For the avid hiker, Madeira is famous for its levada walks. “Levada” is the Portuguese word for channel, and there are many that crisscross the lush laurisilva forests of the island, bringing water from the rainy and wet north to the drier south. These levada walks are a great way to see the UNESCO protected laurel forests – living relics from the Tertiary period of the Earth, which ended 2.6 million years ago.
These levadas are cut precariously into the steep mountain slopes of the island, with trails about a foot wide built alongside them that you can walk on. Although they are perfectly safe, they can at times be vertigo inducing as they provide a view into the bottom of the valley down far below.
For our first day on the island, our guide, David, from Up Mountain Madeira, came to pick us up at our hotel to take us to the starting point of two popular levada walks, Levada do Risco and the Levada das 25 Fontes. Up Mountain Madeira is a small company specialising in bespoke hiking and jeep tours. Our guide, David was really personable and fun, and knew a great deal about the flora and fauna of the island. I enjoyed hearing him talk about the unique birds and plants of the protected laurisilva forests that made up much of the island. I also appreciated his flexibility and how he adapted the day’s plan according to the weather and how we were feeling.
Unfortunately for us, on this day, it was raining and rather foggy, so we could not hike the route they would usually recommend as it would have been too wet. Nevertheless, there is a silver lining in every cloud – the bad weather had deterred many other walkers and we were lucky to have one of the island’s most popular routes to ourselves.
To start the trail, you get off at a stop point on the regional road E.R. 110. Had the weather been better, we would have hiked the two kilometres down to the Rabaçal shelter – a little house where the levada workers used to live, back in the day when getting around the island took hours and the men that repaired the levadas had to live near them. Because the trail was too slippery to hike, we had to take the van down the asphalt road to reach to the start of the tourist route to Levada das 25 Fontes and Levado do Risco.
The walks start out along one main trail which eventually branches out, leading you to two separate waterfalls.
At the branch, we continued straight on, to the Risco waterfall. Although there was a fog obscuring the view in the distance, a break in the clouds would occasionally provide us a panorama of the beautiful mountainside, all the more epic because its tops were steaming in the mist.
The waterfall itself is pretty impressive, standing at about 1000 meters above sea level. The wind, which was manageable where we stood, was much more powerful above, blowing the falling water up into the air so that the water wasn’t so much as falling as it was rising! David told us that this was not at all a usual sight. I thoroughly enjoyed watching the trails of water being thrown up into the wind.
To get to the 25 Fountains, we had to double back and turn left at the divergence. This walk was a little more precarious, edging at times right to the edge of the mountain, one misstep and you could come tumbling all the way down. Although you’d have to be really careless for that to happen.
This path curves along the mountainside, leading out towards the sea. Eventually, we turned into a bend leading to the 25 Fountains. Its full name is the Lagos das 25 Fontes, or the lagoon of the 25 springs. It’s called that because there are indeed 25 little waterfalls pouring into a little lagoon. Some of the springs pour out from over the lip of the mountain cliff, and some seem to come out of nowhere. It’s a pretty little lagoon. Had the weather been better, I might even have been tempted to take a dip in it.
The waterfalls and the stunning view were not the only wonderful things along this walk by the Levada. Along the way, David also alerted us to some of the fascinating flora and fauna that live in the forest around us. Among these were two birds, the chaffinch and the Madeira firecrest. They are both small fluffy creatures that are completely unafraid of humans, oftentimes coming close enough to touch.
At one point during the walk, our guide plucked the leaves of a plant called the maleficient perch. He had to wash his hands right after as the sap was toxic. He told us that this plant was used to stun fishes in a lake, to make them easier to catch. A good trick to know should the apocalypse hit and you find yourself in need to eat from the land!
After this, we went for lunch at La Parreira. It is one of the most memorable restaurants I’ve ever been to. Firstly, there was no menu, you simply got the meat from the butcher and took it to the restaurant where they would BBQ it for you. Secondly, the food was served on skewers hanging from a rope slung across the ceiling...
If you felt like it, you could put the bread basket under the meat, letting it soak up all the lovely juices as it dripped from the skewers. The food was very tasty and perfectly done. Getting a BBQ right ain’t easy, and this place does it extremely well, all for a bargain.
Our day was supposed to end off with another short Levada walk, unfortunately, it had started raining, and David decided to show us Cabo Girão, the second highest cliff in the world. I enjoyed looking at the tiny vegetable terraces far down below through the glass platform. This beautiful view of the Atlantic and the southern coast of Madeira was an excellent ending point for the day’s adventures.