Our first view of the Ria Formosa is often a very patchy image of these chaotic and messy marshlands as we approach or depart Faro Airport.
I remember looking down as the aircraft laboured up into the deep blue, wondering how I could get in there and explore those areas… and then turning to the inflight magazine and forgetting all about it. Until I returned, and saw them again…
Greeting my family in the airport, I again forgot about the coastal wetlands until, that is, I was researching a new business…
The plan was to take people on stand-up paddle tours of the coastline and our research phase involved paddling every little bit of blue there was available.
The Ria Formosa is indeed a large patch of blue, especially at high tide, when it stretches 70km from Quinta do Lago and Faro Airport all the way to Cacela Velha, on the Spanish side of Tavira. Those 2014 paddles often started on a wonderfully sturdy ‘river bank’ and ended up with metres of mud to cover before we reached dry ground.
With a three metre variance between low and high tide, the Ria Formosa is like two different places: one a muddy network of crab-covered canyons peppered with sprinkles of a peculiar bush (that you can eat). The second vision is one of high tide and a glassy watery expanse that reaches out to touch the sun as it sets.
Some of my best paddles from Faro have been in the middle of winter – a still evening, gliding through the dark water as the sun sets on Faro Island at 5:30pm. Glorious!
The Ria Formosa at high tide stretches 70km from Quinta do Lago all the way to Cacela Velha
Boats ply the protected waters, many transporting tourists and locals alike out to the network of five barrier islands which form an irregular wall against the powerful elements of the ocean.
In certain areas, these islands are split and the tide comes racing through to wash the entire system. The water circles around and races out after six hours, bringing the old water out into the ocean to regenerate.
These tidal ‘barrinhas’ are often a place of great danger and should be treated with great caution; I have heard of at least one fisherman losing his life as his boat was tossed about in the waters.
Doing loops in and out of these openings forms a part of my weekend exercise routine. Early morning paddling with the tide inside the lagoon, flip through the tidal raceway and after being carefully pushed out into the ocean by the emptying tide, I commence the return journey on the ocean.
Faro Island is perfect for this, but Fuseta is a solid favourite of mine, as well. Returning to Restaurant Borda d’Água on the lagoon beach is always a treat as they make a great galão, that delicious white coffee that is a Portuguese speciality. Served in a tall glass, it is one quarter coffee and three quarters foamed milk, and just what’s needed after a morning paddle.
I have traversed the entire system in one sitting on at least two occasions and both have been extremely rewarding. Coming across a beach club near Praia da Fábrica was quite exciting one day.
We were struggling down in the marshes below as the tide ground to its very lowest level. Our paddleboards just had no water and we had to drag them through the muddy bottom.
I took a break and jogged up a sandy pathway and this oasis of gin and tonic drinking, bikini clad socialites unveiled themselves before me. What a far cry from our muddy adventures below.
I’d love to hear your stories about the Ria Formosa – send them over on my Instagram @algarveaddicts