Walking vacations in Madeira

A Madeira walking vacation is the best way to discover the extraordinary natural beauty and cultural heritage of this volcanic Portuguese island, whether you’re walking as part of a small group with a guide, moving between accommodation or based in a single place, or on a self-guided, point to point route. Manmade levadas carve through mountainous peaks and UNESCO protected laurel forest, leading you to hidden waterfalls and majestic views of the Atlantic, where whales and dolphins can often be seen dancing in the waves off the coast. Walks take you to isolated villages surrounded by terraces of cultivated vine, along rocky shorelines and up to mountain summits where cloud swirls beneath your feet.

Where to walk in Madeira

Pico Ruivo

It takes a bit of effort to reach the summit of Pico Ruivo, Madeira’s highest mountain, but the panoramas you’re rewarded with afterwards would be worth double. This is among the most scenic walking routes on Madeira, with no end of astonishing viewpoints where you can pause and catch your breath. Watching as the cloud slowly lifts to reveal forest, coastline and mountain peaks is an astonishing spectacle.

São Lourenco Peninsula

Some of Madeira’s most dramatic scenery is to be found around the São Lourenco Peninsula, the far easterly point of the island. For much of the year this narrow spit of land is stark and barren, yet the towering sea cliffs on each side and the blue Atlantic more than compensate. The walk itself is fairly gentle, although it can get windy and you’re quite exposed up there.

Caldeirão Verde

The levada route to this beautiful waterfall – the ‘Green Cauldron’ – is one of the best known on Madeira, beginning in the Queimadas Nature Reserve and continuing through a magnificent stretch of laurel forest and several dark tunnels. There are a few steep precipices involved, too, fenced off with steel cables. Expect stunning scenery and a lovely lagoon swim at the end.
Travel Team
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Walking Maderia's levadas

Madeira’s levadas are a network of open irrigation channels, built to transport water from the wet north of the island to the more parched south. They were developed from the 16th century onwards and present a spectacular feat of engineering, as many run over mountains, through tunnels and dense vegetation, and under waterfalls. The levada system is still in use today, and walking the footpaths alongside the channels takes you through some of the island’s most beautiful landscapes.

Practicalities on a walking vacation in Madeira

Madeira walking vacations are a sublime combination of relaxation and exercise amid stunning scenery. Most trips last around a week during which you can see a great deal of the island, and begin with arrival into the picturesque capital, Funchal. Typically these are guided small group tours with a maximum of 16 participants, making walking the trails very sociable. A guide will lead each walk, explaining more about what you’re seeing, from the landscapes to the flora, and will also have the experience to pick alternative routes if rough weather threatens.

In terms of the walks themselves, Madeira’s inland is mountainous so there can be some challenging sections where a degree of physical fitness is useful. The more demanding treks such as the climb up Pico Ruivo (1,862m), the highest peak on Madeira, will see you covering around 16km over eight hours, with ascents of up to 650m involved. Most days are far less strenuous and if you tend to walk fairly regularly at home you shouldn’t have much difficulty. Tailormade self-guided options are also available, allowing you the freedom to set your own pace.

The majority of trips use a couple of bases, and involve changing accommodation at least once so that you get to see different parts of the island. Accommodations themselves range from historic houses to coastal guesthouses and locally run bed and breakfasts, and on point to point itineraries your luggage will be transferred by vehicle so you can walk with just a daypack.

When to take a walking vacation in Madeira

You can go on a Madeira walking vacation at any time, as trips run all year round. Summer in Madeira is glorious, though temperatures can top 33°C in July and August, and in the winter, between December and February, there is a far greater risk of rain. Walking itineraries tend to get out of Funchal and into the countryside quickly, thus avoiding the worst of the cruise ship crowds which are at their busiest in the summer months. Carnival in March and the Funchal Flower Festival in May are two of the biggest events in the Madeira calendar and make a very colourful bookend to your trip.
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Allie_Caulfield] [Intro: Florian Meißner] [São Lourenco Peninsula: Adam Smigielski] [What are levadas?: Colin Gregory]