Wildlife of the Algarve

With five special protection areas (a birding initiative), eight special areas of conservation, two natural parks and one natural reserve – not to forget its sea life – the Algarve is one of the most flora- and fauna-rich regions of the country. The purple gallinule (aka the western swamphen or sultana bird) is one of Europe’s rarest and most nattily turned-out birds – a large violet-blue water creature with a red bill and legs. In Portugal it only nests in a patch of wetland spilling into the exclusive Quinta do Lago estate, at the western end of the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa, 12km west of Faro. Look for it near the lake at the estate’s São Lourenço Nature Trail.

Another eye-catching Algarve resident is the Mediterranean chameleon, a 20cm- to 35cm-long reptile with independently moving eyes, a tongue longer than its body and skin that mimics its environment. It's the only chameleon found in Europe, its habitat limited to Crete and the Iberian Peninsula. Your best chance of seeing this shy creature is on spring mornings in the Quinta Marim area of the Parque Natural da Ria Formosa or in Monte Gordo’s conifer woods, now a protected habitat for the species.

Bird-lovers should consider a trip to the Serra do Caldeirão foothills. The dramatic Rocha da Pena, a 479m-high limestone outcrop, is a classified site because of its rich flora and fauna. Orchids, narcissi and native cistus cover the slopes, where red foxes and Egyptian mongooses are common. Among many bird species seen here are the huge eagle owl, the Bonelli’s eagle and the buzzard.

There’s a centro ambiental (environmental centre) in Pena village, and you can walk up to the top of Rocha itself.

Environmental Issues

Many of Portugal's tourism dollars come from the Algarve. Tourist numbers are not made up of international travellers alone; local visitors compose a large part of the industry – numerous Portuguese have homes in this sun-kissed region – and many expats have moved here permanently. The massive influx of visitors has led to ongoing heavy development along much of the Algarve’s southern coastline. While the Algarve’s tourism industry provides work – albeit seasonal – to thousands of people, especially the young, some argue that the departure of Portuguese from their villages has caused irreversible disintegration of traditions and village life. Concerns have also been raised about the impact on the environment resulting from the construction of large (mainly concrete) hotels, apartments, shops and restaurants, and the building of major roads. Destruction of coastal areas, including cliffs and beaches, and pressure on water resources are among the issues cited. And while construction is said to be controlled, it is not always sensitive to its surroundings.

Since the turn of the 21st century, tourism authorities have focused their efforts on promoting special-interest activities beyond sun, surf and sand. Through this positive initiative, the region’s spectacular nature, walks and inland villages have increasingly been highlighted; however, it has also seen thousands flock to visit some of the Algarve’s 50-plus golf courses, which have a major environmental impact on an already stressed region. Some courses have adopted environmentally friendly maintenance practices.

When visiting the Algarve think carefully about the impact of your visit on this sensitive region: head inland (responsibly), be selective about the enterprises you choose and consider the impact of the activities you undertake.

The Algarve Tourism Board (www.visitalgarve.pt/en) has some excellent resources to help you find ecofriendly operators, including details of nature trails and cross-country day (or shorter) hikes.

Algarvian Geography

The Algarve's coastline is 155km long and can be roughly categorised into distinct areas: the leeward coast (Sotavento), from Vila Real de Santo António to Faro, is largely fronted by a chain of sandy offshore ilhas (islands); the central coast, from Faro to Portimão, features the heaviest resort development; the progressively rockier windward coast (or Barlavento) from Lagos to Sagres culminates in the wind-scoured grandeur of the Cabo de São Vicente, Europe’s southwesternmost corner; the Costa do Ouro (Golden Coast) borders the Costa de Sagres (Bay of Sagres); and the Costa Vicentina stretches for 110km north of Sagres and is part of the windy, wild Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano e Costa Vicentina.

Elsewhere, in the hilly, thickly green interior, are two high mountain ranges, the Serra de Monchique and less-visited Serra do Caldeirão.