The Incredible Landscapes of Madeira:
Madeira is a dynamic and breathtaking Portuguese island off the coast of Africa. It’s only 35 miles long and 14 miles wide, but has a plethora of amazing landscapes to explore, from mountains to ancient forests to terraced valleys and dramatic coastlines.
This photo essay is a tribute to the beauty of this small, awe-inspiring island. Sitting in the North Atlantic Ocean, in a Mediterranean climate, it’s a relatively undiscovered oasis for the landscape and nature lover. Andy and I were taken by the island from the moment we set out on our first hike, and recommend a visit for everyone, especially if you love the outdoors.
Check out the photos below of Madeira’s incredible varied landscapes.
This is the mountainous Encumeada valley in the centre of Madeira.
Madeira is a volcanic island. Like many islands around the world it owes its existence to a shield volcano sat deep beneath the ocean. As lava builds up and spreads out across the ocean floor, it creates an island. The island then grows larger and taller over thousands of years, until it projects out from the ocean and even forces up dramatic mountain ranges.
Due to it’s unique geography, there are no sandy beach on Madeira, only rocky basalt ones, and there’s little flat land to speak of. Instead, Madeira’s landscapes undulate, ripple, and heave from one side of the island to the other. The land rises up into craggy hills and drop down into steep forested valleys. Everywhere you look is dramatic and beautiful- it’s one of the best things about Madeira!
And the architecture is amazing too. With so little flat land available, farms have been built into the side of hills using a series of cascading terraces. Motorways bore through the giant mountains, and sit on concrete stilts suspended above the valleys below. Driving through Madeira is certainly a unique experience! Especially when those same roads begin to narrow and wind their way to the top of the high peaks, where small villages perch.
The road network crisscrossing Madeira’s lush valleys and climbing up the hillsides. Traditional houses are scattered across the landscape.
The beautiful stepped farmland of the high hills of West Madeira. The terraces grow everything from vegetables to grapes for their famous wine! Check out that narrow winding road too – you get very good at reversing when driving in Madeira.
A hazy view of a small village in the East of Madeira with wind turbines in the foreground. You’ll see plenty of these across Madeira- contributing an important source of renewable clean energy.
Ancient Laurisilva ForestAs well as farmland on Madeira’s hillsides, you’ll also find UNESCO listed Laurisilva (laurel) forest. In fact, 20% of the island is made up of this rare and ancient type of forest, 90% of which is primary forest. This means it is forest that remains untouched by man, in it’s primal and original state.
Laurisilva forest used to cover much of Southern Europe 40 million years ago. It’s a rich and diverse type of forest, home to many different plants, mosses and animals. One of the most essential features of the forest is to maintain hydrological balance on Madeira. As a mountainous island, it experiences a lot of rainfall, which is processed and distributed by the forest ecosystem.
There are many different hikes you can go on through this beautiful and mystical feeling forest. They show you it’s beauty close up (the trees seem to twist and dance around the paths), and offer amazing views of the lush laurisilva valleys too.
The almost mystical and haunting trees of the laurisilva forest. In the early morning the area was foggy and quiet, and it honestly felt quite magical to be there.
Descending into the laurisilva forest from the top of the valley.
These were the spectacular views offered on the winding path down.
Another view of the breathtaking laurisilva forest sprawling across Madeira’s craggy hills.
Throughout the section of laurisilva forest where you can hike, you’ll find pathways following concrete troughs. You can just see one in the photo below, winding past the waterfall. These are known as levadas, and many hikes on Madeira island are known as levada walks.
Levadas are an old and still used irriagation system across Madeira. Concrete rivers follow the path of water down from the mountains, directing it across farmland. You find many levadas in the laurisilva forest as the area is so humid. It is full of waterfalls too!
To discover more about hiking in Madeira, including some of the best hikes and levada walks to do, head to this article next.
A beautiful waterfall flowing into a levada on a hike through the Laurisilva forest.
The view back towards the Madeiran mainland, showing a small Volcanic beach sheltered by the cliffs.
As an island, Madeira has its far share of coastline. You’ll find lush coastlines, gradually descending to the sea with a smattering of houses. You’ll also find rust red coastlines, a result of the volcanic origin on the island. And you’ll find steep cliffs that drop suddenly away into the Atlantic Ocean below.
There is also a coastal road in Madeira – the ER101, which circumnavigates it’s way around the whole island. It is a notorious road: narrow, sometimes on the edge of cliffs, and prone to falling boulders! It’s actually one of the most dangerous (and scenic) roads in the world! It was closed when Andy and I visited.
But we did drive along the more modern and safer roads that circle the island a little closer inland. There are many natural wonders to see along Madeira’s extensive coast, including the odd waterfall or two!
A waterfall we came across at the side of the modern roads circling Madeira’s coast. You can see the tunnel that cuts through the mountain, and next to it a section of the closed ER101 coastal road hugging the side of the cliff!
The incredible turquoise pools and rock formations along the coastline near Porto Moniz. You can see Madeira’s hillscapes in the background.
The most beautiful section of the whole coastline for us was Sao Lourenco, the rust red peninsula. The reason for the lands colour here is due to iron oxide. There is lots of iron in the rock from the shield volcano below the sea, and that iron has boned with oxygen to produce iron oxide (aka rust). This turns the rock a red-orange in colour. It is also streaked with black basalt, giving the land an even more dramatic appearance when coupled with the green carpet of grass. A real artists platelet.
