Walking in Madeira: Crossing the island on the Madeira Trail

By Jan Bakker

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Walking in Madeira: Crossing the island on the Madeira Trail
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Walking through a primary cloud forest? Yes, please! Bagging the highest mountain in the meantime? For sure! What about epic ocean views while you’re at it? Hell yeah! Welcome to Madeira, an island paradise that has it all. This tiny green dot in the vast Atlantic Ocean is a hiker’s dream come true. The island is divided by a rugged mountain range that soars up to a dazzling height of 1862 metres, Madeira’s highest mountain Pico Ruivo. The peaks and ridges are connected by a vast network of ancient trails, making it possible to cross the entire island coast to coast in less than a week. What are you waiting for?

Madeira is a sub-tropical Portuguese island off the coast of North Africa and is often dubbed as the Hawaii of the Atlantic Ocean. The island is essentially one big mountain that rises steeply from the ocean floor. While the coastal areas are populated, the interior is truly wild with jagged peaks covered in lush primary laurel forests and it's listed a UNESCO conservation area. Centuries ago the Madeirans started building an ingenious network of waterways and aqueducts called levadas to irrigate the fields on the southern coast. Combine these with the veredas, Madeira’s mountain trails, and you’ve got yourself the ultimate way to go walking in Madeira: the Madeira Trail

What Is Walking in Madeira All About?

In the olden days, Madeira was primarily a destination for cruise ships and beach tourists attracted by its year-round balmy temperatures. The audience has changed dramatically over the past couple of decades. Surfers and mountain bikers have found their favourite playgrounds around the island and keen hikers have started to discover the levadas and veredas across the central mountain range.

One of the most attractive things about walking in Madeira is the big variety in landscapes. You could be walking on the top of a huge cliff, following the course of a levada through a mystical laurel forest and enjoying the ocean view from one of the rugged peaks that form the backbone of the island all on the very same day. There is also lots of variety in terms of trails. Generally the lower level trails in the southwest and the far northeast are fairly easy without much technicality and exposure. The deeper you go inland to the proper mountains, the steeper and more exposed the trails get. The pathways along many levadas have been restored in the last 10 years and made safer for hikers. Having said that, it can still get a little rough and slippery underfoot sometimes.

What Is Walking in Madeira All About?

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Madeira owes much to the levadas that run criss-cross all over the island. The name levada is derived from the Portuguese verb "levar" - to carry, and refers to a system of kilometres-long channels or aqueducts that mostly contour around the mountains and even run straight through them. They were designed to transport water from various sources to the lower parts of the island. The origin of levadas dates back to the 15th century when the first settlements on Madeira were established. Water from the higher mountains was used at that time for the sugarcane fields that can still be found on the island today. Madeira was the largest sugar exporter of the old world. Almost every levada is accompanied by a trail. This was previously used for maintaining the waterways, but nowadays it mainly serves as a superb walking trail. Madeira has no less than 3,000 kilometres of levadas.

To identify and map the paths along the levadas and veredas, Madeira has created a number system for the various trails; the PRs. This stands for Pequena Rota, or in English, "Small Routes." There are 23 of them on Madeira, and approximately half of them run along the levadas. The other half is covered by veredas. These are more traditional paths, and run for example, to the highest peaks of the island. The great thing is that many of the levadas and veredas are easy to connect, allowing you to do multi-day hikes across the island.

Madeira Trail 5790

Is Walking in Madeira Something for Me?

On Madeira there is a suitable walk for everybody, especially if you are mainly going to do day hikes. In this blogpost we focus on a multi-day, coast to coast hiking route that we call the Madeira Trail. The Madeira Trail is an 85 kilometre thru-hike spanning the mountains of Madeira from the east to the northwest coast of the island. Although you won’t walk more than 20 kilometres a day, you better bring your climbing legs. In five days you’ll climb and descend a whopping 5,370 metres, mostly on pretty steep terrain. Some of the paths that lead to the highest summits are very narrow, with steep drops on either side. This is not a place for people with vertigo.

Yes, you have to be a confident and fit hiker to tackle the Madeira Trail. However, it’s not all about hardship. The walking days are quite balanced with no extreme differences between them. After each stage, Bookatrekking.com can organise your comfortable Madeiran guesthouse or mountain hut. And for most of the way we can transport your luggage for you as well, so you can focus on the hiking itself.

If you like to work hard on the trail, you’re seeking a true adventure and you’re a sucker for mountain tops and epic ocean views, then the Madeira Trail may be the hike you’re looking for!

Is Walking in Madeira Something for Me?

Where Do I Go Walking in Madeira and How Can I Get There?

