My aunt once told me a story from when she was on a plane to Funchal and there was a young English couple next to her. My family has ancestral ties to the island, so pilgrimages to Funchal are nothing unusual for us, but she was interested to find out what brings other people to the island, so, she asked them. Their response surprised her: “We’ve been four times so far, we come for the levadas, we’re addicted” they said. Levadas are the hand-cut aqueducts carved into mountainsides that criss-cross the island, transporting water from the wet north-west to the dry south-east. Microclimates caused by the height of the island’s mountains are the reason there is such a huge discrepancy in rainfall on an island as small as Madeira. You can literally enter a tunnel with grey, rainy weather on one side and come out the other end to a summery, cloud-free sky.
The views that the levadas offer are truly incredible and are incomparable to anything else on the island. On an island where two-thirds of the land is national parkland, so much of the beauty is hidden out of sight of the YellowBus tour routes. So far, I’ve done three, Caldeirão Verde, Ribeiro Frio and Pico Ruivo.
Caldeirão Verde is the first levada walk I ever attempted and is one of the most popular. It’s a full day trip, leaving your accommodation at 8 am and returning at around 5 pm – a significant chunk of that time is spent driving between Funchal and Santana, which is where the walking trail begins. You start out at this old rest stop built for when the trip would require you to sleep overnight before being able to return to Funchal – since Portugal joined the European Union, dozens of tunnels have been built across the island, replacing the treacherous, winding mountain roads on which travellers used to rely, easily cutting a trip that used to take a day down to under an hour.
The track starts off wide with a slight incline, surrounded by pine trees, presenting itself as a deceptively easy climb but turning into a narrow path bordered on one side by the levada and the other by a thin wire separating you from a hundred metre drop down the side of a mountain, making for interesting acrobatics when you come face to face with people coming from the opposite direction. But the views are absolutely worth it, not only is your destination (in this case a 100m waterfall). You do have the option of continuing on from Caldeirão Verde to the end of the levada, known as Caldeirão do Inferno (literally Hell’s Caldera) which in total is a 37km walk.
It’s impossible to capture the view on a camera without a drone because it’s just so huge. If you do the climb in summer, the pool is a great way to cool down.
Okay, this is the big one. The highest peak in Madeira and one of the highest in all of Portugal. At 1861 metres above sea level, it’s impossible to climb from the base, because you’d be starting in the city, as the whole island slopes up gradually. But the view from the top is truly incredible. I’m already planning my return to the peak, with new friends to share it with. The best way to access it is to drive to Pico Areeiro, the third highest peak on the island and hike from there – it’s a tough hike, so if you’re after an easier walk, it’s best to head to Achada do Teixeira, where the trail is much shorter and much more suited to a novice hiker (like me). Be sure to bring a bottle of water and some food. There is a ranger’s house near the end of the climb where you can have a food break, use the bathroom and top up your water bottle. To give you a bit more of an idea of the vistas you will experience on this walk, the feature photo for this post was taken along the path to the summit.
Right, so this is the baby one. If you’re not particularly fit, aren’t a fan of lots of walking or just didn’t bring the right shoes… This is the one for you! Short and easy, the Ribeiro Frio levada delivers the goods – a great view and a beautiful path.
So, in conclusion. If you go to Madeira, do not miss an opportunity to do a levada walk. Seriously. It doesn’t have to be one of these three but do one. They’re too beautiful not to be seen. I booked mine through Madeira Happy Tours, but any tourist office will be able to sell you tours. In my opinion, a guide is worth the money, you have someone knowledgeable to follow (useful when walking one of the more treacherous routes) and also transport.