The Ria Formosa Natural Park
The Ria Formosa Natural Park stretches along about half of the eastern Algarve coast line - 60 km in total - from Faro to Manta Rota and covers an area of over 18,000 hectares (44,000 acres). The outer boundary is formed by a line of sand dune islands and peninsulas, which host the fabulous long golden sand beaches of the Park. These barrier islands protect a huge tidal lagoon, which is at its widest between Faro and Olhão and tapers to an end at Manta Rota. The lagoon is a system of salt marshes, tidal flats, islets and channels, which is home both to a great diversity of fauna and flora, and also to the important local industries of fishing, shellfish and fish farming, and salt production. It is cited in the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international importance.
The Ria Formosa Natural Park is of particular importance to bird life: as a breeding ground for many species, as a wintering ground for many birds from northern Europe, as a resting and feeding station for birds migrating between Africa and Europe, and as a habitat for several species threatened elsewhere in Europe. The park is also important for its rich salt-resistant flora and as a breeding ground and nursery for many marine species.
To the visitor, the park presents a massive open area filled with sea air, sparkling water and sunlight. The best view you will probably get of it is as your plane banks over the coast to land at Faro airport (sit on the right-hand side of the plane). From the air, it is a stunning patchwork of green islets, blue lagoons and white beaches. The beaches are fantastic both for bathers in the summer and for walkers in the winter. The salt marshes and tidal flats will thrill bird watchers with the many species of waders, waterfowl and sea birds. For nature lovers, artists, photographers and those curious about local life, the park has much to offer.
Perhaps the best way to see the park is on one of the longer ferry trips to the island beaches from Faro and Olhão. Otherwise, you can access the edge of the lagoon by exploring down many small roads between Faro and Manto Rota. Near Olhão, there is a visitor centre where you can see the only restored tidal mill in the area and have the chance of seeing the rare Purple gallinule - the symbol of the park.
Not many small towns have a castle to boast of; Castro Marim has two. Both sit on the top of hills, giving them a commanding view over the lands to the north, the salt marshes and Vila Real de Santo António to to the south, and the Guardiana river and Spain to the east. The older castle - the castelo - is more intact and visitor friendly. The younger castle - the Fortaleza de São Sebastião - is more ruined and more romantic. Great viewing and picnic spots outside the main summer heat.
Bird watchers can see bee eaters and hoopoes around the fortaleza, and avocet, stork and a wealth of other wading birds can be seen close-by in the wetland nature reserve. The reserve covers 2000 hectares, mainly marsh land, and includes extensive salt works. There are three signed walks that can be followed in the reserve - for which the tourist office has brochures. The reserve also has an oddly enormous visitor centre overlooking the river, which, when open, has permanent exhibitions about the reserve, plus other facilities.
For four days each year, Castro Marim takes a leap back into the past for its Medieval Days festival. Enter the castle and you enter another, older world, with neither brand name nor advertising in site. A really different experience. Great fun.
Castro Marim highlights
Links: www.cm-castromarim.pt - the council site.
Dolphin watching is always a popular activity for holidaymakers, and there are dolphins and whales to be seen off the Algarve coast. So if you fancy an hour and a half of dolphin hunting, then trips are available from the marinas at Portimão and Lagos.
Tel/Fax: (00351) 282 799 209
Mobile: (00351) 919 359 359
A jeep safari is a great way to get a guided tour of the Algarve countryside and places off the beaten track. Prices include lunch and there are various pick up points throughout the Algarve.
Mount Safari: Portimão - Tel: (00351) 282 420 800
Riosul: Monte Gordo - Tel: (00351) 281 510 200
Zebra Tours: Albufeira - Tel: (00351) 289 583 300 / (00351) 965 040 225
Algarve Horse Riding Centres
Centro Hípico Casal de São José
Caixa Postal 192
Contact Tel: (00351) 289 703 198
Centro Equitação Qta das Oliveiras
Qta das Oliveiras
E.N. 125 - 8800 Tavira
Contact Tel: (00351) 281 322 107