Everything You Need to Know About Walking in Madeira

Everything You Need To Know About Walking In Madeira


We rolled to a stop in the small car park at Sao Lourenco just before 7am. The sun was beginning to rise and it illuminated the sky with brilliant pinks and purples. Squat fern trees were silhouetted against the blaze and a soft morning fog drifted across the landscape. We were going walking in Madeira and we couldn’t wait!

Madeira is a small volcanic island in the North Atlantic Ocean, just off the coast of Africa. It’s a haven for landscape lovers and hikers, containing over 20 different hiking routes to choose from. Andy and I were attempting the 8km Verada da Ponta de Sao Lourenco (PR8) as our first Madeira hiking adventure and had arrived early so we could enjoy the walk alone.

sunrise in madeira, portugal

The increidble sunrise that greeted us at Sao Lourenco!

For the first section of the walk, we wandered across rolling green hills to reach the beginning of the cliff peninsula. The hills were soft but windswept, with no tall vegetation, and they reminded me a lot of England’s Peak District. There was a wooden pathway across some sections, and a dirt track across others, leading the way towards the cliffs. In the small valleys, the wind couldn’t reach us and it was wonderfully peaceful.

green volcanic hills of madeira

The lush green valleys at the beginning of the Sao Lourenco peninsula

Once we’d traversed the hills, we rose out of the final dip to a dramatic green and rust coloured landscape. It zigzagged and curved its way across the deep blue ocean, the tip of the peninsula fading from view in the foggy haze of the horizon. The sun had completely risen by now.

Andy and I just stood on the edge of the cliffs in complete awe. The sight was utterly breathtaking. When walking in Madeira, prepare to be amazed at every turn! The immense cliffs jutted diagonally from the ocean, almost like their bulk was slowly sinking beneath the waves. In sections, the land narrowed suddenly into a sharp ridge that dropped away at either side, only to reconnect with another soaring hunk of land.

sao lourenco peninsula foggy morning

A view across the Sao Lourenco peninsula as the sun rises and the mist clears

ponta de sao lourenco peninsula Madeira

The view back towards the Madeiran mainland, showing a small Volcanic beach sheltered by the cliffs.

We were walking in Madeira in January and some of the peninsula was decorated with a thin carpet of green grass and purple flowers. Other sections had crumbled away to form steep bare cliffs of dazzling colours. Rocks of bright red and orange were bisected by thick black lines, almost like an artist’s canvas. A testament to Madeira’s volcanic origins. Iron oxide from the magma that created the island turned the rocks varying shades of red. The black was due to basalt.

walking in madeira

Madeira hiking is amazing! Check out the orange and black cliffs that make up the peninsula.

The Sao Lourenco peninsula is one of the most dramatically beautiful, ruggedly windswept, and colourfully wild places I’ve ever been. If you’re planning on some Madeira walks, this is one hike I’d thoroughly recommend you add to your itinerary!

The hike itself is of medium difficulty and is certainly not for the faint hearted. There are steep sections where you’re hiking up the cliffs themselves on rocky pathways, or climbing old stone stairways. There are flat sections where you’re scrambling along a narrow path on the cliff front, looking down a sheer drop of 110 meters! And there are wide open sections where you’re crossing over the back of one of the immense cliffs and you can see for miles around you, right back across to the main island.

walking in madeira stone steps

Old stone steps leading to the next part of the hike at Sao Lourenco

the view from madeira walks

The steep cliffs the PR8 levada walk takes you right past! Incredible views though.

The route is fairly obvious, and there are some safety barriers in place. However, they are overdue for repair and some sections are completely broken through, so you need to be careful and rely upon your own sure footing to traverse the route successfully. Saying that, on our way back along the peninsula we saw several hiking parties of old people tackling the route, so it’s definitely doable!

In this comprehensive guide, I’m going to cover the basics of walking in Madeira, outlining 8 of the best Madeira hikes, and link to other excellent resources to help you plan your holiday to this incredible island.


Getting Around Madeira

Madeira is one of those places that’s best experienced by car. The main road network is very well maintained and signposted, supporting a brand new highway that takes you quickly around the island. You can drive from one side to the other in around 30 minutes, and can go from north to south in just over an hour, so nowhere is out of reach for any Madeira hikes.

