Vigilantes come in the night to evict Vanlifers, Surfers and Motorhomers in the Western Algarve

Thanks for arriving at this article! If you don't want to read the whole article as I appreciate it's quite long then scroll down to the bottom for a summary of the main points.

Last Saturday (the 21st November 2020) there was some disturbing news emerging about some locals from the Vila do Bispo area getting together and taking it upon themselves to evict people in campervans from beach car parks in the Costa Vicentina national park. There has been ongoing problems with the arrival of more and more people in campervans and motorhomes over the last few years to this area of Portugal. Most of the negative reporting about people in vans is actually a very small minority of people and includes day trippers in cars, locals and tourists alike.


Campervans at a Beach in the Natural Park

These issues really need addressing urgently before someone gets hurt. Vigilante groups are a scary enough thought for people in campervans but also the locals themselves may well end up putting themselves in danger if they pick on the wrong person in a van or if someone gets spooked and uses a weapon.

The first emerging article can be found in Sic Notícias HERE with a video some of which shows part of the eviction. This article only says that people in campervans are filling the beaches where overnight stays are prohibited. This is true, in protected areas of Portugal, the natural parks, overnight parking of ANY vehicle is prohibited and camping and caravanning is not allowed. This is decree law no. 142/2008 24 July.

It is also true that many people are not aware of the law, are not aware where the natural park actually is as if you haven't looked it up then the signs in some places are non- existent. There is also a lack of signs saying that no vehicles can park overnight. As many local fishermen park cars for all or some of the night on these same car parks it is understandable that people either are not aware, get confused or think if it's ok for them it's ok for us.

I and many others in campervans and motorhomes are more than happy to obey the laws in Portugal on parking and camping but the authorities have to take responsibility for making people aware of the situation regarding where it is ok to park, especially when they are so keen to advertise Portugal as a holiday destination in most of not all of the northern European countries the vast majority of van dwellers come from. They also need to appreciate not everyone wants to use a campsite and people should not feel forced to. There should be other options available.

The police, or more specifically the GNR often use heavy handed tactics to remove people in the natural park. They must also take responsibility for their poor handling of the situation on most occasions. Waking people up in the early hours of the morning to move them, frightening them by banging on their doors violently seems rather over the top for a parking infringement. There is no reason why the police cannot arrive in the evenings before people are asleep and before drivers may have consumed too much alcohol to legally drive to tell them they cannot stay the night. They could come back later or in the morning and issue each vehicle with a parking type ticket.

There have been many occasions when the police have moved people in the early hours of the morning when it has not been safe for some people to drive. Still drowsy from sleep or over the legal drink drive limit and upset children has been mentioned by campervanners who have been moved in the night. The police do not care if you tell them you are too tired to drive or that you are over the legal limit of alcohol to drive, they just want you gone.

So it looks like the police put a parking infringement as more important than dangerous driving. The ICNF, (The Institute for the Conservation of Nature and Forests), who are the body that takes care of the natural parks should be ashamed of the way they police their parks. The parking issues are surely more a matter for ICNF wardens rather than the police. I understand not everything works the same in different countries but an approach more like the forest areas in the UK where it's more likely a forest warden or National Trust warden who will ask you not to park overnight in a specific area seems a much more peaceful approach. It also leaves the police to concentrate on actual crimes that are more important. 


The Natural Park


The article also appeared HERE in one of the English papers in Portugal, the Portugal Resident. Basically exactly the same article as in Sic Notícias. What was as disturbing as hearing of the vigilante action of locals was the article HERE on the MEO Beachcam website. The article was full of anti-foreigner rhetoric with an unsubstantiated claim of 70% of Covid-19 in the area being amongst foreigners. I wonder as who is releasing data on which nationality in an area has tested positive as I have not seen this. If this is true then I would hazard a guess it is mainly foreigners that live more permanently in the area rather than campervanners that have contracted the virus. For more information on the Covid-19 situation in Portugal see the health departments’ website HERE.

