The levadas in Madeira are unique and utterly brilliant examples of engineering married with exquisite walking. They are man-made, narrow irrigation channels dating back to the 15th century, created to carry water across the mountainous island from the rainier north-west side to the more arid south-east. Indeed, the word levada comes from the Portuguese verb levar, meaning to carry. As a result, agriculture thrives here, with terraces of sugar cane, bananas, sweet potato, figs, oranges, lemons and grapes accompanying you on your walks. They still direct water but also walkers, who can follow these ambrosian arteries along their banks in many different directions across the island, making this otherwise mountainous island much more accessible.
Which are the most famous levadas in Madeira?
Madeira’s levadas all have different names and numbers too, as they are part of the island’s system of waymarked hiking routes. The Pequena Rota (PR) translates as ‘small route’ and there are 23 of them in Madeira, nine of which are levadas, and they are marked by yellow and red stripes. Just to add to the mix, if you see way markers that have a white stripe too, then they are part of the larger European GR routes.
You can explore many of the levadas on this levada trails holiday. Such as the Levada do Rei (King’s Levada), which takes you through semi-tropical forests, past waterfalls and springs. Or the Levado do Norte, which is one of the island’s largest channels, from which you get some superb views of the coast and the capital, Funchal. The most famous levada is the Caldeirão Verde through the island’s UNESCO laurel forests to the iconic waterfall and lagoon after which the levada is named. It is 6.5km long, at an elevation of between 900-980m, and it takes you underground at some points, so you will need a torch, but finally opening out to a luscious landscape of gushing water and all round Madeiran gorgeousness. You get to walk to and from this levada on our Flower island of Madeira walking holiday.
The Levada do Furado also takes you through the heart of the laurel forests, ascending gently through the atmospheric arboreal wonder that covers the Ribeiro Frio Valley. Explore canyons and cobblestone paths, traditional farms and fine flora along this 11km levada on our Flower Island walking holiday.
The history of levadas in Madeira
This maze of trails put Madeira on the crop map as early as the 15th century, when the engineering feat of levadas enabled the production of sugar cane to thrive, and the island became one of the largest sugar, and its famous by-product rhum, exporters in the world. At this time the levadas were built by farmers or plantation owners but the state took over in the 19th century, the first biggie to be built being Levada Velha do Rabaçal. This is also a walking trail today, but it gets very busy and so it doesn’t feature on our holidays.
“Madeira is a stunning island, and with this trip we were fortunate to travel around and see the best bits. The levada walks followed the contours of the mountains and hence the walks weren’t too difficult. The north coast in particular is wild, rugged and stunning. The standard of accommodation was exceptional and beyond our expectations.” – Fiona, Northern Ireland, 2023.
Wine and bananas are just a few of the crops that followed in Madeira’s success story, watered by levadas that were cut into the basalt rock, sometimes only one metre in width, and between 50-70cm deep. They still maintain a narrow design, however, in order to retain the water during high temperatures, and not let it evaporate. They are also lined, as the volcanic rock that they are built into is porous. This was another part of the back-breaking process, with the workers using wood originally, then cobbles to line them, although a concrete and stone mix has been used in more modern times.
If you’re sweating in the beautiful heat of Madeira while walking the levadas, which basks in sunshine all year round, it’s worth taking time to remember the blood, sweat and tears that were spilled by people constructing the levadas. Especially in the early days, many people did die in the building process, with slaves and convicts being forced to work on the systems as they developed. We believe that a responsible tourist looks into these histories when they visit a place, and tries to understand the lay of the land, and how it got to be that way. For more general information on the island, you may enjoy our blog Reasons to go walking in Madeira or for other islands further afield, check out our blog on Best island walking holidays.