Sitting just off the Galician coastline, the Cies Islands are an untamed paradise made up of pristine beaches, soaring cliffs and verdant forests. As a fiercely protected national park, the uninhabited islands have a ban on motorised vehicles along with strict visitation restrictions and a campsite as the only form of accommodation, providing the chance for a rustic, back-to-nature holiday that offers everything from swimming in crystal clear turquoise water to hiking through sun dappled pine forests. From the best beaches and the best hiking routes to where to stay, how to get there and how to book your tickets, read on to discover everything you need to know about visiting the Cies Islands.
About the Cies Islands:
Located a forty-minute ferry ride from mainland Spain, the Cies Islands are made up of three separate islands. O Faro Island and Monte Agudo Island are the two main islands featuring the campsite and a selection of restaurants, hiking trails and beaches while San Martiño Island is the southern island that’s only accessible by private boat.
With international travellers making a beeline for Spain’s sun drenched southern coast, Galicia is a much less trodden part of the country, and as a result, the Cies Islands have remained relatively under the radar. Popular among locals and in-the-know travellers, they provide the opportunity to visit a destination where the Galegos themselves go on holiday. Visitor numbers are also restricted, meaning the beaches remain uncrowded and the forests stay perfectly peaceful.
The main attraction of the Cies Islands is the sweeping Rodas Beach – famously named the World’s Best Beach by the Guardian back in 2007. A dramatic bay of glistening white sand that curves across O Faro Island and Monte Agudo Island, it’s a picture-perfect setting that’s ideal for a lazy day in the sun. Explore beyond Rodas, however, and you’ll be rewarded with yet more idyllic beaches, striking clifftop viewpoints and enticing hiking trails.
The best beaches on the Cies Islands:
The Cies Islands are famed for their Caribbean-style beaches and Rodas is the most famous of all. The first sight that greets you as you get off the boat, the beach curves from the ferry port on O Faro Island around to the edge of Monte Agudo Island. Iridescent turquoise sea laps against powdery white sand and the beach is enveloped by rolling sand dunes, a sheltered lake and dense pine forests. This is the most popular of all the beaches on the Cies Islands with many visitors plonking themselves right at the edge close to the ferry port. Walk to the centre of the beach, however, and you’ll be able to find a quiet spot away from the masses.
Located to the north of Rodas, within its own hidden bay on Monte Agudo Island, Figueiras Beach is a smaller, more sheltered beach than Rodas but it’s still big enough to accommodate large numbers. Backed by hillside pine forests and reached by a discreet wooden boardwalk, it’s a beautifully wild backdrop with no restaurants or buildings within view. Figueiras Beach is, in fact, a nudist beach but not many people adhere to this – just don’t be shocked if you see a naked person or two!
Nosa Senora Beach
On the southern coast of O Faro Island, Nosa Senora Beach is reached by walking through the campsite. Much smaller than the other beaches, it can get quite crowded, but first thing in the morning it’s one of the most picturesque spots on the island. Every night the tide washes over the beach revealing an unspoilt blanket of sand the following morning. Striking turquoise sea, chalk white sand and giant boulders create a setting that’s reminiscent of the Seychelles while a quaint hilltop stone house and lush greenery complete the postcard-worthy backdrop.
The best hiking routes on the Cies Islands:
There are four different hiking routes to choose from on the Cies Islands, each of which has been colour coded and marked out on the official map. From a short walk to the Faro da Porta lighthouse to a long hike up to the Monte Faro lighthouse, they vary in length and quality.
If you only have time for one or two of the hikes, the best ones are the yellow Monte Faro Lighthouse Route and the blue Alto do Principe Route. The yellow route takes you on a hike through the pretty green forest that sits behind the campsite, past the Pedra da Campa viewpoint and then along a cliff top coastal path up to the lighthouse. From here you can enjoy panoramic views across the southern San Martiño Island and beyond to the mainland. The blue hike, meanwhile, takes you on an uphill hike through the forest behind Figueiras Beach – look down through the pine trees to see the glistening turquoise water in the background – and up to the Alto do Principe viewpoint. Here you can enjoy spectacular views across O Faro Island and really get a sense of the scale of the Cies Islands.
