The Eastern part of Portugal’s Algarve region, close to the border with Spain, surprises with a natural paradise of an exceptional kind: Ria Formosa. The area, just south of Olhao, is a vast water expanse composed of three sand bar islands, a nature park, bird sanctuary for flamingos, and mussel farms. Only reachable by ferry from either Faro or Olhao, Ria Formosa makes for a great day trip to enjoy beaches, birds, great food, and a car-free environment where time seems to have stood still. Ilha Culatra, the main island, is inhabited by fishermen and mussel farmers. In contrast, Ilha da Barreta, the deserted island, has the quietest beaches and just one famous restaurant, which offers some of the best seafood in the Algarve. A water taxi is needed to reach Ilha da Barreta. The ferry ride from Olhao is already a joy as the coastline recedes, and the fishing boats, mussel farms, and birds come into view while the sandbanks and tiny islands slowly materialize.
Feast Your Eyes in Olhao Market
There are no shops to speak of on Ilha Culatra, so the locals have to take the ferry to do their shopping in Olhao. They love to do so in the distinctive, covered market with its bright red roof and colorful offers of seafood, fish, fruit, and vegetables. There is even an annual seafood festival held each year on Aug. 10. The market is just a few steps from the ferry terminal to Ilha Culatra, so you can stroll through it before embarking on your island trip.
Pray for the Fishermen in Nossa Senhora dos Aflitos
Although Olhao has a rather Moorish appearance, the town was only founded in the 18th century and quickly became the busiest fishing port on the Algarve. The parish church, which stands on the main street, has a chapel at its back, Nossa Senhora dos Aflitos, where the women used to pray for the safe return of their fishermen husbands and sons. Fishing has lost its importance today, making Olhao more of a tourist destination with resorts, but the tradition to pray at the chapel continues.
Ride the Ferry to Ilha da Culatra
The ferry terminal in Olhao is easy to find, a few steps from the market. Ferries run frequently, and the trip takes about 30 minutes. Once comfortably seated on deck, you wish it would take longer because the sight is so beautiful. The ferry crosses through a large part of Ria Formosa so you can see the sandbanks and even pink clouds of flamingos—a sight to behold. Fishers are busy tending to the mussel farms, and the returning shoppers from the island stow their bulging shopping trolleys and are happy to chat with the tourists, making recommendations for things to do and see on Culatra. The water is calm, so no danger of seasickness. The ferry docks at the southern part of Culatra but depart from another pier for the return trip.
Explore Ilha da Culatra
Culatra is the biggest of the three islands in the Ria Formosa. A small church greets you when you disembark, and from there, follow the boardwalks. There are no roads on the islands; transport is by foot, bicycle, and the odd hand cart to move some goods.
Don’t forget your swimwear because one of the joys is the beaches. The southern side features wide, golden beaches, whereas lagoons form the northern side. There are dunes, grass, the odd palm tree, and otherwise just beautiful nature. The island has two small villages, Farol to the west and Culatra to the east. The wooden walkways connect the two, and it’s interesting to look at the houses, all of them originally fishermen’s cottages with plenty of maritime decorations. Quite a few bars and small restaurants are found along the way, so nobody goes thirsty or hungry, but there are no shops. Don’t forget a sun hat and sunscreen; there isn’t much shade. The southern beaches are very safe and suitable for kids. Near the dock, you can watch the fishermen mending their nets and sorting the harvest from the mussel farms out in the lagoon.
If you miss your ferry, you will have to order a rather expensive water taxi back to Olhao, as there is no overnight accommodation on Culatra.
Take a Side Trip to Ilha da Barreta
Ilha da Barreta, or deserted island, is the smallest of the islands in the Ria Formosa and the least populated one. It’s easier to reach from Faro, but if you have made it to Culatara, you can take a water taxi over. The beaches here even more deserted than in Culatra, hence the name. It’s most famous as one of the best places to watch the birds of Ria Formosa, most notably flamingos and terns. You quickly forget that you are close to one of the busiest tourist destinations in Portugal.
There is a special treat for gourmets on the island: Restaurant Estaminé, the only place to eat. Its wooden structure alone is an interesting sight, not to mention its exquisite fish and seafood dishes.
Watch the Sunset in Ilha da Armona
Ilha de Armona is the third of the islands in Ria Formosa, similar but still different from Culatra. Again, there are two different, mile-long beaches—one on the Atlantic side and one facing Olhao. The Atlantic one is the best place to watch spectacular sunsets. For swimming, bear in mind that the Atlantic water is colder than the other side.
Although Armona has just about 50 permanent residents, it has more bars, shops and restaurants than Culatra, and also a camping site if you wish to stay overnight.
The houses in two villages, again connected by wooden walkways, look similar to those on Culatra, but a few holiday homes have been allowed on this island.
Venture Into Ria Formosa by Land or Sea
If you want to see all the marvels of this spectacular wetland and would rather take a guided tour, you can do so by land or sea. A guided walking tour starts from Quinta do Lago and includes woodland as well as the wetlands. If, however, you prefer to be on the water all day long, there are boat and catamaran tours to the island from Faro.
Learn Kitesurfing in Fuseta
Fuseta is a small village just east of Olhao on the lagoon side of Ria Formosa, which means warmer and calmer water but equally fabulous beaches. If ever you wanted to give kitesurfing a try, Furseta is the place to go, at the same time enjoying all the natural beauty of Ria Formosa. An added attraction is a rather famous antique market which takes place every second Sunday of the month. You just might find a souvenir from your trip nobody else will have.
Round Out Your Trip in Tavira
The pretty town of Tavira, located at the estuary of the river Gilao at the foot of a hill, makes a good place to visit to round out your Ria Formosa experience. Although not strictly a part of the nature park it’s from here that some boat tours also depart. Otherwise, enjoy a once upon a time fishing village with a Roman bridge, ramparts, whitewashed houses, narrow streets and plenty of churches.