Tuk-tuk in Porto (Photo: DIM HOU/UNSPLASH)
Tuk-tuk in Porto (Photo: DIM HOU/UNSPLASH)

Trains, planes, automobiles and … tuk tuks

On our way to a nice steak dinner in Faro, my lovely wife and I decided to do a touristy thing and go for a drink on the rooftop terrace of the Faro Hotel. We hadn’t been there since we first moved to the Algarve over six years ago. It was a lovely, warm evening with the sun setting over the Ria Formosa just beyond the marina.

Tourists in tee shirts and sunglasses were lined up along the railing taking pictures with their phones through their glasses of white wine of the bright orange source of sunburn.

We sat over on the side, with a pleasant view of the city’s rooftops bright in the glare of the not-yet-set sun. Storks stood guard on about six or seven big nests scattered on chimneys and bell towers.

As we sipped our gin and tonic (for her) and Sagres (for me), an airliner came roaring in low on its final approach to nearby Faro Airport. It passed over a commuter train on the way along the waterside tracks to Olhão as it crossed over the low bridge that only allowed small boats into the marina. Sure enough, a fisherman was ducking in at high tide as he returned to the harbor.

Our perch above it all felt peaceful even though there was actually quite a bit of hubbub below. It wasn’t summer-season busy, but there were a number of cars cruising looking for parking spots and taxis looking for fares. A city bus was followed by an even bigger bright blue charter bus, as motorcycles and motor scooters weaved in and out and around a white van and a beer truck.

Most residents are familiar with the broad tree-lined park facing the marina with its picturesque “FARO” sign and seashell statue, but did you know it is called the Jardim Manuel Bivar? Neither did we as we watched a lithe young man glide across the cobblestones on one of those rental scooters provided by the local government.

A few people basked in the last of the sunshine while sitting on benches and various pedestrians wandered through, some with a determined gait obviously with some place to go and others not so much.

We spotted a little girl in a pink dress skipping ahead of her parents, a couple holding hands. Other couples seemed to ignore the jumping dolphin designs in the cobblestone. A siren was heard and then we noticed the lights on an ambulance leaving the Corpo de Bombeiros on the far side near an entrance to old town.

“Wow,” I said, alluding to a popular old movie, “trains, planes and automobiles … what else is there?” I gestured at all the traffic below us with an expansive sweep of my hand. Without missing a beat, my lovely wife said, “tuk tuks”.

Indeed, at that moment, there were no tuk-tuks anywhere to be seen. We laughed because my lovely wife and I almost always prefer to use that particular form of transportation whenever we want to go sightseeing. In fact, tuk-tuk tours are available in the Faro area as they are in most bigger towns along the coast.

As I do with most newbies who demand information from we veteran residents, I’ll be glad to tell you how to find your nearest tuk-tucker – Google it.

Okay, now that I’ve got that out of the way, I would like to sing the praises of these down-to-earth vehicles and the guides who steer us toward the sites we want to see.

The first tour we ever took on one of those carts that seem to be powered by lawnmower engines and are just a bit larger than golf trolleys was in Sintra. Our guide was a young enthusiastic college student who drove us up and down the hills between palaces at an exciting high rate of speed.

Our friendly tuk-tuk guide Maria in Marseille
Our friendly tuk-tuk guide Maria in Marseille

With plenty of local knowledge, he delighted in telling us the history of the scenic town. It seems that part of his expertise was acquired when he was younger and jumped the walls of the various estates. It was a lot of fun and we were hooked.

Grumpy ol’Pat doesn’t like tour busses. There always seems to be a small faction of passengers who don’t understand the concept of being on time for departures and so the rest of us have to stare out the window and wait. It’s also easier getting off and on, rather than climbing the stairways of those two-storey people cans.

Now, don’t get me wrong, we’ve seen plenty on hop-on-hop-off bus tours of Paris and Porto, but there are still times when you’ve just missed the bus and have to wait for the next one. We’ve gotten older and don’t want to waste the precious time remaining.

We’ve also enjoyed small group tours in a van through Brussels or the wine country near Saint-Émilion or to the Blue Lagoon in Iceland. However, on those trips, there’s often that one dominant couple who monopolize the conversation and often ask stupid questions (Yes, there is such a thing as a stupid question. A good friend of mine was a guide on the Tourmobile in Washington D.C. years ago and had to explain daily what “D.C.” stood for. More than once, at the time, she had to explain why Jackie Kennedy wasn’t buried next to her husband by the eternal flame. “She’s still alive” was the answer back then.)

So, taking a tuk-tuk turns out to be a quick and easy, and rather casual, private tour. And because they are small vehicles, they can often get you to or near the front door of the attraction.

When we were in Nazaré, for example, we were taken around the gate and delivered right to the entrance of the surfing museum. No big waves that day, but it was quite convenient, with a panoramic view of the town below from steep cliffs.

