Sue Parker meets a walkin’ talkin’ living-world Champion
If it were possible to harness the energy emanating from the bundle of vitality that is Ana Carla Cabrita, the Algarve could dismiss worries about sustainable energy supplies for a very long time to come.
In 16 years of working with the natural world here in the Algarve, I have met many inspirational people all of whom are good reason for battling on despite encountering negatives some of which seem like insurmountable obstacles. Those negative factors include a lack of coherent government policy to protect our natural environment, particularly in the face of crippling economic pressures to approve unsustainable development projects that all too frequently turn out to provide only short -term solutions. But, government is only part of the problem; another is the apathy of many Algarvians so worn down by the daily grind that they no longer even see the natural beauty around them, let alone connect with what is surely a greater asset than anything Man could build.
One positive force powerful enough to counter the negatives is Ana Carla Cabrita – Carla to her friends.
Born and bred in Sagres, in the Natural Park of Southwest Alentejo and Vicentina Coast, Carla is the ultimate antidote to apathy, a champion for the natural environment. Her passion for the Sagres area in general, and its botany in particular, is inspirational; and what’s more, anyone can spend time with her.
Following a Licenciatura degree course in Public Relations at Escola Superior de Comunicação Social in Lisbon, Carla soon discovered that the world of commerce was not for her. She returned to Sagres, spending time helping in her mother’s restaurant as well as working for a television company making programmes about the Algarve; but it was a spell working as a guide in one of the Argentinian National Parks that set her on a path that she is still following today.
Every day in Argentina strengthened her belief that a similar guiding operation could be set up to help people discover and appreciate the natural gems of the Cape St. Vincent area. She just knew that not only could such an enterprise be viable as a business but it could also bring benefits to the hard-pressed community in which she had been brought up.
On returning to the Algarve, Carla embarked on a series of courses to learn more about the botany of the area as well as its ancient traditions and culture. It was during this time that her son Miguel was born.
All the while in her background consciousness she nurtured the dream of setting up her own business guiding tourists in the natural park that surrounded her home. Eventually, there was no resisting it: she decided to embark on a serious attempt to turn the dream into reality.
Expats living in the Algarve are all too familiar with the frustrations of dealing with local bureaucracy that affects almost everything we do. I had imagined that somehow the Portuguese must be able to circumvent these obstacles using ‘insider information’ that is opaque to the rest of us. Carla’s experience has certainly disabused me of that idea – in fact the barriers she met when trying to set up a guiding business were so great that at one point she felt forced to abandon the idea altogether.
Chief among the obstacles was that in 2005 she was advised that, before she could start a business, the Portuguese government required €12,000 to be lodged in a bank – a sum that many of us would struggle to pull together.
Four years later, a change in the regulations gave Carla a real chance to set up her business, but the intervening time delay meant that she was launching her enterprise in the teeth of the worst recession in Europe that any of us can remember. Suggestions by all around her that she must be crazy to start up in such economically tough times only reinforced her determination to make a go of it, and in 2009 Walkin’Sagres was launched.
Starting a business from ground zero is challenging, but Carla finally realised how her abandoned PR career could stand her in good stead. She produced a leaflet for distribution in tourist offices and hotels, and she also set up that all-important modern marketing channel – a website.
Today Carla works full time, taking groups or individuals for walks in the Natural Park to show them its botanical wonders and explain the many other fascinating features of the area, including its geology and archaeology, and the cultural history of the people who live there.
Although the flowering period for many of the unique and beautiful plants of the natural park is relatively short – the floral firework displays are well and truly over by the end of May – Walkin’Sagres operates throughout the year.
The predominantly evergreen nature of the plants means that there is always something to see, and increasingly those faced with the difficulties of gardening in our dry Mediterranean climate visit Cape St. Vincent to see how Mother Nature continues to provide natural beauty even in the toughest of times.
In 2014, Carla teamed up with long-standing friend Ana Luísa Simões to produce 200 Plants of SW Alentejano & Costa Vicentina, a lovely bilingual book about the flora of Cape St Vincent. As a writer of wildflower guides, I know only too well the work and financial commitment required to produce such a work. You just have to have faith, as Carla says.
With no grant aid available, the two girls wrote the book in their spare time and, faith notwithstanding, they came up with an ingenious way of covering the cost of printing; this involved ‘persuading’ the local town halls to buy the book unseen.
Wielding written commitments of purchase, they were then able to persuade the printer to go ahead and produce the book on the basis that money would be forthcoming soon thereafter – an optimistic view of the process by which any government establishment settles bills, but eventually the funds arrived. At the time of writing, only 50 of the 2,000 copies in that first print run remain. The next big challenge is to fund a second edition.
As if she hasn’t enough to do with running a full time business, caring for her son and helping her mother with the restaurant – not to mention occasional teaching commitments – Carla finds time to provide one further service which, rather than being an afterthought, is central to realising her environmental ambitions. She provides guided walks, free of charge, for the local people of Sagres.
Despite actively publicising these walks in the town, it was many months before people turned up to take part; that was surprising, particularly as many had known Carla all her life. Walking for enjoyment in the countryside was simply not a tradition, and it was not until Carla was invited to take local parties inside the famous Fort at Sagres, which had been renovated, that curiosity finally overtook suspicion and people turned up. Having managed to get them inside, Carla soon persuaded them to accompany her outside to see what the fuss about the world-renowned flora of Cape St. Vincent was all about.
Carla sees the success of the free walks for local people as the most significant step to realising her vision that not only visitors to the Algarve should understand the importance of conserving our natural world, but that such insight is vital for the future of all of us. A healthy natural environment underpins our very existence.
For more information about Carla and her guided walks, visit www.walkinsagres.com
By Sue Parker
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Sue Parker is a Director of First Nature, Publisher of Algarve Wildlife – the natural year; Wildflowers in the Algarve; and Wild Orchids of the Algarve – how, when and where to find them.