many tributary rivers, but it has its own attractions. The upper palaeolithic rock art in the Côa Valley comprises 5,000 images of animals carved into the rock. Some of these carvings are believed to be nearly 24,000 years old. The site had a near-miss; it was nearly flooded by a dam project, but the discovery of the rock art cancelled the project.

Quinta stays

Now that much of the vineyard work is mechanised, the old quintas (estates) have room to take in tourists. Situated above the riverbanks, often with commanding aspects and far-reaching views of their surroundings, these impressive old houses give a taste of traditional Portuguese rural life.


Portugal is threatened by the heating effects of climate change. In an increasingly drying landscape the river is a focal point for wildlife. Further away from Porto, where the countryside is wilder, you may see many birds – especially raptors. And you may spot fish in the water, “perch, mullet, bass,” lists Sérgio, even as you head towards the city.


From the walled waterside orange groves to the amphitheatre of vined terraces, the Douro Valley wine region is, for the most part, hand-sculpted – it’s this ‘cultural landscape’ that has earned the area its UNESCO status, and some of the hand-dug terraces date from Roman times. Among the feats of human engineering, you will still pass rocky outcrops, clumps of brushwood, and small patches of woodland.
Travel Team
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Kayaking can be done in a tailor made trip with a local guide. You can stay in traditional accommodation, where it’s available, and spend time out of the kayak to explore the sights that you can’t see from the water. The less interesting stretches of the river can be skipped by hopping on the train, or using a support vehicle, resulting in a trip that will take around 10 days.

Reaching your starting point by train

From Porto, you can head upstream by train. This is an adventure in itself.

The Linha do Douro train line, completed in 1887, runs from Porto’s particularly beautiful Săo Bento station, all the way to the Spanish border. The old diesel train, with an engine that sounds like a passing helicopter, pulls you out of the suburbs of Portugal’s second city and into the countryside. For long stretches of the journey, the tracks go right along the riverbank. The surroundings get more rural and rugged and less densely populated as you go upstream, and you can check out your downstream route from the window.

You’re in a part of the world where the traffic is low enough to be notable – when the train passes a tourist boat, the train driver toots their horn – and the boat might toot back.

Keeping safe on the Douro

Once you’re ensconced in your kayak cockpit, going on a guided tour will keep you safe from any potential problems on the route. The main hazard is the large tourist boats that you might encounter every 10km or so – these are massive, but slow-moving, and they stay between the red and green markers that delineate the river channel. The river is wide enough for you to pass and your guide will spot them from afar. You might even give them a wave – they’ll be happy to see you.

It’s the wash you need to watch for after the boat has passed – the safest practice is to simply turn your kayak so that the nose of your boat is perpendicular to the direction of the oncoming waves. You’ll have fun bouncing up and down on the spot for a bit, then you can continue on your way.

Your guides will check the boats between each stage of the journey, and everyone wears buoyancy aids. Soon you’ll be discovering for yourself – just as Sérgio and his brother did those decades ago – the magic of this wonderful river.
Written by Eloise Barker
Photo credits: [Page banner: 7 Rivers] [Intro: 7 Rivers] [Introducing the Douro River: mat's eye] [Vineyards: Rosino] [Scenery: Vitor Oliveira]