The Big Madeira Backpacker Guide

In 2020 I felt in love with a small island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean: Madeira. It has always been somewhere on my travel to-do list, but never right at the top. Then good old covid came and Madeira became one of the only places I could travel to without any quarantine, and I ended up travelling to Madeira twice and spent more than 30 days there, and I can’t wait to go back there.

Madeira seems like quite a small island and had a reputation of an island for old people in their resorts. There is actually a lot to see and do, and the climate is pleasant all year long. Groups of young people are trying to transform the island to make it the Bali of Europe and attract different types of travellers.

Enough talking, in this guide I’ll write about everything you need to know about visiting Madeira.

Getting there

Madeira is an autonomous region of Portugal made of two islands: Madeira and Porto Santo. However it is actually closer of Morocco than Portugal.

The only way to reach Madeira is by plane. Most major airlines are serving Madeira/Cristiano Ronaldo International Airport – FNC (yep, that’s the real name of the airport…). There is a frequent link to Lisbon and Porto airports served by Easyjet and TAP Portugal. Easyjet, Transavia, Wizz Air, British Airways, Lufthansa offer links to major airports across Europe. There are also seasonal links to smaller airports with Jet2, TUI and other charter airlines.

This airport is known for turbulent landings and take-offs, as there are usually strong winds. Pilots must receive a special training to land at this airport. If the winds are really really bad, it’s likely your flight will be cancelled or diverted to either Porto Santo, Porto or Lisbon until conditions are better for landing.

Cristiano Ronaldo Airport is located in the town of Santa Cruz, 30 minutes drive from Funchal, the capital city. To reach the city there you can use the quick AEROBUS that uses the expressway, costing 5€. There are also slower local buses from the bus stop on the far right when leaving the airport, number 20, 53, 78, 113 and 208. They serve some towns and villages, and drive on some narrow roads offering stunning views, before arriving in Funchal. A bit slower but cheaper, approx 3€. All timetables can be found on the SAM website.

Going around

Driving in Madeira

Do I rent a car or not? If you are staying in the island for a long weekend, yes, absolutely, rent one as soon as you arrive at the airport. If you are staying for longer, you will need to rent one but probably not for your entire stay.
If you are planning to go up the mountains (and you should), don’t book the cheapest and smaller car, you may struggle up some roads. But don’t worry, you won’t need the biggest Jeep to go up these roads!

The main road network in Madeira is spot on: roads are wide and in perfect conditions. The main roads are VR1, VE1, VE2, VE3 and VE4 and they mainly form a big circle around the island. There are more than 150 tunnels in Madeira. Madeira being a mountainous island, they built these huge tunnels in the volcanic rocks to link the communities and reduce journey times. For example, the drive from Funchal to Sao Vicente before the VR1 and VE4 and their tunnels were open took 8 hours, compared to just 45 minutes now.

The old road network is where you will find the most spectacular views. These roads wind around the mountains and cliffs and go through tunnels built by hands. They are not usually in bad condition, but you need to be a bit more careful when driving on them: roads are narrow, lots of curves, there can be risks of rocks falling and even waterfalls can be in the middle of the road!

Make sure you plan your route a bit before starting your trip, as on some occasions roads might have been shut following bad weather, and always listen to advice from locals. This will avoid you the same inconvenience that happened to these tourists on Christmas Day: SEVERAL PEOPLE TRAPPED INSIDE THE TUNNEL OF BOAVENTURA

Overall driving in Madeira is safe and actually a lot of fun!

Public Transport in Madeira

For a small island, Madeira is well served by public transport. There is an extensive network of buses and coaches linking most towns. From my experience, buses tend to run on time. Most buses are old vehicles but seem well suited for the challenging roads of Madeira. However buses don’t go everywhere, and stop to serve some places quite early in the afternoon.

There are 4 companies operating buses on the island:

  • Horarios dos Funchal – This company runs urban services within Funchal and a few interurban routes to Curral Das Freiras, Ribeiro Frio, Faial and Santana. On urban routes a single ticket costs 1.95€, but you can travel for cheaper is you purchase the GIRO smartcard and top up money on it. On interurban routes the fare depends on the distance travelled. There is also a range of Day Tickets available. All info: horariosdofunchal.pt
  • SAM coaches are serving the East of the island, linking Funchal to Santa Cruz, Machico, Porto Da Cruz and Faial. In Funchal you the main SAM bus stop is located on Av. Do Mar. Fares depend on the distance you travel. More info: sam.pt
  • Rodoeste serves the Northern and Western parts of the island, with coaches between Funchal and Camara de Lobos, Ribeira Brava, Ponta do Sol, Porto Moniz, Sao Vicente, Boaventura, Seixal … Again fares depends on how far you travel. All info: rodoeste.com.pt
  • EACL runs buses to the towns of Canico and Portinho areas. More info: eacl.pt

Most up to date timetables are available on the companies website. Horarios do Funchal and SAM both have an app with a journey planner. Horarios and EACL sent their timetable data to Google Maps allowing you to plan your journey, but other companies did not.

