The Ria Formosa National Park was recently elected one of the 7 Natural Wonders of Portugal. Here you will find everything you need to know about day trips in the beautiful national park.
In September, I fell head over heels in love with Portugal’s beautiful Algarve coast. Like, for real.
While Faro was indeed a very charming town, I must admit that it was our various day trips that quickly convinced me that the Algarve truly is a paradise. During our stay, we took a day trip to the beautiful Pink Palace in Estoi, but we also decided that we wanted to explore Ria Formosa – the national park located right on the shores of Faro.
So, it was time for us to start looking for the best Ria Formosa boat trips in Faro. And trust me, there are a lot of options!
Choosing a Ria Formosa Boat Trip
You can trust me when I say that there are numerous Faro Boat Tours leaving the harbour during high season, and to be frank – they all tend to go to the same places in the national park. We ended up booking with Formosamar (and yes, we payed it ourselves). While we highly enjoyed our choice of a Faro boat tour, it should also be mentioned that we chose it for two simple reasons
a) our Faro boat tour visited the two most famous islands in Ria Formosa, Ilha Deserta and Ilha Farol
and b) the boat tour lasted a maximum of 3 hours.
As we had quite a limited time on our hands, we decided to visit the two most popular destinations in the shortest amount of time.
In a way, you can regard it as a way of speed dating the Ria Formosa National Park.
We had a beautiful day at sea – and we got to see the very best of the coast of Algarve. It’s something I would highly recommend for everyone, so in this article you will find all the information you might possibly need in order to plan your day trip to the national park – information about the wildlife, different options for Faro boat tours and our general experience from an amazing Faro day trip. Beware, none of this is in any way sponsored – it’s simply meant as a helpful recommendation.
So without further ado, it’s time to talk about the Ria Formosa National Park.
What is Ria Formosa National Park?
The Ria Formosa National Park is located in the Algarve, Southern Portugal, and this is a place that you definitely can’t miss during your holiday in Faro. The National Park was recently elected as one the 7 Natural Wonders in Portugal – how amazing is that!
According to the government, the Ria Formosa Natural Park is ” is a unique coastal lagoon which is constantly changing due to the continuous movement of winds, currents and tides”. Ria Formosa was first classified as a Natural Park in 1987, and it contains an area of 18 000 hectares that are protected from the wild sea by a total 5 barrier islands and 2 peninsulas.
If you take a boat tour in Ria Formosa, you will most likely visit two of the most famous barrier islands: the Barreta Island (known as Ilha Deserta) and Ilha da Culatra. While Ilha Deserta is mostly uninhabited – hence the name – Ilha da Culatra is an old fisherman’s island and it also contains a stunning lighthouse – the lighthouse of Santa Maria.
How to pick the best boat tour in Ria Formosa?
As already mentioned, during high season there are numerous boat tours leaving for the islands outside Faro every single day. You will not experience a lack of opportunities. It’s, however, worth mentioning that the Faro boat tours all seem to be rather similar.
The traditional boat trips operate with two types of tours – a day trip and a half day trip. These are all guided and you will get a limited time on each island. We chose a boat tour that lasted 3 hours, and we found that this was the perfect time for us. I highly recommend that you choose a guided tour if this is your first visit to Faro and the national park. This is because the guides will inform you of lots of history and fun facts that you would perhaps not be aware of otherwise.
Most of the tour companies have stands in the harbour, so it can be worth heading down for a chat to figure out what tour option works best for you and your schedule.
Beware that they also offer wildlife tours and birdwatching tours, so the national park can clearly cater for most demands!
However, there is an option for those of you who simply don’t care about the national parks history. Are you just looking for transport from one island to the next? Then the Hop on Hop Off Islands Tour might be right up your alley. A shuttle boat will take you between the Ria Formosa islands in your own pace.
Also, on our last night in Faro I suddenly discovered that the boat tours also offers romantic sunset sailing tours?!
