Key information: Madeira
- A magical island of stunning eroded volcanic landscapes – contorted ridges, huge cliffs, gorges, waterfalls, unusual flora and fascinating terraced farming.
- Walk the sheer high ridges and on the remarkable network of levadas, ancient irrigation channels often cut across huge cliffs.
Walkopedia rating(Top 100)
- Walkopedia rating93
- Natural interest17
- Human interest8
- Negative points0
- Total rating93
- Length: Your choice
- Maximum Altitude: 1,861m
- Level of Difficulty: Variable
This relatively small island is walking heaven, packed with fascinating trails, as evidenced by the Cicerone guide featuring no less than 60 walks.
Madeira lies in the Atlantic some 600km off Morocco. It is violently volcanic but also heavily eroded by its wet Atlantic climate, so expect physical drama: jagged peaks and convoluted ridges, cliffs and steep slopes, gorges and deep valleys. It differs from its cousins the Canaries in that it is volcanically inactive but damp, and therefore densely forested or farmed on the lower slopes, with grassy highlands above.
The damp means thick cloud forests full of interest, including very different varieties of ancient laurisilva, many types of fern and tree-heather. And a rich selection of flowers, many endemic. There isn’t much animal life, but a plethora of birds.
Madeira was accidentally sort-of discovered (although they weren't the first) in 1419 by an expedition commissioned by Henry the Navigator of Portugal, and has been Portuguese territory ever since. While a backwater by any definition, Madeira has been visited by Christopher Columbus, pirates galore, produced fine wine from early on and has long, been popular with tourists for its favourable winter climate.
One of Madeira's unique(ish) features is its levadas, irrigation channels which snake around the slopes for miles and provide endless outstanding, level, but quite often exposed, walking opportunities. While many of Madeira’s old cobbled tracks have been overcome by roads, the levadas remain remarkably intact. Expect to pass through tunnels, many and/or long on some walks. Many were slave built, so spare a thought if walking on them.
Walking: where to start?
When to go? You can go all year round. Summer is dry but hotter and more humid. November to February are wettest, with storms possible until March. April to June and mid September to mid October normally give the best chances of clear conditions in the mountains. Mist and drizzle are not uncommon on high ground whatever the time of year. The mornings tend to be clearer, so do start promptly. It rains a lot and is regularly cloudy, so be ready to improvise and head high on clear days.
It is worth noting that there are few circular walks, so much walking is generally there-and-back or you need to be ready to take buses or taxis.
Transport: There are very good bus services, so many walks can be made with bus connections at the start or end. Taxis aren’t cheap, but deals can be done. It is worth befriending taxi drivers early on. Car hire is reasonably cheap and you can book the night before (more notice is good) for delivery to your hotel. Driving in Madeira is fine, although you need to be good at hill starts and prepared for the unexpected – including for maps to bear a tenous relationship to the often remarkable developments to the road system. A good idea can be to hire for a few days and pack in your there-and-back and circular walks then. If you are few, it can stack up to join guided groups (lots of firms, pick up and drop at your hotel or in Funchal). If you are more, and happy to sef-guide, it is cheaper to get a taxi to drop you off and pick you up at the end.
It is easiest to look at walks in regional terms.
The East and around Funchal
Easy access from Funchal. Mainly delightful levada walking, mostly forested, and you are likely not to be alone on many of them. Higher hills and generally the most exciting walking north of Funchal.
A thrilling and different walk takes you along the Ponta de Saõ Lourenco promontory, the at times weird and always dramatic narrow final ridge at the island's far east. Fascinating geology – volcanic dykes and towers with bright crystalline sandstone - and vegetation combine with dramatic cliffs and spires and the pounding sea. 8km/2.5hrs.
The high PR5 trail winds through high laurisilva forest.
Socorindos Valley: from an unpromising and often noisy beginning on the outskirts of Funchal, explore a fine and interesting deep valley then the tremendous gorges at its head. 3.5hrs.
Poço da Nevo to Barreira descent: a demanding 900m, 2h 40m, descent on an old ice-carrying route from the high mountains to the edge of Funchal. Steep, even scrambly, in places.
The old Levada do Furado passes through high laurisliva forest, crossing vertiginous slopes. Fascinating and exciting. 4hrs or so.
