The whine of the engine rose a few octaves as Gonzolo gunned it around the tight corner. On both sides of the road, the faded white tops of the crenelated retaining wall flew by. Each concrete block looked woefully inadequate to even slow the progress of our battered white van should we lose control, much less stop it. Coming out of the curve with another one looming directly ahead of us, Gonzolo turned back to my wife and me with a smile splitting his face. He proudly exclaimed, “I have been driving these roads my whole life and know them by heart; sit back and relax.” He then gunned the engine again and dove into the next curve with gusto.
We were approximately 500 kilometers off the North African coast in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, in the middle of a five-day visit to the Portuguese island of Madeira. Known as the Island of Eternal Spring, it has a distinctly wild feel due to the towering ridgeback of mountains coated in lush foliage that cut across the island. As the tip of one of the largest underwater shield volcanos on the planet, the 286-square-mile island practically shimmers with adventure possibilities.
The day’s plan was to hike into the remote forests that blanket the island, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, by following one of the hundreds of levadas that coat the island. First built by settlers in the 16th century to bring the rainwater that routinely falls on the northern side of the island to the more arid southern side, the aqueducts promised to be the perfect platform to dive deep into the island. That meant we had to climb into the looming peaks that we had been marveling at the last few days. Hence, the winding two-lane road we were ripping over. But only a few moments into the climb, Humberto, our guide with Madeira Experience Tours, declared he had something we must see first. Apparently, hidden high in the sky was the Paul da Serra plateau, the flattest location on this vertical island, home to the Fanal Forest. It was a place he spoke of with reverence.
One of the first things any visitor to the island will notice is the lack of flat spaces. There just aren’t any. With their whitewashed walls and orange-tiled roofs, every single little town and village seems to be chiseled into areas that it’s hard to imagine homes being. The waves of seemingly endless banana farms covering the hillsides on the southern side of the island around the capital city of Funchal boggle the mind. It takes a hearty person to live there. Not being active is not an option.
When our jet descended toward the island a few days earlier, we were struck with how much it looked like a place from a movie set. You half expected to bump into King Kong or at least a few dinosaurs. After going through the required Covid test at the airport and quarantining inside our room at the Royal Savoy Hotel in Funchal (the results were back in less than 10 hours), we anxiously looked forward to heading out.
The first day, we dove into the waters surrounding the island with Manta Diving. A German-run dive shop, its patrons were indicative of the wide selection of European Union visitors the island hosts each year. As Americans, we were in the minority. Located in the middle of an Underwater Nature Reserve that stretches between the capital and the airport, it offered stellar diving just off the black volcanic rock shoreline. A rainbow array of fish, eels, and other benthic denizens awaited us underwater. Because over two-thirds of the island is protected land, we soon discovered that this type of diversity was common. A wide multitude of flora and fauna, along with various other creatures, thrive there.
As we climbed farther into the deserted highlands of Madeira, the pride that Humberto had in his homeland was evident in his running commentary. It was something we had already seen from everyone we had encountered. Much like the locals of other islands, there is a love affair that people born surrounded by water form with their small patch of land. When Portuguese explorers first sighted the rocky outcrop in 1419, it was devoid of humans. To survive in such a harsh environment, settlers had to work together, which forged a communal connection that still shines bright today. Its residents are a friendly and welcoming people that go out of their way to let you in on its secrets.
The expanse of crystal blue sky awaiting us at the plateau was breathtaking. The long straight road that traversed it was a welcome break after spending the last hour bouncing around the interior of the van. Surrounded by red and gold heather, it stands in stark difference to the deep green hillsides we had been winding our way through just moments before. As one of the islands’ most important places for groundwater recharge, the area is slowly recovering from cattle overgrazing over the last few centuries—something that has been discontinued. As we rolled across it, our guides kept excitedly talking about the magical area they were taking us to.
When we drove into a low-hanging, dirty-gray cloud bank, Humberto swiveled around and quietly said, “We are here; it’s time,” reverently. We exited the vehicle, pulled on our jackets, tossed our packs on our backs, and waved goodbye to Gonzolo as he and the van quickly disappeared into the mist. He would meet us later at the end of our journey. Just a few steps off the road, we quickly were immersed into another world entirely, one that did not seem possible. It was something otherworldly. <Hike>
The Fanal Forest is a relic from a time past. One when vast laurel forests covered massive swaths of the world millions of years ago. Due to the island’s continual spring-like conditions, the forest has survived since the Cenozoic Era, 50 million years ago. Located at the western end of the plateau at 1,150 meters high, the trees in Fanal are the stuff of fables. Often shrouded in fog, massive trees appear from the mists with gnarled branches reaching out in all directions. It is the type of wood that Hansel and Gretel would have gotten lost in, or the adventures of Narnia happened among. The place is simply magical.
