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Getting to know a bit of Madeira Island

This was my first time in Madeira Island, and the main reason why I went there was for a wedding of a friend of mine, though, I also had time for some sightseeing obviously. And of course I would have to visit the island’s capital, Funchal, even if just for a few of hours.

One of the things I noticed the most was the huge amount of tunnels, so criticized in Portugal’s mainland, but that make such a big difference for those living there. A few hundred meters make the difference between several hours up to just a few minutes to reach the same destination. Unlike a lot of people think, the tunnels aren’t a matter of luxury or wealth, but something that is indeed needed. It is one of those things that one has to be there to understand.

The Machico city

My host’s city, where I also stayed and the first place I saw after my arrival. Coincidently, also the first settlement in Madeira Island, where João Gonçalves Zarco and Tristão Vaz Teixeira arrived and stablished the first port of the island.

Machico from above at night
Machico from above at night

The landscape is breathtaking, the city is in a valley with has several really steep roads through those hills. More towards east but not far, in Caniçal area, a totally different landscape with a very arid aspect. All part of the same municipality, but so distinct landscapes.

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Something I noticed was the massive amount of small lizards, according to what I’ve been told, they are an invasive specie that was introduced by accident, carried by ships. Due lack of natural predators, the lizards became almost like a plague. Cats kinda of helped controlling the amount of lizards, but it is still very common to see those small reptiles through the whole island.

Funchal, Madeira Island’s capital

The capital of the Autonomous region, was the place where, oddly, I spent less time at. However, for a Nature lover, I think this was kinda of expected. But I have to admit, the view is also fantastic, either by day or night-time. The historical center is really cosy, several narrow streets with old houses, and with a lot of street art as well. A bit of a paradox, I know, but it all combined really well.

Visiting Machico and Funchal in Madeira Island
Visiting Machico and Funchal in Madeira Island

As I was the last guest to arrive I missed most of the touristic thingies the other guests did there. I haven’t been to the highest point, through the cable car, but maybe another time.

Something that I really enjoyed to see, but haven’t tried it either, was the Monte’s basket cars. A 2 km ride in 10 minutes, always sliding down the street, a bit overpriced, but certainly a very interesting experience. Again, maybe another time…

From Machico to Porto Moniz

The week I spent in Madeira wasn’t enough to explore the island, it is way bigger than it looks like and with a lot to see and do. The roads also made the distances seem to be bigger than they really are. We took a day to travel around the north side of the island, the destination was the gorgeous natural pools of Porto Moniz, but since we had some spare time we did a few stops on the way to take photos.

The amount of tunnels is insane, and you can even see the old road! The photo below is of the Véu da Noiva Waterfall Viewpoint, where you can see part of the old road already damanged. Now imagine driving in those cliffs…

Véu da Noiva Waterfall Viewpoint
Véu da Noiva Waterfall Viewpoint

Nowadays the road via the north of the island is really good, but I don’t remember exactly how long it took us from Machico to Porto Moniz, but I think it was about one hour passing through several tunnels, being one of them the longest in Portugal, the Cortado tunnel (3,168 m). On our way back we passed by the tunnel Eng. Duarte Pacheco, and I have to say, that it can be intimidating. It is a quite old tunnel, with a lot of humidity, in some parts it seems like it is raining inside the tunnel! Perfectly safe, but also quite tight, it was quite fun to cross that tunnel by car.

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The highest moment of the day was really the Porto Moniz natural pools. Even if the weather wasn’t the best for the beach, we still swam a bit in those salt water pools. There is an entrance fee, but the conditions are quite good, and everything is really clean. The central pool is the biggest one, with quite a depth. We crossed it a few times, and that’s when I realized how out of shape I was… Run isn’t enough, one must also swim…

Even thought the island doesn’t have the size of a big island, like Great Britain, the weather is quite different between the north and south side of the island. Even in regards of landscapes, it can be quite different. It is a small island, but quite diverse.

On the north side of the island, where the pools are, the weather is overcast more often, and the sea also quite rough, comparing to the south. We were lucky with the weather, but as you can see from the photo below there were still some clouds, but nothing that would spoil our fun!

Porto Moniz Pools
Porto Moniz Pools

Our lunch was also in Porto Moniz, we went to a restaurant overlooking the pools, where I eat swordfish with banana, simply amazing! Eating fruit with fish was a first for me, a bit strange but really tasty, I liked it so much that I want to try it again once I am back! For me, eating is a big part of a travel experience, even being from Portugal of course I couldn’t miss the chance of trying something new. I ate several local dishes, but that swordfish with banana was my favorite.

The original plan was doing a full loop around the island, but we decided to go back via the north part to visit a few other places with more time. I made a lot of stops for photos, and to just enjoy those breathtaking landscapes. Madeira is a quite rough island, with a lot of intimidating cliffs which are part of the natural beauty of the island. On our way back we passed by a town called Ponta Delgada (like in Azores), the photo below speaks for itself.

Ponta Delgada, Madeira
Ponta Delgada, Madeira

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit Santana, where the Madeira Island traditional houses are. Time was scarce and we had to skip a few stops. Even though, we enjoyed a lot all our stops for a game some of our friends suggested. We tried Geocaching in several stops, really fun to be looking for caches as a group and to record our findings! I have to admit, I often forget about Geocaching when I travel, but it is without a doubt a interesting tool to discover a few hidden gems.

