Get Ready to Go Hiking with Portugal’s First Pack Goats in Serra da Estrela in 2025

Written By Becky Gillespie

The mountains of Serra da Estrela in Central Portugal have been home to shepherds and their roaming flocks as far back as 1000 AD. Next year, a new herd will make their mark on history but with a modern twist—they will be the first to carry packs and supplies for hikers looking to explore the region. And did we mention that they are goats? Yes! Portugal’s first pack goats are getting ready to make their hiking debut in Serra da Estrela. Before we learn more about this project, let’s explore the history of shepherding in Serra da Estrela and the introduction of pack goats!

The History of Shepherding and Transhumance in Serra da Estrela

Transhumance, the practice of moving a flock or herd of animals from one area to another depending on the season, has been a tradition in Europe since prehistoric times. Usually, flocks are taken up into the mountains during the summer and down into the valleys in the winter. At one point in history, transhumance was widespread on the Iberian peninsula. Roaming the land rather than remaining sedentary proved to enhance the quality of sheep’s fleece. Therefore, sheep in transhumant flocks contributed to wool production while flocks of animals kept on parcels of land were raised for their milk and meat.

Portuguese goatherd and his flock in Serra da Estrela
Portuguese goatherd and his flock in Serra da Estrela, CC by SA 4.0 by Sara Jaques

Serra da Estrela, as we’ve already mentioned, has records of transhumance stretching back for centuries. Accompanied by sheep dogs endemic to the region, shepherds would take their flocks high into the mountains and stay in huts nestled under huge glacial boulders before bringing their flocks back into the villages below after the first snows in November or December.   

Estrela Shepherd Dog in the snow
Estrela Shepherd Dog in the snow – CC by Chokingvictm

What Is a Pack Goat?

A pack goat is a goat used for packing cargo. Goats have transported cargo in Europe for as long as animals have been domesticated. You likely don’t think about goats as transport animals because it was the usually the poorest in society who depended on them to carry their supplies. Horses and donkeys got more of the press.

John Mionczynski of Atlantic City, Wyoming popularized the concept of goat packing as part of a modern-day touristic tradition in the 1980s and 1990s. Mionczynski trained a herd of large mixed-breed goats and first used them in the 1970s to carry supplies for scientists working in the mountains. He later organized group hiking trips and had the goats carry the food and hiking gear.  

Introducing Caminho de Cabras: Bringing the First Pack Goats to Portugal  

Caminho de Cabras, or Portugal Pack Goats, the first company training pack goats in Portugal started as a chance encounter.

In 2015, India Guest from the UK met João Martins from Portugal in Antwerp, Belgium on a traditional sailing ship. The two worked side by side until India broke her hand during a fire drill and had to leave her new love for months. Eventually, the time apart working on separate ships proved to be too much and India and João dreamed of a place on dry land that they could call home.

Their first port of call together on land was a horse farm in the UK. Learning to tie a variety of knots at sea came in handy as they worked with the horses, and they thought that horses might be their future in Portugal. But house prices in the Algarve, where João is from, proved to be too expensive, leading to the couple to the hilly terrain of Serra da Estrela in central Portugal – to a small village called Eirô. The hills in this region also ruled out the idea of working with horses and forced them to think about a different animal to raise on their future farm. This eventually led them to John Mionczynski’s work with pack goats.

India and João realized that raising goats to travel along the trails of Serra da Estrela naturally extends the time-honored tradition of transhumance in Portugal. By blending hiking with shepherding, tourists visiting the region will be introduced to the storied culture of Serra da Estrela while also not having to carry so much weight along the trails – and getting the chance to interact with adorable goats. Truly a win-win-win.

Photo by India Guest

The Caminho de Cabras project began to take shape at the beginning of 2023 when India and João received their first two goats. Two more soon joined them, and the couple now have a total of eight goats, hoping to eventually extend their herd to 12 pack goats that will assist hikers on the trails. You can follow their antics and watch them grow at Portugal Pack Goats.