It also goes on to say that many of the campervanners have come to the Portuguese coast as the ideal destination to spend the period away from the more restrictive measures due to Covid-19 in their respective countries. This, although true for some I'm sure, is simply not the whole picture as there are much less campervans and motorhomes here in the area than previous winters. Many more people have stayed away and are staying in their home countries.  


Empty Car Park in the Natural Park

The anti-campervan rhetoric is mostly the same as it has always been against nomadic people of all types; they leave rubbish, they are dirty, they don't spend money in the community, they spoil the view etc. I'm going to try an address some of these issues and offer some solutions to these ongoing problems. Solutions which the authorities need to be looking at as the campervan craze isn't going away anytime soon!

There will always be members of the public who don't like a group of people whether it's because they are van dwellers, foreigners, hippies, surfers, not rich enough, not good looking enough, there are always bitter or jealous or fascist people. All of us decent people that want to be able to just go about our business legally without fear of vigilantes or the authorities need to come together with the authorities to help find a way forward. The situation with campervans in the natural park seems more about picking on a specific group of people for things they are not the only ones doing than any real care for the protection of the natural park.

No-one wants this vigilante action getting out of control, it would be a massive blow to the whole of tourism in Portugal if there was more of this. Portugal is seen as one of the safest destinations to live and take a holiday but if there is any kind of violence towards a tourist and this makes the news outside of Portugal it will not look good. Already the anti-foreigner rhetoric on some websites will be off putting for all tourists not just van dwellers.


Stickers that have been put on vans in the Natural Park


The first issue that is always put down to people in campervans is litter or rubbish. Apparently, if you believe media reports, all campervanners leave rubbish behind them when they leave. From my experience of over 10 years living full-time in a van and being in the UK, Ireland, France, Spain, Portugal and Morocco, I would like to bet that around 98% of people in vans are very conscious of where their rubbish goes. Nearly all of them will have a bin inside their van and most car parks have public litter bins anyway.

The issue with litter in Portugal is much bigger than campervans. There is a problem in the wider society with litter. Time and time again I see a range of litter issues. There are overflowing small bins where 50metres away is massive bins. There are areas where people go drinking and bottles are strewn everywhere. There are places people go to eat take-away food and the packaging is thrown out of the car. There are always places where fly-tipping building materials is common. The Portuguese seem to not actually care that much about litter.

I have travelled extensively in Western Europe since a small child in the 1970s. In my experience Spain has one of the worst problem with litter, rubbish and fly tipping I have seen. Portugal however is not that far behind and definitely worse than the UK, Ireland, France, Holland and Germany. Most of the campervanners come from the Northern European countries I just mentioned, countries where leaving litter is more frowned upon, countries that in general have less of a problem with litter. Do these Northern Europeans get in their campervans and forget a lifetime of the normal way to dispose of litter? I think not, what I think is that campervanners are a good scapegoat. Sure there are some culprits in vans when it comes to leaving litter but they are absolutely not leaving beach carparks and other areas full of rubbish.

I studied psychology when I was younger and one of the things we studied was how we react to our environment. In studies the presence of existing litter was strongly predictive of littering behaviour. So if you’re in a place that’s already highly littered, you’re much more likely to litter than if you’re in a place that’s clean or free of litter. Something that the authorities really need to understand and act upon.

This year we have seen many campervanners pick up litter in an area they are parked in. Some campervanners always do this and I think many more are starting to due to the media reports. They don’t want to get a bad name for litter that is already there. It is not just up to campervanners though, everyone should be doing this. It is not just up to the authorities, we all need to work together. Without a wider campaign in Portugal against littering, leaving rubbish and fly tipping I fear the campervanners who clean up the area they park in are fighting a losing battle but it is a start and it is something all of us in vans that care about this issue can do, whatever country we are in.

The other main issue which goes hand in hand with the litter issue is toilet paper, urine, human waste and toilet tanks all causing distress to other people. Without a doubt the single biggest problem is toilet paper and once again it is a much bigger issue than campervanners.

