Like Porto’s Parque Nacional da Peneda-Gerês, the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa is a Portuguese national treasure created for the preservation of the the Algarve’s unique marshland and its flora and fauna. It encompasses a large lagoon area hugging almost 60 km (37 mi) of coastline between Manta Rota and Vale do Lobo. This lagoon’s diverse topography includes dunes, dune islands, marshland, saltpans and inland lakes. These wetlands are in turn a protected habitat for many species of birds.
What makes this park unique is its two distinct types of wetlands, the salt marshes and the freshwater lagoons. The latter is dotted with observation hides, and bird (and other critter) watching is a popular activity.
In addition to the birds, the park is home to Portuguese water dog kennels. This somewhat rare breed, known for its webbed feet and proclivity for swimming are bred and trained here, saved from the brink of extinction by dedicated dog-lovers and preservers of Portuguese culture.
The park boasts a number of nature trails, and its visitor center, located at Quinta de Marim, about 3 km (1.5 mi) east of Olhão is highly informative. Within the boundaries of the park are the ruins of the Roman town of Balsa. Most of these are inaccessible to visitors as they reside on private property, but five Roman salting plants are available for exploration near the freshwater lagoons. Dating back to the 2nd century, the salted fish produced at these plants were delivered all over the empire.