Taxis, Tours, Uber, Hitchhiking…

These are all available in Madeira. For organised tours, check with your accommodation.

Where to stay?

This part is purely based on my experience and aimed to people backpacking/travelling solo/in a small group of friends. If you are travelling as a family or expect some big luxury, there are many resorts and villas available across the island.

So, disclaimer done! Where to stay now? On all my trips to Madeira I based myself in Funchal. Funchal is a great city with many things to do, a very chilled vibe, many cafes and bars to socialise and lots of choices for accomodation. Funchal is only an hour drive to Porto Moniz, the further North-Western point on the island. The area of Encuemada (where you find the best hikes) is only a 30 minutes drive via the VR1. It only takes 30 minutes to drive Pico do Arieiro (one of the highest peaks of the island) meaning you will not have to wake up too early to catch a sunrise from there. This makes Funchal a great location to enjoy all the good things about the city and to be in proximity to everything the island has to offer.

If you prefer escaping the city for a more relaxing stay, check out the villages of Porto Da Cruz and Ponta Do Sol.

Here is a list of places I recommend you to stay, because I spent a few nights there or because my friends who stayed there told me some good things. Please note the prices shown are the prices I’ve paid, during low season and during Coronavirus.

Funchal

29 Hostel – Okay so I must have spent around 25 nights at this hostel, because it’s really good, and this place now feels like home. They offer 4-beds dorms and private room. It is built in a traditional building in the Old Town, the decoration is absolutely stunning, it’s clean and the staff are very friendly and helpful. There’s a small kitchen and a patio for socialising. One thing to note if you’re a digital nomad, the wifi is a bit weak (at least when I was there).
from 15€ per night. Official Website

Hostel Santa Maria – I did not stay in this hostel but I heard many good things about it. It is quite a big hostel offering both private and dorm rooms. There is a large patio and many indoor spaces to meet new friends. It is located in Rua de Santa Maria where most bars and restaurants are.

Jaca Townhouse – It is Funchal’s newest hostel. At the moment, Jaca offers mostly private rooms, but the owners (who have another Jaca in Porto Da Cruz, see below for more) are working in transforming it into an actual hostel. The rooms are spacious, clean and with comfortable beds. I stayed there a few nights whilst working remotely, the WiFi speed was brilliant.
from 15€ per night. Facebook Page

Other locations in Madeira

Jaca, Porto Da Cruz – Porto Da Cruz is a lovely small village in the North of the island. Jaca Hostel is built in a family house, about a minute walk from the nearest beach. It offers beds in private rooms and in dormitory rooms. The main thing I loved about Jaca is its concept: staying there feels more like staying at a friend’s house than in a paid accommodation. There isn’t a reception desk, there isn’t any form to fill, the spaces are cosy and extremely well decorated with souvenirs brought by the owners from their travels. The vibe is just chilled making it easy to meet new people. The owners, Tomé and Joaquina, are the sweetest people you’ll ever meet, and they have high hopes for the island’s new tourist demographic. Oh, and there’s a real pizza oven and a beer tap! I would highly recommend spending a few nights there. Porto Da Cruz is a great location for hiking and also for surfing.
from 15€ per night. Facebook Page

Danny’s Rural Suite, Curral das Freiras – Another location recommended by my friends. It is a guesthouse lost in the middle of the Nuns’ Valley, at the start of many hiking trails. It offers 360 degrees view over the mountains, including Pico Grande and Pico Do Arieiro, and a very accomodating owner!
from 20€ per night. Facebook page

Weather

Madeira is a subtropical island in the middle of the Ocean. The weather is ruled by the warm ocean currents and winds coming mainly from the North East. Overall the temperatures are not extreme, both in winter and summer, making Madeira a place you can visit at any time of the year. In the winter, temperatures are usually between 15 and 20 degrees celsius, with some colder temperatures in the mountains in the middle of the island. During the summer the temperatures are in the mid 20s, rising up to 30 degrees some days.

