Mainland Portugal’s gentler, warmer waters are found here. Formed by an intricate maze of dunes, mudflats, sand banks, saltmarshes and forested patches, Ria Formosa is one of the largest coastal lagoons in southern Iberia. It spans approximately 60 kilometres between the outstanding beaches of Garrão in the west and Manta Rota in the east. In between these locations you’ll find a string of barrier islands that include Deserta Island (or ‘Barreta’), Fuseta Island and Tavira Island, all gifted with lush dunes and pristine stretches of sand.

Thanks to the wind, the currents and the tides, this is an ever-changing environment that is also a safe haven to countless plants and animals. Among many others, here you’ll find resident birds such as the Purple Swamphen, the Greater Flamingo, the Glossy Ibis and the Spoonbill. In reality, Ria Formosa encloses some of the last remaining nesting grounds in Europe for some of these bird species. The meandering lagoon is also a crucial habitat for numerous species of wintering and staging waterbirds. On their part, its great dunes and sparse forests are inhabited by locally endangered species like the elusive Chameleon and the stealthy Egyptian Mongoose. Ria Formosa also supports several endemic plants, and is a major nursery zone for fish (including seahorses).

In fact, since time immemorial, Ria Formosa has provided fish in great abundance, as well as salt and shellfish. Nowadays, you can visit one of the many restaurants in the region to try the delicious seafood typical of the towns that border Ria Formosa, such as Olhão and Tavira – from simple oysters or grilled fish drizzled in olive oil and lemon juice, to baroque dishes like the cataplana de marisco with its clams, squid and giant prawns, you will be spoiled for choice.

How To Get to Ria Formosa

The best places to enjoy Ria Formosa’s natural surroundings are the continuous areas encompassing the Pontal Forest / Quinta do Ludo / Quinta do Lago / Garrão (between the municipalities of Faro and Loulé); the saltpans in Tavira and their surroundings; and Cacela Velha / Praia da Fábrica (pictured on the main image above). Alternatively, you can visit Quinta de Marim in Olhão, where the Park’s headquarters are located; however, Quinta de Marim is a bit run down, and birdlife is not as diverse or abundant.  Year-round, there are ferry boats connecting Faro or Olhão to the main islands (including Ilha Deserta, only from Faro). You may check their scheduled departures and arrivals (in Portuguese) on the Faro and Olhão municipalities websites.