Ria Formosa: yomping from Vila Real to Tavira

Vila Real looks completely different to most Algarvian cities

After a good night’s sleep, we were looking forward to our return walk to Tavira along the beaches and the Ria Formosa.

Hailing from Newport, Wales, I feel pretty well-informed about tides – the River Usk has the highest tidal range of any city in the world. So when Harri explained how tides and timing would be key to the success of today’s 31-kilometre yomp I took him seriously. There were apparently six ‘rivers’ to cross between Vila Real and Tavira – had he mentioned this previously? – with each presenting a potential challenge depending on the precise time we were attempting to traverse it.

We had our first-ever meal in the Algarve in Vila Real’s beautiful square

Thus, the delicious breakfast at the Hotel Apolo wasn’t the leisurely affair it might have been and soon after nine we were pounding the beautiful calçada portuguesa alongside the Guadiana river. Vila Real de Santo António was built on a grid system after the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 (when the municipality’s main town Cacela was destroyed) and this, coupled with the uniformity of many of its handsome buildings, makes it feel very different to other coastal cities like Tavira, Albufeira and Lagos. We have a soft spot for Vila Real – the city being the first overnight stop we ever made in the Algarve – if it was closer we’d definitely visit more often.

Looking upriver towards Ayamonte in Spain

Harri and I have always found borders absolutely fascinating and the Guardiana provides an unequivocal south-east border between Portugal and Spain. If we’d had more time, we’d have been happy to hop on the ferry to Ayamonte, just to soak in the lively Spanish atmosphere in the main square.

Instead, we were heading downriver to the most south-easterly point in Portugal, where the Guadiana flows into the Gulf of Cádiz and the longest beach in the Algarve begins (maybe it’s not, but we can’t think of any longer stretch of sand along Portugal’s southern coast).

There’s something quite special about the Guadiana river

The tide was quietly ebbing as we headed downriver. At between 0.8 and 3.5 metres, the tidal range here is miniscule compared to the Usk’s phenomenal range (a 14.5 metre difference between low and high tide has been recorded) and meant far less glistening alluvial silt, aka mud.

We passed dilapidated buildings, old warehouses perfectly located for development yet windowless and daubed with graffiti. When we reached the boatyard, our route swerved away from the river and followed the perimeter of Mata Nacional das Dunas Litorais, the delightful stone pine forest we’d walked through yesterday. Two bored dogs came rushing over barking but soon lost interest.

The tidal range of the Guadiana isn’t huge

The last stretch of river walking was along a raised dyke protected by sea-facing boulders – the salt marshlands to our right a reminder of how vulnerable this low-lying estuarial landscape would be if sea levels rise as anticipated.

The beach was wide and busier than we’d expected along the water’s edge. Several people strode past us and faded into the distance.

Me at the most south-easterly point of the Portuguese mainland

There is no doubt this is a stunning and unspoilt stretch of coastline. In fact, until you reach Monte Gordo the backdrop to the beach is just dunes and stone pines, with the occasional wooden beach bar. The beach itself is so wide that at low tide there was a stretch of shallow water dividing the sand bar closest to the sea and the softer sand higher up. The ocean itself was calm and breathtakingly clear. We skipped and jumped the various rivulets, bewitched by the speed at which the sanderlings ran past.

Just before we reached Monte Gordo, we removed our shoes to make paddling easier, but we were soon putting them on again. Whether it was the wet, compacted sand or the fact our feet were aching from yesterday, we weren’t sure, but heck did we slow down when we were barefoot walking.

Beach walking is good for the spirit

It was strange to be passing the same deserted resorts we’d walked through yesterday, yet this time barely noticing them as they were located so far back from the beach. Harri pondered why the Caminho Nascente couldn’t have joined the coast at Altura and stuck with it until the far side of Monte Gordo. It would have been a huge improvement on the decision to stick with the Ecovia.

Passing Monte Gordo … look at the width of the beach!

