As the terracotta roofs of the coastal town of Machico became dots against a backdrop of the untamed Atlantic Ocean, we snaked our way past the vibrant banana leaves, bold wild native flowers and the rushing water in the levadas flowing by our feet. It was clear our traverse of the magical island of Madeira had begun.
I will always remember that first day of hiking so clearly, mainly as you’ll never forget your first ascent on those Madeiran inclines.
As the sun beamed down, we left the quaint houses behind and climbed up through more dense, jungle-like terrain before being rewarded with our first spectacular viewpoint of the adventure. Standing at the crest of Boca do Risco, the deep blues of the Atlantic Ocean smashed against the densely vegetated, jagged green cliffs, and we all had our first glimpse of why the island is often compared to Jurassic Park and nicknamed the 'Hawaii of Europe'.
After sitting by the cliff edge and indulging in the freshly baked sandwiches and local pastries we'd brought with us (Madeiran bakes will live in my mind forever), we continued along the zig-zagging coastal path. Gaining new perspectives of the island around every corner, each view was perfectly framed by the rich vegetation that scaled the cliff edges.
By the time we started our descent down to the town of Porto da Cruz, we got a closer glimpse of the wild white foam of the ocean crashing against the volcanic black sands, and it really felt like an adventure with strangers who were quickly becoming close friends.
The group bonds certainly became tighter as we ended the evening enjoying our first round of poncha, the Madeiran local drink, with the sound of the sea as our night's soundtrack.
It’s one of the main things that will stay with me about this island: not only is it beautiful at every point, but so are the people.
We were woken the next morning by a golden sunrise beaming through the window before we headed off for our steepest ascent of the trip. As we made our way to the trail, we were greeted by an elderly local lady who gifted everyone a flower for their journey. It’s one of the main things that will stay with me about this island: not only is it beautiful at every point, but so are the people. The joy and kindness of the locals was there at every interaction.
Maybe she knew what we had in store, as we headed deep into Madeira's enchanting UNESCO-listed laurel forest. We were quickly immersed in dense woodland, ferns and beautiful wildflowers, with little peeps of the vast landscapes that surrounded us visible through breaks in the foliage.
A very well-deserved break saw us surrounded by native plants with visits from sweet chaffinches as our guide, Jorge, talked us through the local flora and fauna we were immersed in. The bold colours and tranquil scenes is something even Walt Disney couldn’t magic up.
During the adventure, our days were spent under the heat and among ever-changing landscapes, but the evenings were spent in quaint local guest houses that felt like luxurious escapes after a day in the wilderness.
This night was definitely one of them. After a chilled afternoon spent cooling off at the pool (judging a pretty entertaining group diving competition) and being thoroughly entertained by a cute local dog, we were treated to our first taste of the island dish of Black Scabbard fish. The unconventional banana placed on top somewhat split the group (I unexpectedly fell into the pro-banana camp, but I think I might have landed a good one).
The first glimpse of the PR1 landscape is like no other. It was as if we had landed on Mars.
The next day of our traverse had been the day we had all been somewhat nervously been looking forward to: it was time to hike the famous PR1 path, hiking from Pico do Arieiro to the island’s highest peak, Pico Ruivo. We began by hiking through meadows, balancing on narrow paths that lined the rapid flow of the levadas and it gave us no hints at what we were about to witness.
The first glimpse of the PR1 landscape is like no other. It was as if we had landed on Mars. The baking heat hit the otherworldly reddish-brown, marbled, jagged peaks of harsh mountain scenery that stretched for as far as the eye could see. The only difference is, there is definitely confirmed life on the 'Madeiran Mars'!
The bold purples of the native flowers 'Pride of Madeira' (Echium candicans) stood tall, and pops of yellow wild flowers and summer shrubs lined the steep sweeping paths, softening the harsh scenery.
We continued down the etched out steps, along winding paths with sheer drops either side, and donned our torches to navigate through damp, eerie caves. There are so many 'famous' paths that don’t live up to the hype, but this one lived up to it and more.
After a very hot, tough, but memorable hike, we made it with our belongings to the mountain hut that would be our home for the night.
The little retreat nestled alone in the mountain edge wasn’t quite 'roughing it' as we had imagined – we had cute rooms with patterned throws and the very cold shower was pretty welcome after a day in the Madeiran sun. It felt like our own private sanctuary; a privileged experience for our group. The evening was my highlight of the trip.
After a delicious dinner cooked over open flame, we packed cold drinks and headed to the peak of Pico Ruivo to watch the sunset.
Sat high above the clouds we watched the sun set on the most memorable day. There was a sense of tranquility in the air. As a group that started as strangers just two days ago, we felt like close friends sharing a moment we’d remember forever.
Trying to move through the mountain hut in the pitch black at 6am was a pretty amusing scene as a small group of us headed back up to the peak the next day to watch the sunrise above the clouds before our final days on the island. The red and golden hues bounced off the carpet of clouds and the mountain shrubs moved in the gentle breeze. The peaceful moment was very much worth the early rise.
We had made our way to the centre of the island; it was now time to carve our way through the valleys, back to the rugged coastline. Like most days, we rarely saw another human on the trail. Through the ever-changing vistas (above the clouds, through eerie forests, and along wild coastlines), our brilliant local guide took us to unseen areas and etched out paths, and it was so good to feel like it was our little team against the wild terrain.
The time came for the final descent, and what a descent is was. From the heat of the dusty paths to a sudden drop in temperature, we were submerged in mysterious fog in the UNESCO-listed Fanal Forest. We found a spot under a canopy of centenary trees and enjoyed the last of our packed lunches of the trip.
Motivated by what lie ahead, the final few steps led us to the famous Seixal Beach. The group immediately split to either running straight into the untamed waves, cooling off under the fresh waterfalls, or grabbing a well-deserve cold beer at the local bar overlooking the ocean.
As we ordered our final round of poncha on the last night, it dawned on us that we had done it. We had traversed this beautiful island and for me personally, it had changed my world completely. The steep inclines and the baking Madeiran sun had been a challenge, but ever changing vistas, the awe-inspiring native foliage lining the paths, and, of course, meeting the most epic group of travellers and local people made it a joy from start to finish.
In my opinion, the only way to really feel the magic of this island is to take it on by foot. The island might just tap deep into your soul, like it did for me.
Inspired? Take a look at our trips in Portugal to head out on your own Madeira adventure.