Tramping (British lingo for hiking) in Portugal’s island of Madeira is better than fish and chips, tea and scones, and cornish pasty. For the adventure-minded traveler, you can expect to get your pounds worth.
Madeira translated in Portuguese means “the woods.” And truly this island (located about a 90-minute plane ride from Lisbon) is resplendent with groves of eucalyptus, mimosa, laurel, and evergreen trees. The island’s slogan is “Madeira as never seen before.”
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Once (and still) a magnet for British retirees seeking a warm-weather home, Madeira is also being rediscovered by a new community of hikers, runners, mountain bikers, and motorcyclists. They flock to Madeira and the archipelago of Portuguese islands to test their athletic prowess.
I visited Madeira in January with my niece Karen for a 7-day hiking tour of Madeira that included walking levadas, climbing mountains, chasing cats, and hiking deep into the interior of a natural park. We were both rather ignorant of how Madeira’s mountain ranges would test our physical prowess as well as our spirits.
The Portuguese people are rightfully proud of their nation’s island jewels—Madeira and the Azores—that cluster in the Atlantic Ocean. My friend Margarida describes Madeira as “one of Portugal’s most beautiful islands.”
Oddly, Portugal’s island of Madeira is more known as the namesake of the fortified wine rather than its verdant woods.
Less than an hour’s drive from Funchal (the capital of Madeira) lies its “heart of greenness,” to paraphrase author Joseph Conrad, where one can get lost in deep groves of woods and cliff edges that plunge straight down to the Atlantic Ocean.
According to the World Wildlife Organization, “basalt and volcanic ash predominate, and limestone rocks of marine origin are abundant in certain areas. The landform is quite complex, characterized by deep ravines and gorges. Inaccessible high cliffs and abundant caves define the coastline.”
If you visit Portugal’s island of Madeira as we did during the cold (and frequently wet) month of January, its forested mountains may lay hidden under a quilt of fog or drenched under a deluge of tropical rain.
Some hikers liken Madeira to a Portuguese Jurassic Park—a prehistoric world that Charles Darwin explored in 1826 to accumulate evidence for his theory of evolution by natural selection.
“It’s as important as the Galapagos Islands to Darwin’s research,” our Exodus Travels guide Andre told us.
I did feel like I am stepping back in time on a brutally cold Wednesday, shivering in my thin jacket, wool cap, and mittens on the side of a mountain at 8 am. Andre decides last night to forgo starting the walk at sunrise due to the fog. The stark grey mountains tower menacingly—a hulking giant that can squeeze a man to death.
Little did I know that its rocky and loam surface will be tattooed with scars, cuts, and gashes inflicted by the weather. Over the course of the next seven hours, I will fight this behemoth with gasping breath and the frequent cry of frustration when my hiking boot slips.
Our van leaves us at the side of the mountain. At 1861m (6,106 feet), Pico Riuvo is the tallest peak on the island. While we are warned that this walk is strenuous, we have no idea how much we will struggle to hike across the spectacular ridge via Torrinhas Pass and over the saddle of Pico do Jorge and then descend down the face of the giant to Ecumeada. Our elevation is +650m-1200m.
Madeira’s interior mountains differ dramatically from my experience of hiking the national parks in northern Tuscany. This is my first hiking experience where I must climb irregular stone steps that are built into the face of the mountain. I fear I will have nightmares of the daunting sight of rock staircases that rise endlessly into the clouds.
My knees register their concern early as I raise my feet to ascend. Our guide lectures us endlessly to use our “yoga breath” to allow more oxygen into our body. Many of us grow quickly out of breath and heave as we mount higher into the ominous grey clouds.
“Please don’t let it rain,” I whisper to myself.
The wind on the north side of the mountain pushes me hard so I must fight back by tensing my body. I shiver violently as the cold penetrates my joints. I think of my warm bed back in the hotel and fantasize about sipping a cup of cafe latte while lingering under a heap of blankets.
I won’t put you through the minute-by-minute ordeal of this hike. Perhaps if I can be distracted by the sight of mountain flowers raising their delicate faces to the sun or entertained by the melodious warble of a bird, I might forget the ache in my right knee and the sharp pain in my left foot. But it is winter. The mountains wear no finery except the low-lying vegetation that can survive the cold.
These ranges also wear the ravages of natural disasters. In August 2010, several major fires damaged an estimated 6,000 hectares around Pico de Arieiro, Pico Ruivo, Curran das Freitas and the mountains of Funchal. The tree population was decimated.
Now, these mute soldiers of decay stand lifelessly, grey ghostlike remnants of their prior glory, their bent bodies reaching out with scrawny branches. I ponder their destruction while across the world, bushfires are destroying parts of southeastern Australia.
There is some respite. We stop to eat a morning snack—nuts, raisins, a stubby Madeira banana—for our “Elevensies” break. I begin to peel the soft skin of my clementine. The air is suddenly perfumed by the citrus. Juice dribbles on my hand as I pull apart the sections. I savor the golden nectar as the honeyed fruit slips down my throat. Then I devour two clementines.
If you suffer from vertigo, do not even consider this a difficult mountain hike. Almost every turn in our path presents another vista of the varied mountain range and staggeringly long drop of the cliffs below. I have to train my eyes to only watch my Merrill hiking boots make their plodding descent, step by step, or gaze on the wall of rock to my right—never allowing my eyes to wander across to my left side, where I see the ravines and the precipitous drop of the mountain wall. We hear a warning repeatedly endlessly, “Do not walk near the edge.”
Our lunch break blessedly arrives about two-thirds into our forced march. It is bleak. Rainwater drips from the wall above us. The ground is too wet to sit upon so we seek out a rock for a seat. But at least we are not buffeted by the harsh winter winds that punch and pummel the mountain.
It is my fourth consecutive day of eating a roll with prosciutto ham and Gouda cheese for lunch. I am so bored with this meal but I need energy. Thankfully I still have a bag of Fritos to munch. I take a long swig of water from my teal-green 32-ounce plastic bottle. Our guide wants us to consume 1.5 to 2 liters of water during this hike.
Two Hour Descent
With no reason to linger, we rapidly consume our lunch. We are all focused on the reward at the end. Each day we conclude our walk by stopping at a local bar for our hiking happy hour. I can almost taste the frosty swig of a beer. It is frequently accompanied by a dish of beans that must be peeled.
To our question of “how much longer …” we are told that we still face a two-hour descent. This is not a leisurely stroll down a grassy path. We will be faced by a continuous series of mountain staircases consisting of irregular steps of varying heights and widths, some of which are broken or dislodged, most coated with a slippery sheen of rainwater and mud.
Each step requires my full attention. My neck and shoulders ache from staring at my feet. I hate these stairs. I know the hikers in front of me are not so gloomy because they can walk faster. And behind me is my niece Karen as she also struggles not to slip or fall on the descent. I can hear other walkers chatting behind me. I can’t afford to lose my focus. I try to keep my thoughts at the moment. “Just finish this damn hike!” I repeat endlessly in a mantra.
The brief moments of respite come when I reach a flat grassy path. It never lasts long but it helps to keep up my spirits. These steep staircases are turning me into a mountain goat that can climb sideways down a steep mountain path or rock staircase.
At 2:50 p.m., I round the final corner in my hike. Below I could see a gaggle of hikers laughing in front of a map. I have one final “staircase of hell” to descend. I turn back to yell at Karen and the six hikers behind her. “We are at the END!” Raising my Black Diamond walking poles above my shoulders in a sign of victory, I urge them to persevere. Then I slowly finish my 7-hour hike in the clouds, marveling at my victory over the elements.
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