However the terrain of the island creates many microclimates, the weather can be so different from one side to the other of the island. On the same day you can enjoy some snow from the top of Pico Ruivo and enjoy some warm sunshine on the South Coast. The North of island is usually colder and cloudier.

The island can sometimes be hit by major storms that can cause some disruptions, such as landslides. One of the most tragic rainstorm that hit the island was in February 2010, causing major floods and mudslides. At least 32 people died and 100s were seriously injured during this natural disaster.

What to do? Where to go?

Madeira is an island made for those who love exploring. The nature on the island is incredible and so varied, with a mix of high peaks, waterfalls, rain forests, huge cliffs, beaches, the ocean, banana plantations… There is literally something for everyone there. So here’s a list of what to do and see in Madeira, based on my experience or recommendations.

Hikes and Levada Walks

Madeira truly is a hikers’ paradise. There are dozens of trails, short or long, steep or flat, easy or difficult. Whether you are off for a steep hike up in the mountains or a chilled levada walk, ll these trains take you through fantastic sceneries. Here’s a list of the best hikes I’ve done over my visits to Madeira.

What is a levada?

Levadas are unique to Madeira. They form a long irrigation network, made of gentle slopes, taking water from the humid North to the dryer South of the island, where most people live and most agricultural plantations are. They started building levadas in the 16th Century to provide water to irrigate the sugarcane plantations. Today Madeira still has the world’s longest irrigation system with 2170 kilometres of levadas, which are now a great way to explore Madeira’s stunning nature.

PR 8 – Vereda da Ponta de São Lourenço

This hike takes you to the Eastern point of the island, and offers beautiful views over the Ocean from the top of these insane cliffs. After 2 hours of walking, sometimes in some rough surfaces that feels like climbing a hill on the moon, the hike ends at Ponta Do Furado which offers a beautiful viewpoint over the small islands of Cevada and Farol.

There is a nice snack bar half way through the hike that enjoys some shade brought by some palm trees. For the location, prices are very reasonable. On a nice day, you can mix your hike with a well deserved break at one of the few beaches along the trail.

Start and End point – Accessible with SAM bus 113.

PR1 Vereda do Arieiro / Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo

This is so far the most popular walk of Madeira. This hike links Madeira’s highest peaks: Pico do Arieiro (1818m) and Pico Ruivo (1861m) via a trail on the edge of the mountains and some long tunnels. The views on this hike are stunning and really feels like in the middle of the Alps.
From one Pico to another, the walk takes two to three hours. Unfortunately this hike is not a loop (as of most hikes in Madeira) so you will have to walk back the same way, or find a way to get back to your vehicle. There are taxis waiting at both car parks, but the ride back to your car will cost approximately 70€ and take one hour. Alternatively, tour companies organise guided hikes with transport arranged.

From Pico Ruivo you can find other stunning walks such as PR1.3 that will take you to Encumeada, crossing PR2 to Curral das Freiras.

Pico do Arieiro Car Park
Pico Ruivo Car Park

One of the best times to start the hike is for sunrise. Park at the Pico do Arieiro parking 45 minutes to an hour before sunrise, and walk to the small viewing platform. You will see one of the most stunning sunrises, and you might even be above the clouds!
For a unique experience you can head to Pico Ruivo for sunset, stay overnight at the Casa do Abrigo mountain hut and wake up for sunrise from Pico Ruivo!

Levada Da Negra

This levada walk is definitely off the beaten path, and I think it deserves more visitors! This is probably the closest levada walk you can do from Funchal. The path starts on the north of Funchal, up the hills, in some residential neighbourhood. Even the bus ride up there is an attraction!

The levada takes you right into the Madeira Natural Park, through some surprising unique landscapes you would expect to see in Scotland, and not in Madeira! It offers some nice views over Funchal, over Riberia Grande and its different flood management systems, and passes some lovely waterfalls. If you keep on walking, the levada will end by Poco Da Neve (the old ice house) near Pico do Arieiro.

Getting there is a bit tricky! The easiest (if you have a car) is to drive to this point (there is a small parking spot), and start the walk from there along the levada (first into a small forest.

