Best nature reserves in the Algarve

Whether you explore the Algarve’s nature reserves on foot or in the saddle, by boat or by kayak, you’ll find lots of wildlife – but also stories of Portugal’s seafaring heritage, artisan salt production, and traditional fishing practises (our favourite: the dog messengers that swam between boats before radios were invented).

Responsible tourism in these places is essential, given the fragility of the ecosystems at play and the many rare, often threatened, bird species that they support. We recommend them as wonderful places to visit and watch wildlife, and as tranquil alternatives to the Algarve’s beaches. Do tread lightly, though.

Where can you see flamingos in the Algarve?

You can see flamingos in several places across the Algarve, including the Ria Formosa Natural Park and the Ria de Alvor Nature Reserve. The Castro Marim and Vila Real de Santo Antonio Marshland Natural Reserve, near Tavira, lays proud claim to being the first place where flamingos have ever been born in Portugal. The best way to see flamingos in the Algarve is either on a guided boat trip or simply walking around on marked trails and boardwalks. It’s important to keep a good distance from the flamingos, as they breed and lay eggs throughout the year.

Our top 6 nature reserves in the Algarve

Castro Marim & Vila Real de Santo Antonio Marshland Natural Reserve

Just before the Guadiana River meets the sea, close to Tavira and the border with Spain, lies the Castro Marim and Vila Real de Santo Antonio Marshland Natural Reserve. But we’ll just call it the Castro for short.

In 2021, flamingos were born for what’s thought to be the first time in Portugal: 550 of them right here in the Castro. The growing flamingo numbers are an exciting development and something that the Reserve is keen to protect. Visitors to the Castro and other Reserves are encouraged to keep to the paths and to follow the signs, given the reserve’s importance as a breeding and nesting site. Fish, crustaceans and shellfish also find shelter in these wetlands, growing and building strength before they venture forth into the sea. That’s provided they survive the predations of over 150 bird species, including white storks, black-winged stilts and that growing flock of flamingos.

Highly prized Portuguese artisanal salt is still sourced from the pans in the Castro in the traditional way, harvested from evaporation pools. The men who work the Salinas are called marmotos, skimming the delicate salt crystals from the surface with hand-crafted butterfly-shaped sieves known as borboletas. Salt has always had importance in society – it was once used to partly pay the wages of Roman soldiers, and we derive the word ‘salary’ from ‘sal’, the Latin word for salt.

There are also Roman ruins in the Castro – there was once a port here – and medieval castles like the hilltop citadel of Castro Marim, which affords fine views over the reserve.

Ria Formosa Natural Park

Although fishermen no longer use them to fetch broken nets or to carry messages between boats, you can still sometimes see muscular Portuguese water dogs frolicking around the tidal flats and marshes of the Ria Formosa Natural Park. This important bird nesting site and migratory stopover stretches for 60km along the Algarve’s southern coast, a labyrinth of wetlands protected from the sea by five barrier islands and two peninsulas.

Ria Formosa Natural Park is protected but still used for fishing, as well as seafood farming and salt extraction. It is lined with hiking and cycling trails, and kayaks can be hired for on-the-water explorations. Guided boat trips take you out dolphin watching, or even to snorkel with seahorses – there is a huge population of the tiny beasties here. You might encounter flamingos, which are mostly present from November to March, though a small contingent stay year-round, as well as the purple swamp hen (galinha-sultana) which is found nowhere else in Portugal.

Access to the Ria Formosa is usually by ferry or water taxi from towns such as Faro, Tavira or Olhão, where there’s a huge seafood market. Look out for local specialities like fish soup and razor clams, and traditional Portuguese salt which is in demand in restaurants around the world.

“We really like to go to Olhão early in the morning, take the ferry to one of the car-free islands such as Farol, Armona, or Culatra and spend the day there,” says Inge Keizer, from our partner Quinta Alfarrobeira. “There are some wonderful restaurants and on Farol there are even some cool beach bars. Don’t take a water taxi but experience the ferry – it really is a nice day out.”