After around 10 km of beach walking we left the beach at Manta Rota. Had we continued following the ocean’s edge, we’d have been heading along the Peninsula de Cacela, which like all peninsulas has no onward thoroughfare.

We were now approaching the Ria Formosa, one of the seven wonders of Portugal and one of the largest coastal lagoons on the Iberian peninsula. We have visited Faro and Tavira Islands in the past, but never walked this particular stretch of coastline.

Looking back towards Monte Gordo

Harri glanced at his iPad and realised we’d somehow managed to ‘cross’ one of the rivers without even noticing it – I very much hoped this was a sign of things to come.

We passed a busy campervan park, crossed river number 2 on a nice solid wooden bridge and headed across a sandy landscape of prickly pears back to the coast – this time joining the Ria Formosa coastline rather than the open sea.

Harri on a particularly prickly section of footpath heading back to the coast

River number 3 came immediately before we reached Cacela Velha and posed no problem. It seemed my earlier concerns had been unjustified, just as they had on day 2 of the Via Algarviana when I worried myself silly about crossing the Foupana. River crossings in this part of the world were clearly a doddle.

We were just congratulating ourselves on our good luck when Harri realised the ‘river’ we’d just crossed wasn’t the one he’d been concerned about. Thankfully, the ‘right’ river proved equally navigable, although another hour and it might have been a different story because the tide was now rapidly filling the inlets.

So far so good … though the tide is coming in

Algarve Tips has some fascinating information about this section of the Ria Formosa, explaining how the coastal landscape dramatically changed after a storm in 2010.

Anyone know what kind of bird this is?

We stopped to eat below the fortress, our legs dangling over the crumbling cliff as we keenly followed the fortunes of a solitary wading bird in the waters below, surprised when it failed to notice a shoal of fish swimming close by. Half an hour later, I tried to stand up and found my legs didn’t want to co-operate.

Walking below Cacela Velho

Without a caminho to follow, Harri had decided we’d stick as close to the water as possible, which meant we were now walking along a narrow sandy beach with a fast-filling and very beautiful lagoon to our left. Now, when I wanted nothing more than to linger, admire and snap some pics, it seemed we needed to seriously pick up the pace.

What a magical landscape

My heart sank when we reached river number 5. This required the shoes-and-socks-off kind of wading across a stony riverbed laced with thick, black slime. A kind Portuguese lady walking in the opposite direction handed me the stick she’d used to steady herself. I took a deep breath and stepped into the cold water, focusing on staying upright.


The landscape here on the Ria Formosa is quite spectacular. There was just one little problem … the tide was coming in fast. When Harri plotted the walk he thought we’d be following a track above the beach, now he was seriously concerned that our water’s edge route was about to disappear.

Our last river crossing of the day was less about water and more about slippery grass and stones; however, with Harri’s help I managed to get across without falling.

Harri was setting a fair pace

With around an hour and a half to go until high tide, we were reassured when we spotted Cabanas in the distance. The sandy track was now disappearing and reappearing and, on several occasions, we were forced to hunt for a higher route through rushes and vegetation.

What a perfect view

After a particularly pretty footpath through trees, we reached the magnificent Forte de São João da Barra, now a hotel with its grounds fenced off, and were forced back to lagoon level to cover the final stretch into Cabanas (which was far prettier at high tide).

We left town on a slightly different route to yesterday, but had no option but to rejoin the Ecovia for the final stretch into Tavira. The early evening light was delightful and almost made me forget my aching feet.

Cabanas with the tide in

The weekend hadn’t been an all-out success – we really don’t understand why the Caminho Nascente between Tavira and Vila Real religiously follows the Ecovia (which was clearly never intended for hiking) when there are far better options for walkers – but today had been a good walking day. The Ria Formosa is a great place to slow down, enjoy nature and reflect on life … we’ll definitely be returning again soon.

A ferry heading up the Gilão river towards Tavira


PS Harri insists the crossings are not proper rivers so please don’t be put off from walking this magical stretch of coastline.




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