Monday, August 31, 2015

Photo Post: How to Visit the Cíes Islands in Spain

Read and follow these signs to get the most of out of your visit to the Islands

This past spring, a couple of friends and I awoke at the crack of dawn on a Saturday morning -just days before we finished working at our respective schools as language assistants and university students- to go on a day trip to the Islas Cíes, a chain of three islands off the southern coast of Galicia. A few assistants went earlier that month and others went last fall before the school year was in full swing but we all wanted our chance to go and went when the weather was a bit warmer and likely to be sunny all day. A rarity in Spain's rainiest region.

With careful planning and important advice from a Renfe customer service representative at the local A Coruña train station, the three of us hopped on a train bound for Vigo at 8:00am in the morning and arrived with just enough time to walk from the main train station to the Port of Vigo to catch our 10:45am ferry boat to the Islands. Had we left any later, we would have missed our ferry and ruined our carefully planned day. Thankfully we did not and ended up having a great day thanks to preparations we made the day before. 

We came armed with snacks, lunches, drinks and sunscreen -some a little more than others, haha- and were ready to enjoy a day spending time on the beach, trying out the infamous icy turquoise waters and outsmarting the Galician seagulls who we knew would be after our sandwiches the moment we set foot on those white sandy beaches.

Have you been dreaming about visiting these islands yourself but don't know how to get there? Follow my tips below for a fantastic day at "one of the best beaches in the world," according to the Guardian.

1. Decide what day and what time you want to go

You'll first start out being very excited - if you're like me who loves to travel and plan new trips - but take time to do some realistic planning first. It's best to come up with a couple of dates or weekends that you (or you and your friends/family) would like to go to the Islands. The closer you are located to Vigo (and if you have access to a car), the easier and faster it will be for you to get there. 

A few things to remember: only 2,200 visitors are allowed on the Islands per day and visitor season runs from April to October (with an extra week of admittance during Holy Week). No inhabitants live on the Islands and it is registered as a national park which means that the land is protected and visitors are strongly encouraged not to litter or leave trash on the premises (though some sadly get away with this). Camping is allowed in the summer time only and tent rental is available for a fee. 

If you will be in the area for a while or plan to visit Spain a few times in the coming years, go visit the Cíes in different seasons and try to have a new experience each time. Go for the day one year and then the next visit go camping for the weekend! It's a great place to get in touch with nature and disconnect from the modern world.

2. Buy your ferry tickets online and buy them round-trip!

The Puerto de Vigo - where you will catch a short ferry to the Islands.
A kiosk where you will check-in and print your ferry boarding pass
(A ticket which you first bought online. We chose Mar de Ons.)
Once we settled on a day and saw that there were enough ferry tickets available at the time we all agreed to go, we bought our tickets online through a ferry company called Mar de Ons. It was easy to navigate and you can change it to the language of your choice such as English, Galician, Portuguese and French to make your booking process go a lot smoother.

I booked in the website's original Spanish language but I would only do this if you are also confident in your Spanish skills. Anyway, we left at 10:45am but arrived at the Port some 20 minutes before the ferry left. We walked into a small building with different kiosks and information desks and I saw the company my friends and I booked with. All you have to do is type in your confirmation number or last name onto the kiosk's touch screen, select your ticket departure and it will print both your departure and return tickets. 

If you are going in the off-peak season, make sure you book online AND select a return time that will line up with your return train ticket from Vigo. It will make things a whole lot easier and help you enjoy the day to the fullest without worrying about making your ferry or train in enough time. Or risk being stranded on the island or stuck in a city you didn't plan to spend the night in. 

