Nazaré in Portugal: among the highest waves in the world

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Valery Aloyants

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Nazareth, Portugal, Atlantic coast: these are the coordinates of the Surfer's paradise. Here you can see the highest waves in the world. Waves of an absurd dimension, called Big Waves. But Nazaré, 120km north of Lisbon and about 250km south of Porto, is not just about waves and surf. Nazaré is very wide beaches, stunning views and memorable sunsets over the Atlantic Ocean.

Nazarè at sunset

In a travel ontheroad in Portugal, you cannot not enter this stage. I went to Nazaré on the occasion of a collaboration with a company that rents motorhomes. Visit Portugal in mode fly & camper is an excellent idea. Surf and camper are a great match. If you want to find out more about this travel mode, I suggest you read this article of mine: Traveling by Fly & Camper.

Nazaré: waves, big waves and ocean

As soon as you arrive on Nazaré beach, North Beach, it will be impossible not to notice the promontory that turns towards the ocean. A giant rock over 310 meters high, totally overlooking the sea. On that rock is the famous lighthouse of Nazaré, who looks at the ocean "straight in the eye" and faces the big waves crashing against him without a blow.

A detail of the Nazarè lighthouse at sunset

Because Nazaré is famous

Nazaré is famous for the giant waves that are formed right in front of the lighthouse, thanks to a particular conformation of the seabed. We could say it is a mecca for surfers, although not all surfers practice this sport on big waves.

Only a few madmen (in the good sense of the word) they venture to ride these waves, because yes, you have to be a little crazy to surf the waves of over 30 meters high. Can't you imagine them? I'll help you: try to think of a 9 or 10-storey building ...

How to reach the lighthouse

To reach the lighthouse you can arrive either from the main road continuing from the town center, or ...

If you want to reach Nazaré by car (beware that the road is not easy)

… Park in the upper part of Praia do Norte. I recommend this option (which you see in the screenshot below) because you will find more parking and you will have fewer problems when maneuvering, especially if you are in a camper. Furthermore, you will appreciate the beach and the fact that you gradually get closer to the lighthouse.

The Xs are the street side car parks, the track is the way to walk (in red)

Follow the red trace that I did on the map, you will walk on the beach and near the promontory you will find an uphill path that will take you directly to the lighthouse.

What to see in Nazaré in Portugal: the museum in the lighthouse

If you are lucky, you will be able to see the biggest waves in the world in Nazaré. In any case you can visit the museum of the lighthouse. For the price of 1 euro, you can enter the lighthouse, admire the surfboards that have made the history of big waves and discover how these incredible waves are formed. And then? And then you can take a thousand photos like the ones I show you.

The surfboards for the Big Waves in the Nazaré lighthouse
Panorama from the top of the Nazaré lighthouse

When do the biggest waves in the world form?

The best time to see the big waves in Nazaré is that from October to March. In this period Nazaré becomes the favorite half of those who want to measure themselves with the strength of the ocean. Giant waves, however, don't happen every day. Indeed, they can only be created under certain conditions.

Surfers registered in this competition experience the "good time" for waves in a particular way. Not knowing when the waves will arise, they are perpetually waiting for a call from the organizers. From the moment they are called, they only have 72h to show up for the racewherever they are.

Surfers in the water as they wait for the perfect wave.

Unfortunately, I was unable to see the big waves of Nazaré, despite this it is a beautiful, photographically interesting place. If you are in the area and want to know the forecast on the waves, I recommend you read theInfo Surf Report.

Why giant waves are formed in Nazaré

In Nazaré there is a particular conformation of the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. A deep underground canyon wedges itself towards the mainland.

In particular conditions, the force of the underwater currents is channeled into the canyon almost to reach the lighthouse. At that point the canyon ends and turns to the left and the force pushes upwards joining the force of the waves already present that turn towards Praia do Norte.

How the waves of Nazaré are formed. Credits: 5W Infographics, research by Kyle Frischkorn and Sonya Maynard; Source: MaxSea / Dr. Kevin Horsburgh, National Oceanographic Center, UK

What a difference between normal surfing and big wave surfing

I state that I am not a surfer, but this little information was given to me by "one of them". Surfers participating in the world cup they are not the same ones that compete with the Big Waves.

The former compete on waves of a few meters and their purpose is to ride them by making evolutions or by sliding inside the "tubes" that form the waves.

The latter, on the other hand, practically run away from the waves. If you go to youtube to see some videos of Nazaré, you will be thrilled. They let themselves be dragged with jet skis almost to the crest of the wave, then they detach and from that moment their only thought is escape the huge body of water behind them. The big wave surfboard is much narrower than normal boards and allows you to go faster; surfers stay attached to the board thanks to stops where they insert their feet in order to be more stable.

The giant waves of Nazaré are spectacular but very dangerous. Getting overwhelmed by a wave can be lethal. Don't even think you can venture into such a thing.

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