From The Madeira Island Web Site

Mountain walking
Mountain walks on Madeira
By Oliver R. Donald Guenay
Jun 5, 2008 - 10:49:39 AM

Madeira has a clear volcanic origin just like its neighbours, the Canary Islands, to the south of Madeira in the Atlantic.

Volcanic activity, followed by erosion, formed an  impressive landscape: steep cliffs, large canyons and gullies, dominated by a number of peaks and needles, which thrust themselves from the abyss out to the heavens in walls of verdejante green – conquering the vertical and providing awesome jaw-dropping vistas.

The great escape from the office!

Although the island has peaks and mountains of considerable elevation, Pico Ruivo being the highest one with 1862 m in altitude,  reaching these peaks by hiking from all the way from the bottom of the valleys  has not been very popular, and as such is still something of an undeveloped sport or pastime on the island.

Mountain walking in general appeared only quite recently, a few decades ago, mostly brought on by the very intrepid English who sought initially to take advantage of the very lesisurely level walways along the levadas (water irrigation channels of about a metre wide) for which the island is now famous for.

The heart of the island lies in the eastern part. It is a crater like hole – the remnants of a former volcano – where we find the village of the Nuns Valley or “ Curral das Freiras”. A popular lookout point or belvedere is situated at Eira do Serrado (1095 m) above the village. This has been a popular destination for recent mountain walkers.

Views down canyons, gullies and ravines

The second most popular spot for looking at the awesome peaks of Madeira from close has to be the Pico do Areeiro. At 1818 m above sea level it is the   highest accessible point by road and has an outlook top including a 4 stars Pousada (a type of hotel) plus parking with restaurant at the road head below it.

This is the traditional way on Madeira: walking far is unlikely what both the islander and the usual tourist want or are used to!

And mountain huts, like in the alps, aren’t just simple shelters but comfortable hotels for the slightly more advanced in years to look out at the scenery from behind the window. But things are changing and younger people are starting to discover Madeira as a spot for various mountain sports.

There are two major Mountain walks, which I consider to be the islands best choice: the very famous and quite well equipped traverse from Pico do Areeiro to Pico Ruivo (frequented by hikers) and the Pico Grande, which I like most among all mountain walks, and which, of course, is more serious, especially in bad weather conditions and is tempted by far less people!

Some of the flora on the way to the peaks

The traverse of Pico do Areeiro to Pico Ruivo is well described in many guide books. It takes about 3 hours and follows the main range of the island in a south-north direction across several tunnels and steep steps, contouring the peaks of Gato and Torres with impressive jaw-dropping vertigo tingling downward views into the canyons of Cidrâo, Fajã de Nogueira and Gato.

The problem is getting to the starting point and from the end, Achada do Teixeira, back down. You will have to improvise transportation by either chartering a taxi on both sides or having patient friends who may bring you up and down.

To save money you may take a bus from Funchal to Monte and negotiate a price with a taxi there to go up to Areeiro. From the other side at Achada do Teixeira, where the walk ends, you will have to take a taxi down to Santana on the north coast and then continue by bus.

As the average altitude of the walk leads you at around 1700 mts. across the heart of the island, beware of the weather:

Under normal conditions clouds appear almost certainly at around midday, sometimes even earlier. The best time to start is early   in the morning. The weather is still reliable and the views, especially for photo shots, are spectacular !

Sometimes in high summer you have nice weather all day round and then you may walk late, too. In August and September it can get hot even there, but clouds, rain and mist, strong winds can appear at any time of the year and change the conditions dramatically within hours.

Those mountain walkers who want to be sure of getting the best conditions as early as possible can stay overnight at the Pousada do Areeiro, or, in a more mountaineers way, take a tent and sleeping bag and put it up somewhere (not quite usual on the island, but...)

Pointing the way to Pico Grande

Be well prepared: most of the walkers underestimate the mountains ! Cold, wet and slippery conditions can turn the walk into a very severe one on its exposed parts.   Accurate predictable weather forecasts for the island are difficult to find, not only since the best ones are in Portuguese, but because Madeira enjoys several micro-climates – the best information is given at the airport, the least reliable by the local newspapers or the TV!

Much more severe are walks in December, January and February when even snow can fall and make it hazardous even for the very experienced mountaineers !

Some companies provide guided walks for the inexperienced   – ask at the tourist office !

Back to my second proposal :

Picco Grande (1657 m) is less elevated than the Picos of the main range but nevertheless dominates the bottom of Nuns Valley by over 1000 metres - most of which are steep or vertical. Its north face is the highest wall of Madeira

To get to the departure point is easy: you take a bus number 3 from Funchal to Estreito de Câmara do Lobos (45 min.) and then get there by walking or or short taxi drive from the last bus stop towards the forest house of Boca da Corrida (1225 m). From there you follow the panel towards Encumeada and Curral das Freiras. The walk leads you along the mountain ribs of the Pico do Cavalo and Serradinho into the Boca do Cerro – saddle, before it gets more demanding. In that very saddle the walk splits off. You find a group of chestnut trees with a shepherds stable at the base of the escarpments of Pico Grande.

The walk down towards Encumeada Pass follows to the left across its southern flank and is very much exposed to the elements. To the right, the descent into the Nuns Valley turns off and if you follow straight ahead past the stable you‘ll find the path ascending towards the summit area of Pico Grande which climbs up steeply along the foot of the rock flank (cables) opening into a large flank of grass which you cross up towards the summit cone, a knob of rock. The path is unmarked and needs a certain sense of orientation and you can get easily lost with fog or bad weather!

To reach the summit you follow on the rock by the help of cables to very exposed top (cairn). If you want to explore the surrounding area (where there are very nice volcanic rock formations and outlooks) beware of unstable weather. After crossing a stonewall you will “dead end”   above the vertical – the dropdown of the northeast face of Pico Grande’s Antecime into the bottom of the Nuns Valley.

Turn back on the same path down to the saddle, where the path leads down to Curral das Freiras - to your left. In steep and narrow turns you reach the chestnut forest above Cumial. You cross the forest in a long zigzag and end up between the houses of this village. Close by the road junction with the Curral das Freiras road you’ll find the bus stop and a bar to take refreshments. Plan for the whole walk some 4 hours - from the starting point down to Cumial.

What a wonderful way to see Madeira - hanging off a cliff!

Other nice trips are the ascent of Pico Ruivo from Encumeada Pass, and the Pico do Cedro and Pico do Areeiro from the road to Curral das Freiras at Ribeira Lapa (2 kms before the junction with Eira do Serrado) – unmarked sheep trails.

There are some extreme walks up the canyons and gullies of the northern side on to the summits of the main range but those trails (which are entirely unmarked and extremely exposed ) cannot be recommended to inexperienced walkers.

Other steep walks just don’t lead to a summit but across the coastal cliffs such as the walk up from Paul do Mar to Prazeres – 650 meters, very exposed and very beautiful, but quite hot in summer.

In Funchal you have a mountain shop where you might find gear and advice, if needed. Tel. 291 222 105.

An essential book for those who begin walks on Madeira, is always the following one:

Madeira walks by John & Pat Underwood, Edition Sunflower Landscapes , available at


Oliver walking down from one of the peaks

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