Like what? Why did no one tell me that before?!
Anyway, if you’re feeling overly romantic or happen to be on a honeymoon – book yourself onto one of the sunset sailing tours asap. Seriously!
What do I see in Ria Formosa?
The National Park is perhaps most known for its amazing and varied wildlife. If you love flamingos (who doesn’t!), you might get lucky enough to spot the pink creature somewhere along the coast! There is also opportunities to spot seabirds, sea turtles and dolphins in the Ria Formosa. And the best part, all of these animals are wild. They are not captured, they are swimming freely around.
This is ecotourism at its best and I love it.
First stop of the day: Exploring Ilha Deserta + St. Mary’s Cape
I’m not a morning person, so we signed up for a boat tour departing at 11.30. This meant that we could have a slow and relaxing morning in Faro, eating pastries galore for breakfast (working on that beach body, you know…) and drinking a few cups of coffee. The perfect start, if you ask me!
We met our group in the Faro harbour 15 minutes before departure. Our group was quite small, so the boat felt very spacious.
Our first stop of the day was the Barreta Island, most known under the name Ilha Deserta because um, well you probably guessed it, there is nothing there. Exploring Ilha Deserta is a rather simple task – there is only one restaurant (which is quite pricey by the way!) on the island, the rest is just beaches and sand. When we asked our guide for any fun facts about the island, he told us that Cristiano Ronaldo once stopped there for lunch.
Cool. So apparently Ronaldo and I have the same taste in holiday destinations. Good to know.
Despite its lack of … well, everything tbh, Ilha Deserta has some of the most stunning beaches I have ever seen. Azure sea, golden sand… I never wanted to leave.
However, there is one thing you definitely need to see on Ilha Deserta and that is St. Mary’s Cape – the southernmost point in Portugal. Beyond that point, there’s nothing but the wild sea and, eventually, Africa.
Second Stop of the day: Explorng Ilha Culatra
Our second stop of the day was the beautiful Ilha da Culatra.
Once upon a time, this was a wee and tranquil fisherman’s village. Today, it’s a small summer paradise filled with bars, restaurants, cute holiday houses and a lighthouse. Though the old fisherman’s charm is no longer anywhere to be seen, the village of Farol is still an immensly cute place to spend your afternoon. And just so you know it, the restaurants are way cheaper than Ronaldo’s preferred choice over on Ilha Deserta.
While the Ilha Deserta offered mostly tranquility and beautiful scenery, Farol, on the other hand, seem to offer an abundance of activities during the high season. We are told there are occasional yoga classes in the warm summer sand, and there is also a possibility of trying out SUP. If you prefer a low activity level (what else are holidays for really?), you can enjoy an ice cold frappe in one of the many bars or soak up the sun on one of the beautiful beaches. Whatever you choose, I’m pretty damn sure that you will have a great time in the national park.
After 3 brief hours in the lagoons of the Ria Formosa, we reluctantly ventured back to the Portuguese mainland. Still in awe of the beautiful scenery we had explored, we stopped for sangria and tapas (because sangria and tapas) and spent the rest of the day reminiscing about the stunning, untouched islands of Farol and Deserta.
Can we go back already?
If you ever find yourself in the Algarve, a tour of the Ria Formosa National Park should be compulsory. You will not regret it.
What to pack for a Ria Formosa Boat Trip?
Ok, so you have booked your ticket and the amazing boat trip of Ria Formosa awaits you. But what do you bring with you? Here are a few options:
- Sun lotion with a high SPF: the sun is strong in the Algarve, even in low season, so remember your SPF for your adventurous day at sea.
- Lunch: this is the most budget-friendly option. There is also an expensive cafe at Ilha Deserta and various cafe options in Farol.
- Waterproof case for your phone. I’m just throwing this out there because I have a family member (you know who you are) who has jumped into the sea while still wearing his phone two summers in a row. Don’t be like him, guys.
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