When it’s below zero and sleet here, it feels great to pack shorts and sleeveless running shirts in your travel bag and fly to Madeira – because on this Atlantic island, it’s spring all year round! Madeira is a dreamlike paradise to discover and marvel at, especially for hikers and lovers of the natural world.
The evergreen island attracts sun-seeking Europeans with its mild climate, especially in the winter months. Together with its neighbouring island Porto Santo, Madeira is part of the “Ilhas Desertas” group of islands off the Moroccan coast. Madeira is part of Portugal and the name of the island means “wood” in Portuguese. Twenty percent of the island is covered by “laurisilva”, the laurel forest. As the island, unlike Central Europe, was spared from the Ice Age, it has been able to sustain a unique diversity of plants.
As well as laurel forest, heather forest, juniper and countless flowers cover the steep landscape. Wild orchids also grow along the edge of the hiking trails. You should avoid picking the beautiful plants at all costs – the island is a UNESCO cultural heritage site for a reason.
The entire island is medium to high mountainous. Madeira’s coastline drops steeply into the sea and Cabo Girao, one of the highest cliffs, is located right next to the capital Funchal. The highest peaks rise in the middle of the island. The highest mountain is Pico Ruivo at 1862 m. Madeira has several mesoclimates. In the north of the island it rains frequently, while the south is sub-tropically warm.
The Levadas – lifelines of the island
Levada – a term inextricably linked with Madeira. These are man-made water channels that carry water from the high-rainfall regions in the north and the centre of the island to the agricultural areas in the drier south – an extremely efficient irrigation system. A levada hike is something every visitor to the island should definitely consider.
In the drier period from April to October, almost every field on the island is irrigated by the water from the levadas. Today, as well as transporting water, these channels are mainly a tourist attraction. The most popular walking trails are along the levadas, which criss-cross the entire island in a network about 2,000 km long. It’s generally easy to find your way, you just follow the water channel. As the canals always run along the landscape, there is something new to discover around every bend. The old dwellings of the Levadeiros, waterfalls and a diverse flora all await exploration.
History of the Levadas in Madeira
The first irrigation canals were built on Madeira as early as the 15th century. 40 years after the island was settled (1461), Prince Ferdinando appointed two men to distribute water. The aim was to channel the large quantities of water from the springs on the steep mountains in the centre of the island down to the slopes and the valleys. From 1650 onwards, the channel system was expanded to supply water for sugar cane cultivation and water mills.
At that time, Madeira was one of the largest producers of sugar cane. African slaves were forced to perform strenuous construction work at dizzying heights. Anyone walking along the canals today, some of which were carved out of bare rock, can imagine the difficult conditions under which they were created. The Moors’ knowledge was crucial for the development and efficient construction of the canals in Madeira, as they already had a lot of experience in building irrigation canals.
The levadas today – hiking, irrigation and energy production
Today, three electricity plants are powered by the flow of the levadas before the water is fed back into the canals for the original purpose of irrigation. The levadas are maintained and cleaned by the “levadeiros”, because the water must always flow evenly. That is why you can always walk on the path next to the canal or on the levada wall.
The extremely low gradient of only one metre per kilometre makes these leisurely walks suitable for everyone. The footpaths along the levadas quickly lead you into the island’s deep valleys and allow you to discover Madeira’s unspoilt landscape. The levadas run through tunnels for a total of 70 kilometres. Some of these can be walked through. Of course, you need a headlamp or torch here. It is often slippery and damp in the tunnels.
Hillwalking on Madeira
Madeira has a very large official hiking trail network, signposted PR1 to PR20. The routes show the diversity of Madeira and are also sometimes contained in tours included in popular hiking guides. These are mostly point-to-point hikes and not circular routes. There are a total of 5 different bus companies on the island to make it easy to get back to the starting point of the hike. At the starting point there is always a detailed sign with an overview map of the trail and useful information. The paths are clearly marked with small wooden signposts with a path number and the name of the route which makes hiking in Madeira very straightforward.
Hikers, trail runners and mountain bikers will all get their money’s worth on Madeira. There are even a few alpine tours with small climbing passages (for example on Pico Grande) on the island, which is only 57 km long and 22 km wide. If you don’t want to go it alone, there are a large number of guided tours to choose from or you can arrange a local hiking guide.
