I held my hand up to the sky. Four fingers width between the sun and the horizon line. That’s how much time we had before the sun would sink into the ocean.

A few hours earlier, when the sun was two whole hands width high in the sky, I had climbed into a van with eight strangers and a guide and headed west, toward the coast. The adventure was relatively unplanned, which made it all the more exciting.

When I arrived in Sagres, a quiet surfing town at the southwestern tip of both Portugal and Europe, I had no plans for how I would fill my days there. I had spent three nights in Lisbon climbing up and down the hilly, lively cobblestone streets, trying to see as much of the city as I could in a relatively short time. When I made my way south, I was ready for the open air, and for a slightly slower pace.

The other travelers at my hostel looked at me strangely when I told them I wasn’t there to surf. But when I mentioned that I wanted to do some hiking, someone quickly recommended a guided hike along the coast. I shot a last-minute email to the guide, crossed my fingers, and woke up the next morning to an enthusiastic response letting me know that there was space for me in the hike that day. Though I’m all for exploring on my own, I figured my first time traveling alone was not the time to attempt a day-long solo hike, too.

After a short drive down bumpy dirt roads that put distance between us and civilization, our group of ragtag travelers made our way down a grassy path toward the coast.

I felt the wind before anything else, but was quickly met by the panoramic view of a dramatic cliffside cutting into the Atlantic. The Vicentine Coast stretches down western Portugal to meet the southern Algarve coast at Cape Saint Vincent, also nicknamed “The End of the World.”

We followed fishermen’s paths surrounded by wildflowers along some of the coast’s highest cliffs before working our way down to the water’s edge. There aren’t marked trails for hikers, but the fishermen created a network of paths years ago in order to make accessing the water a bit easier.

As I scrambled down a relatively steep section of the trail, grasping the rope our guide had secured for us, I tried to imagine making this journey not only regularly, but with the added weight of gear, bait, and catch.

As the sun continued to fall in the sky, we made our way south toward the so-called “end of the world.” The point earned its nickname during the Age of Explorers, as it was the last bit of land sailors would see as they headed toward uncharted territory across the oceans. It’s hard to imagine what that must have felt like, saying goodbye to land and heading out into the vast unknown.

After ascending and descending for several more hours, we finally reached our destination. The sun was just one finger’s width from the horizon, already sending splashes of pink and yellow up into the clouds. We stopped at an illuminated lagoon to take in the view and, without realizing it, a quiet “woah” escaped my mouth.

I’ve seen my share of beautiful sunsets — from beaches, mountaintops, and city rooftops — but as the sun fell into the water in the distant horizon, I marveled at the purity of this sunset. There were no rock formations, trees, buildings, or even people to distract from the sun’s grand exit that day.

Once the sun had disappeared, the sky darkened rapidly, filling with stars. With tired feet and quads, our group of impressed hikers sat around a makeshift table illuminated by lanterns and feasted on homemade pesticos, the Portuguese equivalent of tapas, and local wine. The Big Dipper and Cassiopeia shone clearly above us and, once we had refueled and taken in the constellations above us, we used their light to make our way back to the guide’s white van.

Spending nine hours hiking along the Portuguese coast is by no means “restful,” but after four days in bustling Lisbon, surrounding myself with wildflowers and the salty ocean wind was rejuvenating.

Humans have built breathtaking cities around the world, but there’s nothing like a dramatic coastline and mesmerizing sunset to remind you that the earth is a beautiful place all on its own. Removing my sneakers and crawling into my hostel bunk later that night, I was aware of my gratitude to have a body that allow me to wander off paved streets and navigate rocky cliffs so I can take in the parts of the world that have been mostly untouched by humankind.  

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Willa Tellekson-Flash
Willa (@willatf) is a junior at New York University, studying in Amsterdam, the Netherlands this spring. The first things she looks for upon arriving in a new city are open-air markets and hidden cafés, and she is happiest when exploring without a map.

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