Deserted islands, white-sand beaches, crystal-clear waters, the Ria Formosa is a truly special place and unlike no other in Portugal. Named as one of Portugal’s seven natural wonders. It’s both nationally and internationally recognised as a protected habitat and home to a wide array of life. Its waters, its islands, and the life inside are intrinsically related to the wider region and its development. Intrigued yet? Read on to find out more about the incredible Ria Formosa in southern Portugal.
The Ria Formosa: An Introduction
The Ria Formosa is a coastal lagoon with a seaward belt of sandbars and islands protecting a shallow lagoon system. Specifically, it is a tidal lagoon which means it is regularly flooded by the sea’s tides. The tides are entirely responsible for the water circulation inside the lagoon. Within the lagoon are a wide variety of both natural and manmade habitats. Of the important natural habitats are the saltmarshes, seagrass meadows, sand dunes, and tidal channels. Which all harbour an impressive array of marine and bird wildlife. As well as this, the Ria Formosa has provided protection, food, and wealth to the people around it. It’s been inhabited by humans for at least two thousand years, and possibly longer! In 1987 due to it’s unique habitat and biodiversity it became a national park protected by the ICNF (Instituto da Conservação da Natureza e das Florestas). The Portuguese government organisation for the protection of nature and forests.
The Geography of the Ria Formosa
The lagoon has a roughly triangular shape and stretches for nearly 60km along the coast of the east Algarve, Portugal. At it’s widest its nearly 6km wide, and its narrowest is under 100m. It is separated from the ocean by two mainland attached spits and five separate barrier islands. From east to west, the five barrier islands are Barreta (Deserta), Culatra, Armona, Tavira and Cabanas. The two peninsulas are Ancão (locally known as Praia or Ilha de Faro) and Peninsula da Cacela. This series of islands and peninsulas is what protects the lagoon from the extremities of the ocean. Along this stretch are several important, and formerly important towns and villages. These towns are often referred to as the ‘gateway towns to the Ria Formosa’. Due to their access and history of development with the lagoon. From East to West, they are Faro, Olhão, Fuseta, Tavira, and Cacela Velha.
A Brief History of the Ria Formosa
If you’re familiar with any of those towns, you’ll be familiar with some of Portugal’s longest history. Human occupation of the lagoon system and nearby is documented to as far back as Roman times, and maybe even earlier. It’s not just in the modern day that the lagoon has been modified and managed by humans. For example, salt production, and the creation of saltpans has been dated to the Romans. With large quantities of salt and sheltered waters. Fish farming and the creation of fish preserves became an important industry alongside salt production. Large tanks believed to be for salting or preservation have been found across the Algarve, notably in Cacela Velha. The importance of fishing and the sea on local life, can’t be understated and a tour of several historical monuments will confirm this. Many mosaics, like those in Milreu are covered in marine motifs.
Following the Romans, came the Visigoths a Germanic tribe of Scandinavian origin, then came the north African Moors. Which left their mark in many places of the Ria Formosa too. As much as the lagoon offered, the prosperous communities based here were obvious targets to piracy and raiding. You’ll be able to find an important array of defensive structures along the land and coast. Many of these have ties to the Moorish period, some being continuously updated throughout history. Notable examples are the Forte de Cacela Velha, the ruins of Forte de Rato near Tavira, and Faro’s impressive walled old town. The archaeological remains of various periods of human occupation can be found within many of the museums of the region.
The Ecology and Wildlife of the Ria Formosa
Despite the ever-changing nature of the Ria Formosa and its development alongside some of the Algarve’s oldest towns and villages. It’s still an area of incredible natural beauty and haven of wildlife. The lagoon is a winter home for birds from north and central Europe. As well as being an important stopping point for many migratory species. Over 200 different species can be found here, including the rare purple swamphen, which is also the national park’s mascot. There is an immense amount of diversity across many of the habitats that you can find in the lagoon. Among the barrier islands and inside the lagoon you’ll find saltmarshes, mudflats, dunes, salt pans and tidal channels. All contributing to the diversity of the flora and fauna of the region.