 3. Buy your train or bus tickets to Vigo and don't miss your train!
The view out of the window of a train from A Coruña to Vigo
(your first stop before visiting the Cíes Islands)

My friends let me do the research for both the ferry and the train tickets but one of my friends came with me to buy the train tickets while our other friend had a class to attend. We had originally wanted to go on a Friday but ferries for that day filled up not even 2 days before the date. (It was a bummer because there was also a really good promotion going on that weekend in honor of Galicia's elections but we just had to let that go.) We decided that a late morning ferry ticket was best and then went to buy the train tickets. Had we left at 9am from Coruña as planned, we would've missed our ferry boat in Vigo! We owe a huge thanks to the lady who sold us our tickets -and I'm thanking myself for my habit of asking too many questions that came in handy this time!- and for her advice on the best way to get there. We had to leave at 8:00am but you can always sleep on the train. Which is what my friends did. :P

We booked our return tickets through the less popular train station in Vigo because it was faster and cheaper. We stayed at the Islands until 6:00pm and then caught our train that left around 7:30pm or so. We really had to walk fast after we arrived back at the Port but a 25 minute walk definitely gave us enough time to catch the train...and catch our breaths.

You will see a few signs and items covered in marketing posters and designs advertising the Cíes
on your walk to the Port from the train station.

4. Plan to have a picnic and an overall relaxed day enjoying nature

Due to the popularity of the Islands and the amount of tourism they receive each year, a restaurant was built and serves a few Galician dishes and tapas along with a selection of drinks and desserts. The restaurant prices are rather expensive which means it's best to bring your own food, snacks and drinks. 

Self-service food options at the Cíes restaurant

If you don't have time to bring them from the city where you're living or staying, make plans to stop at a supermarket in Vigo and buy a few inexpensive picnic items. Beware not to buy aluminum foil to wrap your freshly made sandwiches in for you will then taste the wrath of the hundreds of Galician seagulls that live on the Islands. These tough birds have become conditioned to seeing the shiny reflection of aluminum foil and making the connection that there is food inside those brightly light packages. A plastic sandwich bag should suffice when it comes to wrapping up your food but it will be your job to protect it from the seagulls! You've seriously been warned...

The seagulls may look cute and innocent but they are not to be messed with
when it comes to food!

My friends and I all brought food to share and had a fun time eating on the beach on our towels while gazing out at the clear blue waters in front of us. The instant we pulled out our sandwiches, though, a couple of seagulls flew down and tried to come near our towels. I threatened one with my orange and pretended to throw it but didn't. What was surprising was that the seagull didn't even attempt to move and it didn't even flinch! I'm probably not the first person who has threatened to throw something at a seagull and I certainly won't be the last. Those that live on the Islands won't be leaving them any time soon as they are also protected by living on the national park's grounds.

After we ate lunch early according to Spain's standards (around 11:30am or so!), we put sunscreen on and laid out on the beach. All three of us fell asleep not too long after that and one of my friends got very sunburned! I luckily had the bright idea to not take off my jeans and cover my face so that my body wouldn't get burned as much. My back and shoulders were not as fortunate...

After the cat nap on the beach, we walked down to the water and tried it out. We spent a bit of time doing that then dried ourselves off and started exploring the rest of the Islands and took a nice long walk down the beach before climbing on some rocks and hanging out there. 

5. Go beyond the beaches and turquoise waters and explore the rest of the Islands

After we spent some time on the rocks - which there are tons of rocks all over the Islands!-, we made our way to the hiking trails and explored more of the amazingly diverse topography that covers the archipelago. 

From sand dunes to pine trees to mossy rocks to long grass and steep hills, the Cíes Islands has so much to offer. You can camp under the stars there at their camp site in the summer, watch an amazing sunset or sunrise, hike all around the islands or simply read a nice book or chat with your friends as you tan on the beaches. 

I will let my pictures speak for themselves when it comes to giving you a virtual tour of these amazing islands. It may not be the world's best beach but it is certainly a very underrated gem off the Galician coast!

6. Test out the water temperature and see how long you can stay in the ocean

It's looks warm, doesn't it?!

The entire coast of Galicia is full of cold water. It's often compared to the Northern Pacific Ocean and the area itself looks a bit like Northern California and coastal Oregon and the comparison couldn't be more true. It's not much of a disappointment for me personally as I go to the beach to tan not to go swimming. On  the other hand, I do like walking along the edge of the shore and letting the gentle (or not so gentle!) motion of the waves sweep over my feet. 

