Trekking on Madeira Island

Text & photos: Erik Pontoppidan, Copenhagen, Denmark


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Click HERE to see my digital photo gallery from Madeira from September, 2002

You like other atlantic islands?

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Above: From Boca do Risco on the north coast of Madeira. A dramatic, but incredible scenery!


Why is trekking on Madeira something very special? How comes that the island is one of the most fantastic trekking places I have ever visited?

That question is hard to answer with few words, but I try: Because of the climate, the landscape and the levadas!

Madeira is walkable all year round, and it is never too hot or too cold. Just all right. And the landscape is fantastic! In fact, you will find panoramas and vegetation from many different parts of the world gathered on this amazing island.

And then, of course, there is the irrigation canals or the levadas, as they are called in portuguese. I will return to them later. The levadas offer a unique chance to trek everywhere on the island. Through remote villages, through natural sceneries with exotic flowers, into the bottom of secret, narrow gorges and through tunnels with a length measured in kilometers, where the exit is often visible as a tiny dot in the far distance!


Left: Climbing from the inn Pousada dos Vinhaticos to the high plateau Paul da Serra.
Right: The trail from Pico Ruivo to the Encoumeada pass.

A little geography and facts

Madeira belongs to Portugal and is a small island in the Atlantic Ocean, 900 km sw. from Lisboa and about 500 km north of the Canary Islands. It has app. 260.000 inhabitants, with app. 130.000 living in Funchal, the capital, and the rest mainly in the coastal areas.

The island is incredibly mountainous almost everywhere. The highest point is Pico Ruivo (1.860 m) in the middle of an adventuruos area with narrow gorges and vertical rocks. All the island derives from vulcanic activity thousands of years ago. In the central highlands, you find a high plateau called Paul da Serra, about 1.400 meters above sea level - a flat plateau inhabited by sheep, grass and heather making a strong contrast to the steep, surrounding mountains.

Proceeding further westwards from Paul da Serra, you will find the very steep and narrow gorge Ribera de Janela, ending at the north coast of Madeira - a completely inaccessible place except if you trek along the levadas leading into it.

Finally a few words about the coastal areas: Almost the entire coast-line of Madeira is made of stony beaches and vertical rocks, so don't expect to find white, sandy beaches. If you want good beaches, you should take a plane or boat to the small neighbouring island Porto Santo. Porto Santo is completely different from Madeira, and its main attraction is an app. 8 km perfect sandy beach.

In other words, you will find a tremendous variety of natural landscapes on Madeira - not to speak of the natural and cultivated flora! Around the villages in the lowlands, you find bananas and sugar cane, wines and a lot of exotic fruits. At the higher altitudes, there are forests of eucalyptus and mimoses, and above 1.200 meters grass, bushland and heather dominates. Everywhere along the roads and the levadas there are blooming hortensias, lilies, etc, and everywhere, you hear the sound of springs running among mosses, onions and orchids. Altogether impressions, which makes you feel like going back again and again.

And now a little about trekking! It's a litte hard to describe for those who have never been to Madeira because the landscape is incomparable to most places - or you might put it in the way that Mareira contains bits of landscapes from several places in the world. The mountains are very compact and look completely inaccessible from the far distance, but many of the trails can be used without problems provided that you are not suffering from vertigo. This is no exaggeration but must be taken seriously. You will often find paths cut in the vertical rocks in a way which sometimes reminds me of the expeditions of Donald Duck or Tin-Tin in the Andes: A narrow shelf with a sheer abyss at one side and a steep or impending wall to the other side. Often, the trail disappears into tunnels measured in kilometers!

Levadas

One of the things making Madeira so special for trekking is the so-called levadas or irrigation canals. Levadas are canals carved into the steep rocks, winding their ways horizontally through the mountains like an altitude curve on a map at almost the same level. The reason why the levadas are walkable is that small paths are always built along the canals because these must be maintained by workers. These wonderful paths will lead you through peaceful landscapes of an incredible beauty and into the bottom of secret gorges, and very often they are surrounded by blooming flowers all year round because of the close running water. They are streching all around the island for hundreds of kilometers, and they have been built for centuries, requiring extremely hard and dangerous work. In the old days, they were the only ways of communications for the inhabitants.

Left: Levada near Pousada dos Vinhaticos.
Right: Rabacal at the gorge Ribera de Janela, West-Madeira.

The purpose of the levadas is to collect the water from the mountains, where the majority of the rain falls, and lead it to the fertile soil in the lowlands. They are essential for the agriculture on the island. You can walk for hours along the winding levadas, and every curve reveals new, astonishing wiews. Don't be surprised, if the levada suddenly disappears into a long, dark tunnel, but remember to bring a torch with fresh batteries! The tunnels may vary in length from a few meters to several kilometers! Since they are normally carved in a straight line through the mountains, you will often see the exit as a tiny dot in the darkness - a very adventurous experience!

If you belong to the curious type, who are determined to explore the very source of the water, you have to be prepared for hours of walking. During my first Madeira-visit, I followed a levada for 4 1/2 hours. After several long and sinister tunnels and lonesome gorges it came to an end at a waterfall, and since the time was late in the afternoon, I had to stay out there for the night and return the same way the next morning!

A little practical information

Talking about guide books for trekking, no Madeira trekker should leave without the guide book"Landscapes of Madeira in the Sunflower Books Series. It is frequently published in new editions and contains a great number of treks detailed described with informative maps and lots of practical information. By the way, the "Landscape" - series has specialized in descriptions of walks at many of the famous destinations like Mallorca, Tenerife, Crete, Cyprus, etc.

Best seasons for trekking

You may trek on Maderia all year round. The climate is mild all the time, thanks to the close, warm Gulf-stream in the Atlantic Ocean. At sea level, the average temperature is not below 15 centigrades in January-February and about 21-22 centigrades in July-August. But of cause, it's colder in the highlands. March and November are the rainiest months as an average. From May to September, there is only a little rain, and in July-August, there is virtually no rain at all apart from a little mist and moisture in the passing clouds. From October to February, there is 5-7 average days with rain during a month.

As a conclusion, Madeira is walkable all year round, but if you want to be sure of sunny days, you should go there during the summer.

From the flower market in Funchal.

This was a small appetizer for one of my favorite destinations. I have visited Madeira several times, and, in fact, I already have persuaded quite a few friends to go there! When you travel to new places on holidays, it often happens, that you get disappointed, because your expectations are too high. If you love trekking and nature, I am sure that this will not happen to you on Madeira.





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