The ecological value of the Ria Formosa is recognized and protected by both international and national conservation agreements. Within Portugal, it became a Natural Park in 1987 and is governed by the ICNF. Internationally, it’s included within the Natura 2000 network and Ramsar Convention on wetlands.
Things to See and Do in the Ria Formosa
The Ria Formasa Natural Park covers a massive 170 km². While the lagoon only covers around 80 km² of that, it’s simply not possible to list everything that you can see and do. However, we’ll attempt to try and give you a taste of what is possible! In the following section you’ll find a few of our favourite places and things to do when visiting the Ria Formosa!
For the Beach Lovers: The Best Beaches in the Ria Formosa
Within the Ria Formosa, you can find a beach for practically everyone. Everything, from your more typical tourist beaches filled with family activities, to practically deserted beaches you can enjoy privately. Here’s our favourite beaches in the Ria Formosa:
Praia da Ilha da Farol: A short ferry ride from Faro or Olhão is Ilha da Farol, and its beach Praia da Ilha da Farol. This is one of the beaches that often gets referred to as an island paradise. Crystal clear water, and white near tropical sand makes this a true paradise for beach lovers. It’s not completely remote though, you’ll still find small cafés, lifeguards and the beach necessities!
Praia da Faro: Faro’s beach is often seen as more of local’s beach, than one for the tourists. It’s less developed than the beaches along the coast but still offers plenty for beach goers. It’s also nearly 9km long and has loads of space should you want it.
Praia da Fuseta: Praia da Fuseta is a family beach in Fuseta. Instead of facing the sea, it’s gently sloping beach faces the inside of the lagoon. This means its extremely calm, there’s days when there are almost no waves at all. Being within the lagoon, the water is also slightly warmer than the sea! It’s a great family beach, or a beach where you can learn to kayak, or stand up paddle board without waves distracting you!
Praia da Cacela Velha: Praia da Cacela Velha is a beach paradise, without the need for ferries. A short walk will lead you down from the historic village to a large expanse of sand split by several sections of the shallow lagoon. The shallow lagoon makes for a great and very warm paddling and swimming.
There are so many more beaches to discover in the Ria Formosa. We can’t list them all, but these ones above, will definitely get you started.
For the Wildlife and Nature Lovers: How to Enjoy the Ria Formosa
If you’re a nature lover and want to experience some of the more natural side of the Ria Formosa here’s our top picks of places to go and things to do!
Parque Natural da Ria Formosa Visitor Centre, Olhão: Perhaps the best introduction to the Ria Formosa and some of its wildlife is the official visitor centre located on the outskirts of Olhão. It has as a small visitor centre, a circular walk with informational signs, and a restored tide mill that’s now a museum. It’s not only seabirds and marine life, if you look carefully you might also spot rare chameleons among the trees! It costs €3 to enter and your fee supports the ICNF and infrastructure of the park.
Ludo Trail, Faro: This is the simplest, and shortest way of dipping your toes into the wild side of the Ria Formosa. The Ludo Trail is a short hike on the outskirts of Faro. With several informational boards on the occupants you might come across. On one side of the trail you have the natural tidal lagoon and on the other you’ll find manmade saltpans. Both sides are home to an impressive array of wildlife! It’s one of our favourite places to easily find flamingos in the Algarve too!
Hiking in the Saltpans: Tavira is another popular walking and birdwatching location. On either side of the mouth of the Gilao River in Tavira are many of the saltpans and mudflats that marine birds forage in. Quatro Caminhos and the fortress Forte de Santo Antonio de Tavira (although its in ruins) make a great focal point to walk to with lots of opportunity for wildlife spotting along the way.
Ilha da Culatra: While the other options will get you up close to the water and some of the wildlife within it. Hiking on Ilha da Culatra will allow you to explore some of the protected sand dunes that also make up the unique habitats of the lagoon.