If you're familiar with other Galician beaches, the water temperature around the Cíes shouldn't be as shocking to you but it is! However, I actually have the guts to say that it wasn't as cold as I was expecting it to be! (I'm from Ohio and have visited Nebraska during a winter or two so I have dealt with some very cold weather in my life.) In May, the water temperature was somewhere between 40-50F (lower than 12C) and though it cut into my skin like tiny but sharp icicles, my body got used to it after awhile and I was able to put up with it for a few minutes. It did help to walk around in the water to kind of let the shock wear off but getting in wasn't a big chore. 

The color of the water can be deceiving, yes, but that doesn't have to ruin your day at the beach on these islands. You may not have another opportunity to dip your toe into colder waters so go do it! You may one day think that temperature is refreshing if the thermometer reads a scorching 33C on a hot summer day in July or August.

7. Make plans to come back and visit them again!

And last, but not least: come visit the Islas Cíes again! If you didn't get to see everything you wanted to see or you didn't come during camping season, come back! I will definitely be paying these beautiful islands another visit in the next year as my friends and I only hiked around half of the islands in one day! We still have yet to see the lighthouse and climb to the highest peak on the archipelago.

I can almost guarantee that this year was the first of many visits to this island paradise! (Be mindful of the high winds, blowing sand and hungry seagulls, though. And don't say I didn't warn you! ;) )

**Note: I visited in late May 2015 so all of my pictures and experiences are based on what it was like pre-tourist season. Peak season is typically in July and August every year and ferries fill up fast! If you know the dates you wish to go, buy them way in advance and buy a group's worth at a time so that everyone you plan to go with can come along! You do not want to miss a visit to this tropical paradise hidden away in the northwestern corner of Spain. **

Have you visited the Cíes Islands before? What was your favorite thing about your visit? What tips would you add to my list? Add your comments and thoughts below!

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Ode to Galician Seagulls

A Galician seagull keeping a very close eye on my sandwich (Islas Cíes)

A few weeks into my summer vacation, as I was riding a bike down a quiet road in my suburban Ohio neighborhood, I had a glorious thought. It was a thought that brought me so much joy in just a few seconds time. The thought was this: There are no seagulls here. I am far away from both the ocean and those sea faring little creatures and I’m actually a tiny bit glad that I am. (Cue the hallelujah chorus!) A seagull would have to fly very far and try with all its might to come to this landlocked state about 10 hours away from the coast and find me.

Maybe Western Atlantic seagulls aren’t as whiny and greedy as Eastern Atlantic seagulls but I would almost beg to differ. I have experience living on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean (first in Jacksonville and then most recently in A Coruña) but nothing could prepare me for living near the beach with dozens of Galician seagulls.

Atlantic seagulls chilling in the ocean after sunrise
(Jacksonville Beach, Florida)

One might argue that seagulls are seagulls and they all act largely the same for the most part. Well, I would argue even more that you haven’t truly met a seagull (with lots of attitude and personality) until you’ve met a Galician seagull. Nothing can really prepare you for them but maybe I can give you a few words of advice (and warnings) about them if you do have the honor of meeting one of these fellows someday.

Galician seagulls play hard ball. They have made their mark on almost all of the shoreline in the whole region but especially in A Coruña and they don’t have any plans to leave. None whatsoever. They are territorial and don’t take well to humans invading their turf. Heck, they don’t even like it when dogs invade their area or steal their food so don’t take it personally.

As they have marked out the beaches in the A Coruña province, the Islas Cíes (in Vigo) and the beaches that line the Rias Baixas area, they have a lot of territory to cover and protect. They show no mercy to the throngs of beachgoers who show up to their beaches, with picnic baskets, towels and sports equipment ready to spend the day enjoying the surf and sun. They will watch you like a hawk (one of their many archenemies besides the pelican) and make it their mission to steal your sandwich or bag of chips in 10 seconds flat. A few of them have a bet going and try to outperform one another in attempt to steal your lunch and your good mood. Trust me - it happens!

Clear water and pristine white beaches that are home to hundreds of seagulls

Paradise still looks nice and inviting, though, right?

