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Walking the Isle of Madeira, Portugal: From Pico Do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo

Gabriel lives with her family on the Island of Madeira, where a warm climate provides the perfect environment to enjoy the outdoor life.

Madeira's most famous peak—Pico Do Arieiro.

Madeira's most famous peak—Pico Do Arieiro.

Madeira's Famous Three-Peak Mountain Walk

A half-hour drive north from the city of Funchal, the beginning of the famous three-peak walk awaits me. The drive is steep and the roads are narrow and winding. The clouds hang grey and heavy almost at eye level, seeming to swallow the ground as we ascend. I wonder how the day will pan out. I almost wish I was back home with a hot coffee. Yet I know back home, only an hour's drive away, the sun will be shining in all her golden glory in the bright blue sky, promising a day of an average 24˚C.

The mountains, while only a short drive away, can be like another planet, let alone another country. The greyness continues to seep like a liquid carpet towards us, yet we never quite reach it, and very slowly the greyness seems to disappear before our eyes, almost melting into the faded blueness of the morning sky.

This wonderful walk across the Madeiran mountain tops from Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo stretches like a golden pathway before me. It's 9.30 am, and the mountain is eerily silent but for a few eager whispers from anticipating walkers. The once-pale blue sky now with a turquoise ocean hue continues to grow bluer. The greyness now an abundance of bursting cotton clouds and the first rays of the sun reach out to gently warm me. I am above the clouds. I am amongst the purest of nature. I am in Heaven.

We start from the famous Pico do Arieiro and head toward the second peak. Beyond Pico Ruivo, the final destination will reveal Achada do Teixeira. The third and last peak of my journey. The three peaks are a well-known walk on the Island of Madeira, beginning above the clouds at more than 1800m high. My boots are made for walking, but yet I feel a little unsure. Surely it is the altitude that is responsible for my giddiness. I put one foot forward and as I begin my descent, I feel the warmness of the sun almost massaging my back.

I climb hundreds of narrow steps; up and down; zigging and zagging. Eagerly I cling to rocks and thin railings, watching my feet with an eagle's eye as if they were separated from my body and might just run off without me if I should divert my eyes for a second.

The hot sun blasts through my thin hat and my light backpack is becoming a heavy burden. I feel the air grow thinner and draw it through my nose down into my throat, where it sits and burns a little.

The heat of the sun is desperate to catch every single glimpse of my skin as I walk through the rocky overhangs. The temperature has increased drastically. Small caves are hidden among the mountain greenery and I wonder about their use. In the distance, peak after peak delight my eyes. Those behind withering to a stony blue hue.

Purple summits tease my camera lenses. I find beautiful prisms of light reflecting off the rocks. The sun hangs like a burning ball of yellow fire, shimmering white gold rays creep slowly over the mountain tops. And the grey morning of our ascent is nothing but a distant memory.

The walk is 12 km of ascending and descending, curling and meandering on tiny narrow paths. Paths that hundreds of years ago were walked daily by local villagers. They would visit each other's villages to trade their wears of fruit, vegetables, liquor, wicker and cane to name but a few.

I am amazed at the caves. I am told they were made to sleep in, and tunnels they carved through the rock to shorten their journey. I wonder at all the bare feet that have walked before me, how many footsteps I have walked in and what else they might have carried to trade.

I look through my camera lenses. The clouds like white frothy waves are drawn to the mountains. I wonder if the villagers are still here among the mountains and the sky. Their souls, protectors of these long-travelled mountain paths.

I look around and can't help feeling a sadness settle on my shoulders. Then with a jolt. I realize I'm not sure who the sadness is for; those people from long ago and their determination to explore and develop themselves for the better or for me and my longing for the vastness of the world to be a little smaller and life to be a little simpler.

The hot sun follows me with a vengeance. The now cloudless sky over me offers no shelter. The only clouds are in the far-off distance; great big balls of cotton candy, clinging to the mountainside. Old rock tunnels loom ahead. Droplets of water trickle through the rock, landing on my face. I'm hot. The droplets are welcomely cool; I smile at the pleasing feeling.

Stepping out from one tunnel; a breeze like a warm breath kisses my skin. I stand. I look. I feel my heart beat a little faster and my legs grow a little weaker. Such beauty as this is almost too much. I feel a tear threaten to fall. In the deep silence, my heart beat thumps in my chest, beating against my ribcage. And I know this feeling has nothing to do with the is the feeling of awe...

The Highest Peak

The summit of Pico Ruivo is a daunting climb—5 km of steep steps spiral to the top. I look above me. I see the wooden railings of the balcony up ahead, my weary legs now shake a little as I climb and climb, yet still the balcony seems no closer. I stop and take a deep breath. I am tired. Not being a walker I am finding this a struggle. My lungs burn; I carry onward and upward, eager to drink in the view that lies above me.

At last I reach the summit. The expanse of the mountains stretches before me, numerous greens of emerald and turquoise blend together and rich chocolate earthy shades. The blue expanse of the ocean melts into the sky, making it almost impossible to know where one begins and the other finishes. White waves merge with rolling clouds; a marriage made in heaven. The scenery is absolutely breathtaking.

My heart tightens; I gasp for breath. I will dream of this moment; this view, till the day I die. Here I am: on top of the world; my mind floating like a cloud. Is it the altitude? Is it the steep steps? Is it the burning pain in my thighs? Perhaps for the first time in my life, I feel my soul buzzing. If only for a few minutes; I know myself inside out. I know exactly who I am and I feel alive...

The views of the Island stretch all the way from Paul do Serra to the Valley of the Nuns. Scattered villages nestle little children's toy houses among the steep rolling hills. The Island seems asleep, serene, almost lifeless of people.

Standing on the summit with all the world below, a passing breeze lifts a strand of my hair and plays a merry dance. A perfect moment: solitude and magnificence, together. I will cherish this feeling and this sight for the rest of my days. An experience that has certainly inspired me in a way I would never have believed. A single moment of pure perfection. If I never experience it again, I will not feel cheated as the memory of a single perfect moment is a wonderful thing and nothing or no one can ever take that away from me.


Just for the Record

This particular mountain walk of Madeira is classified as a difficult walk. Not being a walker, I can totally confirm that this walk is not for the faint-hearted. I have never felt my heart beat so fast or so loud. I now totally understand the saying: I could hear my heartbeat in my inner ear.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2010 Gabriel Wilson