What’s it like to live on an island in the Ria Formosa? Enjoy the Algarve finds out. Spoiler: during the change from fishing heritage to tourist settlements, and even despite the current demolition threats, the overall feeling of ‘being away from it all’ remains.
No cars. Sand in your shoes. Away from the mainland. Surrounded by water. Sharing this slice of paradise with chameleons, seahorses and thousands of bird species. Sounds too good to be true? It isn’t. In fact, it’s right here in the Algarve. Ria Formosa (translation: beautiful coastal inlet / beautiful river), a protected natural park since 1987, consists of over 18.000ha of estuary and wetland. Seen from east to west, it starts with the Cacela peninsula, the five actual islands of Cabanas, Tavira, Armona, Culatra and Barreta, and ends with the Ancão peninsula. All open to exploration as regular ferries and boat tours make even the deserted Barreta (aka Ilha Deserta, continental Portugal’s southernmost point) accessible – as long as you don’t spend the night there. This is, however, possible on the other islands; there are hotels on the peninsulas and campsites on Armona and Ilha de Tavira. In high season, the latter even has a water park in the sea (see below) and beach bars serving everything from a cosmopolitan to a cuba libre. In the old days, island life was a bit different…
Culatra’s resident community still lives off fishing and shellfish farming; octopus hang on washing lines and clams are gathered from the mud
Towards the end of the 19th century, fishermen from the Algarvian mainland were the first to settle in the barrier islands as can be learned from the study ‘Historic Roots for Barrier Island Occupation in the Ria Formosa’ (see side note in the original article). Baptism registers in the parish of Olhão reveal that children of seamen were born on the islands of Armona (the oldest entry was from 1891) and Culatra (where entries date back to 1889). Life was hard in those times, there was no electricity or public water on the islands (these facilities would take about another century to arrive), but the abundance of fish made up for a lot. Living in wooden houses that would face their fishing structures, the island inhabitants would fish for tuna and sardines. Alternatively, they’d take out their saveiros or lanchas, as the traditional small open fishing boats were called, to catch mackerel.
Although the boats now all have a motor and the wooden island shacks have, in some places, been replaced with concrete buildings, the traditional way of living continues to exist. At least in Culatra, where the resident community (consisting of around 700 permanent inhabitants) still makes their money with fishing and shellfish farming. Octopus hang out to dry on washing lines and at low tide, clams are gathered from the mud. Culatra and the other islands shelter the lagoon from the Atlantic’s breaking waves; thus ensuring a calm environment which is ideal for clam and shellfish farming. All over the Ria Formosa there are signposted and marked clam fields (look for poles sticking out of the water), which means that someone has paid for a licence to search for clams there. If that someone isn’t you, leave them alone. But ones that aren’t marked, are public and you’re allowed to gather up to 1 kilo a day there. Which is quite an achievement for the novice fisherman, we’re assured by a sailor. The experienced fishermen, though, easily gather this amount and more. It’s thought that up to 80% of Portugal’s bivalves (which include clams, oysters, cockles, mussels and scallops) are produced in the Ria Formosa. Also fish is farmed in the lagoon, mainly sea bream and sea bass.
Rather than opening a packet of crisps, he’s gathering some oysters from the lagoon
‘The best reason to become a fisherman? You’re allowed to have a house on Culatra.’ This is what Algarvians yearning for a place on the island used to say. But how far is this saying still true? Some of the houses on the Ria Formosa islands are considered illegal. Earlier this year, fishermen whose families have lived, in some cases for decades, in the villages of Hangares (in the middle of Culatra) and Farol (on the western end) have once again been handed eviction notes. In February and March, several buildings on the island have been marked in order to be demolished. Naturally the residents weren’t exactly happy with the planned demolitions and the prospect of being made homeless, so maritime police was present to ensure protests didn’t escalate. These are the most recent developments, but the battle of the Ria Formosa islands has been going on for over a decade, with the company Polis Litoral Ria Formosa claiming it’ll restore and upgrade the area and islanders fearing for the destruction of their homes and heritage so a new luxury resort and harbour could be built in their place. (Interested in all the ins and outs of this ongoing conflict? Check out the reports by Algarve Daily News).