Most of the toilet paper blowing around seems to be from women and girls having a wee. As a woman myself and not satisfied with the 'drip dry' method of drying myself I use toilet paper when having a wee. I always bring it back to the van where it goes in our wood burner and gets burnt. In the height of summer in Portugal when there is maximum fire risk I use the bin in our van. I would hope most women who use toilet paper dispose of their toilet paper properly but there is obviously quite a few who do not. I can only imagine it is a mixture of some not caring, some not wanting to carry the used paper back to a bin and some perhaps embarrassed to be seen with the paper. I really don't know but I do know there are not loads of women in campervans going for a wee outside and leaving their tissue.

What I do know is there are plenty of people in cars that come to the beach and other natural area for a few hours or even the whole day and if there are no facilities provided and nature calls then the only option is behind a bush. This needs to be addressed and there needs to be women speaking up about this matter. There also needs to be better infrastructure in place. When car parks are built and tourists are encouraged to visit there should always be a toilet provided. We will come back to that a bit later.


Parked in the Natural Park

There seems to be some main types of campervanners and I'm sorry to have to group people like this. It is merely to try and really examine this issue and debunk all the myths. There are obviously people that don't fit into a group and plenty of crossover but for the ease of the discussion I am going to use this way of grouping people together. This is only for the issue of going to the toilet rather than any of the other issues.

First we have the people in factory build motorhomes, quite often, (but by no means always), these are older, sometimes retired people. Those retired or not working full-time often come from northern Europe to spend winters in the sunnier weather of the Algarve and the ones still working will take holidays and long weekends in their motorhomes. All these motorhomes have built-in toilets usually ones that the waste fills up what is known as a cassette. The cassette can then be taken out from a door on the outside of the motorhome and emptied.

Then we have often, (but not exclusively), younger vanlifers and surfers who usually have a panel van which they have either built the insides themselves or got a professional to build it for them. Some of these have the built in cassette type toilet, some have compost toilets and others use a porta potty which is a self-contained portable toilet that has a section which collects the waste that needs emptying in the same way as a cassette. Some do not have a toilet at all.

There are what in the UK would be called New Age Travellers or hippies. In other parts of Europe there are other names. On Portuguese online groups they are often called 'bare foots' as some walk around in the town and even in shops and bars with bare feet. Most of these, (but again not all), do not have a toilet in their van. Lastly there is the massive increase, particularly this summer in rental campervans. Some have toilets and some do not. Most people in these vans have little or no experience of campervanning.

The first issue is with those who have no toilet. Where do they relieve themselves? I'm talking poo here of course as I think we all know most guys can pretty much wee anywhere and we've already talked about women leaving their toilet paper after having a wee. Worth noting though that in the dry hot summer months even urine can cause a problem with many people going in the same place with no rain to wash it away, it can cause a very unpleasant smell. Most responsible and aware people, (like us and many others like us), use public toilets when available, will go to a cafe or bar and use the toilets there, or will go somewhere private, dig a hole, do their business and cover it up.

Not so responsible people will go too near to public paths and not dig a hole or cover it in any way. That leads to people discovering it, and potentially them or their dog stepping in it or worse the dog eating it and coming back to give their owner a kiss! Pretty disgusting and no wonder people get very upset when they come across a human shit. Also not only will these irresponsible people leave their poo to get discovered they will also leave their toilet roll that can often be seen blowing around. The toilet paper that has brown stains on is somehow even worse to see than the other paper blowing around.

How do we encourage people to poo responsibly? In the UK back in the 80s a friend of mine made a flyer encouraging people to bury their shit. This was printed and distributed around free festival sites for all the people that came in cars from towns and cities who didn't know the etiquette that the New Age Travellers already knew. It doesn't take long when you live on a traveller site with children and dogs to all realise how important it is to bury your shit properly away from the communal and public areas!

Ella's flyer - Bury Your Shit!

