Visitors to Madeira, the popular island paradise just off the coast of Portugal, are often awestruck by the beauty of the rocky landscape, which draws thousands to the island each year. Many of the visitors will rent cars, bikes and other motorized transports just to see more of the island; unfortunately, most will miss one of the best ways to view the beauty of Madeira: walking along the levadas that crisscross the island.
The origin of the levadas of Madeira
The levadas are a system of canals and aqueducts that were painstakingly built centuries ago, first by the original settlers, then by a more organized State development program. By the end of their construction, the levadas covered an impressive 2150 km, including 40 km of tunnels. In Portuguese, levadas mean ‘that which has been carried’ — in this case, the water in the canals. Running along these waterways are footpaths, along which trek thousands of visitors, who come to admire the rugged landscape. Walking along the levadas is often the only way that most visitors will ever see some of the most spectacular scenery on Madeira, as much of the island is too rugged and steep to be accessible to cars. Indeed, parts of the levadas were built before any road networks ever existed.
Nowadays, the levadas are immensely popular with both tourists and locals, but when they were first built, the waterways were intended for a far more serious purpose — bringing water from the rainy northern half of the island to the drier arid southern half, where the first sugarcane plantations and vineyards were planted in the fertile volcanic soil. The paths that line the levadas were built for a serious purpose too: the workmen used them for canal maintenance, as a clogged levada could very well mean the loss of a year’s crops to the struggling settlers. A hint of the danger of their work can still be felt as you walk along the more remote levadas, on a wet, moss-carpeted footpath barely wide enough for your body — and woe betide anyone facing someone coming from the opposite direction!
The original builders of the levadas must have been extraordinarily courageous and determined men, for parts of the system run along the sides of mountains, in areas so inaccessible the workers needed to be lowered in wicker baskets to the site, and while perching precariously, chisel out the ditches. Many of the workers lost their lives during the construction. Their sacrifice wasn’t in vain, however. Today, the levadas cover the island, carrying precious water to irrigate crops, and since the 1930s, providing the routes for supplying electrical power for the populace.
A living monument, a place for recreation
Whenever the weather is good, there will always be plenty of walkers along the more popular footpaths, which are wide and very well kept. Many parts are bordered with wide banks of flowers and majestic trees. Some of the levadas pass under icy waterfalls; others tunnel directly through hills and alongside deep lakes; still others cling to sheer cliffs and wind between gigantic rock formations. Each trek along the levadas offers a unique experience, as each curve of the footpath reveals new, enchanting sights.
There are many paths to choose from, with treks ranging from a bare thirty minutes of easy walking, to a four hour trek along steep pathways. There’s a trail to suit each timetable and fitness level. One of the most popular trekking routes is the 25 Fountains walk, which takes the traveler into the valley of Rabacal, just beyond the plateau of Paul da Serra. Here, a small lake sits at the bottom of a cliff, fed by the cascading waters of 25 natural springs. After the winter rains, visitors can enjoy the spectacle of mountain waters racing down to the sea at Riviera Brava, literally ‘Wild Ravine’. Another fascinating trail passes along the Levada da Serra de Sao Jorge, climbing through the forest and hills, passing farmlands and pastures, to end at the beautiful village of Santana.
Some of the paths also wander through Madeira’s famed Laurissilva Forest, which covers more than 20% of the island, mostly the upper altitudes in the northern region of the island. Madeira’s forest is considered the largest and best-preserved concentration of Laurissilva trees in the world, and is considered exceptional not only because of the extensive biodiversity, but also because it contains 66 species of plants that can only be found on Madeira, as well as over 500 similarly endangered animals, such as the Long-toed Wood Pigeon. For this reason, it has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and two-thirds of the island has been classified as natural reserve land. Visitors can wander freely underneath the majestic trees, as long as they do not disturb or in any way damage the native species.
The levadas are an integral part of the Madeiran consciousness, as much a part of the local lifestyle as it is a part of the agricultural infrastructure. Many of the people strolling along the footpaths are locals, enjoying some exercise, or chatting with friends. They may smell the wildflowers which blossom with the great profusion near the canals or simply spending some time alone in a beautiful setting. For many of the locals, walking along the levadas is considered the only way to truly see the beauty of Madeira, and judging by the numerous international visitors that throng the walkways of the levadas marvelling at the view, they just might be right.