Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

January 27, 2022

© Dr Heather Wrigley

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Portugal’s paradise island

Trek along Madeira’s old water channels through some of the most remarkable landscape on the planet

If you follow the World Travel Awards, the so-called “Tourism Oscars,” you may know that Madeira, Portugal, has been getting a lot of attention. The awards named Madeira as Europe’s Leading Island Destination in 2013, 2014 and again in 2016, and the World’s Leading Island Destination in 2015 and 2016. That’s a lot of hype for a place that, until recently, was known mostly for its fortified wine. I'm not much of a wine drinker, but I can attest that as a destination, Madeira doesn’t disappoint.

My idea of a good time is to take a long walk. I’ve hiked in a lot of remarkable places, but never anywhere quite like this. Unforgettable as the hiking is, there are other reasons to visit. In summer, the beaches and watersports are outstanding — it's a wind and kitesurfing mecca. There are museums and a culture to discover, and the Portuguese food alone is worth a trip.

The island belongs to Portugal, but its location is closer to Africa than Europe. It's volcanic in origin, and consists almost entirely of steep hills and cliffs. The principal city and port Funchal, population 112,000, occupies the largest valley, but even here some of the neighbourhoods are perched 1200 metres above the sea. The steepness of the land has necessitated an impressive number of bridges and very long tunnels. Madeira’s main airport is an engineering marvel: a full kilometre of its runway hovers above the sea supported by 180 massive concrete pillars.

With Funchal occupying the flattest part of a not-very-flat island, Madeira's smaller towns are left clinging improbably to hilltops and vertiginous cliffs. The land surrounding each settlement has been painstakingly terraced with stone retaining walls built by hand over centuries to support kitchen gardens, tiny backyard banana plantations, even smaller vineyards, and sheep pastures. All of this is set amid lush forest foliage and wreathed in wisps of cloud, which makes for immensely captivating scenery.

The island is relatively small — 57 kilometres long by 22 kilometres wide — but its vertical topography and surrounding weather systems make for remarkably varied conditions in different regions. The higher elevations are chilly, rainy and almost continually covered in clouds. Coastal areas are warmer and slightly drier. The northwest part of the island is much wetter than the southeast.

Walking the waterways

Madeira has a long tradition of building levadas, long concrete channels, to capture rainwater in wet regions and carry it to the drier areas, where temperatures and sunlight are more favourable for the cultivation of crops.

The levadas continue to be used for irrigation and now hydroelectric power, but they’ve been adapted to serve a more modern purpose: tourism. An uninterrupted water channel many kilometres long provides an excellent thoroughfare for a walking path. Today, both independent hikers and organized walking tours take advantage of these levadas. Many have footpaths that run alongside the water channel; in other cases it’s possible to walk atop the levada itself. Some walks are easy and relaxing, while others will have you negotiating obstacles, dashing through ice-cold waterfalls, and clinging to narrow ledges on high cliffsides — truly something for everyone.

Madeira also has many conventional hiking trails. These well-maintained paths take you along dramatic cliff edges, through the lush laurel forest, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, down through Madeira's misty valleys, and up to its highest peaks.

My partner and I spent 11 glorious days walking in Madeira in January 2017. At that time, temperatures ranged from 13-17ºC in the city of Funchal, and several degrees cooler at higher elevations. This proved to be excellent weather for the strenuous hiking we had in mind — and certainly more pleasant than the midwinter temperatures we left at home in Alberta!

The beauty of the Madeira landscape cannot be overstated. We spent many of our days climbing steep inclines to take in spectacular views of the island and ocean, then descending deep into fern-filled, mossy ravines where the vegetation reminded us of Vancouver Island. Along the way were enormous trees, dramatic waterfalls and lots of flowering plants. Other days, we spent following the chuckles of water as it flowed through moss-covered levadas, accompanying it on its gradual course down hills, past tiny vineyards, caves and long-abandoned stone houses, and through long tunnels cut into the rock. Occasionally we would pass through a village where we could get a cup of strong Portuguese coffee and a bolo do caco: traditional Madeiran bread that resembles an enormous dense English muffin that is usually served toasted and slathered in garlic butter.

For a change of scenery, there was the Ponta de São Lourenço at the southeastern tip of the island. Here, strong winds inhibit the growth of the large trees found elsewhere on Madeira. Instead the cliffs are covered with rocks and emerald-green grass, in a scene that could be lifted straight out of Ireland. The high clifftop elevation and lack of trees on the peninsula makes for breathtaking views out to the deep blue Atlantic in every direction.