One of the highlights is the multi-day crossing that goes from the north to the south of the island. The Madeira Island Ultra Trail takes place on this route every year. Over 800 runners tackle the 115 km long route including 7,500 metres of altitude and countless steps. Stairs are not just found in shopping centres here. Steps have been laid on many hiking trails because of the steep terrain and to prevent erosion. These make hiking on steep terrain easier and help with ascents and descents, especially in wet conditions.
The top hiking tours on Madeira
With the diversity of towering peaks, unique levadas and romantic laurel forests, it might seem hard to find the real walk highlights of Madeira. However, in my opinion there are a couple of tours that you shouldn’t miss. For all the mountain tours, you should start as early as possible. Around midday, the clouds from the coast often start coming into the mountains and stay there for the rest of the day. So, you can still do the tours, but the views won’t be as good.
Walking tour 1 on Madeira: Boca do Risco
12 km, 300 altitude change in ascent and descent
This adventurous coastal path leads from the old Canical tunnel near Machico to Porto da Cruz. The footpath used to be the fastest connection between the two towns. The “Borracheiros” carried the new wine in tubes made of goatskin along the coast on foot. Along the way, they had to negotiate the “Bocca do Risco”, the dangerous opening.
Hiking trails along the coast are rare in Madeira. This one offers stunning views of the east coast and has lost none of its charm. Up to the “Bocca do Risco” the path runs along a levada that is easy to walk. From the pass onwards, surefootedness and a head for heights are essential. A few places are secured with ropes. Do not walk in stormy weather and rain!
Walking tour 2 on Madeira: from Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo
11 km, 1300 m altitude change in ascent and descent
This spectacular high-altitude trail between the highest peaks of the island offers breath-taking views over the entire island. The three beautiful peaks on this tour were made accessible 50 years ago by a dedicated trail. This very demanding mountain tour should only be undertaken in good weather. There are several tunnels along the way.
You need to be fit enough for the numerous ascents and descents. The trail spectacularly weaves over, through and along the peaks. You can easily get to the starting point of the tour by renting a car and parking next to the dome of the radar on Pico do Arieiro. It’s best to try to get to the mountain as early as possible, before the clouds roll in from the coast. Walking in Madeira is particularly beautiful at sunrise!
Walking tour 3 on Madeira: the Sao Lourenco peninsula
8 km, 400 altitude change in ascent and descent
This steep rocky coast in the easternmost part of the island is very different from the rest of the vegetation on Madeira. Cacti flourish and the palm trees at the lonely hut at the turning point of the tour add a bit of desert feeling. The rugged and romantic coastline is easy to walk along with a well-maintained hiking trail. A few exposed areas are secured with ropes. The short but worthwhile climb to the Morro do Furado is a bit strenuous. After rain, green grass covers the peninsula.
There are several vantage points on both sides, meaning that most hikers always have a camera in hand on this hike. You certainly won’t want to be without one. Along the way, there are two small bays with pebble beaches for swimming in the Atlantic Ocean, both easily accessible by a short descent. As the wind is often strong, you should definitely pack a jacket in your walking backpack, something that is never a bad idea when hillwalking in Madeira!
Walking tour 4 on Madeira: Caldeirao Verde – the “green cauldron”
13 km, mostly flat levada walk
The winding hiking trail along the “Levada do Caldeirao Verde” leads into the green valley and to a spectacular waterfall. In one of the most unspoilt regions of the island, you will cross several tunnels, wander past roaring waterfalls and marvel at the deep views into the valley. The levada is largely cut into a rock face and it is particularly easy to imagine here how elaborate and strenuous the construction of the canals must have been in the 17th century.
The trail, which is well-built and wide at the beginning, narrows as it progresses. Sometimes you walk on the wall along the levada, but there is always a railing. You should definitely pack a head torch for the tunnels. The jungle-like vegetation along the trail will not only delight botanists. There are also all kinds of exotic plants to discover, such as wild orchids. At the end, you can continue to follow the levada into the “Hell’s Cauldron”. There is a large waterfall here too, which narrows even more between the rock walls.
The beautiful and diverse Atlantic island of Madeira is ideal all year round for hiking enthusiasts and mountain lovers seeking warmth. As well as a wide variety of wild summit hikes, relaxed levada walks and long treks through the laurel forest, you can also explore the island by bike. And if it’s not the mountains you’re after, you can also enjoy surfing, the excellent Madeira Wine or strolling through the botanical gardens of the capital Funchal.