One of the must-sees on Madeira is Pico do Arieiro, the third highest peak on the island and the only one out of the three that’s possible to reach by car. We visited this peak on our third day with our guide, David, from Up Mountain Madeira. Along the way, he also took us to a few other key sites on the island.
On Madeira, as in most other places where the Portuguese had left a strong impression, is a statue of Christ the Redeemer. This one was actually built four years before the world-famous statue by the same name in Brazil was completed. The status stands on a scenic rise, and like its counterpart in Brazil, overlooks the Atlantic ocean, stretching out into the horizon.
From this vantage point, we were also treated to a rather spectacular view of the city of Funchal and its harbour.
After we had spent some time soaking in the views, sunshine and peace and quiet on this particular spot, we moved on to the main attraction for the day – Pico do Arieiro.
As we climbed higher and higher up in altitude, the air became increasingly cold and the wind very blustery. The sun however, still shone bright and hot whenever there was a break in the clouds, which made it a a little bit more pleasant.
The first thing you’ll notice is the huge NATO radar tower coming into view as you drive towards the spot where the short trail to the very top begins. It’s a rather imposing and alien looking structure in what seems to be a wild and natural environment. This illusion is somewhat broken the moment you pull into the parking area, which was filled with tour buses, even on a day when the weather wasn’t at its best.
However, what you lose in privacy, you gain in convenience. We’ve never been to another peak that’s quite so easy to get to as this one. A few minutes’ walk up a paved ramp, and you’re there, at one of the highest points on the island. Up here, we were treated to a spectacular view of the lush laurel forests that extended all around us, growing on mountain tops and deep crevasses in the valleys. It was wonderful to see the primeval landscape unfold all 360° from where we stood.
After we came back down the ramp, we noticed another path that led to a spot height on the other side, and went that way. If you’re not too observant, you may miss it, and it would be a waste. There are less people on this short trail, and the views on it are equally as stunning. It’s also a little shaded from the strong winds by the surrounding outcrops, so you’ll be able to take more time to soak up the landscape.
A few minutes drive east from Pico do Arieiro is a popular walk that leads to the Balcões belvedere, so called because it ends up at a lookout point on a small flat outcrop that resembles a balcony.
It starts at Ribeiro Frio, following the levada Serra do Faial before opening up to the lookout point. The flat, wide path cuts through a huge rocky feature before creeping alongside the slope of the mountain, lined with laurel trees.
Our guide stoped us at one point to pick off a strange woody fungus that grew on all the trunks of the laurel plants. He gave it to us to smell – it smelled very strongly of laurel.
At the belvedere, a splendid scene of the verdant Laurisilva forest valleys all around greeted us. From here, you should also be able to see Madeira’s central mountain chain with its highest peaks – Pico do Arieiro, Pico do Gato, Pico das Torres and Pico Ruivo. And if you are extra lucky, you’ll catch sight of a few of the birds native to the island (all conveniently illustrated on an information board on the lookout point).
We headed towards the town of Santana for lunch, taking an off-road route that went through some very lovely patches of forests where we stopped to pick off passionfruit from creepers that were growing on the trees around us. Along the way we passed by many scenic towns that are still primarily agricultural, among these was Porto da Cruz, a place famous for its vine cultivation and the beverage for which the island is known for – the Madeira wine.
In Santana, there’s a peculiar tourist attraction known as the ‘traditional house’. It’s the only house on the island that still retains the original architectural features of the earliest dwellings that were built on Madeira. Its primary features are its thatched roof and colourful windows and doors. The man who bought the house so very many years ago is still living, with his son and his family, in a newer wing built behind the original structure, which has been standing since the turn of the previous century.
We did a short, but very lovely, levada walk in the area around Santana. This levada walk cut through the terraced orchards of the many farms in the area.
The scenery on this walk is beautiful and had a different character to our other walks. It was also eye-opening to see the many farmers (quite a few of whom were women) at work, caring for their crop.
To end the day, David took us to Santa Cruz, a town by the seaside, to get the famous Madeiran snack – the quijada.
This one was particularly special, it was twice as large as a regular quijada, and the soft cheese filling was laced with ripe passionfruit pulp. We enjoyed it along the pier, relaxing from the day’s activities by gazing into the horizon.