Dinosaur much they weigh

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Serras de Aire e Candeeiros

Portugal: stalactite caves, dino tracks and happy cows

Magnificent view

Whether for hikers or amateur explorers: The Serras de Aire e Candeeiros Nature Park in Portugal is worth a side trip. A special excursion takes us underground.

Porto de Mos – From a high plateau, our view falls over Portugal’s largest limestone reservoir. The rugged, almost barren landscape of the Serras de Aire e Candeeiros is crisscrossed by labyrinths of piled up natural stones.

"Probably some of these walls have been standing since people first settled here," says tourist guide Adelina Ferreira, 52. At that time, the stones lying around were used to create pasture for the animals and space for vegetable patches.

A subterranean lake is yet undiscovered

Today we also encounter many free-range cows filling their bellies with fresh herbs in their spacious, rocky enclosures. The soil in the natural park is very fertile. Although there is no surface lake or river in the 400 square kilometers that cover the districts of Santarem and Leiria.

"Yet the park is actually a huge water reservoir. However, it is 400 meters down," explains Antonio Fael, 66, Adelina’s husband. He often leads the tours together with his wife and works as a speleologist for the park.

All the rivers in the immediate area would spring from the park’s previously undiscovered underground lake, Antonio says. "Whenever we explorers discover a new cave, we try to follow the course of the water, so far unfortunately without success."

Agriculture and animal husbandry as they were hundreds of years ago

We climb into the couple’s jeep and drive over mogul roads, crossing sleepy villages. A farmer drives her goats across the road. Adelina knows the woman. We get out and she shows us the stable with young goats. We buy a few bags full of goat cheese thalers from the woman and continue the journey. "You can’t get better quality than this," says Adelina.

She really liked the fact that people here farmed their land and kept animals – like they did hundreds of years ago. This, too, belongs to the park’s cultural assets worthy of protection.

A cathedral made of stalactite

"My heart has been with this park since I started caving as a teenager," Antonio says. We reach the Algar do Pena cave, which was discovered in 1983 by workers in a quarry. Antonio hands out safety helmets and headlamps. An elevator takes us 33 meters down into the limestone cliffs. A staircase leads up to a kind of viewing platform.

Meter-long stalactites hang down from the ceiling. Stalagmites growing up from the ground. Like in a huge cathedral. "But even more impressive, because nature shaped it and not man," says Adelina. The cave measures nearly 100 meters from the ceiling to its deepest point reached so far. Antonio has already roped himself down to it in search of the course of the water.

In the ecosystem under the ground live, among other things, beetles without eyes, which orient themselves only by means of antennas. Humans are outnumbered here: a maximum of 12 people a day are allowed access to keep temperature, CO2 levels and humidity in balance. A visit is only possible with prior booking and a little luck. The cave is otherwise reserved for researchers.

175 million-year-old traces of the past

We meet Adelina and Antonio again the next day in the northern part of the park. Around noon we reach one of the destinations of the day: the Pedreira do Galinha quarry. The was shut down when workers digging here in 1994 uncovered traces of a bygone era. From a hill you can admire the longest known and continuous sauropod track in the world. The footprints of the giant lizards, which lived about 175 million years ago, extend over almost 150 meters.

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