Could this be a way for the whole community of motorhomers, campervanners, hippies, surfers, travellers and vanlifers to come together? For someone to make a printable flyer that could circulate among all these people, that rental companies could put in every van? Something in many languages or in pictures that anyone can understand? Just a flyer asking for litter to be put in a bin and shit to be buried. Already some people make signs for parking areas asking people not to leave litter or telling them to bury their shit. Online there is a massive backlash against litter and shit among the van communities but obviously the message is not getting through to everyone. Or is this a waste of time as it is such a small minority spoiling it for the rest? I would love to know what people think.

There is also the fact that again this is not just people in vans. The message needs to get to everyone and the van communities cannot do that alone. The authorities need to take some responsibility on their shoulders too with more anti littering campaigns. There also needs to be a fresh look at the beach and nature car parks that they encourage local people and tourists to come to. How can they justify encouraging people to spend time somewhere where there is not even a toilet? How can they justify spending the money on a car park and advertising their natural park and beach but not spending money on something as basic as a toilet?

Let's not forget a lot of EU money has been used to build car parks and set up natural parks, not to mention the roads that lead to them. Those granted this funding have a responsibility to make it welcome for all citizens to enjoy no matter whether they are a rich tourist spending huge amounts of money or someone in a van on a budget. The basics of a public toilet is something sorely missing in a lot of places in Portugal where they encourage people to spend time.

The other issue that comes up is the emptying of cassette toilets or porta potties somewhere they shouldn't be emptied. This gets mentioned most times there is a media article about 'wild camping' but I think this is way over exaggerated. It does happen occasionally but it is not something that is a regular occurrence. Unfortunately litter, human excrement and toilet paper are much more of a common occurrence.

In over 10 years living in vans I have only once seen someone empty their cassette into a bush. Another couple of times I have smelt the smell of a chemical toilet as if maybe nearby someone has emptied their cassette but I have not seen it so cannot be sure. Most people in motorhomes know where the places are to empty their toilet waste, most towns in Portugal have somewhere. It is unusual to find that sort of waste and again I do not believe that it happens very often at all. 


The Natural Park

One of the other issues some locals do not seem happy about is they feel most people in campervans and motorhomes who 'wild' or 'free' camp do not spend money in the community. They feel that at least if those people pay for a campsite then they are contributing something. This keeps being brought up, and actually although on hearing this argument many people agree, it is not as black and white as it seems.

Let's look at these 'free' campers first, some will just do a shop in a supermarket and buy diesel in a gas station and little else. Is there anything fundamentally wrong with that? We are after all EU citizens, most people will have worked at some point and paid taxes in their EU country. They will have contributed in some other way other than buying shopping, to a system that then takes a percentage of the taxes raised and invests them in projects all over the EU including parks and roads in Portugal among other things.

Here in Portugal we have supermarkets whose head offices are in Germany, Portugal and France. We have gas stations whose head offices are in Spain and Portugal. We are all, (mostly), part of the EU, does it really matter exactly where our money is going within it? I'm sure there are plenty of Portuguese people who generally shop at German supermarkets and use Spanish gas stations but pay their tax in Portugal. There will also be foreigners that shop at Portuguese supermarkets and gas stations but have paid tax somewhere else.

Locals want tourists in campervans to use campsites but one of the main campsite chains here has its head office in France and is a Europe wide company. Locals seem to be under the impression that other types of tourists bring in more money but that would not necessarily be the case. Many hotel chains are not Portuguese companies, many apartments that get rented out are owned by foreigners. Many people on self-catering holidays will only buy from a supermarket and not much else.

The whole attitude of only wanting a certain 'type' of tourist is fundamentally wrong. Portugal is open to all and all should be welcomed, the amount of money they spend or where they spend it is irrelevant. The idea that a tourist is obligated to spend money in any area is ridiculous. Mass tourism is a problem and a problem that usually causes the rich to get richer and most locals to lose out. They may get low paid work but their own cost of living goes up, they can be priced out of being able to buy in their own area and the negative impact on the environment is huge. The 'problem' with tourism is more about mass tourism than a few people in vans who don't eat out at the local restaurants every night!

