As the French writer Paul Morand said, “Madeira is the island where summer goes to spend the winter”. Madeira’s island is a true temperature paradise: a subtropical climate with mild year-around temperatures due to the Gulf Stream and the Canary Current. The best season to hike is between April and June when temperatures are mild, and the island is full of fragrant flowers. If you love lush and varied vegetation, beautiful scenery and hiking, Madeira is for you ! Of volcanic origin, the island is a paradise for the avid hiker seeking untouched landscapes. From the Atlantic Ocean to the Pico Ruivo, you will hike along pathways through the midst of the Laurel forest where the trees intertwine, creating a mystical atmosphere worthy of a Tim Burton film. Pico Ruivo, at 6,109 feet above sea level, is the highest peak on the Island. It is only accessible on foot. You will also stroll along the levadas or aqueducts built in the 16th century to supply water to the agricultural region in the south of the island where the climate is the driest. The levadas run for over 1,350 miles constituting an admirable hydraulic engineering network creating hydro-electric power. These irrigation canals provide an extraordinary network of walking paths through tunnels and small trails lost in the forest. A wonderful opportunity to discover the wildest region of Madeira, the levadas include about 16 miles of tunnels dug into the volcanic mountains. Starting on the mountainside accompanied by the light lapping of the water in the background, let’s move on to discover the hidden valleys and gorgeous views of Madeira.
The levadas – the name is from the Portuguese verb “levar” meaning “to carry”- attest of the ingenuity of Madeirans adapting to Mother Nature without damaging it. The northwestern of Madeira is wet, but the southeast dry, a habitat better for sugar cane and vines… The first inhabitants had to address the problem of water: bringing it from where it was abundant to where it was needed! To conquer the land, they had to conquer water. The first canals were built at the beginning of the 16th century. They were gutters made of wood, most often from a native species such as laurel. These first levadas were short waterways. Convicts and slaves built this system of irrigation. The network of levadas about 20 inches wide and about 35 inches deep expanded and modernized over time. Today, concrete replaces wood. The construction was difficult and dangerous because many canals are located on mountainsides above abysses and cliffs. Imagine, these workers on the extreme “rocheiros” were suspended in mid-air inside wicker baskets attached to trees or rock out-croppings… Tunnels and aqueducts were built using rudimentary tools such as pickaxes, rock hammers, and hoes. Tunnels and aqueducts allowed the precious water to flow smoothly down a slight incline to remote destinations or on the other side of the island. At the beginning of the 20th century, there were about 200 levadas. The colossal task ended in the 1950s with the completion of the Levada do Furado, 50 miles long. A path runs along the levadas, sometimes narrow sometimes wide depending to the topography. The path allows the “levadeiro” to maintain the canals by regularly checking their cleanliness and removing branches and leaves that can obstruct the water flow. The paths along the levadas are also excellent hiking trails that extend almost all over the island. Following these pathways you cross steep landscapes while staying “flat,” rather lovely isn’t it? You can walk on or next to low walls among nasturtiums, hydrangeas, umbel-agapanthus and other local flora that create a unique atmosphere running for miles
On the way to Rabasçal, the starting point of our first hike that combines La levada das vinte e cinco fonts (levada of the 25 springs) and the Risco waterfall (“dangerous waterfall”). At the Encumeada pass, the flowering Madeira viperine (Echium candicans), star of the endemic flora, offers magnificent bouquets of violet flowers. A short detour in the trail takes us to the impressive Risco waterfall lodged in a stone amphitheater. From the magnificent lagoon, Lagoa do Vento, at the top of the Risco waterfall, the water falls 328 feet down along a smooth rocky wall… In the midst of exceptional scenery, you are carried away by the beauty of the lagoon and a feeling of serenity. After this short detour of a few hundred feet, we leave behind the Lagoa do Vento and turn toward the levada das vinte e cinco fonts. Here, you are in the heart of the Laurel forest (Laurisilva) designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999. The path here is a wide and comfortable passing through lush vegetation. A play of light and dark on the vegetation – different species of laurels (til, vinhatico, laureiro), tree heather, ferns – accompanies us under the radiant sun. The path is bucolic with a gentle sound of lapping water and peaceful undergrowth. In this atmosphere of total tranquility, at the end of the trail, we discover a rock amphitheater with a vertical wall covered by ferns, mosses, and liverworts where we find the 25 springs. Madeira is a vast natural reservoir: rainwater seeps into the mass of volcanic ash where it is stopped by an impermeable layer of laterite and basalt, forming underground pools, which then spurt out as springs. On the rocky walls permanently bathed by runoff water, endemic hydrophilic species have colonized the shaded rocks. One even finds the Aeonium glandulosum, the leaves of which form a dense rosette nearly 12 inches in diameter !
Levada do Caniçal is the only irrigation canal in the arid northeast region of Madeira. The construction of this levada in 1949 required the drilling of a half mile-tunnel at the foot of Pico do Facho. This tunnel was widened a few years later to accommodate car traffic. The charm of the 7-mile hike along the Levada do Caniçal, lined with trees and flowers, is the change of scenery. The trail has everything, cultivated lands with a dense population, peaceful untouched valleys, and extraordinary views. From the curved depression of the Boca do Risco (the dangerous pass,) the rest of the hike follows a rough coastal path along the wave-swept north coast. The imposing cliffs look out over the blue of the vast ocean. The Boca do Risco trail takes us through a different natural environment. Far from the dense Laurisilva forest, we mostly walk among shrubs, some heather and many perennials. This coastal path, cut into the almost vertical cliff between Machico and Puerto da Cruz, has for centuries been the shortest route between the two villages. The Borracheiros transported wine in goatskin through the Boca do Risco. A marker marks the rocky spur of Espigão Amarelo, from which there is a great view over the Eagle Rock with the town of Porto da Cruz in the distance from which sugar cane was shipped during the great era of “white gold”.
For the next hike in the valley of the Ribeira Ponta do Sol, it is better not to be afraid of heights and to suffer vertigo. The starting point of Levada Nova is an 18th century baroque chapel, the Capela do Espírito Santo (Chapel of the Holy Spirit,) facing the large Solar dos Esmeraldos manor built in 1494 where the Belgian Jean d’Esmenaut, João Esmeraldo in Portuguese, lived. The wealth of this sugar cane baron rested on extensive estates around the village of Lombada da Ponta do Sol. At the beginning of the walk, we pass cultivated lands, which little by little give way to forest. Throughout the trail, we walk on the low wall of the levada, a path about 2 feet wide right along the cliff and above a few vertical drops. Along the way, we pass through a tunnel about 700 feet long which bends a little before we see the light at the end, all without getting our feet wet… However, if you have just escaped a foot bath, you now have no other choice than to wet your shirt. A waterfall creating a ridge in the rock drops spectacularly along the wall of the levada… Nowadays, hundreds of miles of levadas cross mountain passes between vertical cliffs, flow under tunnels (furados), traverse dangerous precipices, and run along mountain slopes to supply water to the smallest cultivated parcel. The water in the levadas is very strictly regulated by a law dating from the middle of the 19th century. Each farmer is entitled to an estimated share of water, paid in hourly installments because the variable rate of flow throughout the year makes quantity difficult to estimate. Under this system, when the flow drops, all farmers are affected, so no one is harmed. Each farmer after irrigating his lot, closes the valve at the scheduled time so that his neighbor can then water his land. The rotation of water distribution is fixed in advance.