It is best to enter the river on the second half of a rising tide. The bar is quite shallow and variable over a considerable distance. Beware in particular a low training wall and obstructions to starboard. Keep close to the Portugese side until well into the river entrance, just below Vila Real.
We spent a couple of nights at different times in the marina, driven there for want of fresh water supplies. The inner berths are largely full of local craft, and we have always been berthed on the outer breakwater reception berth/pontoon. There is there water, electricity, and guano to spare. The tide runs strongly under the berths, and room to manoevre and turn is limited. We have found it preferable to time our arrivals and departures at or near slack water, and usually reverse in one direction or the other to avoid the need to turn. Although the pilot advocates calling the marina for assistance on arrival, we did not get through and suspect that the VHF volume was turned down for peace and quiet. There is usually a marineiro on duty, but not necessarily around when you want him. The facilities (card required) are in the centre of the block, approached from the rear, but this door is locked when the restaurant is open when the front door should be used instead. There is a fuelling berth approached from outside the marina, immediately upstream from the it, and adjacent to the ferry berth. The charges were very reasonable at 22 per night for 12 metres.
The town is quite lively. There is a central square just west of the marina (statues), and following the road to the south of the square one block west is a small supermarket with deceptively good stocks. Following this same road west out of town, you eventually come across a roundabout, and from this you will see to the south and west a Lidl supermarket. Further out still there is said to be a Pingo Doce supermarket. We visited the Vodafone shop, out as if towards Lidl, then a couple of streets south, where we purchased the all important SIM card.
We explored the town on a couple of occasions from our anchorages to the north, and later off the beach south of the town. It has quite a small central business area, a pleasant square, a small zoo, and other gardens. There were some nice tapas restaurants facing the marina. Behind the marina is a large SuperSol supermarket about a block away, and another useful store slight closer to it. Apart from at low water, it is possible to land from your dinghy on the sloping basin walls, where there are frequent steps up.
We have not spent any time in the marina, not for want of trying. It belongs to the Junta Andulacea, and routinely turns away craft saying that they are full, when in fact there is plenty of space. The drill, apparently, is NOT to call in and request a berth, but to go into the marina and find a suitable berth. We have now heard this from many sources.
Just above Ayamonte and Vila Real there is a suspension bridge carrying the main road traffic between Portugal and Spain. This is charted with an air height of only 18 metres, and the actual height in the pilots seems a little indeterminate. For this reason, with Fuga's height at 20.8m, we have always taken care to go under the bridge near low water, although it is impossible to estimate the clearance from on board. This makes sense, as heading up river you will want to carry the flood, and will have taken the ebb down river.
The best water meanders about, and depths vary, but by taking the outside of bends we have never encountered any difficulty. It is reasonably easy to find a suitable anchorage with reasonable depths and satisfactory holding at almost any point up river. On the way up river, there are a number of settlements on the Portugese side, some with landing facilities. Around these, there tend to be clusters of anchored and moored boats.
When anchoring in the river, it is strongly advised that a good low level anchor light is used, in addition to any at the masthead. The river is said to be routinely used by speed boats from Morocco, that enter and go up river at speed at night. The Spanish and Portugese authorities mount joint patrols and occasionally check papers.
One of the hazards of the river is the driftwood, canes and other floating matter, carried up and down river with the tide. These may go 'bump' in the night, or scrape noisily down your waterline, but can form rafts around you and the anchor chain that take some removing.
Sanlucar is the first major settlement on the Spanish side of the river, and boasts a castle and mills on the hills above. It offers visitors a pontoon with water and electricity, and there are some bars and restaurants and an all-important cash machine. A smart path has been laid up to the castle from the public housing at the north of the village, but the project to provide toilets and presumably other attractions at the castle has been abandoned. It is worth the climb for both the exercise and the view up and down the river and across the surrounding countryside.
Opposite Sanlucar, on the Portugese side, is Alcotim. Alcotim also has a pontoon available for visitors. As the regional centre, it has council offices and offers more employment. There is a youth aquatic centre, and also a pleasant looking hotel. There is a market, and restaurants. We have not ourselves seen it, but understand that the tributary that enters the river has been landscaped with a weir to provide a safe swimming area with the usual facilities. Alcotim also has a castle, which may be visited.
Every hour there is a confusion of bells from the churches on each side: as they are in different time zones, they are an hour apart!
Up and down river from the two villages, there are a considerable number of moorings. Many of the boats are overwintering or permanently resident in the river, and a thriving ex-pat community (mainly British) exists. Some of these yachtsmen have bought riverside property on the Spanish bank and converted the 'storage sheds' used by the farmers into dwellings (fincas), accessed by boat along the river. We met some of the residents, and they seemed very content with their lot.
Many yachts turn tail at Alcotim, but they are missing the best bits of this lovely river. Up river, there is the village at Puerto de La Laja on the Spanish side, then the entrance to the tributary of Rio Vascao, until Pomarao is reached. Here the river divides, with the dammed Rio Chanca to starboard continuing the border, so that both banks now become Portugese.
The Vascao has a weir dating back to Roman times a little way up on the second bight: a canoe or light dinghy might be able to get further. It is said to be populated with water snakes and terrapins. The banks were obviously cultivated at one time, as there are pommegranate, figs, olives and other trees in evidence.
At Pomarao there is a pontoon available to visitors. Here, from the nineteenth century until after the second world war, ships came up river to load iron pyrites and other minerals mined from the hills inland, and brought to the river by railway. The loading ramp now provides cars and boats with shelter. Unfortunately we found the route along the railway overgrown and obstructed, so that it was no longer practicable to walk through the tunnels. Apart from a couple of bars on the quayside, the village itself appeared to offer nothing to the visitor.
Above Pomarao the river continues for a considerable distance, and can be very rewarding if you value birdlife, peace and quiet. There is however a restaurant and pontoon on the Portugese side at Penna d'Aguia. Shallower draft yachts can, with care, reach Mertola, with its magnificent castle, church, and other attractions. Carrying two metres, we chickened out, and took the dinghy the last 4 kilometres up river from our anchorage.
David and Jeanne Latham, who live in Sanlucar and used to sail extensively on their yacht Iris Mary gave us some detailed chartlets prepared by themselves and other yachts. They volunteered these, and kindly agreed that I could put them on the web site, E&OE of course. They may be downloaded here in pdf format(2MB). David and Jeanne also run a book swap in their front entrance hall, for those who run short of reading matter. (12 Plaza de Espana).