Ria Formosa – visit Algarve and discover this real natural paradise

Ria Formosa Algarve

Algarve is well known to tourists due to its amazing beaches, however this Portuguese region hides a real natural paradise where fauna and flora coexist in perfect harmony with fishermen and their typical houses. In this article you’ll discover Ria Formosa Natural Park and the best ways to visit it.

Discover Ria Formosa Natural Park

Nature reserve since 1978, Ria Formosa became a natural park in 1987. This new status gave this place the means to better protect and keep the lagoon system, flora and fauna and, this way, protect the migratory species and their natural habitats.

ria formosa
©icnf.pt

Ria Formosa is 60 km long and stretches from Garrão beach (Faro) to Manta Rota beach (Cacela) and is composed of a labyrinth of canals, islands (Barreta, also known as Deserta island, Culatra, Armona, Tavira and Cabanas), swamps and sandbanks.

For further information on the park’s history, fauna and flora, take a look at Ria Formosa’s webpage at Wikipedia.

What to visit / do at Ria Formosa Natural Park?

Before you venture on the discovery of Ria Formosa’s islands, I invite you to go on two strolls to know more about the fauna and flora of this park.

Start your journey at the Environmental Education Centre of Marim (Centro de Educação Ambiental de Marim) where you can go for a 3 km stroll (round trip) that will show you several ecosystems (dunes, salt marshes, and pine forests) and some migratory birds (in the Spring and Autumn), a tide mill and an old tuna fishing boat.

ria formosa
Tide mill ©algarve-portal.com
  • Location: Google Maps – 3 km from Olhão
  • Opening hours: from 8h to 20h
  • Tickets: 2,50 euros

The second trail you can take (São Lourenço Trail – 3 km round trip) begins in the park of Quinta do Lago beach. Here you can admire freshwater lakes, a salting tank from the Roman period as well as several bird species (depending on the time of the year) such as the pink flamingo.

After your stroll don’t hesitate to enjoy the wonderful Quinta do Lago beach!

Next, we’ll show you one of the reasons you should visit Ria Formosa: its beautiful islands, some of which inhabited by fishermen, with wonderful beaches.

Cabanas Island (Ilha de Cabanas)

With 70 metres wide and 7 km long, Cabanas island is perfect for those people that want to be alone. Here, you’ll find a narrow but long beach with all the necessary services for you to spend the day without worrying (including a restaurant and WC).

How to get there?

You’ll need to take the ferry at the Cabanas village (Avenida Ria Formosa 5). Tickets are around 2€ per person, round trip. You can also take a sea taxi, but the tickets are 15 times more expensive.

Tavira Island (Ilha de Tavira)

This 11 km island has the particularity of being the only one in Ria Formosa to have trees and an official naturist beach (of the 4 available).

The island of Tavira beach (on the east side of the island – see photo above) is the most popular thanks to its campsite and bars / restaurants. Towards west you’ll find Terra Estreita beach, located in the narrowest part of the island, hence the name.

Continuing on this direction, you’ll find Barril beach and its old fishermen’s houses, turned into restaurants. Here, you can also admire the anchor cemetery, anchors that were once used in tuna fishing.

On the western part of the island you’ll find the Praia do Homem Nu or Naked Man beach, an official naturist beach.

How to get there?

To get to the beaches of Ilha de Tavira and Terra Estreita you must take the ferry at Quatro Águas pier (Estrada das 4 Águas 101), in Tavira. Tickets are around 2€ per person, round trip. You can also take a sea taxi, but the tickets are 15 times more expensive.

To get to Barril and Homem Nu beaches you’ll have to cross the small bridge and then take the tourist train or walk for a kilometre before you get to the beach.

Armona Island (Ilha da Armona)

The 9 km long Armona island is inhabited in its wider area (1 400 metres) by fishermen and visitors that spend their holidays on the available houses or at the campsite.

This island has two wonderful beaches, one located at Armona village and the other located on the other end of the island, facing the village of Fuseta.

How to get there?

To get to Fuseta beach you’ll have to take the ferry in Fuseta or walk for 6 km until the other end of the island.

If you want to visit or spend some days at Armona island, take the ferry at the city of Olhão (Avenida 5 de Outubro). Tickets are around 2€ per person, round trip. You can also take a sea taxi, but the tickets are 15 times more expensive.