Travelling to Madeira is fairly easy. The island is well-served by a number of airlines from Europe’s main airports such as London, Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt. Funchal, Madeira’s capital city, is the port of entry for all flights.

Getting around on Madeira however, can be a challenge. Madeira does have a decent network of roads to reach all corners of the island. But public transport is rather limited, especially to and from the western side of the island. This makes it sometimes difficult and expensive to reach the start of the walking routes. The PR routes that we talked about before can be found all over the island. If a multi-day hike is something for you, we have good news. Access to the Madeira Trail is not so much of a problem, as there are only two points where you need transportation. Reaching the trailhead in Machico is easy, as there are plenty of buses operating from Funchal. And at the end of the trek it’s easy to organise a taxi that takes you back to Funchal. Of course Bookatrekking.com is happy to organise the transfers to and from the start and finish for you.

The Madeira Trail connects no less than 9 different PR routes all across the island from Machico to Ribeira da Janela. If you’re keen to hike a large chunk of Madeira’s PR walks, then hiking the Madeira Trail might be the most efficient way to do it.

Where Do I Go Walking in Madeira and How Can I Get There?

Where Do I Stay When I Go Walking in Madeira?

Unlike the coastal areas, it is a little harder to find accommodation in the mountain areas. The Madeira Trail is designed in a way that the distance between accommodations is feasible in terms of walking distance. The places you will stay at are actually pretty good! All are located in or on the edge of natural conservation areas and you even stay in a mountain hut next to Madeira’s highest peak! Here’s a rundown on the accommodation we may use on the Madeira Trail.

Day by Day Itineraty in Madeira

The Madeira Trail is a 5-day trek across the Portuguese island of Madeira. This remote sub-tropical island is situated in the Atlantic Ocean, about 500 kilometres from the African continent. The hiking route runs from the east to the northwest coast of the island via a network of pathways that connect the ridges and mountain peaks.
Day
1

Machico - Ribeiro Frio

Duration: 07:30 h
Distance: 19.9 km
Ascent: 1150 m
Descent: 480 m
The Madeira Trail kicks off on the PR5 at the northwestern edge of the town Machico. A steep climb through a forest of ferns takes you to the top of a mountain ridge. The trail continues to the west and meets the first levada of the trek, Levada da Portela. From Portela (the village) enjoy the stunning views across the rugged north coast and the town of Porto da Cruz. The trail continues as the PR10. As you gradually ascend, you keep walking through the untouched forest alongside Levada do Furado until you reach Ribeiro Frio (Cold River) where you’ll spend the night.

Casa do Ribeiro Frio (Santana)

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Casa do Ribeiro Frio (Santana)
Day
2

Ribeiro Frio - Casa do Ruivo

Duration: 07:05 h
Distance: 15.1 km
Ascent: 1480 m
Descent: 580 m

Be ready for a big climb today as you are heading towards Madeira’s highest point, Pico Ruivo. The day starts with a climb towards a viewpoint called Cabeço da Lenha. As you cross the Parque Ecológico do Funchal, you’ll hop on the popular PR3. The trail leads to the first, and possibly the most spectacular peak on the Madeira Trail, Pico do Arieiro. With an altitude of 1818 metres this is Madeira’s third highest mountain. Apart from sipping a cappuccino in the restaurant you can explore a small side trail taking you to Miradouro do Juncal, offering arguably the most spectacular mountain view on the entire island.

The PR3 becomes the PR1 as you head north towards Pico Ruivo. The trail bypasses Madeira’s second highest peak Pico das Torres (1862 metres) and runs through a barren landscape towards the summit ridge of Pico Ruivo. Here you will find your epic spot for the night, the mountain hut Casa de Abrigo do Pico Ruivo. If you are early you could still scale Pico Ruivo, only a 15 minutes hike up.

Casa de Abrigo do Pico Ruivo (Pico Ruivo)

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Casa de Abrigo do Pico Ruivo (Pico Ruivo)
Day
3

Casa do Ruivo - Boca da Encumeada

Duration: 06:10 h
Distance: 10.2 km
Ascent: 490 m
Descent: 1240 m
If you haven’t scaled Pico Ruivo yet, then that’s probably how you will start your day. Today’s route on the Vereda da Encumeada (PR1.3), is essentially a ridge walk that slices through the heart of Madeira. You’re quite literally with your head in the clouds. Along the way you pass other high peaks such as Pico Jorge and Pico do Ferreiro. It’s the shortest day of the trek, but it may also be the most adventurous stretch on the Madeira Trail. You’ll stay in a guesthouse in Boca da Encumeada.