However, once you get off the main VE/ VR highways (which most of the walks are), you’ll encounter roads like you’ve never experienced before! Narrow tarmac winding up the side of mountains, or through thick forests, or around tiny compact villages on terraced farmland. So although I would recommend driving for the freedom it gives you when planning on doing a lot of walking in Madeira, I would only advise confident drivers to take it on. And even then, only ones without a fear of heights (or a will of steel!)

driving on mountain roads in madeira

Some of the roads in Mareira can be pretty scary (especially those up to the Paul da Serra Plateau). There some serious vertigo when taking those corners!
Source

Andy has a fear of heights, and we naively didn’t consider this when renting a car. We wouldn’t change our decision because it’s the best way to go hiking in Madeira, but it was a pretty white-knuckle experience for him!

Especially reaching any of the mountain routes we did. There’s no exaggerating how terrifying it is to drive on a thin winding road stuck to the side of a mountain, with nothing but a few squat concrete pillars to (definitely not) protect you if you misjudge a corner. And when I say up a mountain, I really mean it: check out this photo of our trip to the lofty Paul da Serra Plateau, which sits up a mountain, and is even higher than the cloud layer!

paul de serra plateau viewpoint

Even though reaching your Madeira hikes can be scary, the views are definitely worth it!

If driving in Madeira sounds like something you’d like to try, we used Funchal Car Hire, a local company. They were friendly, spoke excellent English and met us at the airport.

Their insurance is fully comprehensive, so you’ll have no nasty surprises and we also added cover for our windscreen & tyres too. Confusingly, this is extra on all rental car insurance, even though it’s the most likely damage your car will experience. Definitely add it if you can, because small rocks falling from mountains isn’t an unusual occurrence in Madeira! In total we paid 175 euros for 7 days.

However, if you’re not sure you can stomach driving up mountains or on narrow roads, then you can do all of the Madeira hikes as part of an organised tour for around 30-40 euros each. These are some of the main tour companies that offer walking in Madeira experiences:


Choosing Your Walks in Madeira

Madeira embraces its landscape and encourages hiking, with plenty of well established hiking routes to choose from. The island itself is also incredibly diverse, giving you the option of coastal hikes, rainforest hikes, meadow hikes or mountain hikes. This is one of the things Andy and I loved most about it- so much natural beauty!

We chose our walks in Madeira based on the following three things:

  • Connector.

    Location

    How easy is it to reach the start of the hike? We checked the route on google maps to make sure we were happy to drive it and could locate it.

  • Connector.

    Distance/Route

    We preferred to hike no more than 12km in one day when on our Madeira hiking holiday, so we didn’t run out of energy by the end of the week. Some of the walks in Madeira are over 15km, so we were able to rule these out straight away.
    Also, most levada walks aren’t circular, so once you’ve hiked there, you have to hike back again. Watch out for this when websites tell you the distance, as they may not be considering the return journey. With long one way hikes, guided tours are the way to go because they drop you off at one end, and pick you up at the other.

  • Connector.

    Landscape

    When doing a lot of walking in Madeira, you’ll find some hikes will be similar to each other. For example, if they’re both coastal routes on the east side of the island. We used local websites, google earth and youtube videos to figure out which landscapes would be most impressive to see in person, and most different from each other for the greatest variety.

One thing to mention is that although there are many well established hiking routes in Madeira, these are intended for locals and most are not geared up for tourism. This means the start of the walk isn’t always easy to find. We had to give up on a couple because we simply couldn’t find where they began! They’re usually marked by a single sign at the start of the route, and even that can be down a dirt path off the main road in a tiny carpark.

wooden pathway beside waterfall

This type of signage is pretty common to mark the start of Madeira’s walks.

To combat this, we chose a couple of walks in the same area that we’d be happy to do. Therefore, if we couldn’t find the start of one, we switched to the other nearby walk instead! This is another advantage of guided tours over driving yourself.

The reason we don’t like to book hiking tours is because we don’t want to hike as part of a group- we’re a bit antisocial like that! We like arriving at a location early to enjoy the tranquillity of the hike alone.

If you prefer solitude in nature like us, then walking as part of a group of 20 people just isn’t appealing. You also have little control over when you stop to take photos (and we do this a lot, which tends to annoy people after a while!) or have food breaks. However, if none of that bothers you, I’d definitely consider booking guided hikes on Madeira instead (see links in previous section).

These are some excellent websites for checking out route for walking in Madeira, and getting key information like the starting coordinates and distance. These are the ones we relied upon:


What Are Levada Walks?

