With its dramatic volcanic mountains and craters, Madeira island really is a paradise for walkers. You won’t catch me scaling the peaks of Pico do Areiro or Pico Ruivo any time soon but I managed three fairly easy walks in Madeira.
By that I mean doable for someone who’s not especially fit and doesn’t relish uphill climbs. Like me.
Even if hiking is the last thing you would normally do on holiday, the views and tiny amount of effort involved make it well worth doing. You can pick a walk that suits your fitness level and according to whether or not you suffer from vertigo.
Easy walks in Madeira #1: Vereda dos Balcões
I’ll start with the shortest and easiest of these three Madeira walks, which is only about 3 kilometres in total and more or less flat.
Mike and I took the bus from Funchal and got off at Ribeiro Frio. From the bus stop, walk a little way downhill to find the track on the left, which is signposted for Balcões, just past the start of the Ribeiro Frio to Portela walk on your right.
A wide, level path takes you along the levada (irrigation channel), through a forest and past a very rustic café and (probably) an old lady selling knitted socks and honey before leading you onto a viewing platform.
And what a view it is!
Despite the clouds obscuring the peaks of Ruivo and Areiro, the magnificence of the mountains on the opposite side of the valley was awe inspiring.
As a viewing spot, it is doubly blessed with views of the ocean and Santana (famous for its triangular houses) in the distance.
When we arrived, there were only a handful of other people there, enabling us to admire the scenery at our leisure and take photos without getting other people’s arms and heads in the shot.
We had timed it just right because just as we set off to retrace our steps, the platform was invaded by a coach load of rather miserable looking Thomas Cook tourists.
Keen to see the back of them and puzzled by their lack of any apparent enthusiasm, we took a detour to avoid the stragglers and wound our way downhill through terraced vegetable plots until we reached the main road again.
Ribeiro Frio to Portela
With time on our hands before catching the bus to Funchal, we did a little bit of the Ribeiro Frio to Portela walk but since we couldn’t see any views through the trees, it felt a bit samey and we turned back after about 30 minutes. I’m sure it becomes more interesting if you stick with it.
Aside from a small fish farm and a couple of cafés selling souvenirs as well as refreshments, there isn’t much else to see or do in Ribeiro Frio so if you’re driving, you can make better use of your time elsewhere once you’ve done the short Balcões walk.
Tip: Get to Funchal bus station early if you want to catch the 10:00 am #56 bus from Funchal to Santana (and double check the times in case they’ve changed between now and when you go). There were so many people waiting for this bus that they had to lay on an extra vehicle but I’m not sure if they would always be able to do so.
There are also tours which include walks in this area:
Walks in Madeira #2: Curral das Freiras, aka Nun’s Valley
The nuns who lived near the coast of Madeira used to flee to these mountains to escape marauding pirates and enemy troops.
Eventually, they got tired of the long, arduous journey back and forth and the hard work of establishing and managing crops and property in distant places so they decided to settle there, hence the name of the village that’s halfway up, or down, one of the ring of steep mountains surrounding the crater valley. Curral das Freiras means Nun’s Valley.
If you just want to take a photo of the spectacular scenery, there’s a miradouro (viewing platform) just past the café and accommodation complex at Eira do Serrado.
I wanted more and managed to persuade Mike to walk from Eira do Serrado down to Curral das Freiras .
The path starts to the right of the hotel and zig-zags through trees before opening onto incredible views. As it’s all downhill, we ended up with shaky Bambi legs after a while but it was worth it.
When you get to the tarmac road, turn right and follow the road until you reach Curral das Freiras village.
You’ll likely be accosted by friendly waiters and coaxed into Sabores do Curral, the first café/restaurant you come to. Luckily, it’s a good one, with a terrace and glass-fronted restaurant overlooking the valley and decent food – try their chestnut soup.
There are other eateries in the village if this one doesn’t tempt you.
Tip: If we’d gone by car, we’d have been faced with a horribly steep climb back up. Neither of us fancied that so we took full advantage of the public transport service from Funchal, getting off the #81 bus at Eira do Serrado and catching the return bus from Curral das Freiras. The journey costs about 3 euros each way (pay on board), takes about 40 to 50 minutes and is an adventure in itself with hairpin bends, narrow roads and sheer drops.
If you simply want to admire the views without the effort of walking, take a closer look at these tour options:
Related: To experience the novel thrill of venturing inside one of the volcanoes responsible for these dramatic landscapes, check out this post.
Walks in Madeira #3: 25 Fontes (PR 6)
With 25 springs, there’s lots of water on this walk although only a little is flowing in August.
Risco, a long waterfall that’s a short but worthwhile detour (PR 6.1, signposted from the main PR 6 trail ), had diminished from forceful gushing torrents to veritable trickles.
I was surprised to see some fish in the levada but the highlight of the walk is a pool which has 25 springs pouring into it.
Although the 25 Fontes is one of the most popular easy walks in Madeira, you can’t get there by public transport.
Since we hadn’t bothered with a rental car and Mike wasn’t interested, I decided to go with a tour company.
Having double checked and been reassured that it would be a small group of no more than 8 people, I was extremely put out when a full-sized coach turned up to collect me in the morning. Amelia, the guide, said she just did what she was paid to do and that any overbooking was down to the tour company.
Since my only options were to get on the coach or forfeit the chance to go on a walk I really wanted to do, I boarded, albeit grumpily.
It turns out that almost every tour company in Madeira does the 25 Fontes walk on a Saturday, many with groups as large as ours, which had 26 people instead of 8.
We arrived before the worst of the crowds but there are sections of the path where you’re walking along the levada walls and there is only enough space for one person at a time. Amelia managed this well, racing ahead to negotiate with people coming in the opposite direction to wait and let us pass.
Note: This is not a walk for everyone
Aside from the narrow sections, there are some pretty hair raising drops so if you do suffer from vertigo, think carefully about doing this walk and discuss your concerns with the guide or tour operator beforehand.
You might also want to think twice about this walk if you’re scared of the dark or get claustrophobic.
Instead of returning to Rabaçal through the forest, we walked through an 800 metre long tunnel which lead us onto open hillside with views of Calheta to meet the coach at a completely different place.
Tip: If you do decide to drive, it’s worth taking the council-run minibus from the carpark at Rabaçal down to the start of the walk, if only to save you having to slog your way back up the hill when you’re done. It costs 5 euros for the return trip and you’ll need to get there before 10:45 and head back before 15:00. Take a torch, too.
If you’d like to book a walking tour before you arrive in Madeira, check availability here:
If this all sounds like too much effort, perhaps you should look into Exploring Madeira by Sidecar instead.
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Disclosure: This article contains affiliate links to some tours. This just means that at no extra cost to you, I may receive a small commission from your booking.