The interesting number 90 “bus”

By bus: from Funchal take the number 11 bus towards Trapiche, get off here, and then connect to the bus number 90 to this bus stop, and them continue walking up the hill. The bus 90 is a small bus built into a truck that winds up and down the neighborhood made of steep hills. You can plan your journey on Google Maps. It will offer you journeys without having to change buses, but the walking times it will give you are completely underestimated as the streets are the steepest you’ll ever walk on!

PR17 Bica da Cana

The Bica da Cana walk is one of my favorite in Madeira. It starts in the plateau of Paul Da Serra and combines both hill climbing and an easy walk along the levada. After climbing the peak of Bica Da Cana to enjoy the stunning viewpoint from the top, the walk will take you down the valley, along the Levada Da Serra, offering more stunning view over Pináculo and Encuemada.

The several waterfalls along definitely are the highlight of this walk. Make sure you bring your waterproof, the water is falling right on the path, you’ll get wet but this is lots of fun!

https://www.instagram.com/p/CJTOSVhHUXf/

Drive to this point where you will find a small car park. To climb the Bica da Cana hill, the path is pretty easy to find. Then come back to where you parked your car, and you will find what looks a dirt track next to the information sign. Walk down this path until it splits. To reach the levada, turn right. If you turn left, the path will take you on a longer walk along the Levada da Norte, through the forest and some long tunnels.

Curral Das Freiras (The Nuns Valley)

The area of Curral Das Freiras is one of my favorite areas of the island. It’s a small isolated valley accessible by only one tunnel, and is a getaway to Madeira’s best hikes. And best of all, it is easily accessible from Funchal (details below).

Start your day by enjoying the breathtaking view from Eira do Serrado. From there there is a path that takes you down to the valley and the main village of Curral Das Freiras, where you will find many restaurants and shops. It can feel a bit touristy but if you walk a few streets away from the high street, you will find some more local places, like this restaurant named La Perla that has a nice terrace looking over the valley, and charges 1€ for a beer. Happy me.

From Curral Das Freiras you can start many hikes such as PR2 Verada do Urzal (that meets PR1.3 to either Encumeada or Pico do Arieiro), or the steep walk up to Pico Grande.

To get there by bus, take the number 81 that runs every hour(ish) to and from Funchal. A single ticket costs 3.35€. The bus serves Eira do Serrado viewpoint (ask the driver), the town of Curral das Freiras and then every single village on the valley.

And if you fancy an overnight stay in the valley, my friends recommends Danny’s Rural Suite, Curral das Freiras – a guesthouse lost in the middle of the Nuns’ Valley, at the start of many hiking trails. It offers 360 degrees view over the mountains, including Pico Grande and Pico Do Arieiro, and a very accomodating owner!
from 20€ per night. Facebook page

Other walks recommended

Despite having spent more than 30 days, on the island, I’ve only scratched the surface. Madeira has so much to offer if you enjoy walking. So here is a list of other cool walks to do in Madeira.

  • Vereda do Larano – the trail links Porto Da Cruz to Machico on top of the cliffs offering great views of the ocean.
  • PR16 – Levada Fajã do Rodrigues
  • PR6 – Levada das 25 Fontes. It’s a really popular one, so get there early. I heard PR6.1 is even a nicer and less crowded walk.
  • PR9 – Levada do Caldeirão Verde. Another popular one, but the waterfalls at the end of the walk (and the walk itself) are just magical.

If you are really looking for more hikes, check out this amazing blog from Jackson Groves: 60 awesome hikes on Madeira island

Useful hiking apps and links

For offline maps, download Maps.me on your phone. All trails of Madeira are mapped on this app and it is pretty reliable. To find details about the hiking trails you can download AllTrails for free, and Walkme (app and ebook) that has detailed offline guides about Madeira’s trails.

Check the weather prior exploring with one of the many webcams here and here.

Scenic Drives

Jumping in the car for a road trip is one of my favorite things to do in Madeira. The secondary road network is in good condition, roads are winding around mountains and valleys, going through old tunnels dug by hand, and offering stunning views.
Here is a small list of some of the best roads around the island.

ER110 Encumeada to Paul Da Serra

It’s one of the most scenic and diverse drives on the island. Starting within the raw mountains of Encumeada, the road continues deep in the island into the plateau of Paul Da Serra. The change of scenery is quite sudden and you will be surprised to see a flat landscape and a straight road, it’s quite unusual in Madeira!

ER101 between Madalena do Mar and Ponta Do Sol

I like this one because there simply is a waterfall right in the middle of the road, and you can drive underneath it (free car wash). On top of that, there are great views over the ocean. You can also drive on what was the main road, into the old tunnels dug by hand, before they built the VE3.

