Sea-view dining, sleeping to the sound of the waves and bagging beachside accommodation needn’t cost the earth. Hayley Spurway finds some of the best free camping locations across Spain and Portugal.
Over two months on the road in the camper van our accommodation costs came to grand total of €19. That’s pretty impressive for a family of four and a dog, considering the average cost of a campsite in Europe is €25 per night. Willing to wee in the wild, we were keen to breakaway from organised campsites, find more remote places to stay and make a saving by free camping our way around Spain and Portugal. Unlike the UK, much of the European continent is well set-up for camper vans, providing Aires (free camping/motorhome stopovers) on main routes, as well as being home to plenty of stunning track locations where camper vans can park-up for free.
Websites like furgovw.org list free camper van locations Europe-wide, but we found our own gems by heading away from the maddening crowds and following rutted tracks seaward. These are my top ten free camper van spots in Spain and Portugal:
On the edge of this tiny village on the banks of the mighty Ebro reservoir, a small track under the railway bridge leads to a grassy plateau hemmed by water. Seething midday temperatures see to it that you spend much of your time cooling off in the lake, where you can swim to a partly submerged church and gawp at mountain views from the steeple.
About 10km out of Tarifa town, between Punta Paloma and the Spin Out kitesurfing school, there’s a small beachside plot where camper vans can park up gratis. Most folk come here for the wind-sports (it’s one of the windiest locations in Europe), but it’s also perfect for beach lovers who want to fling open the van doors to pillows of sands and don’t mind a stiff afternoon breeze.
Seeking shelter from northerly winds and crowds on pilgrimage to nearby Cape Finisterre, we stumbled across the perfect camper van park-up beside the Caribbean-white sands of Rostro. Windsurfers and surfers flock here when conditions are right, walkers pad along the sand to Punta das Padras, and when the crystal-clear ocean is cold, you can wade to deserted coves and clamber over boulders to a waterfall.
On the north coast of Galicia – where boulder-strewn peaks and dense forests tumble to the edge of sandy bays and rugged coves – free camping locations abound. At Playa Traba you can experience crowd-free (even in the middle of summer), wave-lashed beach beauty, with the blessing of excellent facilities too: level, grassy park-ups; loos and showers; a water tap and picnic benches.
Where the baker delivers fresh bread to your park-up beneath the pine trees, and you can pad from the camper van into the surf, you’ve struck free camping gold. With a rustic beach bar and restaurant, showers and loos, picnic benches and a park for the kids, it’s little wonder that Esteiro gets busy. But the crowds depart with the heat of the sun, leaving plenty of space to spill out into secluded pitches under the stars.
Despite the abundance of mosquitos in Frexulfre’s eucalyptus forests, you can’t argue that the location – peering through the treetops down to the surf – is a cracking one. Forest tracks zigzag beneath the canopies to meet the waves, and as the tide ebbs the rockpools come to life. At the eastern end of the beach there’s also a beach-shack bar, showers and loos.
Photo credit: Hayley Spurway
Across the river from the whitewashed town of Odeceixe, there’s a row of waterside park-ups where the river meets the sea. Not only can you skim pebbles or float downstream on a lilo from the crescent of beach beside the camper vans, it’s only a short wade (or swim, at high tide) across the river to the town’s picture postcard beach that’s popular with surfers and families.
Follow the road through Almograve (stopping for some of Portugal’s best churros en route) to reach a wave-lashed stretch of coast traced by pockets of sand between dramatic cliffs. Beyond the first beach the crowds peter out and there’s a few cliff-top parking bays as well as a smaller, camper van-friendly car park beside a fish restaurant, water fountain, and a gym-and-jog circuit.
Surfers, families and beach bums flock to Praia Amado for waves, wow-factor sunsets and a beach-top vantage point. Surrounded by the same rugged scenery as more secret spots nearby, here the surf-side cafés mean you can take a break from campfire cooking and rest assured there’s always a loo nearby.
A peaceful camping spot before hitting the busier coastline around Lisbon, Praia Melides proffers mile upon mile of deserted, sugary sands backed by pine forests. Push on past the beach cafés, and – depending how far you’re willing to venture along the sandy track – there are secluded, sheltered camping spots galore hidden amongst the canopies.