Our introduction to walking on Madeira came as a punch-in-the-gut shock. We knew some routes on the Floating Garden of the Atlantic had become extremely popular at certain times of the year, but not the São Lourenço Peninsula.
Staying in Santo da Serra, we arrived at the parking area for the walk relatively early, yet it was already rammed. So much so, a human caterpillar stretched along the peninsula’s ridge, looking like a line of ants trundling off into the sunrise. It was also hot, 30C hot, and without shade. We set off along the earthy path with a grumble – it was too hot and there were far too many people dressed for that essential Instagram shot overlooking an ocean that was as shimmery as some of the make-up on show. We managed a kilometre or so before I declared ‘this isn’t working for me.’ Andy agreed. With more and more cars lining up desperately seeking somewhere to park, we fled to the tranquillity of hills at Santo da Serra to regroup and come up with another plan.
Walking on Madeira, unplanned Levada de Serra
Having lost most of the morning, we stayed local. A five-minute drive from the Hotel PortoBay Serra Golf and we were parked on a dirt track leading to the Levada de Serra. It was bliss. There were no other people, the dappled shade was cooling, the air filled with the tube-clearing scent of eucalyptus, and we’d gone the wrong way. My fault. I could say I misread a map which didn’t quite accurately reflect the lay of the land. But the truth was I was rushing, so didn’t take the time to check my surroundings carefully enough. We were following a levada, how can you go wrong? This rookie error resulted in us following the levada south instead of northwest. The result was a walk which was pleasant – with montbretia and hydrangea lining a path which gave occasional glimpses of fertile valleys (that reminded me of parts of the western Canary Islands), the south coast, and the crowded peninsula we left in our wake – without being outstanding.
An 11km out and back route got us back to Santo da Serra in time for a Super Bock Preto on the terrace of a friendly bar/café in the village. It wasn’t either of the walks we planned but it was good enough to save a day that had been in danger of being a bust.
Walking on Madeira, Levada Nova & the coast
After walking for 360m, we were both bent over gasping for breath. The ascent was meaty, 150m over a kilometre, and the sun pounded down mercilessly, but it was four months of not walking that was really responsible. A tip saved us some of the ascent – park at Pedregal instead of Ponta do Pargo – and we were grateful for it. The thing about levada walking is that following the levada itself isn’t challenging but getting to the levada often requires effort. But boy does that make you pleased when you level out. Following a circuit from Pedregal meant all the hard walking was mostly done at the start. This was a route of two halves. The first involved the climb and sticking with Levada Nova as it travelled north. Another thing about levada walking is, because you’re following the winding route of a water channel, there’s little need for navigation. You can relax and enjoy the surroundings – on this case, views across the west coast and explosions of agapanthus along the path.
The second half of the route involved a steep descent where we met a British couple in their 70s on the way up. They usually visited in winter months when the weather was friendlier (i.e. not so hot for challenging ascents). From the Capela de Nossa Senhora de Boa Morte (not a name you want to see at the start of a challenging climb), the path undulated along the coast, passing through tiny agricultural hamlets before, 10.5km after setting off, we closed the anarchic circle back at Pedregal.
Walking on Madeira, Levada Nova heading east
The weather broke for our last two days on Madeira, with wind and rain replacing sunshine. A drive across the interior involved avoiding rockfall and navigating through fog so thick I felt as if I could have pulled tufts off as if they were cotton wool. Despite appalling weather, the car park at Fanal was packed. Subsequently, instead of trying one of the more popular routes, we spent our penultimate day walking a section of the Levada Nova from west to east.
There’s a convenient car park right beside the levada at the Paul do Mar exit from the VE3. As it was a misery of a day, I didn’t expect much, yet it turned out to be my favourite walk. For a start, the lack of September sunshine kept it cooler – you can always dress for cool, rainy weather but you can’t escape the heat. Plus, the rain mostly kept away, apart from some smirr now and again. The mist which had made driving so perilous added atmosphere to jungle-like surroundings. There was also a fascinating contrast between the old and the new. The levada hugged ravines and folds in the landscape while spanking new bridges stepped smartly across them, cutting out kilometres. In terms of variety, dense eucalyptus forest, swathes of sugar cane, white agapanthus, and Japanese chestnuts contrasted with the levada weaving its way through agricultural lands and traditional villages. It was a joy and, without any ascents or descents, we notched up 18km without even thinking about it.
Although this was a taster of walking on Madeira, we expected that by visiting at the end of the Portuguese summer holidays and before the winter walking season kicked in, the showcase paths would be quieter. Maybe they were, but compared to routes we’ve walked in the Canary Islands, they were still too busy for us, making us wonder if Madeira had become a victim of its own success and popularity. However, It’s a big enough island with a lot of potential walking routes. By avoiding the most popular ones, we ended up sharing trails with only a handful of other walkers.