A good track leads to the long, relatively easy Levada de Serra do Faial, a fine, in places dramatic now-dry channel. It is now somewhat tree-shrouded, high on the hillsides, north-east of Funchal. Choices of length up to 7 hrs: most would divide it into two days. The upper half is perhaps the finer walk. This is a popular walk (and on many fixed itineraries), so don’t expect to get too remote.
The Levada de Negra climbs steeply and spectacularly to the highlands. Under 3 hrs.
The Levada de Curral is said to be one of the most vertiginous of all Madeira's channels, and that is saying something. Demanding. 5 hrs.
The path high above the North Coast, linking Caniçal to Porta da Cruz (or vice versa). Start with a gentle, wooded levada walk, then admire the gorgeous-ominous northern coast from high above. It gets quite exposed, but has marvellous views. 12.5km/4hrs.
The famous Penha d'Aguia formation – a seemingly cliff-girt tabletop on the north coast - can be climbed on steep paths which are not wholly safe in wet weather and can be very overgrown out of summer/autumn. Huge drama and huge views.3hrs or so. The Cicerone and Sunflower guides diverge on how difficult this walk is – Sunflower describe it as unpleasant in places and for experienced walkers only, and impenetrable for much of the year. Cicerone appears to be more up to date, indicating that the path has been improved in recent years, so much easier than it used to be. Community comments, please!
An old trail, cobbled in parts, sometimes high above the sea and sometimes down close, leads from Santana to San Jorge in 9.5km/3.5hrs. Sunflower says, “this walk was made in heaven”.
The high northern/central mountains
It is possible: the central-northern mountains are even more spectacular, and weird in places, than the trails of the east. Any Madeira expedition must include at least one walk here.
The trail from Boca da Encumeada to Achada do Teixeira traverses, west to east, the highest part of the central ridge, including Pico de Ruivo at 1,862m, through a landscape of sheer cliffs and thick and very varied forest. A tough but outstanding 7 hrs or so. One of Maderia's finest walks.
For more open, grassy terrain, with huge views and a drier, more obviously volcanic feel, try walking across Pico de Cedro to the roadhead at Pico do Areeiro. 4 hrs or so.
While the fact that it is a popular walk to Madeira’s highest point means more people, the south-to-north walk from Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo (and back, or on to Achada do Teixeira) is a marvel, often chiselled into sheer but forested cliffs, with stunning views of the island's contorted centre. 6 hrs, but can be done in less. One of Maderia's absolutely finest walks and that is saying something!
A climb of the Pico Grande , to the south-west of the very highest massif. It can be climbed in various ways: the Cicerone describes a demanding circuit from the Boca da Encumeada, a superb and varied walk above the treeline, giving a series of remarkable views of the crazed centre of the island (5hrs, with 1,100m of ascent/descent). It also describes an even tougher climb from Colmeal (1,450m up/down, 6hrs). Pico Grande can also be walked along the ridge from the Boca da Corrida across to Encumeada. Exceptional views throughout. Sunflower say “if we had to choose our favourite mountain walk … it would probably be this one”. It is straight forward climbing-wise (300m up, 500m down), but is popular and eroded in places. 13km/4hrs. - The former have the advantage of being circuits, so easier to access by car. The latter, as a linear route, is logistically harder.
The Levada do Caldeirao Verde on the northern slopes is one of the very best levada trails, with cliff crossings, tunnels and the beautiful waterfall-laden Caldeirão herde. Walk on to enjoy the superb abyss of the Calderao do Inferno, no less. A green, damp, mossy delight.
Above Faja da Nogueira/Levada do Pico Ruivo: there are multiple choices here. From Faja da Nogueira you can climb to Pico da Noqueiva for some superb views of the highest peaks one way and the sea the other; or you can join the Levada do Pico Ruivo to walk to the foot of the high ridge, walking through a 12 minute tunnel into the thunderous-waterfalled upper reaches of the Ribiera Seca gorge. You can continue through a tunnel right under the high ridge, to the Caldeirão do Inferno, or retrace your steps (in 3.5hrs+) and walk round the hills to Pico da Noguira before returning to the Faja.
Central South: the Jardim de Serra
A beautiful area, even by Madeira's high standards. And a rugged and interesting one.
Terreiros is an easy mountain by Madeira standards, a mere 2 hrs or so, but it rewards beyond the effort, with superb views of some of the centre's finest scenery.