Levadas are an ingenious and old irrigation system found across the island. Madeirans created this system to collect rainwater that runs down their mountains and funnel it in a controlled manner through their farmland. There’s very little flat land on Madeira, so the farms sit on terraced land in small cascading plots down the side of hills.

madeira levada on terraced farmland

Gemma next to a levada, looking down over the terraced farmland below on a levada walk.

madeira levada walk through laurisilva forest

Levadas can be found all over when walking in Madeira, especially here in the Laurisilva forest.

This type of farmland is very beautiful to see. Running amongst them are concrete troughs, like small man made streams, carrying crystal clear water used for irrigation- these are the levadas. The levadas also help to control rainwater, therefore avoiding landslides after heavy downpours.

Levadas usually have a path beside them to allow maintenance, so they actually create perfect walkways for people. You can follow the route of many of these levada systems from their end location upwards into the hills, or use them to wander across the farmland and forest landscapes. Many of them will pass under waterfalls too, collecting the rainwater from these natural features.

Some Madeira walks are levada walks, following these man made rivers, whereas others are not. Usually hikes along the coast, like Sao Lourenco, or hikes up to the very peak of the mountain tops, like Pico Ruivo, are technically not levada walks. However, you’ll probably find most walks on Madeira referred to as levada walks, even if they don’t actually follow a levada, because the term has become synonymous with hiking on the island.


Our Recommended Top 8 Madeira Hikes

So, without further ado, these are the routes that I recommend you do when walking in Madeira.

Before our trip, we spent hours researching which would be the best hikes to do for the greatest views and variety. We managed to complete 3 of them due to other day trips taking up our week, but we aim to do the other 5 on our return for a pure hiking holiday. The island is so beautiful, it’s somewhere you can return to time and time again!


PR8: Verada da Ponta de Sao Lourenco

sao lourenco in madeira hiking

A view we saw along the beautiful Sao Lourenco walk – PR8.

This is the walk I described at the beginning of the article. It’s approximately 4km to the end of the peninsula, and then 4km back. You take the E.R. 109 road south from Funchal through Canical to reach the Baia d’Abra, where you’ll find a small car park.

It’s a fairly straight forward route and the small car park was easy to find. There are no parking charges and all the walks in Madeira are free i.e. there’s no entry fee. If you have a phone or sat nav which you can use for navigation when driving, just enter Ponta de Sao Lourenco and it’ll get you there.


P1.2 Verada do Pico Ruivo

summit of pico ruivo madeira

The spectacular views at the summit of Pico Ruivo, the end point of our second favourite Madeira walk.

I described the Sao Lourenco walk as breathtaking due to its wild beauty, but you’ll be positively hyperventilating once you see the astounding mountain scenery on Madeira! Pico Ruivo is the tallest peak on the island, reaching 1862 meters above sea level, and it feels like you’re on top of the world when you reach the summit of this epic Madeira hike.

You’re so high, you can almost see the curve of the blue horizon, bending around our circular earth. It’s amazing! You’re above the clouds and have views for miles over the undulating, dramatic peaks of the mountain ranges. It’s known as the central mountain massif and is listed on Europe’s network of important natural places- the Natura 2000.

To the left of Pico Ruivo’s peak, you’ll see the Ribeira Seca valley dotted with tiny houses, and to the right is the Santana mountains backed by Queimadas Forest Park. When visibility in the east is good, you can even see the Sao Lourenco sea cliffs!

walking on madeira to pico ruivo

As long as you get a clear day, you can see for miles from the summit of Pico Ruivo right down to the valley villages below!

To start this walk, take the VR1 from Funchal and then head onto the VE1 to Santana. From there you can follow the signs on a steep drive up the mountainside and through a forest to reach the Achada do Teixeira car park. This sits at the base of the peak of the mountain, and you feel a little like you’re lost in a horror movie on the way there. The route snakes through thick ancient forest, shrouded with fog due to the elevation and we saw no other cars on the whole hour long climb!

Suddenly you emerge from the forest on a steep road and see the small dirt carpark. Once you’re parked, follow the signpost up a stone path at the start of the route. From there the hike to the peak is 2.8km one way. But it feels like much more because you’re continually gaining altitude.

pico ruivo mountain view from the top

Andy photographing more of the view at the majestic Pico Ruivo summit.