Gearing up

If you suffer from serious knee complaints, a fear of heights or vertigo, hiking on Madeira is probably not for you. Trail distances vary from a couple of kilometres to over 30 there and back, walks doable in a day. The landscape ranges from nearly flat to sections that are steeper than the average household staircase. The highest peaks are about 1800 metres above sea level; there are excellent trails leading up to each one.

Gear requirements are minimal. A walking stick would be useful for the steep and slippery parts, but there’s no need for specialized carbon-fiber poles: wood and bamboo poles were plentiful on the ground alongside most trails. A small, bright flashlight would be handy in tunnels and caves — indeed, many of the longer tunnels would be impassable without one. When we hiked up the mountains, it was invariably cold, sometimes not far above freezing, with mist or light rainfall much of the time. Our favoured attire was a T-shirt and fleece layer topped with a light rain jacket. Rain pants might have kept us drier, but would probably have caused us to overheat on the steeper ascents; our thin, quick-drying pants seemed best. Warm gloves were very useful and I carried a toque in my pack; it was a welcome addition at higher altitudes. My favourite item was a pair of waterproof hiking boots. Frequent drizzle and a groundcover of slippery wet leaves made them invaluable.

There are numerous tour companies that will escort hikers along Madeira's trails. Since my partner and I generally prefer to explore independently, we simply picked up some maps and used the Internet to figure out the public transit system. Horarios do Funchal offers two types of transit service: “urbano” public buses around Funchal (cost €1.95 per trip) and “interurbano” service from Funchal to other locations around the island (about €3-4, cost varies by distance).

If you plan to use public buses, staying in the Old Town area of Funchal is best. It's a bit touristy, but it's also a hub for both the urban and interurban bus lines. For us, the interurban service proved to be an excellent way of accessing hiking trails. These buses offer many stops, not just within the smaller towns, but all along the major roads as well. This meant that as long as we finished our hike somewhere along a highway, we usually found a bus stop nearby.

Using the bus rather than a rental car allowed us to finish our walk at a different point than where we began. However, many excellent hiking trails are not accessible by bus so we rented a car for a few days toward the end of our stay. Roads are very steep and winding, with numerous bridges and tunnels, but with a reasonable amount of caution, we found that it was no more challenging than driving in many other places we've been.

Portuguese comfort food

The Portuguese do hearty, warming meals very well, and this was definitely appreciated on the damper, chillier days. We enjoyed charcoal-roasted lamb, braised chicken in a stew of olives and local seafood. The cool weather also gave me an appreciation for thick pureed-vegetable soups. Chain restaurants are almost totally absent on Madeira and there is little international cuisine. Aside from a few unappealing hamburger and pizza places in Funchal, even the restaurants that cater to tourists serve mainly Portuguese food. My partner, a wine aficionado, visited a winery and enjoyed a tasting of Madeira wine.

The best trips are the ones where the minor stresses and inconveniences of travel fade to insignificance next to our constant state of marvel over a place. Each day in Madeira, we cheerfully rolled out of bed before first light, did fairly strenuous hikes for hours on end often in wet and chilly weather, got a little lost at times, slipped, fell and got up again, suffered blisters and sore muscles and irksome knees, and fell into bed in utter exhaustion every night, but I don't believe either of us ever uttered a word of complaint. We did, however, frequently catch one another's gaze, grinning in appreciation of some beautiful grove or fantastic vista. We simply could not get over our good fortune at finding ourselves in such a place. At times it was so enchanting that it seemed it could scarcely be real.

After several days of hiking from dawn until dusk, twice I attempted to take a rest day. Both times, this resulted in me walking aimlessly for hours around Funchal, my feet apparently still clamouring for the trail. After that, I gave up the idea of rest and hiked all day, every day. Despite all the trails we covered, it never got stale: on my last day, even as darkness was approaching, I found it very hard to tear myself away from the levada.

Are there other things to do in Madeira? I know there must be. I have a vague recollection of cobbled streets and old buildings, and of signs for museums, and advertisements for concerts and boat excursions. We're already talking about going back. Maybe next time we'll look into some of those things. And then again, maybe not. I think we'll want to save every minute for the trails.

To get a good overview of all there is to see and do, check out Visit Madeira (

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Showing 1 comments

  1. On December 15, 2017, alexson said:
    Awesome pic of Madeira, Portugal you have shared with us. This place famous for namesake wine and warm, subtropical climate. Good post!

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