Ria de Alvor Nature Reserve

The Ria de Alvor is a small nature reserve close to the resort town of Alvor, between Portimão and Odiáxere. During the spring and autumn months many thousands of migratory birds shelter among the mudflats, salt marshes and salinas (salt pans) that make up these wetlands – it is a Natura 2000 site, a vital location for breeding and resting for rare and threatened species.

Bird watching in the Ria de Alvor Nature Reserve is superb, and you can expect to see terns, sandpipers, egrets, herons and kestrels, as well as the flamingos that are quite a common sight in Algarve nature reserves. Jackdaws and rock pigeons dwell along the cliffs, while crevices in the rocks are used for nesting in the summer by alpine swifts. Non-avian wildlife included Algerian sand lizards and ladder snakes.

There are lots of walks along cliffs, as well as cycling trails and boardwalks along the beach and riverside that let you admire these precious fragile habitats without disturbing them. The boardwalks are also useful for visitors with limited mobility. Ria de Alvor is one of the best Algarve nature reserves for families, as you can have a little wander than spend time on the beach afterwards.

Rocha da Pena National Reserve

Deep in the Algarve countryside, the Rocha da Pena offers one of the region’s most dramatic hiking routes, a craggy limestone escarpment home to a stunning variety of biodiversity and topped with a red-earth plateau.

If you are walking here, it’s vital to stick to the trail to avoid damaging fragile plants such as native daffodils, peonies and bee orchids. There are some 450 different plant species growing on the Rocha da Pena, while the trees and bushes provide hidey-holes for Iberian Green Woodpeckers and warblers, as well as birds of prey including eagles, vultures, buzzards and owls. Other creatures that make the Rocha da Pena their home include foxes, badgers, mongooses, hedgehogs and hares, while bat colonies can be found in caves.

Climbing is popular here as well as walking, and you’ll often see local people out and about gathering nuts from the trees.
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Guadiana Valley Natural Park

The Guadiana Valley Natural Park runs along the Algarve’s border with Spain and continues into Alentejo. It’s great for walking – old watermills and villages dot the riverbanks, backed by plantations of olives, cork and grapevines. Roadside stalls sell boxes of delicious mushrooms. Little and greater bustards roam the grasslands, while in the skies you might see golden eagles and Spanish imperial eagles, vultures and red kites. The Iberian lynx is also found here.

In spring, when in full flow, the Pulo de Lobo (Wolf’s Leap) is an impressive sight – the highest waterfall in southern Portugal. However, it gets seriously hot here in high summer, with parched desert-like scenery, so if you’re planning to walk for more than a few hours between July and September then it needs careful planning.

Southwest Alentejo & Vicentina Coast Natural Park

Southwest Alentejo and Vicentina Coast Natural Park spans 100km from Porto Covo in Alentejo to Burgau in the Algarve. Some of the most dramatic sections of the long-distance Fisherman’s Trail pass through the park, and the scenery here in the far southwest of the Algarve is truly jaw-dropping. It includes the Cabo de São Vicente – the beam from the lighthouse here is among the most powerful in Europe and can be seen from ships up to 60km away.

Windswept walking trails thread steep 100m-high limestone cliffs pounded by the Atlantic. Plants live in the crevices, while down below the beaches are popular with experienced surfers who relish the huge rolling waves. You can walk through wildflower meadows too, and pine woodlands where wild boar rustle in the undergrowth.

White storks nest on seashore rocks, something they do nowhere else, while the other birdlife includes booted and sea eagles, choughs and, in spring, Egyptian vultures. This is also one of the few places in Europe where otters can be found in a marine habitat.

Visit Southwest Alentejo and Vicentina Coast Natural Park on Wednesday afternoons to see the museum and visitor centre which explore the area’s significance to Portuguese maritime history and the ‘Age of Discovery’ when European ships mapped much of the world, and paved the way for colonial expansion.

Responsible Travel would like to thank VisitAlgarve for their sponsorship of this guide.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: sighmanb]  [Intro: Jose Prego] [Ria de Alvor Nature Reserve: Notafly] [Caminho de Baleeira Nature Reserve: Kolforn] [Southwest Alentejo & Vicentina Coast Natural Park: Serge Fenenko]