Madeira – Levadas (1)

Walk along the Levada dos Tornos.

During our visit to Madeira we took two hikes along the Levadas – irrigation canals that follow the contours of the steep hillsides. See the photo gallery from our walk, and the post about the whole trip.

Levada dos Tornos is a newer levada (only 30-40 years old). It weaved through the forests and occasionally through a small village.

The hike starts at the end of one of the city bus lines, high above Funchal. A few steps above the bus stop you find the levada, flowing along past these houses. 

This picture shows what most of the hiking is like on this levada. Flat, of course. Well, slighly downhill, as we were walking downstream. A pleasant dirt footpath follows the downhill side of the levada, which is about 2 feet wide and about a foot deep. This water irrigates fields along the way, and ultimately flows into an electrical generator serving Funchal. 

The island terrain is very rugged, with steep hillsides and deep ravines. The levada follows the contours, of course, which means it weaves in and out of the ravines. In each little ravine, typically, is a small stream. Here the levada is built up a bit on a wall as it crosses the stream. Yep, almost always the levada is carefully engineered so that the stream either flows over, or under, but never into, the levada. Adding water to the levada would only make it overflow. 

One of the neat things is that the levada is often integrated right into the architecture of the homes it passes. The levada path is a sidewalk used for daily traffic for many of the people living on its route; in some cases, the only access to the home (no road access). 

This levada is quite luxurious. There are two “tea gardens” along the way. This one, the Jasmine tea garden, is run by a British couple. We stopped here for some tea and cakes. The menu had a hundred varieties of tea. It was a hot afternoon so I ordered iced tea. Unfortunately, they don’t do iced tea… I received a can of Lipton iced tea. 

Shortly after our stop at the tea garden we passed through our first (and as it turned out, our longest) tunnel. The tunnel was just tall enough for me to stand, and just wide enough to leave a little path to walk. It was about 100 yards long, but took several minutes to get through because it was, of course, very dark and we had to move carefully (even with flashlights) to avoid bumping our head or slipping into the water. In the picture above, taken at the entrance, you can just barely see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

Here Pam is nearly through… 

At this point a large pipe joined the levada, and was supported by these crosspieces. Note the steep drop to the right of Pam… this section was a little bit hairy, especially since there were tiny springs above that meant little waterfalls fell on your head.

The scenery along the way was quite spectacular. Here we look out over ancient terraces, many still active farms.

The climax of this hike is an incredible, huge waterfall. The levada flows on a bridge crossing the stream, just upstream of where we see the waterfall emerge in this picture. Because it was getting late, and we’d missed the last bus at the next road crossing, we stopped here for a snack and turned around. 

While we were snacking an old man came strolling by, in his traditional wool hat and turned-down leather boots, clearly comfortable with the hundred-foot drop along the levada. I’m pretty sure he was the levadeiro; he certainly looked the part. The levadeiro is a man who manages the levada, in particular, controlling the release of water into farmer’s fields. (We had passed many a little sluice gate where the water could be released to flow down into a farmer’s field.) 

See the photo gallery from our walk, and the post about the whole trip.

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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