Where to stay on the Cies Islands:
The only accommodation option on the Cies Islands is a campsite that sits among the pines behind Rodas Beach. Stretching along a large section of the island just behind the sheltered lake, it’s a beautiful spot that provides great views across the beach and surrounding area.
The campsite is made up of a large grass area reserved for visitors with their own tents as well as a section of pre-erected tents available to hire. The tents available to hire are quite large and come equipped with either a double bed, twin beds or two double beds, all of which have a fitted sheet, pillow and pillowcase. There is also the option to hire a sleeping bag if you do not have your own. On-site facilities include a cafeteria-style restaurant, an al fresco bar and café, a children’s activity club, and a large number of toilets and showers. The hot water for the showers must be paid for using coins and €1 is enough to provide a relatively long shower.
The tents are assigned on a first-come-first-served basis, meaning the earlier you book the closer you will be to the front and more likely to have views of the beach and lake from your tent – you will be informed on which tent you have been assigned directly after confirming your reservation. Booking can be done online on the official website and a one-night deposit will be due at the time of booking and the rest upon arrival at the campsite. They take both cash and card as a form of payment.
Where to eat and drink on the Cies Islands:
There are four restaurants and one café/bar located on the Cies Islands. All of the venues are very casual and serve a rustic menu of dishes. The cafeteria-style restaurant at the campsite serves basic dishes like spaghetti Bolognese, pizza and chicken nuggets while Restaurant Rodas and Restaurant Serafin serve fresh fish and other local dishes. For late afternoon and early evening drinks, the ground-floor café/bar at the campsite is a casual but bustling spot with good beer and coffee and friendly service.
There is also a small shop within the campsite serving basic items like fresh bread, milk, cheese, meat, olives and confectionary along with beer and wine. However, the prices are high so it’s advisable to bring a few items from the mainland such as enough bottled water to last your stay along with some fruit, breakfast items, snacks and even some wine and plastic cups – if you get given a tent on one of the front two rows they make for a perfectly pleasant spot to enjoy a cup of wine while overlooking the beach.
How to get to the Cies Islands:
The Cies Islands are located a forty-minute ferry ride from the mainland. The adjoining O Faro Island and Monte Agudo Island can be reached by public ferry while the southern San Martiño Island is only accessible by private boat.
A number of ferry companies run from Vigo, Cangas and Baiona to the Cies Islands with several leaving every day between Easter and September. The islands are not accessible in the winter. One of the best ferry companies is Mar De Ons with around nine daily services from Vigo in high season and four in low season. The ferry costs €18 and can be booked online once you have received your government access code to the islands (see details below). When you have completed your booking you will receive a booking reference number but you must still pick up your tickets from the Mar De Ons office at the ferry port at least 30 minutes before departure.
How to book a visit to the Cies Islands:
The Cies Islands are very strongly protected and daily visitors are limited to 2,000 people. Therefore, everyone must apply to visit in advance and receive a special code from the government in order to access the islands. If you are visiting for the day, you will need to apply for this yourself through the official website – this can be done up to 45 days before your visit – but if you are making a reservation at the campsite, they will do this stage for you and email you the code shortly after you make your campsite booking. This process is not automatic so you will have to wait a few days before receiving the code and the earliest you will receive it is 45 days before your trip.
Only when you have received your code will you then be able to book your ferry. This can be done online on the Mar De Ons website, where you will be asked to input your government code when booking. You will be provided with a booking reference number for your ferry tickets along with a QR barcode, which might need to be shown upon arrival on the island. As previously mentioned, you will then need to pick up your ferry tickets at Mar De Ons office at the ferry port. Nothing more needs to be done in terms of your campsite booking other than paying the balance due upon arrival.