You can access three other walks from 1km into this route, but they’re all too far to attempt in one day:

  • PR1: Pico do Areeiro (6.4km) – a hike along the mountain ridge to the second highest peak on the island
  • PR1.3: Encumeada (8.6km) – a hike through the lush peaks of the central mountain range
  • PR1.1: Ilha Footpath (8.2km) – a hike to the parish of Ilha

In order to hike to these locations, you would need to book a hiking tour. A minibus would then drop you off at Achada do Teixeira and pick you up at your end location. I’m hoping to do this on our return to Madeira (despite our dislike of tours), because the route to Pico do Areeiro looks incredible!


PR6: Levada das 25 Fontes/ PR6.1: Levada do Risco

risco waterfall madeira hike

The stunning Risco Waterfall found in the middle of the dense Laurisilva forest on Madeira.

This is the Madeira hike that Andy and I had to scale a huge mountain to reach because it starts on the lofty Paul da Serra Plateau at Madeira’s heart. To reach it, you head onto the V.E.4 main road across the centre of the island and then turn off about halfway along onto the E.R.110 to Rabacal/Paul da Serra.

It was tough to find the start of this walk. We drove along the entire E.R.110 road and started to descend off the plateau again, before realising we had to turn around and double back. What we’d missed was a discrete dirt path leading off the tarmac road which takes you to a poorly maintained car park at the start of the route. It’s very popular so you’ll know you’re in the right place by the presence of other cars.

lauisilva forest seen when walking in Madeira

The hike down the path to the Laurisilva forest is an impressive winding decent

The hike starts with a long descent on a tarmac path down into the Paul do Serra valley. You start at 1290m high and wind down to around 900m. Around 3km into the walk you’ll have a choice to make. You can choose one fork to reach the Risco waterfall (1.8km), where you’ll be greeted by a spectacularly tall and thin waterfall running down the side of the valley (pictured above).

Or you can go down the other fork to the Lagoa das 25 Fontes (2.5km), a lagoon at the base of the valley which is fed by 25 springs. Each are incredibly scenic and the very fit among you might be able to do both. However, Andy and I chose to see the Risco waterfall and definitely couldn’t have completed both walks once taking into account the steep 3km return journey to the car!

We did see some people being driven back up in minivans though, and it was unclear if these people were paying to be driven back up at the time, or if they were part of an organised tour. If you see an idling minivan , I’d definitely ask if you can pay them to run you back up the hill, because it was an exhausting levada walk! Especially in the hot sun.

laurisilva forest madeira

Andy walking in the beautiful Laurisilva forest, following the levada to the wwaterfall.

walking in madeira forest views

The atmosphere in Laurisilva was amazing, especially when the noise from organised tours had faded and we were alone in the dappled sunlight with the twisty trees.

Walking in Madeira through this valley was incredible, with gorgeous views of the lush plant life all around you. It’s a proper levada walk too, because you follow sections of levadas (the Levada Nova do Rabaçal and the Levada do Risco) through the haunting laurisilva forest. Along the walk, there are many tiny streams flowing into the clear, cool levadas down the face of the surrounding cliffs.

The forest is actually a unique type of forest only found in a few remaining places in the world, after dominating the planet during dinosaur times. All of Madeira’s central laurisilva forest is a UNESCO listed site because of this. The ancient trees are unusual and sort of eerie in shape, and along with the fog that hangs in the air as you descend in the morning, there’s a strange feeling of old magic in the forest.


PR11: Vereda Dos Balcoes

verada dos balcoes madeira

The viewpoint at Vereda Dos Balcoes
Source

This is a shorter Madeira hike with dramatic mountain views. The main aim of this walk is to reach the Balcoes viewpoint, a man made balcony that hovers above the mountain landscape!

You start at Ribeiro Frio just off the E.R. 103 highway, and follow the levada Serra do Faial (Faial is a village) to reach the viewpoint 1.5km later. The valley you see is the verdant Ribeira da Metade valley where you might even be able to see Pico Ruivo in the distance when visibility is good. You then backtrack to your car as the route isn’t circular.


PR13: Verada do Fanal

This is the walk that Andy and I wanted to do on the Paul da Serra plateau, but couldn’t find! Instead, we did the Risco waterfall hike, which also starts in a similar area. After driving along the ER110 over the scrubland and past the wind farms that dominate the Paul da Serra plateau, you actually turn off onto the ER209 following the signs for Fanal.

paul da serra plateux madeira hiking

The roads which crisscross the plateau are amazing, framed by wind turbines and surrounded by colourful scrub land. It’s like a different island up here!

