My photographs from all but one of our levada walks have disappeared into thin air, and even the walk I have found I only seem to have one or two photographs. However these few photographs should give you a taste of a levada walk.
It is a walk that the majority of overnight visitors to Funchal have probably explored at least a part of. The Levada dos Piornais runs into the centre of the city, and is easily accessible from the hotel district in the west. Consequently it isn’t difficult to explore small sections of it for a few minutes or even an hour. The levada originally brought water for irrigation of the fields, for the water wheels and for domestic use. Even today it waters gardens in Funchal, and in the district of São Martinho the clothes washing tanks still exist. It is however off the beaten tourist track.
For much of it you are walking on the narrow paths beside or above the levadas, and to your left and right are houses and the banana plantations. There are wealthy homes to be seen but also also glimpses of extreme poverty, it is not just rural life that is hard here. Now again there are climbs up or down when you divert away from the levada to cross a road, and throughout the walk you need to watch out for holes in the concrete paths and also be wary of the big drops at edge of the levadas. There are highlights, thanks to the birds and flowers, but for the most part this is a walk through the back streets.
Eventually the levada leaves the housing areas and moves into the countryside, and there is a real sense of excitement. Although having said that the guidebook reminds me that just around the corner from the shot below is a huge industrial area which fills part of the Socorridos valley. Hence the advice this is a walk better kept for weekends when the gravel works are closed. Still this is an adventure isn’t it!
Finally after 1 to 2 hours walking from the centre of Funchal you find yourself in a Madeiran valley. It feels so remote and you get a real feeling for just how incredible the levadas of Madeira are. There are around 200 of these narrow aqueducts covering more than 2,000 kilometres on this small island bringing water from the west and north west to the much drier and more populated south. Most are state owned but there are still a few private ones, and nearly all of them have strict rules governing their use and the amount of time and which days that a person can use the water.
The first ones were built in the 16th century, and their construction continued until the 20th century. I read somewhere the government was still building them in the 1940s. Most now are made out of concrete but some are still carved channels in the hill sides. As far as I know there are none left made out of wood. As with many complex and challenging construction projects the health and safety of the builders was not always a high priority, lives were lost in their creation and many of the workers were enslaved people brought from Portugal’s colonies.
I don’t know who built Levada dos Piornais or Levada Nova do Curral which you also explore on this walk, but one of my guidebooks indicates that Levada dos Piornais is around 400 years old. After Quebradas, which is about half way, the precipices becoming incredibly daunting. If you are going to try walking into the Socorridos valley which comes next it is essential you have excellent walking shoes, a great sense of balance and a head for heights. Even with all of that though if the rails are wobbly as they were when we visited and/or ropes are still situ I strongly advise you follow our lead and don’t attempt the second half of this walk. Instead watch a video, as there are plenty of
foolish brave people out there who have walked it. Here’s one such film; it is only 5 minutes long and gives a great overview of the both the sections we did and perhaps more importantly the sections we didn’t attempt. I am so glad we turned around at Quebradas!
If you are interested in discovering other walks then check out this walking company who have numerous levada hikes posted on their site.