The day before, when I had first traveled to the northern side of the island to go canyoneering, I got my first taste of the adventure that awaited us just steps off the roadways here. Speeding along the modern highway that burrowed through the mountains instead of going over them, I was able to cross the island in less than 30 minutes with Peter and Alfredo of Epic Madeira. Though the new motorway is convenient, many residents still talk lovingly about the ramshackle system of roads it superseded. They tell tales of epic traverses to be had on the beaten path asphalt and still-functional dirt arteries.
We parked in a tiny hamlet, a speck on the map with a few homes, each surrounded by a mass of vines and vegetation, situated a few hundred meters above the ocean. Pulling on wet suits, hiking boots, and climbing harnesses, we shouldered dry sacks and trudged into the thick brush. Less than 15 minutes later, just as the sweat was stinging our eyes, we stepped into a small stream flowing down from the peaks.
For the next three hours, the three of us steadily worked our way toward the open sea. All around, lush green walls towered over as we followed a pathway crafted over thousands of years. With each turn and twist, massive ferns, dense canopies, and the call of birds greeted us. We had 12 rappels in all, the highest a heart-stopping 70 meters in length as clear cool water ran over us. When we finally bottomed out, the waves were crashing just a few feet away, and an interesting pathway awaited us.
It was part of the old ring road that once encircled the island. One that was rebuilt numerous times over the years as storms, rockfall, and landslides tried to obliterate it. Many parts of it are still open and begged me to return on a motorcycle. The stretch we walked out on had been closed for a few decades due to extreme rockfall risk. Peter told me that on rainy days, they don’t use this canyon due to the risks. The 20-minute hike out was like walking in a time lost, one when man is absent. The wilderness was reclaiming the concrete and asphalt.
Dining on cold beer and fish and chips that night in Funchal, it was hard to reconcile the comfort I was in with the wilderness I had just been through a few hours earlier. A thoroughly modern European city, the capital is home to almost half the Madeira Archipelago (the other islands are Porto Santo, Desertas, and Selvagens Islands, the last two are not settled) population with 111,000 residents. Streetcars roll down roadways, cruise ships dock in the harbor, and many modern hotels rise high. It offers visitor comforts not found in the more remote parts of the island.
Stepping foot upon the Levada dos Cedros after our few hours in the clouds, I had forgotten all about the comforts awaiting us at the end of the day. The rain and mist had dampened our clothes but not our spirits. The magic of being in the wilderness was intoxicating. Located just outside Fanal, the Levada had come highly recommended. It would be just challenging enough to ensure a measure of solitude at 7 kilometers long with a 400-meter drop. As we worked our way through the dense forest, we were rewarded with spectacular drops, towering walls of trees, massive banks of ferns, and other rainforest plants, along with an overall feeling of wonder. The hike was unforgettable. The continually running channel of water would often zig-zag across the path requiring focus at points. Throughout the entire trip, Humberto educated us on the history of his island. <Levada1>
We were curious when we stopped on the way back into Funchal at the small, non-descript, faded yellow shop off the road. “Come, follow me,” Humberto told us with a glint in his eye. “You earned this.” We were all slightly drenched and muddy, except Gonzolo, but we quickly followed him inside. Behind a small counter surrounded by groceries for sale, two people stood crushing juice from oranges and lemons. The place had a slightly decayed, sweet smell like a glass of juice left in the sun too long.
The building was one of their favorite poncha sites on the island. A favorite drink of the locals, poncha is a potent mixture of aguardiente de cãna (alcohol made from cane sugar) mixed with honey, sugar, and fresh fruit juice. The Madeirans swear by it and warn that one is all you need. They were right. Packed with flavor, it instantly rippled down my spine. After a small glass, the rest of the ride flew blissfully by.
That night, while sitting at dinner, my wife and I marveled at what Madeira had offered up. In the short time we had been there, we had easily slipped off the shackles of society and dove into the wilderness. It was so simple. As we sipped our wine and talked about the paddle boarding trip planned for the next morning, we discussed the bliss we had encountered here. We both agreed that this hidden “lost land” deserved our attention. It was a haven, one we would be back too soon.
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