On Armona, it’s the second home owners that fear for their houses. Less of a fishermen’s community, and more of a tourist one, this island has a predominantly seasonal population (many people in the summer, less in the winter). On the eastern end of the island, which is deserted in winter, every summer a few beach bars get built up, whereas the western end features permanent buildings. There’s a big diversity in these houses; some are completely covered in tiles, whereas others have shells plastered all over their walls. A couple neglected, a handful abandoned, a few for sale. The variety in gardens is just as big: there are ones that are completely filled with anchors and life buoys, others that consist only of sand, hammocks and hippie-style dreamcatchers or are even entirely filled with palm trees. But all are amazing. Face it; you’re on an island, maximum distance to the sea 1 kilometre. The only disadvantage is that the sandy grounds aren’t great for growing fruits and vegetables. So what do you do if you fancy an afternoon snack and there’s no Continente in sight? Right, get into the sea. Luís Argel (36) has decided to do just that. Rather than opening a packet of crisps, he’s gathering up some oysters to have with a squeeze of lemon and a couple of beers before the real BBQ action starts. Dressed top to toe in a wetsuit, fins on his feet, he snorkels around Armona’s lagoon, looking amidst the sea vegetation for wild oysters and sea snails to pick up from the ground.
First, only a handful of people lived on Armona in the winter. It was fishing or nothing
“Actually, we normally fish at night; conditions are better as that’s when the fish come close to the shore looking for food,” he reveals. When the night falls, he walks into knee-deep water, an underwater torch on a stick in his left hand, a spear in his right, looking for octopus and cuttlefish. Luís lives on Armona permanently. He spends half of the year working with tourists and the other six months as a fisherman. “I’m lucky; there are only three or four other fishers on this island. Living off fishing can be hard at times. Then again, last night I caught 9 kilo cuttlefish and 1 kilo whelk (sea snail) in only three hours, which I then sold to the restaurants for €10 a kilo. If every night would be like this, I’d make the average Portuguese wage in working just five days a month!” It isn’t though. Sure, there are mild clear nights with a smooth sea when Luís is walking his route together with a friend, talking while working. But when there’s too much wind, fishing isn’t possible. And when it’s cold outside, walking around in the dark with water almost coming up to your hips doesn’t sound very appealing either.
Hence why Luís only fishes when he isn’t working as a guide. He started working with tourists in Vilamoura, but as tourism in the Eastern Algarve increased and the Ria Formosa slowly became known with holiday makers as well, he moved back to his island. In the past, he worked for boat tours, but this season he’s planning to start his own business, selling ice-creams and cold drinks from a ship. “I’ll call it the Ice Dream Boat,” he enthuses, “I’ve already got permission sorted for both Armona and Culatra. First, only a handful of people lived on Armona in the winter. It was fishing or nothing. Nobody spoke English. Now you see more foreigners, especially Germans and English.”
No traffic jams, no red lights, no speeding tickets. Plus, loads of parking space for your boat
A true islander, Luís knows all about the ilhas da Ria Formosa. As a little boy he already lived on Armona and even though he spent time on the mainland, in Olhão and Faro, he returned. “Living on the island is great. There’s no noise, so you sleep really well at night. And also no traffic jams, no red lights, no speeding tickets. Plus, loads of parking space for your boat,” he grins. “A couple of years ago, I lived in Paris (France). I had all the paperwork arranged and a full time contract. But there was just too much concrete. And one day, I woke up in a fog. Fair enough, I thought, in August there are also days with fog in the Algarve, sometimes so thick you can’t even see Olhão anymore. But this wasn’t sea-fog, it was air pollution. That moment I decided to go straight back to Armona, where the air is clear.”