The other way to discover this island is to go on a cruise with a guide (I did this) that will show you in a few hours the various islands in Ria Formosa.

 Pictures taken during the cruise:

Important information: the cruises with a guide are interesting if you want to have a bigger picture of the islands (from two to four), but if you only want to relax in one of these islands choose the ferry.

Culatra Island (Ilha da Culatra)

The 7 km long Culatra island has three fishermen villages: Farol (also known as Ilha do Farol), Hangares and Culatra (also known as Ilha da Culatra).

The island is inhabited since 1880 and now around 750 and 1000 inhabitants leave there, in 350 houses, some of which can be rented during your holidays.

Among all the islands in Ria Formosa, it is in this island that you’ll find the most authentic village in the region – Culatra. Unlike the other villages that are only busy in the Summer, Culatra is busy all year round. As it happens in all the “busy villages”, here you’ll also find a church, a football field, bars and restaurants.

If you want to visit the island during the day, don’t hesitate to go for a 5,6 km stroll (round trip) to discover the village Ilha da Culatra, the fauna and flora and the beach.

On the western part of the island you’ll find Ilha do Farol village where you can admire the lighthouse (hence the village’s name) built in 1851. This village is inhabited all year but it is in the Summer that it really gets busy.

To visit this village you can go go on a 4 km stroll from Ilha da Culatra, take the ferry in Olhão or go on a cruise that will show you the various islands and villages in Ria Formosa.

How to get there?

If you want to visit or spend some days at Culatra island, take the ferry at the city of Olhão (Avenida 5 de Outubro). Tickets are around 5€ per person, round trip. You can also take a sea taxi, but the tickets are 15 times more expensive.

The other way to discover this island is to go on a cruise with a guide (I did this) that will show you in a few hours the various islands in Ria Formosa.


Important information: the cruises with a guide are interesting if you want to have a bigger picture of the islands (from two to four), but if you only want to relax in one of these islands choose the ferry.

Barreta Island or Deserta (Ilha da Barreta ou Deserta)

Barreta island, also known by its inhabitants as Deserta island, is an 8 km long island and 700 metres wide. Here, you won’t find any village, however there is a restaurant. You should know that the prices in this restaurant are higher than the Portuguese average.

Restaurant Estaminé

By reading what I’ve written you’ll think there are no reasons why you should visit this island…

In addition to its huge beach where you’ll feel like the only person in the world, you can also admire the fauna and flora and meet the only inhabitant of the island, mister Alves.

Senhor Alves is an incredible man and is known as the Ilha Deserta fox. After several robberies in which his fishing gear was stolen, he decided in 1981 to live in his three huts.

Aside from being a fisherman, he loves to cook, talk to the island’s visitors and make all sorts of objects for his daily needs.

When I found him, a simple “good morning” was enough to engage a conversation. While he prepared his lunch, he told me many stories and I even got the chance to learn some culinary tricks.

Before I left, mister Alves didn’t hesitate to invite me to visit the island for a whole day and fully discover this island and share a meal with him. His only condition was that I’d bring the beverages, he would do the rest!

On my next trip to this paradise in Algarve, I won’t hesitate to accept his invitation. I know beforehand that I’ll spend some great times in his company!

How to get there?

If you want to visit or spend some days at Barreta island, take the ferry at the city of Olhão (Avenida 5 de Outubro). Tickets are around 7,5€ per person, round trip.

The other way to discover this island is to go on a cruise with a guide (I did this) that will show you in a few hours the various islands in Ria Formosa.


Important information: the cruises with a guide are interesting if you want to have a bigger picture of the islands (from two to four), but if you only want to relax in one of these islands choose the ferry.

Faro Island or Faro Beach (Ilha de Faro or Praia de Faro)

Apart from its name, Faro Island has nothing to do with an island. Actually, this place is a peninsula (Península do Ancão). Located near the airport of Faro, you’ll find in this place several restaurants, bars, a hotel, some fishermen’s houses and a long and beautiful beach.

How to get there?

You can get to Ilha de Faro by car, crossing the small bridge, or by boat, from the marina of Faro.

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About Tiago

Tiago, 29 years old, Parisian since 12, I decided to go on an adventure and make my dream come true: get to know our country from one end to the other. I believe that if we don’t know our origins we don’t truly know ourselves. Read more here