Then there's the weather. The Galician seagulls get beaten up a lot during the winter in A Coruña. I didn’t know how much until I spent a full winter there myself barely traveling outside of the region. A Galician winter is no joke, let me tell you. If it’s not the blustery Nordic winds that hit them with a blast of cold air at any angle in the city, it’s the coastal storms that wreak both gale-force winds and pounding rain –and sometimes hail if it’s really putting on a show—on them and everyone else in the city. The Galician rain is discussed constantly by locals and other Spaniards but most of the time it comes down on everyone –animals and humans alike— as a mist or steady light rain. The storm systems that march on in and swirl around the city, however, are no joke and the seagulls find neither shelter nor reprieve from the rain. They could fly down to the Islas (or somewhere farther south) and get a break, kick back with their buddies there but in all this blinding rain and hail? They’d rather stay where they are and squawk their complaints to the rest of us. It requires minimal effort and almost zero extra flying time so why do anything else?

When the weather finally does clear up and sunny days are once a reality again, you think they would take a break and leave us poor humans alone. Not a chance! Well, there's a reason why they don't pack their bags and head out. I forgot to mention all the smoke and fire these seagulls have to deal with too. Midway into winter, they have to deal with all the Carnival celebrations and the burning of the Giant Sardine the Xunta (the local government) creates for the city. Well, I take that back. They burry the sardine in the ocean and then light a falla (a large, colorful paiper-mâche character) on fire which signals the end of the Carnival festivities and all the madness.  The city gets pretty smoky that night but it is nothing compared to the events that take place a few months later that really gets these seagulls worked up.

Let me share four words with you: noche de San Juan. To some it is a night full of risks, fires and drunken conversations and parties but to others it is the loudest and possibly rowdiest beach party in all the city. A lot of people go to smaller towns to usher in the first sights and sounds of summer but a large number of people stay in or come to visit La Coruña. From fireworks to free concerts to huge bonfires on the beach to partying the night away, the Noche de San Juan offers something for everyone –whether you want to stay out for a few hours or go all night. It’s up to you but it’s worth it.

Bonfires line the beaches of A Coruña for one magical night: San Juan
(Photo credit:

The seagulls, however, practically get smoked out of their own habitat but those all-night bonfires don’t keep them away more than just a day. In fact, a few brave ones stay put and see what kinds of trash and food they can get into in the dumpsters. (As if they don’t already spend enough time any other given night scrounging through an open trash can or dumpster. Sigh…) They all come back the very next day because that’s when their party starts – the leftovers party that is. If you take a walk on the main beaches in A Coruña the day after San Juan -or the day after that-, the only things you will see are very few remnants of San Juan and hundreds of seagull footprints covering the sand. And if you try to get between a Galician seagull and a scrap of food or a measly plastic bag, well, you’ll regret you ever tried in the first place. Whatever falls on their beaches and is left unattended is theirs.

So, I get it, gaviotas galegas. Life in Galicia gets under your feathers and runs you through the wringer.  You can barely survive the rain and wind in the winter and then you get driven out of your modest little homes on the rocks at the beach (or wherever it is they build their homes) come summertime. The thing is…you guys could just migrate somewhere warmer and less temperamental  than say,…the rainiest region of Spain. Just a suggestion. On the other hand, it seems to me like you quite like this whole rampage you do to city dwellers of A Coruña and other cities in Galicia once the rainy season hits. Or when the weather is perfectly fine. I think you just like torturing us at 2 AM with your squawks that sound like meows or at the very sight of aluminum foil you swoop down and steal our tasty sandwiches that we spent hours preparing. Geez...

They are serious about their sandwich stealing business...let me tell ya.
But no, you won’t listen to me and change your ways. That requires too much effort and you guys would rather be lazy. And besides, I know what you think of me and what I am to you. I’m just another set of hands that can feed you, another pair of ears that can listen to your less than melodic squawks and another couple of eyes that can watch you fly away with massive amounts of garbage in your mouth.  You’re a big strong bunch of tough old birds, though, that’s for sure. And although I don't like you, I'll say this: More power to you!

Just don’t steal my sandwich next year and we’ll be on good terms. Got it? Good.

Okay, maybe just keep your distance and stay far, far away from me. (Photo taken on the lovely Islas Cíes)

Have you dealt with Galician seagulls before? Or do you have experience with a different type of bird or animal in another part of the world? Share your stories and thoughts (both good and not-so-good) in the comments below!