The island of Madeira has a unique landscape, with tall volcanic mountains rising from the sea, punctuated by steep, deep valleys. The slopes are covered with lush vegetation, and the mountain-tops are often obscured by mist and dotted with snow. So, with isolated countryside and unparalleled views, hiking in Madeira is both an opportunity and a challenge.
Hiking Trails And Levada Walks
Madeira is criss-crossed with hiking trails. You will find coastal trails (such as the Vereda da Ponta de São Lourenço on the north eastern tip of the island) and inland forest paths. However, for most visitors hiking in Madeira is synonymous with walking the levadas.
Unique to Madeira, the levadas are a series of irrigation channels, bringing water from the mountains to the towns, farms and scattered rural dwellings. Covering a total distance of more than 2,000 km, they were first dug in the 15th century, but they are still very much in use as the island’s prime source of water. However, over time they have acquired a secondary purpose, as the narrow paths beside the levadas have evolved into a network of hiking trails, an amenity for both locals and tourists.
Walking The Levadas
The levada walks give you the opportunity to experience some stunning countryside. However, you need to be aware that the paths are usually narrow, often with uneven ground and beside vertiginous drops to the valleys below. Paths may pass through dark tunnels and, of course, they sometimes involve steep climbs.
For these reasons (and others – see tips for hiking in Madeira below) many tourists choose to walk with a guide. Several companies offer group walks, including transportation to and from your hotel. It is also possible to book a private – and customisable – walk with a guide.
A Guided Levada Walk
I chose a guided walk on the Levada Nova, near Ponta do Sol, with Sunrise Tours. This was a well organised trip, with pickups from different hotels in Funchal, following the levada around the sides of a steep valley. The scenery was quite spectacular, passing through sugar cane country and past streams and small waterfalls. At one point we walked through a tunnel (ducking our heads as we went) and the guide got out his torch.
Although I enjoyed this walk, it would not suit everyone. It was described as “easy”, because it was all on the level, with no ups and downs. However I soon realised that it would not be much fun for anyone who disliked heights, as parts of the trail were quite alarming, with no handrail and steep drops to one side.
Levada Walks For Vertigo Sufferers?
It has to be said that Madeira, with its precipitous slopes, is not necessarily a place for those who suffer from vertigo. I asked Rodrigues, our Sunrise guide, if all levada walks were similar to the Levada Nova in terms of steep drops. Unsurprisingly, many of them are, but he recommended Vale Paraíso (Paradise Valley) or the Levada dos Maroços as places with wider and less threatening paths.
Later in the week I had the chance of a short walk along the Levada Velha, starting from the visitor centre at Ribeiro Frio, in the national forest in the centre of the island. This was an undemanding but pleasant path, easily wide enough for two people to walk side by side. A much better option if you don’t want to have to look down!
Tips For Hiking In Madeira
- The general advice is not to walk in the mountains without an experienced guide. There are unfortunately always one or two deaths each year, as well as walkers who go missing. You can find information about tours at Tourist Information, or book at a booth on the Funchal seafront.
- If you do decide to go it alone, make sure you are properly prepared, with detailed maps, food and water, and a torch for tunnels. You also need to be equipped to stay out overnight if necessary.
- Whether you are on your own or in a group, you need to be aware of the notoriously changeable Madeira weather. Not for nothing is the climate described as “four seasons in one day” – the island has several different microclimates, and the temperature drops by one degree for every hundred metres that you rise. Be prepared for rain, wind or sun – all on the same day! And, of course, good walking shoes or boots are essential.
- Most walks are linear and the end points are not necessarily served by public transport. This is another reason why tours with drivers are popular: if you travel by hire car you may need to book a taxi to return to your start point.
- For a guide to hiking in Madeira have a look at these titles – Madeira: 6 car tours, 100 long and short walks (Sunflower Books) and Walking in Madeira: 60 Routes on Madeira and Porto Santo (Cicerone).