When we went on to Peniche the next day, the peninsula was shrouded in fog, which enhanced the effect of the prison site but obscured any and all sea views. So, since the fare was relatively inexpensive, we simply scheduled another trip for the afternoon and saw a number of impressive wave-swept rock formations in the sunshine.

When touring Marseille, our tuk-tuk driver would simply stop every once in a while, and flash a pass card at a meter and the vehicle-stop barriers would descend into the pavement and allow us to continue through on bike paths and into squares and under ancient arches – once again, up close and personal. We were then dropped off right at our hotel door.

Our tuk-tuk guide in Lisbon took us around to a side door at the legendary Pastéis de Belém, avoiding the very long line out front, and set us up at a small table in the crowded dining area, where we enjoyed the famous Pastel de Belém (called Pastel de Nata everywhere else in Portugal, or what I usually call “natas”), a very tasty and addictive custard pastry.

The whole excursion was door to door from our rather obscure and off-the-beaten-track hotel where we were staying.

One of the best tuk-tuk tours we ever took was in Tomar. The must-see Convent of Christ is situated on a promontory overlooking the town and so we took the tuk-tuk up a steep hill and first checked out the impressively long and large Aqueduto do Convento de Cristo, an aqueduct built by the Knights Templar to supply water to the convent – not the town, just the convent.

Our pup was along for the dog-friendly trip and was allowed on board and got waves from passers-by. Another thing we like about this type of tour is that it tends to be informal and can be spontaneous. As we took turns walking the dog, our guide gave us a “highlights-only” tour of the majestic convent.

At one point, we were in a catacombs-like cistern where the water from the aqueduct ended up, when, without warning, our guide broke into song in an effort to demonstrate the remarkable acoustics. The singing was eerie and beautiful and memorable.

So, the elephant-in-the-room type question by this time in the article is “That’s all well and good, but how safe are these buggies that look like a ferris wheel gondola strapped to a motor bike?” (mototaxis are virtually the same means of convenience).

After all, they don’t have seatbelts or airbags and are made out of tubular aluminum and canvas. Well, obviously, if the tuk-tuk you’re occupying gets in an argument with a massive tour bus, you might not come out the winner.

The best advice we have received is to grab a place to hold on, especially on curves. Some can achieve a maximum speed of 75 mph, but seldom do, especially up the hills of Coimbra. If the driver really is going too fast, just tell him to slow down. He will – he wants a tip.

When I tried to do a bit of research on the subject (something good ol’Pat assiduously avoids), some of the only stats I was able to uncover were from Thailand, whose streets are indeed jammed with mototaxis and tuk-tuks. It turns out that only 0.41% of the total 28,305 vehicle accidents in a one-year period involved tuk-tuks. Walking was more dangerous and apparently pedestrians weren’t being struck by tuk-tuks either.

As I continued to think about this column, it occurred to me that going for a ride is something we do when on vacation. Whether it’s a romantic gondola ride through the canals of Venice or a glass bottom boat cruise in Nassau over Bahamian reefs or a ferry trip across the English Channel, it’s fun to go by boat. We’ve enjoyed helicopter flights over volcanoes in Hawaii; hot-air balloon or silent glider flights over the rolling hills of Maryland. The gondola climb up the side of Gibraltar on the way to see the Barbary Apes was scenic and enjoyable.

I understand that many people like to walk or hike even. It is certainly good exercise. Strolling through the streets of Tavira is a pleasure; that is until you realize that your hotel is back up a steep half-mile hill. If that’s fine with you, go for it.

Lots of people like to rent bikes and that is also good exercise, even electric ones. However, we’re past our prime and often in search of less stressful means of transport. People seem to enjoy hopping on those little trains that toot through town.

I fondly recall a memorable bicycle rickshaw bar crawl through the streets of Charleston – vaguely. I don’t like the idea of a little man actually pulling a rickshaw though. It’s too much like Cleopatra being carried by slaves on a litter. The bike guy was fun and patient and got a good tip.

We’ve also never done a ride on an elephant or camel because there’s a worry about animal welfare. However, I do admit to going by horse power more than once, whether it was a smooth gallop on those little ponies across the tundra of Iceland or pretending to be a cowboy in Arizona.

There was a horse-drawn carriage ride through the streets of Marrakesh that was memorable and a recent buggy ride around Seville in the evening that was an absolute pleasure. In many places, there are rules that see to it that the animals are cared for properly. If you’re concerned, check.

I think you get the point. When on holiday, half the fun is how you get around, especially if it’s at all unique. The possibilities are extensive, whether by sleigh merrily through the snow up north or airboats across the Everglades or by skateboard down a neighborhood slope.

I didn’t even mention parasailing or banana boating off a beach in the Cayman Islands or paragliding off the cliffs that border Lima, Peru.

My lovely wife and I have tried most of the different ways of getting from point to point and we usually prefer going by tuk-tuk. After all, we left our car at home and took an Uber to the airport or train station.

By Pat the Expat
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For the previous 10 years, Pat lived in Panama which used to be rated above Portugal as a top retirement destination (but not any more), where he wrote a column for a tourist publication.