Steep Thrills

The age-old custom of hurtling visitors downhill at breakneck speed in something resembling an over-sized laundry basket is thankfully very much alive on the Atlantic island of Madeira.Two men control the wide toboggan-style whicker baskets (known locally as carros de cesto) with hand-ropes attached to wooden runners firmly secured underneath the vehicle to create a unique kind of sleigh ride without the snow once described by Ernest Hemingway as ‘exhilarating’.

The drivers, neatly dressed in white with straw boaters, run on either side of the toboggan in a nimble leaning-back gait. Sometimes without warning they might even jump on the back to enjoy the ride whilst twisting and swaying the vehicle to gain more speed.

Once upon a time, these toboggans were a popular means of transport for the locals who used them for carrying both people and provisions down the island’s precipitous slopes.

What to do in Madeira

Nowadays, the action-packed 30-minute ride from Monte in the mountains to the historic centre of Madeira’s delightful capital, Funchal, is mostly for the tourists who reach the bottom feeling quite breathless after rumbling along a succession of steep cobblestone streets at speeds approaching 30 kilometres per hour.

Popular for its cool climate, luxuriant vegetation and head-spinning views, Monte itself is an idyllic hillside community nestled amidst towering trees and an abundance of subtropical flowers about 5 kilometres above the old part of the city. A renowned health resort in the 19th century, the village is also popular for its glass-bubble cablecar and sprawling botanical gardens with onsite natural history museum.

Need more sightseeing ideas for your next visit? Listen to the Portugal Travel Show, the podcast for people planning a trip to sunny Portugal…