Also of course it is a total misconception that people in vans do not sometimes spend money in the community. We drink in bars, we go out to restaurants and we have been known to occasionally go to cultural places and events. Plenty of other van dwellers also do this, some more than others but many do spend money in the community they stay in.


Parking in the Natural Park

There is a couple of other issues that always come up, both of which I personally feel are really irrelevant and either come from a place of jealousy or fear. One is that the campervans or motorhomes are ugly and spoil the view. Many would argue that some of the permanent dwellings given planning permission are far uglier than a row of vans! It seems some people who buy property in the area feel that they 'own' the view of the sea or beach or other natural beauty spot. Of course none of us own a view and this way of thinking is very destructive. It can just as easily happen that land in front of your view gets bought and a big house gets built there. At least the vans are transient!

The other issue is the appearance of some van dwellers, this is only ever referring of course to the more 'hippy' types. There is a small section of society here in Portugal, just like elsewhere that do not like the look of certain types of people. Most of us know that to judge someone on appearances alone leads to all kinds of misconceptions but sadly it does still happen. In both these cases it reminds me of the saying 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder'. I personally do not like the look of golf complexes or ugly modern hotels, I don't like the look, for myself, of very formal clothes but I accept the world is not designed to just my taste! A more accepting attitude of everyone would go a long way to make the world a nicer place to live!

There is also a grey area in which things get confusing as regards parking overnight. In the natural parks no vehicle can park overnight so that's simple. In other places there are sometimes signs saying no camping or signs with a picture of a motorhome with a line through it. Firstly these signs are often not even legal signs as they do not say either the issuing authority or under which law the sign is in relation to. Secondly 'camping' is different to 'parking' so in many places you cannot 'camp' in your van, which means having chairs, tables, washing line, or even steps outside. You can however 'park' in your van during the day and/or night, you can legally be in your van asleep or awake as long as you are legally parked with nothing outside. This is an important point to remember.


Illegal Sign

Legal Sign

As I've already mentioned the Portuguese tourist board actively encourages tourists from northern Europe with adverts in those countries. One of the biggest campaigns is to surfers or to people who want to learn to surf. Portugal has some of the best beaches in Europe for surfing and holds surf competitions that attract people from all over the world. In the western Algarve there are many surf beaches and many surf schools.

Isn't the classic picture of a surfer the VW campervan with the surfboards on the roof? Is it not obvious that if you advertise how great the surf is then many people will come to try it? Isn't it also true that you cannot tell them that they have to pay quite a lot of money merely to park overnight?

Many people, not only surfers but all sorts of van dwellers, do not want to be on a campsite, for different reasons. Some want more freedom to just arrive somewhere and stay the night. Some are on a limited budget and the campsite is an added expense. Some, (especially in the time of Covid-19), don't want to be around lots of people. Whatever the reasons it's the same as saying everyone who comes as a tourist has to stay in a certain type of accommodation. It's limiting and it's an infringement of people's freedom.

The idea of aires is always mentioned as a way to ease the problem of ‘free camping’. I think there is room for all sorts of camping, firstly the traditional campsite, secondly a range of aires and thirdly an acceptance of some parking in normal carparks. Aires work well in France, there are many of them, from free ones with no facilities to ones almost as expensive as campsites with toilets, showers, picnic area, BBQ area and playground. Portugal has some aires but not enough and sadly one of the biggest ones in the area, in Lagos, near the border of the Costa Vicentina natural park got closed at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and has never re-opened.

This aire used to get very busy at times, it was €3 to park for 24hrs, drinking water was available for €2 for 100ltrs, there was a place to empty toilets and grey water and showers were available in the building nearby for €2. Much cheaper than a campsite and you could stay for as long as you liked. Up in the area where I used to live in Portugal there is a small village called Barril de Alva, by the beautiful river Alva there is a free aire. There is free mountain spring water, somewhere to empty toilets and grey water, treated water for, (I think), €1 for 100ltrs and electric hook up for €3 a day. There is a restaurant there where you can use the toilet and get lovely traditional Portuguese meals for lunch or dinner. The only condition is you don’t stay for more than 72hrs.

