The scent of lilies and mimosa flowers perfumes the warm air, and our ears ring with birdsong. Everywhere is green and lush – giant ferns, elder trees, wild fennel.
We’re hiking in Madeira along an historic “levada” or irrigation channel.
More than 200 levadas criss-cross the Portuguese island, and some of the best Madeira hikes are levada walks. Indeed these hikes and walks along the levadas are among the top things to do in Madeira!
Madeira hikes and levadas
Dating back to the 16th century, Madeira has almost 2,000 miles of levadas, including 25 miles of tunnels.
These narrow hand-dug channels disperse water from the wetter uplands to the drier southern part of the island to irrigate crops and agricultural fields. (In the days of the early Portuguese settlers, water from the levadas was also used to to power the capital of Funchal’s sugar-cane mills.)
Most of the maintenance paths running alongside the levadas – about one to two feet wide – make ideal hiking paths.
Offering stunning views of waterfalls, forests and mountaintop villages, it’s little wonder that walking in Madeira on these levada trails is popular. The weather is perfect for walking and hiking – temperate and moderate – sort of like the weather you’d get if hiking in Ireland in high summer (maybe just a little warmer).
If you’re looking for adventure in Madeira, levada hiking ranks right up there!
3 Best Madeira hikes
So lace up your hiking boots! Haul out your packable daypack too.
The following levada walks are 3 of the best hikes in Madeira.
All of these levada hikes can be experienced while staying in Funchal (it’s a short drive to reach the start of the trails). Bonus to basing yourself in the capital: You can easily enjoy other fun things to do in Funchal – like its famous toboggan rides.
1) Referta Levada Walk (Levada do Castelejo)
Today, we’ve booked a half-day guided excursion following the Levada do Castelejo, one of the easy levada walks on Madeira.
After making our way to the trail head, we walk single file behind our guide. The dirt trail is mostly flat, sometimes downhill, as it follows the gravity-fed path of water.
In late April, the sun is shining warmly in a clear blue sky. Beautiful calla lilies grow wild – good food for pigs, our guide says!
“And the cows have room service,” he adds. “The farmers feed them in these little sheds.”
He explains that the mountainsides are so steep there’s no room for the cows to roam and graze, and so they must be fed.
We also learn that the farmers do everything by hand here. They carry potatoes and sugar cane down the slopes by basket. The children must walk to school as there are no roads.
We pass small red-roofed farmhouses with flower-filled balconies and small vegetable gardens.
Everything grows here – from garlic and onions to avocado to bananas and strawberries. Beans are laid out to dry on shed roofs. And grape vines grow in each yard.
“The farmers all make their own wine,” our guide grins.
At a little stand with fresh-picked bananas and oranges, a sign says “Help yourself: 50 cents.”
Our walk ends with a stop at a local bar to taste Madeira’s traditional beverage, poncha, a blend of local rum, lemon juice and honey – a great way to finish off our morning!
2) Levada of 25 Fountains
On a previous visit to the island, we stepped out on another Madeira hike – the Levada of 25 Fountains. A longer trail, it’s considered one of the best levada walks on Madeira.
The drive from Funchal to the trailhead takes you 4,900 feet high up craggy mist-shrouded mountains and enormous ravines, then down into the emerald-green valley of Rabacal.
The levada trail first descends through laurel and heather forest to the Risco waterfall thundering down a sheer vertical cliff. You then join a stone path, mossy and slippery in places, that snakes its way around the mountainside.
Again, the views are stunning, but if they start to overwhelm, look the other way at the small rainbow trout darting up and down the levada trough.
After a picnic lunch by a cool lake splashed by many waterfalls (the “25 fountains”), flashlights are needed to walk through a 2,600-foot tunnel, which takes you from the fertile northern part of the island to the drier southern half – and the end of this exhilarating hike on Madeira.
3) Levada do Furado
Built in the 1870s, this levada walking trail begins in the lovely Ribiero Frio Forest Park and weaves its ways through Madeira’s rare laurel forest high above the Frio Valley.
All around, you see laurel, bay, lily-of-the-valley and mahogany trees. There are stupendous views over farm fields towards the coastal village of Porta de Cruz, and you pass through several tunnels.
Following the Levada do Furado is another one of the best hikes in Madeira.
Other good Madeira hiking trails
See the Madeira Regional Tourism Board website.
Canada has some awesome hikes! Check out the Joffre Lakes trail (you might even see bears)
Tips: Hiking in Madeira
The network of levadas isn’t all that well-marked, and if you’re not familiar with the trail, you could get lost. For a safe and pleasant Madeira hike, follow these tips:
Visiting Lisbon before Madeira? We loved our stay at the Olissippo Lapa Palace hotel – read our review here
Guided Madeira walking tours
These three companies get good reviews for their guided levada walks and Madeira walking tours:
Madeira guide books
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Photo credits: 1, 5 to 9, 12 to 16 and 18 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase