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Why Portugal is Tired of Your “Van Life”

Let’s start with the facts: wild camping has always been illegal in Portugal, but has been tolerated for a long time. 2020 seems to have been a turning point in Portugal’s van life culture though – a culture I have been a part of for quite a while.

Ever since I started surfing at the age of seventeen, the need for a practical means of transportation has been there. I recall searching for my first car on the internet, now some fourteen years ago. My priority was a car that I could sleep in and one that would fit my surfboard. That seemed like ultimate freedom to me. It also ruled out a great deal of cars. I ended up buying a ’76 VW T2, for numerous reasons. It was practical and nostalgic for starters. But it soon also became a big part of my identity. It has made me into who I am today in one way or the other and it was my start as a van life.

At age 27 I got a Volvo V70 from 1998 and fitted it with a rooftop tent. I took it along the Atlantic Coast of France, Spain and ended in the Algarve region of Southern Portugal. At that time, Southern Portugal had already become the epicenter for people in vans and campers, escaping the colder winters up North. #vanlife had become a thing.

This spring I decided to look for a new adventure mobile. One that would truly be a tiny house. I stumbled upon a Mitsubishi L300 camper on the web. It looked quite shitty on the inside, but the potential was there. I started the rebuild with the plan of making a trip down South in autumn. With COVID cases on the decline, it all looked pretty good in summertime. A bit of isolation in nature wouldn’t do any harm anyway in my opinion.

After some mechanical hiccups, I left the Netherlands mid-November, accompanied by a friend and his van. By the time we left, I had already heard stories about vans being attacked by locals in the Algarve. Locals seemed to have been fed up with van lifers for a couple of years now, but the situation seemed to have escalated. According to the stories I heard through friends, some people’s vans had been damaged while they had been wild camping. The prospect of waves and some warmer temperatures made me decide to go anyways. I don’t mind spending time on campsites anyway. I was curious though, at what had sparked the escalation of the situation in Portugal. 

After talking to different locals, this is what I learned about the current situation.

The number of tourists visiting Portugal has steadily increased year by year (Tradingeconomics, 2020). The Algarve and Sagres region, in particular, form a natural funnel, making it the final destination for most van lifers that stick around for the winter. Wild camping was (and still is) illegal in Portugal. Nonetheless, a lot of van lifers still seek a place at scenic spots. They know they usually won’t get caught and if they do, the fine rarely makes it to their home address. 

All those campervans littering the Portuguese coast cause different problems. There is the litter that is often left behind (yeah that happens, I’ve seen it for myself). People tend to take a number 1 or 2 out in nature while failing to dispose of their toilet paper in the correct manner. Then there are campfires. Now those are especially hated, since Portugal is dealing with a lot of wildfires every year. Even a small campfire can damage the local ecosystem, just like litter.

Besides the fear of damage to nature, a lot of locals feel like van lifers don’t contribute to the local economy. Tourism is incredibly important for Portugal, but can vanlifers even be called tourists? They take their accommodation with them, and usually only visit a restaurant to use the toilet. The cheaper you live, the longer you can stay on the road, which makes sense. But isn’t this all a bit selfish? I think balance is a bit off at the moment. The only ones that seem to be making money are the gas stations and the supermarkets, which only benefit a small percentage of the locals. 

I understand the anger of the locals but I also understand the people that want to spend the winter here in their van, living as cheap as possible and surfing incredible waves. I am also trying to live like this. But with that many vans around, it was bound to go wrong.

COVID hasn’t made the whole situation any better. Some fear the van lifers spread the virus, making them an easy target of discontent.

Then there is the water. The line-ups can get really crowded on the South-coast, especially when the swell is too big for the West-coast. This leads to numerous drop-ins, which the locals take out on van lifers in general.

I’ve spent the past week in the Algarve now and I sense that an era has come to an end. I have camped close to a beautiful beach once and tried to leave it behind cleaner than I found it. I also camped at the parking lot of a supermarket, because it felt like I wouldn’t be harming any ecosystem there. I’ve stayed on a campsite in Sagres for the past few nights. I don’t want to take too many chances. There is a weird tension in the air. Locals in the parking lot usually don’t look at you too friendly when they see your number plate. Surf Spots like Beliche are packed most of the days, leading to tension in the line-up. 

I understand the anger of the locals but I also understand the people that want to spend the winter here in their van, living as cheap as possible and surfing incredible waves. I am also trying to live like this. But with that many vans around, it was bound to go wrong.

It is time for me to move on. I’ll spend some more time here, but I know it will probably be my last vanlife trip in Southern Portugal. I’ll find new shores to explore and new culture to discover, of that I’m sure.

And, just a heads up: if you do decide to go to Portugal with a van, be prepared to pay for campsites or else look for the designated camper parking spots that are still around. Don’t leave any rubbish behind and pick up some trash if you see some. Respect the locals, support the small shops that are open. Find your spot in the line-up. I always skipped the main peak at Beliche for instance and surfed happily on the other peaks which are a bit less good. In the end, we’re just visitors and we shouldn’t forget.

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Behind the Lens—Luca Werner