A Boat Trip: Multiple tour operators will take you on trips into the lagoon from Faro, Olhão and Fuseta. There are a wide variety of options, but most will take you into many of the channels and usually stop on one or two of the islands or deserted beaches. Full day, half day, afternoon (2-3 hours) and sunset trips can be organised at any of the marinas and you don’t need to leave the towns to depart. Specific wildlife watching, fishing or deserted island tours can be arranged!
For the Culture lovers: The Best Places to Visit in the Ria Formosa
Faro: Faro is the capital of the Algarve and the largest city connected to the Ria Formosa. It’s walled old town has as much charm and history as some of the oldest towns in Portugal. It’s also got several museums and a lively restaurant scene for the foodies. From its palm tree lined marina, you can book an array of tours and trips further into the lagoon.
Olhão: Olhão is a traditional fishing town, its historic market buildings contain the best fish market in the Algarve. Nearby you’ll find some of the best and most reasonably priced fish restaurants too! At its docks you’ll also find a selection of tours and ferries to help you experience the Ria Formosa properly.
Tavira: Tavira blends the charms and history of both Faro and Olhão. Compared to Faro its much more subdued, the slow flowing river sets the pace of life in Tavira. Compared to Olhão, it’s a lot less industrialised and less rugged. Among many of its cobbled streets you’ll find pastelerias and shops selling local handicrafts. You’ll also find museums, several beautiful churches, and a historic castle.
Cacela Velha: Cacela Velha is a tiny but beautiful former fishing village which is a personal favourite of ours to go and visit. It’s also a step back in time, and looking down towards the Ria Formosa from the walls of its historic fortress is impressive. Did we mention the beach? It’s one of our favourites in the Algarve!
For the Active: The Best Things to do in the Ria Formosa to Keep You Active
Cycling: The Algarve has many exceptional cycling routes. One of the best in the Ria Formosa is the ‘Ciclovia de Tavira’. It’s a route that will take you along the Gilão River, through the saltpans and to Cabanas on old roads. It’s a great route that will get you active and hopefully introduced to some wildlife along the way. There are multiple places to hire bicycles in both Tavira and Cabanas, although its still great to walk along if you prefer that.
Stand-up Paddle Boarding: The calm waters of Fuseta are a great place to learn stand-up paddle boarding. Multiple vendors offer board hire and lessons. Head to Ilha da Deserta, and you’ll find more board hire and lessons too!
Kayaking and Kayaking Tours: Kayaking is an incredible way to keep active and view some of the intricate details of the Ria Formosa. You’ll be able to paddle down channels to shallow for boats and get closer to the shallows and wildlife than the traditional boat tours. If you’re confident in your kayak skills, then you can simply rent one for a day and explore at your own pace and find your own island and beach!
Surfing: The east Algarve is not well known for its surfing, as its much more popular in the west. You can catch a wave and learn to surf on Praia de Faro. There are multiple surf schools based there that offer board hire and lessons.
Hiking: There are many great routes for you to hike within the Ria Formosa. The above-mentioned Ludo Trail is a great place to start hiking. It’s a 7km long route through a small section of the Ria Formosa that features both the natural lagoon and the saltponds. Many of the beaches are also great places to walk and explore, Ilha da Culatra has a great route through its sand dunes.
What’s the Best Island to Visit in the Ria Formosa?
With multiple boat trips and ferries available, and with people often short on time. A question we get asked a lot is which is the best island to visit in the Ria Formosa? The decision comes down to personal choice and what you’re looking for in your island experience.
Our favourite is Ilha da Culatra, to us it captures the remote desert island feel without feeling overly commercialised. You’ll find several communities that actually live on the island, and with them a small selection of more local cafés and restaurants. Walk outside of the small villages and you’ll find your desert island. For us, the island that’s marketed as being deserted, Ilha da Deserta is the most touristy of the lot. It might be uninhibited, but there’s still a large restaurant and bar, and a large number of tourists. The main beach gets very busy during the summer season which to us is against the point of a deserted island!
Should You Visit the Ria Formosa?
The Ria Formosa is an incredible place and combines some of the best aspects of the Algarve, while being able to experience the great outdoors and nature. There really is something for everyone, and a way to experience it that anyone can enjoy.