The best independent guide to the Algarve
The best independent guide to the Algarve
The Parque Natural da Ria Formosa are the saltwater lagoons and tidal mudflats that extend along the much of the central Algarve coastline. These calm waterways are a haven for small aquatic life, wading sea birds and migrating birds, while preserving the region’s traditional fishing communities.
Along the seaward side of the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa are a series of pristine sandbar islands. These islands protect the region from the powerful seas, while also providing some of the quietest and most scenic beaches of the Algarve.
The historic centre of Faro, as viewed from the tour boat
Faro is one of the best locations to explore the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa, with boat tours, island hopping trips and ferry services departing from the harbour. A boat tour is a great way to discover the region, with its thriving marine ecosystem, unspoilt beaches, and rich fishing heritage
This article will provide a guide to the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa, the different boat tours that depart from Faro and an overview of the islands.
Relaxing on the idyllic Ilha Deserta (Deserted Island), the Algarve’s quietest and most isolated beach.
Bird watching with native species (Egrets, Stork and Pochards) and migratory Flamingos, Spoonbills, and Wigeons.
Discovering the traditional fishing community on the Ilha da Culatra Island, which has no pathed roads.
Visiting the Cabo de Santa Maria, the most southerly point of Portugal, which is reached via walking through unspoilt sand dunes of the Ilha Deserta.
Snorkelling in the calm lagoon waters with its plethora of small marine life, which include the world’s highest concentration of seahorses.
Each of the boat tour companies provides 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 speed 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.
A typical Ria Formosa tour boat
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 realistically combined with a half-day exploration of the historical centre of Faro. These two-hour boat tours cost around €25.
Other shorter trips include sunset cruises and these last for around an hour and a 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.
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 routinely 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.
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.
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. This sand dune headland is marked by a monument created from driftwood 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.
The driftwood 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!
The busy little harbour of Culatra is a hive of activity with small boats fishing, fishermen sorting the catch, seagulls 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 of the harbour. This coastline extends to the west to the Ilha do Farol, which is a pleasant 4km walk.
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.
The lighthouse towers above the Ilha do Farol
The Ilha de Faro is the westernmost of the islands within the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa, and is the most accessible from Faro, being connected by a road. Along the beachfront, and close to the bridge, a low-key beach resort has grown.
The island is rarely visited as part of the boat tours but has an enjoyable resort atmosphere during the summer with many holiday houses, cafes and bars. The Praia da Faro beach is as equally good as the other islands but will always be much more crowded as this is the main beach of Faro.
Related articles: Praia da Faro
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.