The Levada do Norte winds for many kilometres around the high slopes of this region. The northern part, from Serra de Agua to Boa Morte, is a delapidated, exposed thriller crossing cliffs and clocking 6 tunnels; it is considered to be one of Madeira's most alarming levadas (the Cicerone calls it "horribly exposed"), and that is saying something. The lower, southern part, from Boa Morte to Estreito de Camara de Lobos near Funchal (or vice versa), is less vertiginous but still an excellent walk through terraces and forest.
Climb the Chão dos Teireiros (1,436m) at the southern end of the highlands, for huge views all round – Pico Grande and the high central peaks, the Paúl da Serra, the southern slopes and the sea. A very interesting and varied 11km/3.5hrs, 500m up/down. And a circuit, so easily done by car.
Paul da Serra
This plateau to the west of the north side of the island has very un-Madeira landscapes on its top: high, rolling, sometimes bleak moorland which is evocative of many places, but far removed from the sheer volcanic drama of the rest of the island. Beware misty conditions, when navigation can be difficult. These often appear in the afternoon, so starting early is a good idea. Its flanks are more typical, with cliffs, gorges, deep valleys and of course levadas.
A good plateau-top circuit runs from Pico da Urze to Pico Ruivo do Paul da Serra and back. 5 hrs or so. There are other, easier, ways to approach the Pico Ruivo.
The Levada do Risco and the 25 Fontes: marvel at the steep valley and its multitude of waterfalls from these levadas and paths. 4 hrs or so. (x-refer also to that Madeira website.)
The Levada das Rabacas has superb views, but too much tunnel for most tastes.
West and north-west
This rugged but cultivated area has a lot of levadas to enjoy, and you can create multi-day walks, too.
A long but fascinating 1,200m ascent takes you through an array of biozones, from the cliff-perched lighthouse at Ponta do Pargo to Fonte do Bispo in the bare, grassy highlands.
For a long levada (indeed the longest in Madeira), try the Levada Calheta. The stretch from Ponta do Pargo to Prazeres winds through delightful farmed landscape and makes an easy and pleasing alternative to the cliff-face fireworks you will be testing yourself with elsewhere.
The Levada Nova and Levada do Moinho [link] run along the same forested cliffs and slopes, so you can create a circuit, all to unusually, from Ponta do Sol on the coast (you can take a taxi in to reduce climbing, if you wish). Looks delightful.
From Prazeres to Paúl do Mar [link later] winds down steep, colourful, dramatic volcanic cliffs to Paúl do Mar on the coast.
The Levada do Paúl used to be an easy delight, traversing the southern edge of the plateau, with huge seaward views. The area was, though, devastated by a fire in 2016, and it will be a few years before it is a high-ranker again. Community updates requested!
This relatively dry and gentler-sloped island has some excellent and interesting walking. Not to be missed for the variety, if you have enough time.
There are two excellent books: Walking in Madeira by Paddy Dillon for Cicerone. A fantastic selection of walks for all tastes, well written up: not to be missed. Sunflower’s Madeira Car Tours and Walks is also excellent. Find these and other books on Amazon.
This can be tough walking in remote mountains with uncertain weather, where extreme heights can cause real problems, both psychological (vertigo) and physical (falls; the paths can be particularly treacherous when wet). Come fully prepared.
Have a look at TripAdvisor – there are tens of millions of reviews, so you should get good, current views on Madeira, including places to stay.
We want to give more information! Please help us by making suggestions and sending photos! Thank you!
Maggie Birley says:
It rained every day whilst I was in Madeira, although there were occasional chinks in the clouds which afforded views of the odd crag. Since the footpaths were slippery our guide only took us up the lower slopes (the highest was around 1,200 metres), and did not attempt to scale the peaks. Under the circumstances it is difficult to give the walks the Walkopedia scores that they probably deserve for beauty and charisma, although it was obvious that they had both natural (good wildflowers) and human (little cultivated terraces high up on the hillsides) interest. Despite the weather they were very popular, and attracted hordes of French walkers in stylish neon ponchos. The best of the walks was from Encumeada to the foot of Pico Grande, following footpaths, rather than the levadas, the ubiquitous man-made channels that carry water from the mountain tops to the terraced fields below. The latter walks were swathed in clouds and without views would have been rather monotonous had they not been brightened by the wildflowers. Nevertheless the holiday was still very enjoyable, and I hope to return to Madeira for some more walks in better weather.
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