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 a high SPF 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 anything like me, someone 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 summertime 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 months 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!
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 did the booking on the website’s original Spanish language version but I would only do this if you are also confident in your Spanish skills. Anyway, we left at 10:45 am 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!
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 the other 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 9 am 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 8:00 am but you can always sleep on the train. Which is what my friends did. 😛
We booked our return tickets through the less popular train station in Vigo because it was faster and cheaper. We stayed on the Islands until 6:00 pm and then caught our train that left around 7:30 pm 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.
4. Plan to have a picnic and an overall relaxing 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.
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…
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 11:30 am or so!), then 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…
Shortly after the catnap 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 have so much to offer. You can camp under the stars there at their campsite 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
The entire coast of Galicia is extremely cold. It’s often compared to the Northern Pacific Ocean and the area itself looks a bit like Northern California and coastal Oregon. 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 40-50ºF (lower than 12ºC) and though it cut into my skin like tiny but sharp icicles, my body got used to it after a while 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 huge pain.
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 33ºC 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 the 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 during the pre-tourist season. Peak season is typically in July and August every year and ferries fill up fast! The Cíes are only open seasonally and the season ends on October 1st. 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? Any tips you would add to my list? Write your comments and thoughts below!