Adrenaline and Beauty in Madeira (If You Survive the Flight!)

The wind-swept eastern peninsula of Madeira. (Vereda da Ponta de Sao Lourenço)

Don’t let the flight into Madeira and the island’s treacherous roads scare you off. Once your knees stop shaking, you’re in for a magical time on this outdoor oasis off the coast of Portugal!

For a week, we hiked and mountain biked from Madeira’s mist-shrouded peaks to cliffs overlooking the ocean. It’s one of the coolest places I’ve traveled.

To keep it interesting, Madeira’s airport is Europe’s most dangerous and pilots need special training to land there. Picture intense crosswinds, a short runway, and mountains and ocean as constraints.

Our flight landed as gusting wind slapped our plane updownsideways like a malevolent hand of God. Terrified passengers shrieked, then clapped and cheered when the plane landed.

Next step: revving our tiny rental car on the twisty roads, jousting with the “laid back” locals who drive like their cars are engulfed in flames. Grades I wouldn’t even consider walking up (30+%!) are a feature on any drive into the mountains. I’ve never driven in 1st gear so much. (Make sure you can drive a manual if you rent a car.)

Ah, but those treacherous roads are worth it!

If you can handle that…

Oh. Yes. Madeira is sweet. A nugget of fun and beauty sparkling in the Atlantic. Coming from bike touring to the island was a shift from adventure to pure vacation. We embraced it!

I alternated days hiking with Chelsea and mountain biking, whereas she hiked every day. ​If our days apart were a video cutting between me and Chelsea:
.
BAMBAMBAM downhill rocky mega testosterone mtb madness
.
CUT to Chelsea: twittering birds, fields, flowers, smiling farmers, and pretty views
.
CUT jumps, fist bumps, roots, dust, woot wooting, high fives.
.
CUT quiet sugarcane fields, mama cat with nursing kittens, lizards, more flowers to smell…

Thus passed our magical days in Madeira. Simplicity and complexity need one another, right?

Chelsea disappearing into the looking glass during a lavada hike through laurel forest.
Don’t worry Mom, I wasn’t going (too) fast! #contrast

Mountain Biking in Madeira

Two days before our flight from Porto, I couldn’t have placed Madeira on a map. The island pinged my radar thanks to mountain biking.

Since our visit to Madeira was a trip pivot from bike touring, I needed to rent a mountain bike. Enter Freeride Madeira. This small local company has created a top-notch mountain bike destination that brought the Enduro World Series to the island twice. They offer well-priced guiding and shuttling services that make exploring the trail systems easy.

The trails aren’t ragged, overgrown hiking trails. Since a solid chunk of Freeride’s revenue goes to trail building, everything is custom-built for mountain biking. No need to wear a bell on your bike: hikers steer clear and the trails only point one way: DOWNHILL.

To prevent eye-rolling, I won’t go all BroDuro on you describing jumps, berms, and rocks. YAWN. I’ll skip the word shred and gnar too. (I for SURE won’t say braaap.)

Know that trails in Madeira vary widely, from flowy to steep roots and rocks, and that you’ll encounter all kinds of terrain. If you’re a mountain biker who likes enduro riding in beautiful places, you’ll dig Madeira!


Hiking in Madeira

Everything on Madeira is steep!

Don’t let wanna-be bros like me scare you off if you aren’t a mountain biker. The hiking in Madeira draws people from all over Europe as well. For good reason: it’s varied, beautiful, challenging, and easily accessible.

From the popular wind-swept peninsula at the eastern end of the island with falcons soaring above to peak to peak hiking above the clouds to lush, moody laurel forest to traversing irrigation canals through terraced fields, you can’t go wrong.

Speaking of fields, Madeira grows so.much.food and was almost entirely self-supporting for centuries. (It was discovered uninhabited only 600 years ago by Portugal.)

“Lavadas” or irrigation channels carry water in a network across the island and their access paths are the backbones for much of the hiking. We saw ox-strong old men hauling food and farming equipment just as their grandfathers did.

All you need to navigate ALL the hikes: the excellent WalkMe app. For $5, it guided our hiking efforts for our stay.

Hiking PR1: Pico do Arieiro and Pico Ruivo

Misty mountains and me descending some stairs on the PR1 hike.

There are plenty of blogs talking about favorite hikes in Madeira, so I’ll only describe my favorite, PR1: hiking above the clouds between Pico do Arieiro and Pico Ruivo, the two tallest peaks in Madeira. It’s a destination-worthy hike and one that attracts serious hikers kitted out in their finest gear with carbon trekking poles.

To get there, we drove straight up from sea level to 6,000’ on roads that felt like walls. Roaring along in 1st gear, our car felt like it might flip over backward if the road got any steeper. Chelsea gouged finger marks in the door panel she was so excited to get to the hike. (There’s a less-direct, well-graded option that we took on the way back.)

In the ten miles of hiking out-and-back, the trail features a dozen tunnels, thousands of stairs, and enough exposure to send people with vertigo into lockdown. To the north, a giant bank of clouds hovered below us; to the south, steep mountains dropped away to the ocean. A hike to remember.

A Destination Worth Visiting

In short, Madeira is SO COOL. The hiking. The mountain biking. The views of sunsets while sitting on a balcony overlooking the ocean. The stories about terrifying roads and plane landings… What else do you need for a magical trip?

View from the top of Pico Arieiro before heading back to Pico Ruivo. Such a cool hike!

Resources We Used:

My wise-and-awesome guide, Pedro. He’s taking a break from electrical engineering to guide awhile. Smart man!

This post ain’t sponsored, so the below is simply a reflection of the services we used:

  • Flying: Unless you’ve got a teleporter or a yacht (or can stomach a cruise ship), you’ve got to fly to Madeira. The landing is going to suck (I surveyed other tourists and 100% agreed), so steel yourself for that. There are lots of cheap flights from the European mainland.
  • Driving: We rented from Insular Car and they were awesome! Our car (a Clio) was billed as underpowered, but I found it to be a fun little rocketship. Second reminder: make sure you are SOLID at driving a manual transmission or driving will be a nightmare vs just entertaining. Lots of buses and shuttle services are available.
  • Lodging: Great deals abound. Lots of apartments in the $50-75/night range on Airbnb and tons of options on Booking.com.
  • Mountain bike guiding services: Look no further than Freeride Madeira. The guys are all cheery, friendly, helpful and excellent riders. Can’t go wrong with their services in my experience!
  • Finding Trails: Trailforks has many (but not all) of the mountain biking trails. The WalkMe app has all the hikes.

Once you get to Madeira, you’re in for a treat. HAVE FUN!

The coastline of Madeira seen while hiking Vereda da Ponta de Sao Lourenço.
7 replies
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Thanks Dave. Take that hopper flight from Europe this summer and go explore! Head to Azores while you’re there and let me know what you think. I didn’t realize they were (relatively) so close to Madeira and would have gone there too.

      Reply
    • Dakota
      Dakota says:

      Pretty sure Uncle Jesse would be like OHHHH HELLLL NOOOO right when you stepped out of the car. Way better to take my photos and PowerShop them and then go for a hike in the Cascades!

      Reply
  1. sean
    sean says:

    Wonderful to join you and Chelsea vicariously on this trip, D! Hard to get the image of a ominous hand smacking the plane around as it attempts to make a highly technical landing out of my head…

    Reply

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