A large percentage of visitors come to hike the island's unique levadas – irrigation channels along which you can walk to otherwise inaccessible locations. Boat rides are another must, particularly the whale- and seal-spotting trips that leave Funchal marina several times a day. Diving, canyoning, mountain biking, sea kayaking and hand gliding are other popular activities.

Hiking

Levada walks can be found all over the island but the best are arguably high in the mountains. There are other hiking trails, such as the path along the Ponta de São Lourenço at the eastern end of the island and those heading to/from Encumeada, a high pass in the island's centre.

Story of the Levadas

Many countries around the world have created irrigation systems but none are quite like Madeira’s levadas. Apart from being a feat of engineering, determination and ingenuity, it’s their accessibility and the truly spectacular landscapes to which they give access that make them truly unique. They are the lifeblood of the island, providing water to taps, fields and gardens, and electricity to homes and businesses through hydroelectric power. Madeira has no real stable rivers, so without them human habitation on the island would be nigh on impossible.

So how did this small island come to have such a mammoth network of levadas? The first settlers soon realised that the rainfall and mist that drenched the mountainous interior somehow needed to be channelled down to the warm, dry south coast. Over 2 metres of precipitation a year can fall in the north of the island while the fertile south coast may not see a drop for half a year. Work began in the 16th century on creating fast-flowing aqueducts and over the next three centuries the network was developed, often using slave labour. Many died carving out the channels through impossibly rugged mountainscapes but by the 1900s 1000km of levadas were supplying water for agriculture and for drinking.

But there was a problem – many levadas were privately owned and the distribution of precious water was often unfair. In 1939 the state stepped in to study the irrigation system and commission more channels. By 1970 the system was essentially complete, though minor work is still ongoing. The island’s longest levadas such as the Levada do Norte and the Levada dos Tornos were built at this time and are vital pieces of infrastructure.

As you enjoy a leisurely levada stroll, spare a thought for those who maintain the hundreds of kilometres of channels, tunnels, bridges, reservoirs, ducts and sluices. Around 99% of the system can only be accessed on foot – tools and materials have to be hauled by teams of workers sometimes tens of kilometres to where a rock fall or a landslip has caused a snarl-up. You will often meet these hardy work gangs on the trails.

Hiking the Levadas

One of the reasons people come to Madeira is to hike the levadas – 2500km of irrigation channels along which gentle paths lead through the wilds. A levada walk is the quintessential Madeira experience. Depart Funchal early in the morning, wander the dramatic landscape, picnicking along the way, and make it back into the city for dinner. Try at least one – most visitors are hooked straightaway.

Going it Alone

There aren’t many levada walks you can’t tackle on your own. However, accessing the start of the trail can take some planning, especially if you don’t have a hire car. All of Madeira’s bus companies now post their timetables online and routes are designed with tourists and walkers in mind. The tourist office in Funchal can help out with planning, as can hotel receptions. Doing things by car creates a problem as levada walks are linear routes, meaning you might need a bus to get you back to where you parked. Taxis are a good solution but can make the day an expensive affair. For example, if you arrange for a Funchal cab to wait in Portela, the trip back to the city costs over €50.

Joining a Group

Every day tens of groups leave for the levadas on half- and full-day hikes. While these free you of the need to think about the logistics of getting to and from the walk, groups often move fast and you don’t have the freedom to tarry where you like for as long as you like. Tours are cheap (around €25 for a full-day hike), guides usually very clued up and you are often picked up and dropped off at your accommodation by the tour company. However groups can be large, clogging up the narrow paths and scaring off wildlife. Cruise-ship groups can be particularly huge. Lunch is sometimes provided for an extra charge and bookings can be made at countless places throughout the Hotel Zone.

Maps & Guidebooks

If you are heading out alone, having a map and/or specialist guidebook is recommended. The Sunflower guides to Madeira by John and Pat Underwood set the standard for all the others and are widely available on the island (even at supermarkets in the Hotel Zone). Levadas and Footpaths of Madeira by Raimundo Quintal is a little out of date but gives a lot of background. Cicerone’s Walking in Madeira maps out 60 routes across the island while Walk Madeira by Shirley and Mike Whitehead plots a range of hikes for all abilities. Madeira Tour and Trail 1:40,000, available on Madeira, is one of the best maps around. Kompass sheet 234 Madeira 1:50,000 is also a good companion on the trails and when driving.

Top Tips

  • It’s often a good idea to contact the tourist office to find out if the route you intend to take is affected by the weather or repair work.
  • Good hiking boots, a torch, waterproofs and food are a must.
  • Exposed sections are common and definitely not for vertigo sufferers.
  • Never walk in the levadas, throw anything into them or (how should we put it?) use them as an outdoor convenience.