The Ria Formosa Natural Park is a nature reserve which sits along the eastern Algarve coast line and boasts some of the best unspoiled secrets of the Portuguese holiday destination. Encompassing 60km of the coast between the Faro and Manta Rota regions, the park is bursting with sites and activities to satisfy the most demanding Algarve visitor.
It hosts a number of beautiful and secluded islands including Barretta, Culatra, Armona and Tavira. The sandy beaches of each make up the outer edge of the park and form a coastal dune barrier which protects a shallow, warm-water lagoon from the Ocean. The Ria Formosa region is still used for mussel and oyster farming and there are two rivers that run into the lagoon all year round. The rest of the waterways dry up during the summer but the lagoon is the still the only place in the Algarve to see a fully restored tidal mill. The islands can all be reached either by car, foot or by boats that sail regularly from the major coastal towns. They each have their own cafes and bars, many on the beaches themselves, as well as a wealth of fishing heritage. The island of Barrill even has a coastal train which is great for kids.
For nature lovers, the Ria Formosa Park prides itself on playing an important part in the conservation of many varieties of fish, flora and birds, like the Sultan Chicken – of which only 20 remain. The park has been involved in preserving the cultural heritage of the area for some time too; from restoring the tidal mill and Roman salting tanks to recovering a traditional tuna fish boat, all of which are open to visitors.
The park recently set up a project for the breeding of the native Portuguese water dogs and park visitors can stroke the dogs at specialist kennels as well as talk to the handlers and learn more about them. The dogs have been associated with the Algarve since the breed was used by fishermen and are famous for their ability to swim, dive and even jump out of the water onto the boats.
And if you want to get even closer to this picturesque park you can take the 3km nature trail, which can take up to three hours to walk. It takes you right through the heart of the Ria Formosa, from the salt marshes and Roman ruins to a traditional villa built by local poet Joao Lucio. Or, if you fancy exploring the park by yourself take a picnic and take advantage of all the hideaways and secluded areas that are just waiting to be discovered.
The visitor centre is the hub of the park and is situated at Quinta da Marim, Olhao. From Olhao take the EN125 signposted “Ria Formosa” and the centre is through marked gates on the left. The temperate Algarve weather in March or indeed at just about any time outside of the main holiday season is ideal for exploring this beautiful park without working up too much of a sweat!