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Visit this Portugal paradise, but don't be surprised if you never leave

Natalie Stechyson hikes the cliffs that weave behind the beaches in Lagos, Portugal.

Lauren Sally for The Globe and Mail

Someone has pinned a resignation letter written by a former bartender to the wall of the One Fat Monkey Diner and Bar in Lagos, Portugal: "If I don't leave Lagos today, I will die here."

Those words, I will discover, are prophetic.

I join the employees at One Fat Monkey in the hours between beach and work time. They are young, loud and browned by the scorching Lagos sun, dark circles under their eyes from the night before and the night before that. They count their tips from the previous night, and decide between a meal and a pitcher of wine, sometimes cheaper than water in a country with the oldest wine-producing region in the world.

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The wine, they tell me, always wins.

I was travelling across Portugal in 2009 when I stepped off the train in the coastal town. I hadn't planned to stop in Lagos at all. But I met a Canadian couple who sold me on it over grilled sardines and glasses of port sangria in Lisbon. The plan was to stay two nights, but, like many before me, I stayed much longer than intended.

Lagos is in the Algarve region - the southern coast - the most popular travel destination in Portugal, and home to a large expatriate community from Britain, Australia, United States and Canada. The city itself is small, with just under 19,000 permanent residents.

Many people live in the old town, a cluster of bars and churches, hostels and family homes, tiny piazzas and cobbled streets, all enclosed by medieval stone walls. Tourism is their largest industry, and for good reason. The city averages 12 hours a day of sunshine in the summer - it's sunnier in Lagos than it is in California.

Dotted with secluded beaches, sand-covered cliffs, and bars and pubs filled with young travellers, for many of its residents - the backpackers who were pulled into the party and never left - the town is an alcohol-fuelled sand trap.

Just ask John Kerr. He has been trying to leave his tattoo shop for 20 years. He turned 50 last year, a milestone he celebrated with a bonfire party on Meia Praia, the vast expanse of white sand beach to the east of town. He keeps thinking he'll wake up one morning and be done with this lifestyle. But he's still there. He says some people call the effect "the black hole of Lagos."

"Lagos is like a satellite," Mr. Kerr says from his modest apartment in the heart of the old town. "It's like living on a moon separated from the troubles of the world; a tourist moon.

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"A small visit can turn into a nine-year vortex. Even if you go back home, your soul gets stuck here."

On my fourth day in Lagos, after another night of excess everything, I feel the need for some spiritual and physical redemption so I hike in desert-like conditions to Ponta da Piedade - the Point of Piety.

Ponta da Piedade is a rocky headland jutting out of the coast. Thousands of steps are carved into the contorted cliffs - climbing them in the Lagos heat is as breathtaking as the views of the grottos the crashing waves have carved into the land. The three-kilometre trail from the Ponta da Piedade lighthouse to the edge of the cliff is decorated with religious signage - pictures of Jesus carrying his cross, a crown of thorns cutting into his head as he labours along his path.

If the piety isn't profound, the feeling of standing on the edge of the Earth, with the wind pushing at me from all sides, is.

Over the days, my plans to visit Faro and Seville quickly dissipate, forgotten in a whirl of perfect weather, cheap lodgings and new friends. But, unlike most of the people I meet, I have a return plane ticket home, and eventually I am out of time and excuses.

I often think about how close I was to selling my ticket, how much easier it seemed at the time to stay there, to learn how to sling cocktails and live what seemed to be the ideal life.

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But the writing was already, literally, on the wall. "If I don't leave Lagos today…"

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