Estalagem Encumeada (Feiteiras)

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Estalagem Encumeada (Feiteiras)
Day
4

Encumeada - Seixal

Duration: 08:10 h
Distance: 19.1 km
Ascent: 1050 m
Descent: 1560 m
It’s time to hit the levadas again! You start by following Levada do Norte (PR17), which includes a kilometre long pitch black tunnel. Better bring your head torch! The trail passes small waterfalls and moss covered rocks. After you pass a bigger waterfall near a place called Chão das Poças, it’s a steep climb to higher grounds again on the route CR28. You’ll be bagging the 1640 metre high Pico Ruivo do Paul before traversing to the final big descent of the day to the northern edge of Seixal, where you spend the night.

Nature Retreat - Laurel Forest (Seixal)

Info
Nature Retreat - Laurel Forest (Seixal)
Day
5

Seixal - Ribeira da Janela

Duration: 07:50 h
Distance: 19 km
Ascent: 1060 m
Descent: 1430 m
The final day starts with a massive climb on the Vereda das Voltas through a beautiful old-grown forest. The trail connects with PR13, Vereda do Fanal. Here your legs can rest a little as you stay at the same altitude for a while. After passing the rest station Fanal you hit the Levada dos Cedros (PR14) that descends towards the dramatic northwest coast at Ribeira da Janela where you can celebrate your thru-hike of the Madeira Trail!
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Packing List for the Madeira Trail

No matter where you go hiking or for how long, bringing the right equipment is of utmost importance. For your hike, the first thing you need is a good backpack. The size of it will depend on the number of days you will be trekking, the season and the clothes you take with you. If you have luggage transport, the comfort level of your daypack is most important. We have compiled a packing list with a few essential items of clothing you should bring and some extras you might find useful:
  • Essentials

  • Extras

Safety tips for the Madeira Trail

Although this is far from being a trek in the Himalayas, unexpected things can always happen and you might also find obstacles on the hiking trails along the way. The Madeira Trail is safe, the trails are quite straight forward and there is not an extreme difference in altitude. However, for your safety, every hike deserves a level of respect; respect for the terrain, the trails, wildlife and vegetation, local rules and regulations, and above all, your physical capabilities and safety. Therefore, for an unforgettable and safe hiking memory, please keep the following safety recommendations in mind:

  • Know your limits

    Always prepare each stage carefully to use your energy wisely, respect your physical and mental limitations, and avoid taking unnecessary risks. When ascending or descending, if applicable, always use the aids provided, such as handrails and ropes. Is this trek suitable for you? Well, familiarize yourself with the grading system and figure out if this trek matches your capabilities. If you still need professional advice you can always contact Bookatrekking.com experts.

  • Stay on marked trails

    The most important thing is to never leave the marked paths. For easy navigation we work with our trusted partner Komoot, whose interactive maps, also available offline, provide you with the necessary digital means to get from A to B in the Madeira Trail. As a backup, make sure to bring a hiking guide or a paper map with you.

  • Fully equipped

    Make sure you have the necessary gear for the conditions you'll be facing, including appropriate clothing, footwear, and any necessary equipment for the terrain you'll be hiking on. Always wear clothing adapted to the weather of Madeira Trail and protect yourself from cold and wetness or heat and sun. Besides, make sure you carry enough food and water for the duration of your trek. On the way, you might (or might not) be able to buy snacks.

  • Stay reachable

    If you are hiking solo or in small groups it is advisable to inform people back home about your plans, what route you are taking and when you plan to return. Even small incidents can lead to unpleasant emergencies so make sure you are available at all times. Bring a charged phone containing at least the phone numbers of immediate family members, your accommodations en route and the emergency phone numbers operating in the Madeira Trail.

  • Respect for nature

    Do not litter, prevent noise, stay on the marked trails, do not disturb wildlife or grazing animals, and respect protected areas.

Do you have a self-guided adventure on your wish list and are you curious about all the possible alternatives? Check out all our offers for the Madeira Trail here!

Where Can I Book the Madeira Trail?

At Bookatrekking.com you can book the self-guided Madeira Trail and many other treks. We take care of all the details for you, including arranging accommodations, organizing luggage transportation and providing you with relevant information well in advance of your trek. Find our offers here. Our easy-to-use platform allows you to browse and compare different trekking options and find the perfect fit for your interests, abilities, and budget.

If you have any questions about a specific trek or need help choosing the right one for you, our team of trekking experts is here to assist you. Simply reach out to us and we will be happy to provide you with personalized recommendations and advice to help you plan the trekking adventure of a lifetime.

Is the Madeira Trail not your cup of tea and are you looking for other epic adventures? Check out one of our following blog posts:

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