The inner side of Madeira Island, levadas and peaks

Looking at Portugal’s map and seeing that small tiny piece of land near Morocco, one never imagine that’s so much to see. I said it before, and I am saying it again, the Madeira Island was a really pleasant surprise. One of Portugal’s treasures that most forget to visit, but they should, everyone should visit this stunning island.

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But don’t expect to find paradisiac beaches, Madeira Island is far from that resort island stereotype. Few beaches, few palm trees, and very very few sand (which is mostly imported). But maybe this is where this island’s magic lies, the expectations of those who visit it are already low, an island without sand beaches? But arriving there, one becomes enchanted by everything that goes beyond the sea, the vertigo inducing cliffs, the houses in the middle of rock faces almost unreachable, landscapes that change in a matter of a couple kilometers. Those who visit Madeira and don’t fall in love, are those who didn’t even left the airport area.

Levada do Caldeirão Verde (hike)

Hiking through mountains or forests is one of my favorite things, and in Madeira there are many trails like these. The levadas and veredas are really famous and of great cultural importance. They even were of great economical important in the island, when it was hard to reach water from certain parts.

Looking at the island’s list of trails, it is even hard to believe that such a small island has so much to explore. Unfortunately I only did one of these hikes, one of the most famous, which is the Levada do Caldeirão Verde. An easy walk, always following a man-made creek (levada). It is recommended to bring a torch with you (or a mobile phone with light), because you will need to go through two tunnels, and in one of them the water is really by our side. A misstep and we end up completely soaked…, one must be extra careful.

Caldeirão Verde Waterfall
Caldeirão Verde Waterfall

Our hike was really nice, maybe a bit on a faster pace for my taste, but a hike that I really enjoyed taking a tons of photos and breathing that pure fresh air! At the end we saw our prize, the Caldeirão Verde Waterfall, a high waterfall with a lake where we can swim.

Oddly when we arrived there was no one in the lake, we were the first ones, maybe because the water was freezing cold! Even my eyeballs hurt in the end, but it is such a pure water that it feels so good. I went in and out a few times, it was painful but so good at the same time!! From what they told us, the flow is usually wider, though maybe it was less flow because it hasn’t rained for a few days. But the good side of it was that we could swim right under the waterfall.

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After our swim, we had our improvised picnic. I highly recommend to bring a snack with you, it is still about 6,5 km until the waterfall, and then the same way back. The best way to do it is with a break by the lake to eat, and then go back the same way.

Cabo Girão and Curral das Freiras

One of the highest capes in Europe, Cabo Girão is a really popular spot for those who visit Funchal, which is just a few kilometers away, and the view really makes the trip worth every second. The viewpoint was extended in such a way that those who go there will really be in the air at 589 meters above sea level on a glass platform. You will feel vertigo!

Getting to know a bit about Madeira Island
Getting to know a bit about Madeira Island

From the viewpoint you can see Funchal city and Câmara de Lobos, and of course, a lot of sea ahead! We made a short stop there before we headed towards the inner island, to visit Curral das Freiras. The town lies right at the heart of the island, in a very isolated valley which in times was a hideaway for slaves and other fugitives. To get there we had to cross a few tunnels, it is quite impressive to see how isolated that town is. Completely surrounded by the mountain cliffs, the town nowadays is considered large, with a huge touristic interest.

What impressed me the most was really the houses by the edge of cliffs and rock faces, with really steep roads to reach them. I can’t even imagine how those people live over there. With such challenging accesses, it isn’t surprising that every now and then we see in the news natural disasters with landslides. But truth to be said, there isn’t much flat space to build in the island either, considering all the mountains.

Looking down, Cabo Girão
Looking down, Cabo Girão

Our way back to Funchal was quite fun, we started by doing some GeoCaching at the viewpoint, where we found a cache. And while we were driving we were checking if there were other caches around, which lead to a few stops for GeoCaching. Doing GeoCaching as a group can be quite fun, there is that healthy competitively and the desire to find what’s inside that little box that someone once hid. Besides that, it is also a way to discover lesser known places.

Pico Ruivo, the highest point in Madeira Island

Pico Ruivo is the highest point in Madeira archipelago, with an altitude of 1862 meters, it is the third highest point in Portugal. To visit it, only by foot, in fact you can drive to the parking lot, but to reach the peak on walking through a trail of about 2 km.

As soon as we parked the car I saw why they named this peak as Ruivo (~redhead), the land is really red, and at the highest point, peak’s color is even more obvious. Alike other parts in the island, there are also several trails and routes to Pico Ruivo. We did the shorted path, but there are quite challenging trails that go through quite remote places (and beautiful too). And as expected, the view from up there deserves a few minutes for appreciation, and look around without getting bored of the views.

Pico Ruivo, Madeira Island
Pico Ruivo, Madeira Island

I completely fell in love by Madeira Island, and there is still so much to visit. My country has in fact some precious gems, and some of them are really well hidden as Madeira, which is not yet a mass-tourism destination.

By Gil Sousa

Portuguese expat in Cork, traveler and food enthusiastic.

2 replies on “Getting to know a bit of Madeira Island”

Oh, they are really harmless. At one beach we saw a lot of them, but on the rocks and cliffs. But they hide as soon as we approach them. I’ve been told they are like a harmless plague, they don’t affect the habitat.

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