The levadas of Madeira are a hiker’s dream come true; hewn from the hard basalt rock, they skirt mountain ridges and descend slopes of all different gradients to offer the most spectacular views in Portugal.
They afford visitors a series of footpaths to and from the island’s lush emerald uplands and some of Madeira’s best walks are to be found along the routes of these ingenious water channels, running along mountainsides, through crops and gardens, and past spectacular waterfalls enhanced by a succession of miradouros (viewpoints) and prime picnicking spots.
You only need venture a little way off the main roads from the capital, Funchal, and other towns and cities to enjoy Madeira’s myriad aqueducts, meaning that the levadas are accessible to anyone with a mind to enjoy the island’s natural splendour.
Everything in Madeira is scented, even the woods of the trees, and there is absolute silence and solitude to be found all around on these lofty paths backed by the great rocks of the island’s stony core.
Madeira’s complex irrigation system channels water from springs and streams high in the mountains down to the lower areas of the island before it is rationed and distributed to farms and villages.
This unique and very innovative irrigation system was created by the earliest settlers in the 15th century as an elaborate system to irrigate their crops. The first levadas were short and made from wooden planks but as demand for water grew, especially from the owners of the larger sugar cane plantations, the network was expanded and stone began to replace the wooden troughs.
By the start of the 1900s there were around 200 levadas criss-crossing the island, with footpaths built beside them for maintenance which form the basis of today’s hiking trails. They now extend for over 2,000 kilometres, occasionally through tunnels, often in jaw-dropping locations and always amongst a grand profusion of nature.
Such an enormous variety of plants and flowers flourish in Madeira’s rich volcanic soils – from jacaranda and crawling masses of bougainvillea to orchids and bright geraniums, whortleberry to prickly pear, poinsettias, cannas, frangipani, birds of paradise, to wisteria.
Follow a levada and it will lead you into the heart of Madeira through some of the most picturesque and densely wooded parts of the island. At certain points you’ll be able to stop, catch your breath and marvel at the building of the levadas and how they manage to wind their way around the mountainsides with a single incision as precise as a surgeon’s knife.
But finally a word of caution to all those planning to hike along the levadas on their next visit to Madeira. Be aware that they were not originally designed as public footpaths and often have no safety fence. Also, high in the mountains the weather can be quite unpredictable, meaning that sudden rainstorms can cause waterfalls, landslides, thick fog and slippery conditions, so make sure you are fully prepared and properly equipped before taking to the hills.