Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Spain’s Cíes Islands: The Best Beach in the World?

As last school year was drawing to an end, the weather was heating up and the sun had decided to come out, so a handful of friends and I decided to hop on the train south to Vigo to catch the next ferry for as Illas Cíes—the Cíes Islands, which are home to what was called the “world’s best beach” in 2007 by the British newspaper The Guardian. It was a glorious daytrip from Santiago and a much-needed break from the rolling hills and rain of inland Galicia.

Cíes Islands, Spain
No caption necessary
The three Cíes islands form an archipelago that guards the entrance to an estuary of the Atlantic Ocean called the Ría de Vigo. From north to south, the three islands are named Monteagudo (“pointy mountain”), Montefaro (“lighthouse mountain”), and San Martiño (“St. Martin’s”).

Why are the beaches the best?

Cíes Islands, Spain
Dunes connecting the middle and northern islands
Part of the reason the beaches on the Cíes Islands (pronounced “THEE-ays” [ˈθi.es]) are so wonderful is the fact that they belong to the Atlantic Islands of Galicia National Park, so they have been protected from the runaway tourism and development, for example, that happened to beaches in Benidorm or Marbella on the Mediterranean coast. Here the natural beauty of these coastal islands has been more or less preserved and there are no high-rise hotels or trashy clubs to ruin the views. Additionally, there’s a daily limit of 2,200 visitors to the islands, so there are never mobs of sunbathers filling up the beaches.

Cíes Islands, Spain
Perfect turquoise water
The beaches themselves are basically perfect: extremely fine, white sand covers the half dozen or so beaches that stretch around the islands’ perimeter, and waves of almost-neon turquoise water gently splash along the beaches. The only way they could improve is if the ocean water wasn’t so ice-cold!

Cíes Islands, Spain
Seagulls love the soft white sand, too!
But the Cíes Islands were claimed to have the “world’s best beaches” probably because a journalist for the Guardian had to fit in a sponsored link for a resort company in an article and, perhaps by chance, happened to put the Cíes first instead of nine other equally-deserving beaches from around the world. In another universe, they might have been second and the city of Vigo’s tourism board wouldn’t have been able to take a random news article and run with it. But I digress.

What else is there to do?

Cíes Islands, Spain
Trails up the mountain
Besides being a beach bum and soaking up the sun, there’s actually a lot more you can do on the islands. They’re fairly mountainous so there are loads of hiking trails you can go on that go up to the summits, trace around the sides, and take you into cool, shaded forests. On the central Montefaro Island, for example, you can make the hike up to an impressive lighthouse and take in some really nice views of the surroundings. Plus, there are some cool rock formations to crawl around on and some decidedly Caribbean-feeling trees and bushes.

Cíes Islands, Spain
Seagulls also like to hike
The Cíes Islands, being a protected national park, are home to colonies of seagulls that number in the tens of thousands. Because of this, the islands’ soil has been richly fertilized by seagull guano, which is rich in nitrogen and phosphate. The islands are therefore even more green than Galicia usually is. If you manage to escape getting pooped on, there are some great lookout points where you can satisfy your birdwatching needs on the western cliffs of Montefaro Island.

Cíes Islands, Spain
The southern island
I had already left the country in June, but around that time some of my friends from Santiago actually went camping here! It’s fairly straightforward, and you can even rent tents from the people who manage the islands. As there are no hotels, this is the only way to spend more than a day at a time here, and I can’t think of a more chill way to camp than with the ocean on one side and a biodiverse forest on the other.

How to get there

Cíes Islands, Spain
On the ferry
If you own a yacht you can simply shimmy on down to the islands, but make sure you get an anchoring permit if you plan to spend the night. Otherwise, you can catch a ferry from the two main cities on either side of the Ría de Vigo: Cangas, on the north side of the estuary, or the big city of Vigo, on the south side. I recommend Vigo as it has a major train station and an airport—plus the current provisional train station of Vigo-Guixar is super close to the maritime station where the ferries depart from. You can purchase tickets online for any of three ferry companies: Cruceros Rías Baixas, Mar de Ons, or Naviera Nabia.

The Cíes Islands are only accessible from May through October and during Semana Santa (Holy Week) before Easter, so plan accordingly.

Do you agree that the Cíes Islands have the best beaches in the world? Duke it out in the comments below!

For more pictures, check out my Flickr album.
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