Walking on Madeira: the island that has it all
For many years, Madeira was a place where people went for sunshine and relaxation but, as Paddy Dillon explains, these days it attracts plenty of adventurers who want to explore its rugged mountains and coast.
After several visits to Madeira I’m left with a whirl of experiences. My guidebook Walking on Madeira has been reprinted many times and is now into its third edition. My latest visit gave me an opportunity to catch up on developments, and Madeira is one of those places that changes all the time.
First and foremost, you have to get to Madeira, or at least try. The airport is half cut into a steep slope and half supported on massive concrete pillars over the sea. When the wind picks up, the airport closes and all the inbound flights have to go somewhere else. If you’re lucky, you get taken to neighbouring Porto Santo, the Canary Islands or Portugal. If you’re unlucky you’ll end up back in Britain. My preference is to fly with TAP Air Portugal, rather than a budget operator, because they’ll look after you and guarantee to get you there in the end.
Madeira is famous for its levadas, or artificial watercourses, cut across wooded and cultivated slopes, or even carved into sheer cliff faces.
Most levadas are level, but some are steeply inclined. They vary in width and the narrowest ones could be blocked easily with your foot. Sometimes they offer very easy walking, with the Levada dos Tornos above Funchal often being the first that newcomers discover. Some levadas are only for the most sure-footed walkers with a proven head for heights, such as the fearsome Levada do Curral. Someone falls to their death from levadas on cliff faces every year, but you have to balance that against the thousands of walkers who approach them with due care and caution, or sensibly turn back when they realise such situations are beyond their ability or experience.
Mountain paths are often old, stone-paved mule tracks, while others have been made more recently for tourists. These routes are generally known as veredas, running from village to village or farm to farm. Some even cross the highest mountains on Madeira, from Pico do Areeiro to Pico Ruivo, or from the Boca da Encumeada to Achada do Teixeira. Occasionally, they are cut into sheer cliffs, or feature rugged steps, and any serious uphill walking becomes quite difficult on hot and humid days.
Madeira is honeycombed with tunnels. Many long, narrow tunnels convey water from the wetter northern slopes to the drier southern ones.
Modern road tunnels help the traffic to get around the island without losing time on the incredibly convoluted surface road network, but you miss a lot of splendid scenery by travelling underground.
Be aware that several walking routes pass through tunnels at some point, so it’s always a good idea to pack a torch and spare batteries. Some tunnels are short and easy, while others are long, with low headroom and uneven floors, so you have to watch your feet and your head at the same time. The remote Levada da Serra above Fajã da Nogueira has 10 short tunnels and its narrow parapet path crosses horrendous cliffs. The Levada da Janela has fewer tunnels, but they are longer and wetter, with one of them containing what I refer to as a power shower!
Walkers who visit Madeira find themselves spoilt for choice.
Cautious walkers will find plenty of easy, scenic walks, as well as moderate routes if they want to stretch themselves. Tough walkers will find plenty of very rugged mountain paths and incredibly exposed routes that require considerable care and attention. Anyone planning to spend several weeks exploring should consider a trip to the neighbouring island of Porto Santo for a couple of days, or take an all-day cruise to the Ilhas Desertas. There are 60 walks in the guidebook, so plenty of scope for return trips.
The weather on Madeira allows walking throughout the year, although the peak summer period is too hot and humid for many visitors. Winter weather is cooler and there might be days of rain and low cloud, with occasional snow on the highest peaks. Most days, the best weather is early in the morning, with cloud by evening.
Madeira has been dealt some hard blows in recent years. Catastrophic flooding in 2010 caused loss of life and damage to property, as did forest fires in 2016. Too many areas of forest have been destroyed, including splendid natural laurisilva forests, with invasive broom quickly smothering the burnt areas afterwards. In 2017 a huge tree fell without warning, killing and injuring several people at a festival at Monte, above Funchal. The island is literally crumbling to pieces, so take care.
Firm favourites include a rugged ridge walk onto the Ponta de São Lourenço, the Levada do Caniçal, a cliff coast walk between Porto da Cruz and Ribeira Seca, the Levada do Furado, Levada do Caldeirão Verde and the mountain walk from Pico do Areeiro to Pico Ruivo. That’s just the eastern part of Madeira.
The central parts offer some ferocious mountain walks, with the summit of Pico Grande requiring hands-on scrambling, and the ‘path’ running northwards from it being one of the toughest on the island, used by mountain runners who really want to challenge themselves.
The high plateau of Paúl da Serra offers easy walks, but choose a fine day, because it is one of the first areas to get blanketed in cloud. It is in this remote place that you find the classic short walk to 25 Fontes, while lovers of laurisilva forest should walk the Levada dos Cedros. Out in the west of Madeira, those who want to walk day after day with a running theme should follow the Levada da Calheta – Ponta do Pargo, all the way to Ponta do Sol. In fact, by carefully studying the guidebook, other walks can be linked end to end to cross the whole of Madeira on foot.
While most people automatically hire cars when they travel abroad, this can cause problems on Madeira. The island is steeply sloping and some of the best trails are linear, especially if they start high and head downhill. Returning to a car can be a problem. However, Madeira has a pretty good public transport network and although it can seem complicated, with three companies serving different parts of the island, it soon becomes clear if a bit of time is spent obtaining and studying timetables. The keenest walkers have been using the buses for years to complete the best walks. The bus network was used extensively while researching and re-checking all the walking routes for all three editions of Walking on Madeira.
Whatever you do, I'm sure you will enjoy walking on Madeira, I know I always do.
Paddy Dillon is a prolific walker and guidebook writer with over 90 guidebooks to his name, and contributions to 40 other titles. He has written for several outdoor magazines and other publications, and has appeared on radio and TV. Paddy is an indefatigable long-distance walker who has walked all of Britain’s National Trails and several European trails. He has also walked in Nepal, Tibet, Korea and the Rocky Mountains of Canada and the US. Paddy is a member of the Outdoor Writers and Photographers Guild and President of the Backpackers Club.