Photo by India Guest

When Can I Go Hiking with the Goats in Serra da Estrela?

Caminho de Cabras’s goats need about one year to train before they are ready to hike with tourists full time. However, they are going on their first hike with guests as a test this September. Before going out on group hikes, Caminho de Cabras plans to take guests on goat picnics, which will probably start in the spring of 2025.

Testing out the picnics carried by pack goats, Photo by India Guest

Imagine going on a picnic with loved ones accompanied by an adorable group of goats. The goats will carry local gastronomic delights including Serra da Estrela cheeses and regional wines. Blankets spun from the wool of local sheep will be spread out over the meadow and guests will be able to enjoy, as Portuguese author Miguel Torga described it, “the “tall, immense, enigmatic” presence of Serra da Estrela that is…”immediately an obsession.”

Hiking around the big boulders of Serra da Estrela, Photo by India Guest

Besides picnics and guided hikes, Caminho de Cabras plans to offer the goats as supply carriers for those wishing to go climbing, bird watching, or fishing. In 2026, they hope to offer multi-day hikes in collaboration with campsites and local hotels. Caminho de Cabras also hope to work with local activity providers such as botany experts and hiking guides to make joint tours, with the goats helping to carry the load. Those hoping to hike solo with the goats or in a group without a Caminho de Cabras guide may be able to take courses from the company to learn how to handle the goats on their own.

Meet Ulysses the goat, Photo by India Guest
Meet Melaço, the most intelligent of the Caminho de Cabras family, Photo by India Guest
India and Melaço, Photo by India Guest

Can I Volunteer with the Pack Goats?

Yes, you can apply to work at the Caminho de Cabras farm and volunteer to assist with various farm chores and, of course, taking care of the goats. Currently, there is only space for 1-2 people, and volunteers are accepted on a week-by-week basis.  

Photo by India Guest

Am I Hurting the Goats by Making Them Carry Supplies?

No, with the proper training and not too much weight. Much like a dog that gets excited when they see you pick up a leash, pack goats light up when they see you walking towards them with their packs – because they know that they are getting ready to go up the mountain and roam the land, which is in their DNA! Remember, as India puts it, that “Goats are also so stubborn that you can’t force them to do anything they don’t want to do. They want to be up on the mountain because that is their natural home.”

João hiking with the goats, Photo by India Guest

Why You Should Visit Serra da Estrela?

Serra da Estrela offers the best escape into nature on mainland Portugal. You can climb to Torre, the highest peak at 1,993 m and the second highest point in the country (with Pico in the Azores being the highest). There are over 375 km of marked trails in the region that cater to all fitness levels, perfect for mountain biking, trekking, and goat packing! During the summer, you can even take refreshing dips in cool river beaches. After coming back from a hike with the goats, you can visit the Bread Museum in Seia or check out the Solar do Queijo in Celorico da Beira, which offers tastings of the famous buttery Serra da Estrela cheese.

Photo by India Guest

Serra da Estrela is also the only place in Portugal where you can ski, snowboard, or ride a snowmobile thanks to well-equipped pistes and synthetic snow slopes. Don’t expect anything like the more famous slopes in Europe. This is very small in comparison, but it’s nice to know that there’s a place in Portugal where this is possible!

Final Thoughts

Caminho de Cabras took 1st prize in 2024’s José Manuel Alves competition – an annual tourism entrepreneurship competition organized by Turismo Centro de Portugal. We have no doubt that they will fulfill their goals of collaborating with local vendors, bringing more tourism to Central Portugal, and introducing the country to the joyous tradition of goat packing. As India says, “Pack goats not only carry your load but also lift the spirit, offering you adventures that are totally unique in Portugal.” We can’t wait to watch them succeed! Follow the goats on their journey and get ready for goat packing in Portugal in 2025!

João and Ulysses camping, Photo by India Guest
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