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Ria Formosa Natural Park and Faro Boat Trip Guide

Faro is the gateway to the Ria Formosa Natural Park and the beautiful sandbars islands that skirt this protected region. The Ria Formosa is a series of salt water lagoons and waterways that extend from Faro in the west to Tavira in the east, and are a haven for birdlife and saltwater aquatic life. The natural park designation does not only protect wildlife but also the small fishing communities that rely on traditional and sustainable fishing methods that otherwise would be lost to mass development.

Faro boat tour

The historic centre of Faro, as viewed from the tour boat

A boat tour of this fragile ecosystem and equally precarious lifestyle will be a highlight of any visit to Faro, and will combine nature, pristine beaches and an insight to the heritage of the region. This article will provide a guide to the Ria Formosa, the boat tours that depart from Faro and an overview of the islands.



What are the highlights of the Ria Formosa?

Relaxing on the idyllic Ilha Deserta beach (the deserted island), which is the Algarve’s quietest and most isolated beach.

Deserta beach deserted island faro

Bird watching with native species (Egrets, Stork and Pochards) and migratory Flamingos, Spoonbills, and Wigeons.

Egret  Ria Formosa

Visiting the fishing community on the Ilha da Culatra Island, which has no roads or cars but bags of character and charm.

Ilha da Colatra Island fishing

The Cabo de Santa Maria, the most southerly location in Portugal, which is reached via a walk through the empty sand dunes of the Ilha Deserta.

Cabo de Santa Maria

Snorkelling in the calm lagoon waters with its plethora of small marine life, which include the world’s highest concentration of seahorses.

What are the typical boat tours of the Ria Formosa?

Each of the boat tour companies provide operational and seasonal variations but a typical 3-4 hour tour visits, the Ilha Deserta, the Ilha da Culatra, the Ilha do Farol and provides a tour of the waterways. Seasonal variations may include snorkelling with the sea horses at Armona, or an extended lunch dining on freshly caught fish. These tours cover a significant distance, as it is 10km from Faro to Culatra but the waters of the Ria Formosa are perfectly flat, so there is little chance of seasickness. Prices vary but a 4-hour tour costs around €30 and provide exceptional value.

For those visitors who prefer a trip to a pristine beach without the constraints of a tour there are direct boat services to the Ilha Deserta. For larger groups or bespoke tours, private tour boats can be hired and these tours can be customised to the wishes of the renters.

Ria Formosa tour boat

A typical Ria Formosa tour boat

I’m visiting Faro as a day trip and I don’t have time for a long boat tour…

Faro makes for a fantastic day trip from the major resort towns of Vilamoura, Albufeira and Quarteira, and any excursion should include a shortened tour of the Ria Formosa Natural Park. The Faro boat tour operators provide a reduced tour of the Ria Formosa, which can be sensible combined with a half day exploration of the historic centre of Faro. These two hour boat tours cost around €25.

Ria Formosa tour boat

Other shorter tours include sunset cruises and these last for around an hour and half, and head out to the Praia de Faro to watch the sunset on the return. These tours are great for that extra special romantic moment and cost €15.

The Islands

Typically Portuguese, there are lots of different names for the islands, some are official while others are just commonly used. The Ilha da Barreta is routinly referred to as the Ilha Deserta (deserted island), while the Ilha do Farol and Ilha da Culatra are both on the same sandbar island, the Ilha da Culatra and are separated by a 2.5km beach path.

Ilha Deserta Island

The Ilha Deserta (deserted island), as the name indicates, is one of the most remote and deserted locations in the Algarve, even at the height of the summer there will only be a handful of people on the beach. The island provides pristine beaches with absolutely no tourist development, there is just a single building on the 8km coastline, an exclusive restaurant. The Ilha Deserta is where to head to, to escape the crowds of tourists.

Ilha Deserta Island  footpath

The footpath through the empty sand dunes of the Ilha Deserta Island

The Cabo de Santa Maria is the most southerly point of mainland Portugal and the sand dune headland is marked by a monument created from drift wood and sea debris. Saint Mary point is a 2km walk from the harbour and restaurant, which follows a wooden walkway and is a very scenic trail.

Cabo de Santa Maria

The drift wood and sea debris monument is very appropriate for the Cabo de Santa Maria

Culatra is a small and permanent fishing community which exists purely on the sustainable fishing of the Ria Formosa. Culatra is fascinating; there are no cars, the main street is just a sand path, the houses are colourful and the local bakery is an extended kitchen!

Ilha da Colatra Island fishing

The busy little harbour of Colatra is a hive of activity with small boats fishing, fishermen sorting the catch, sea gulls fighting for scraps and old men fixing nets. The freshly caught fish is sold in the family run restaurants that overlook the harbour and keep the fragile economy struggling on. There are beautiful beaches on the island and are on the opposite side to the harbour. This coastline extends to the west to the Ilha do Farol which is a pleasant 4km walk.

Ilha do Farol

The Ilha do Farol is dominated by the massive lighthouse (Farol in Portuguese), which gives the name to the little community. Unlike Culatra, Farol has almost no permanent population and the majority of the small houses are holiday homes used by Portuguese tourists. The island has another pristine beach of golden sands and calm sea waters.

Ilha do Farol

The lighthouse towers above the Ilha do Farol

Praia da Faro

This island is rarely visited as part of the boat tours but is the most accessible beach from Faro, as it is connected by a bridge and regular bus service. The island has a resort atmosphere during the summer with many holiday houses, cafes and bars. The beach on Praia da Faro is as equally good as the other islands but will always be much more crowded as this is the main beach of Faro. For a guide to Praia da Faro please click here.

Ilha do Farol
And thanks to

My Tour of the Ria Formosa was provided by Islands 4 you, who provided a professional, knowledgeable and enjoyable tour. They are a small family run operation who consistently receive excellent reviews and we are more than happy to recommend their tours, for a link to their website please click


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The Best Guide to Faro