ER103 Faial to Funchal via Ribeiro Frio

If you like lush green scenery, woods, and curvy roads, you will love driving there! It’s a bit of an effort to drive up the ER103 but it’s so worth it. We ended up on this road after a wrong turn, and I am glad we did!

To me it’s one of the most scenic roads of the island, running through the mighty forests and mountains, sometimes within the clouds, sometimes with great views, in the middle of the island.
Driving on this road brings a lovely mix of of peace with the stunning scenery all around and of high adrenaline by driving curve after curve.

Beaches

Are you coming to Madeira to find some tropical white sand beaches? Well, sorry, you are not coming to the correct island. As most of Madeira’s coastline is made of cliffs, most beaches are rocky beaches. Some beaches are even made of concrete. But don’t worry, these beaches are perfect for a day of far-niente whilst being kissed by the sun. There’s nothing wrong with relaxing after all those hikes! It has its advantages though, with every beach being a great snorkelling spot! Here’s a list of some of my favorite beaches in Madeira.

Funchal – Praia São Tiago

This was on 01 January 2021!!

This is a great spot if you are in Funchal and cannot be bothered travelling out the capital. When I stayed in Funchal, I went there every single day. It is not the sexiest beach at all, but its location by the Forte de São Tiago is perfect. There is a small beach snack bar looking over the beach, where a small beer costs 1€, and where the poncha is excellent. This spot is where people gather for sunset.

Location

Praia do Garajau

Praia do Garajau is my favorite beach in Madeira. It is located in the town of Garajau, 15 minutes eats of Funchal. It simply a beautiful spot hidden between two impressive cliffs, one of these is looked after by the Cristo Rei. The water is crystal clear and there are lots of sealife to observe when snorkelling. There is also a nice snack bar looking over the beach, and facilities such as toilets and showers. And the sunsets from there are just epic. And the best part of this beach is that you can take a cable car to reach it (a lot better than driving on the narrow road).

Location – Cable car: 3€ return.
From Funchal take EACL bus 109 or 155 (2€20 single) to Garajau, then walk down the road.

Prainha do Caniçal

Finally a beach with some (black) sand! It’s located right on the East of the island, between the airport. It’s a great spot to relax in the sun after the Vereda da Larano or Ponta de São Lourenço walks. Just look at this water!

Porto Santo

There is a smaller island which is part of the Autonomous Region of Madeira, named Porto Santo. And guess what? It has a white sand beach!

Porto Santo is a sort of relaxed paradise. It is quite small (11km long and 6km wide).
The main attraction is the beach. Porto Santo beach is one of the 7 Wonders of Portugal, apparently recognized for the therapeutic qualities of its sand. And after days of rocky beach in Madeira, laying on sandy beach is so pleasant!

There are also several trails and peaks on the island such as Pico Branco, Terra Chã, Pico de Ana Ferreira. The east coast of the island is less explored but its unique geology is worth to see.

There is a ferry from Funchal to Porto Santo, the crossing takes 2 hours 30 minutes. The return ticket costs approximately 50€ and can be purchased online or at the Porto Santo Line office in Funchal (you will need to bring an ID if visiting the sales office). On board the ship there are several lounges, bars, cafés and shops. I had a few drinks and snacks from the bars and products are not overpriced. More details on Porto Santo Line website.

There are also flights between Madeira and Porto Santo operated by Binter. Prices can be as low as 60€ for a return, which is a bit more expensive than the ferry, but that will save you time, especially if you are staying in Santa Cruz, Machico or Porto Da Cruz. The flight takes 25 minutes (compared to 2.5 hours with the ferry).

What else?

There are many other activities in Madeira.

  • Paragliding – call Emmanuel from MadAir +351 968741894
  • Canyoning, Coasteering, Mountain Biking etc…
  • Boat Trips, Dolphin and Whale Watching
  • and much more !

So that’s about it for this guide! I really recommend visiting Madeira, there is something for everyone there. Whilst it is not yet on the typical backpackers trail, locals are working hard to get us there with new hostels, new digital nomad villages and a wide range of active things to do. Madeira is Europe’s hidden gem, it is the Hawaii of Europe and maybe soon the European Bali.

Ponta Do Sol

Everything on this article is based on my own experience, and on what both my local and tourists pals told me. If there is anything uncorrect, vague or if I missed something, leave a comment or send me a mail! Thanks for reading!

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