The system works, it rarely gets abused, it brings people to the area and they feel welcomed and safe. The municipality there have realised that if you offer a nice place to park and some basic amenities then people will come. Those people will also spend money, most people that park at the aire in Barril de Alva will have at least one meal at the restaurant there. It seems like a no-brainer to me and many others like me. There is plenty of room in the western Algarve where there could be more aires and there could be a range of aires, some free, some that cost a few euros. Even normal car parks could turn some bays into specific campervan bays and let people in motorhomes park there overnight for a maximum stay, 48 or 72 hours seems fair enough.


The Natural Park

Remember that while you are in your van that is your home and do not be intimidated by others who do not want you there. The Portuguese constitution is very strong on having the freedom to live however you want without discrimination or harassment. It is worth looking at and can be found HERE. There is also a very good association in Portugal for people in motorhomes and campervans and their website is full of great information. If you cannot read in Portuguese I suggest using a browser that will automatically translate each page as you read such as Google Chrome. They are the CPA, and can be found HERE.

In summary I feel the whole situation is being badly managed by the ICNF, the GNR, the Portuguese tourist board and the government. I feel there is more campervanners can do but most of that will only help if the authorities play their part too.


Points for Van Dwellers:

1. Leave no litter of any kind. Make use of the massive trash bins and recycling bins all over the country. 

2. Dig a hole away from paths to bury your shit, cover it properly.

3. Dispose of any toilet paper in a bin.

4. Try and learn some of the language and be open to talking to locals. Take an interest in the area, rather than just be here for the weather/beach/surf.

5. Encourage other van dwellers to not leave litter and go to the toilet responsibly. Perhaps a campaign of flyers on vans and online.


Points for the ICNF:

1. Have better signs on all roads that enter the natural park to alert people that they are now in the park.

2. Have better signs at all the carparks within the natural park that say no overnight parking for ANY vehicle.

3. Have ICNF wardens alerting people that they cannot stay overnight, including the local fishermen!

4. Let the GNR issue fines to any parking infringement but do not allow them to make people move in the middle of the night especially those over the legal limit for alcohol, those too drowsy to drive and those with small children.

5. Provide public toilets for all those visiting the park in the daytime.


Points for the other authorities in Portugal:

1. Provide more reasonably priced and free aires as an alternative to campsites.

2. Provide better information for tourists in campervans who visit Portugal particularly in regards to the law.

3. Make it clear what is camping and what is parking and what carparks people in vans can use.

4. Stop spending money on illegal signs and only put up legitimate signs stating who authorised it and which law it refers to.

5. Provide public toilets at all beach carparks and other places of interest where people are encouraged to spend long periods of the day.


Thanks for reading :)


Parking in the Natural Park


Thanks for writing this, some great thoughts. The illusion that some people own the land any more than others is indeed a dangerous school of thought.

I think a flyer or maybe posters / signs on location are a possibility (to be honest I think the latter would be more effective), but also social media is a powerful tool; probably a Facebook and Instagram campaign could help... This could link up to the posters. Honestly, a simple and good start would be a hashtag and Instagram account with clean ups done by wild campers with the location tagged!

Some decent points about tourism and marginalising certain types of tourists (or people) - there's clearly a lot of misconceptions that need to be confronted head on and agreements need to be made between those in vans, locals and the authorities so that everyone can live harmoniously.

The bottom line is that this sort of tourism isn't going away, in fact it's growing! Countries who act hostile and don't accommodate those in vehicles will end up losing out.

The most basic required facilities for those with live in vehicles (waste disposal + fresh water) are neither expensive, complex to build, or difficult to maintain - France would be a great example in action; they see millions of live in vehicles travelling through their country every year and it hugely boosts tourism, particularly in more remote areas.