The peninsula is long and thin, jutting out from the east side of the island. It gets its name from the ship sailed by João Gonçalves de Zarco, one of the three captains to first discover Madeira island.
The peninsula is distinctive in appearance due to the strong eastern winds, and the choppy Atlantic Ocean. It has been battered free of vegetation (except some windswept palm trees at the start), and blown into interesting shapes.
The windswept palm trees at the start of the Sao Lourenco peninsula, before it zigzags out into the sea.
The pathway that leads you along the dramatic cliff-side at Sao Lourenco. There’s Andy taking a photo, showing you how vast and towering the cliffs are!
More dramatic cliff scenery on the orange and green landscape at Sao Lourenco.
The ocean eroded rust and basalt stacks along the sao lourenco hike on Madeira’s east coast
Now we’ve looked at coastlines, we have to look at where they end- the Atlantic Ocean. This dark and brooding ocean provides the perfect accompaniment to the dramatic and jaggered cliffs and hills that project into it. The power of it’s waves have eroded away sections of coastline to product interesting rock formations, which are all around the island.
The ones above are found at Ponta de Sao Lourenco at the east side of the island, and the ones in the photo below are found near Porto Moniz in the west.
However, the ocean around Madeira isn’t always dark blue. Sometimes in areas, the water can appear a lighter almost electric blue. This could be caused by coccolithophorids. They are a type of phytoplankton which excel at absorb all light, even blue light, reflecting only a small amount (compared to the rest of the ocean), therefore those areas appear a light, bright blue.
This was even more evident at the coastline by Porto Moniz a little further down the road. When the sun went in, the water churned around the black volcanic rocks and took on an ethereal luminosity, especially compared to the darker ocean around these patches of coccolithophorids. It was incredible. See what you think from the photo below.
The beautiful basalt rock formations all along Madeira’s coastline.
Some of the rock formations have created tiny islands with their own small lighthouse.
The unreal looking water around Porto Moniz on a cloudy day. Andy and I couldn’t believe how blue it looked.
It felt almost magical!
The amazing god rays we saw breaking through the storm clouds over the ocean by Funchal, Madeira’s capital city.
Despite mentioning Madeira’s mountains over and over in this article, there is actually one area of flat land in Madeira- the Paul de Serra plateau. This area of flat land sits in the centre of Madeira at the top of a set of huge mountains.
The plateau is almost 24 square kilometres in size and feels like you’re on a different island. Flat heather plains with gentle rivers, and impossibly long and flat roads flanked by towering wind turbines. You’re close to the sun at 1600m above sea level, so it’s hotter and drier than the lush valleys below. It’s an amazing place to explore.
If you want to learn more about the amazing hikes found here, head to my article on: Everything You Need To Know About Walking in Madeira.
Reaching Paul de Serra is not a feat for the faint-hearted though! It takes an hour long dirve winding up the side of immense mountains, with narrow roads seperated from the steep drop by a series of stumpy concrete bollards. It was exhilerating and terrifying (for Andy, who was driving), but so worth it for the views!
You can see how high were were in the photo directly below. We arrived just at sunrise to see its golden light illuminating the cloud layer, which we had driven above to reach the plateau!
We had driven to the top of the lofty plateau in time to see the sun rise above the cloud layer. We felt like we were on top of the world!
The heather scrub land found on the flat plains of the Paul de Serra plateau.
So finally we come to mountains. If you love mountains, you have to come to Madeira. It’s the place I fell in love with them. The place I realised how extraordinary it feels to stand above the clouds and look down on how tiny our incredible world is. There’s nothing quite being high up above nature to help you appreciate its beauty.
There is a mountain ridge all across the centre of Madeira known as the central mountain massif. It’s ecologically unique, home to alpine plants and animals, and is absolutely stunning. You can climb many of the peaks that exist along this central range, including Pico Ruivo, the highest peak on Madeira. At 1,862 metres above sea level it offers some impressive views, and usually a whole lot of fog before you reach the top!
Andy and I hiked to the peak of Pico Ruivo, through thick fog, which parted for only 30 minutes at the summit to reward us with breathtaking views. From here, we could have then hiked to the third highest peak on Madeira, Pico Arieiro (1,818 m), along the spine of the Central Mountain Massif.
This is a challenging 10km walk that I’d have loved to do. But you are faced with thin paths very steep drops, and Andy’s fear of heights meant we didn’t dare tackle it. I’d recommend giving it ago if your fitness and nerves allow it though as it sounded amazing!
Gemma next to a levada, looking down over the terraced farmland below on a levada walk.
The cloudy silhouettes over Pico Ruivo before the fog cleared to give us the view above. It was so windy and cold up there!
The path near the bottom of the 2.8km hike up Pico Ruivo. The landscape was eerie and silent, shrouded in mist all the way to the very top. It was a cool experience having so little visibility (it felt like we were in a horror move though!)
Final Thoughts on Madeira
So this concluded my photo essay and dedication to the beautiful and diverse landscapes of Madeira, one of our favourite islands in the world. It is full of surprises and the perfect place for mountain and landscape lovers to holiday. Great weather, affordable, and over 20 different hiking trails to choose from. Plus, I haven;t even mentioned how delicious the famous Madeira wine is! Let’s just say, it’s glorious.
If you are look for a nature holiday is Europe, then definitely consider Madeira. With so much natural diversity, it’s the ideal place to visit all year round. Andy and I are already planing our return to explore even more of this tiny volcanic paradise.
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