We did turn off here in our quest to find this particular Madeira walk, but figured we’d gone wrong when we started to descend into the village. After researching it more afterwards, it looks like this hike starts at the Forest Police Station on the edge of Fanal, so look out for this building. And keep going down the road- you won’t have gone too far.

Fanal is a beautiful area of Laurissilva forest that sits in a mossy volcanic crater. From this 5.6km route (one way), you can also access two more trails:

  • PR14: Levada dos Cedros – a flat walk following a picturesque water canal built in the 17th century
  • PR15: Vereda da Ribeira da Janela – a walk featured below

Once you reach the end of this walk in Fanal itself, you’ll have to turn around and walk back, making the route 10.8km. The great thing about walking in Madeira is you can access several walks from the same area so for those of you who want a challenge, you can easily extend any of the hikes by following part of the new route.


PR15: Vereda da Ribeira da Janela

ribeira janela madeira viewpoint

The Ribeira Janela viewpoint
Source

This route is 2.7km there and 2.7km back, and is another quest towards an amazing viewpoint. The general trend is downhill, heading towards Ribeira da Janela from an altitude of 820 meters to one of 400 meters above sea level. Which means the entire return journey is uphill!

This Madeira hike begins at the top of the village, just off the E.R.209, following an old footpath which was used by residents to fetch wood from the forest. The beauty of this walk is that it takes you through the traditional terraced farmland of Madeira, which is scattered with houses. As such, you will also follow several levadas which irrigate the farmland.

Near the start of the hike, you will encounter the incredible viewpoint above which looks down the Ribeira da Janela valley, highlighting the stunning forest and traditional farmland.


PR20: Vereda do Jardim do Mar

jardim do mar madeira walk views

The steep cliff view down to the start point at Jardim do Mar village.
Source

This route looks great, and is found on the west of the island. I couldn’t get Andy to do it due to the fact that it’s a very steep cliff walk between two villages! It has amazing views of the coastline, but from a precarious height. You go from Jardim do Mar on the traditional route to the village of Paul do Mar.

On the way to the start of this route you can also visit a restored water mill just outside of the Jardim do Mar village. Once you arrive, park your car and enjoy the 1.9km ancient Madeira walk over the cliff tops. You could then have lunch in Paul do Mar before heading back to your car.

The west side of the island is said to receive the most sun, so I would expect lovely weather along with the views!


PR12: Caminho Real Da Encumeada

encumeada valley madeira

Traditional houses dotted across the hillside farmland in the Encumeada area of Madeira.

This Madeira walk is a long one, and is all one way, so you’ll need to book a hiking tour to complete it. However, the views look so amazing and Encumeada is such a stunning area of Madeira, that I think it would be worth it. It’s a hike Andy and I plan to complete when we return to do more walking in Madeira.

Encumeada is the lust rainforest looking part of the central mountain massif, and this hike takes you along the base of some of Madeira’s highest peaks, offering exceptional views of the mountain ranges and steep valleys below.

The 12.5km trail begins at the Boca da Corrida Viewpoint and ends at Boca da Encumeada near the E.R. 228 main road. It’s known as the ‘Royal Route’ because it’s the pathway old nobles used to take on horseback to reach other parts of the island. On the way you’ll get to see Curral das Freiras, a village on the steep mountain steppes famous for it’s beauty. There are many sightseeing tours that specifically take you to see it.

If you wish to see the beautiful Encumeada landscape, but don’t fancy booking a guided tour to tackle this 12.5km route, you could always do the PR21: Caminho do Norte. This starts at Boca de Encumeada and travels for 3.7km down into the Ribeira Grande village. This area is known for its wicker basket weaving, so look out for any workshops happening when you arrive.


Final Thoughts

As you can see from this article, walking in Madeira gives you access to this astounding island full of natural beauty and volcanic variety. It’s heaven for landscape lovers who want somewhere less well know or crowded to hike. It has an ideal climate all year round due to its tropical positioning near Africa, meaning you can visit at any time to try any of these Madeira hikes and levada walks. And it benefits from the affordable price tag and delicious food associated with Portugal.

So if you’re wondering where to have your winter break this year, head to Madeira and plan some hikes. You’ll fall in love and return every year! We sure did 🙂


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