From the flight to a hellish first day to consistently not being able to get inside my Airbnb, Madeira was kind of a nightmare. I don’t at all attribute everything that happened to the island itself because Madeira is absolutely stunning, and I do really want to come back someday and actually tackle Pico Arieiro & Ruivo, but it got to the point where I was trying to find earlier flights, so. Read at your own risk.
Day thirteen: March 31
Flight to Madeira!
I was up bright & early today to head out for my flight to Madeira. It wasn’t until 8:55AM, but Portugal is crazy, and they do their bag check-in an hour and a half in advance and boarding forty-five minutes in advance, so I ended up leaving around 6:30AM to get to the Airbnb in time. I was honestly really sad packing my bags, and I can’t wait until the day that I get to return to São Miguel.
Their airport is the tiniest thing ever, and I love it so much. I zoomed through bag check-in, security, and got to my gate no problem where I immediately opened my laptop to get to work on the São Miguel blog post. This meant that I didn’t see what was happening outside until it was finally time to start boarding, and I looked up to find a wee little prop plane waiting for us. This thing had legit propellers, not the kind in a turbine, but outside the plane, and a big ole whale tale for wings in the back. It had under 30 rows of two seats, and it was truly adorable. The flight over to Madeira was only two hours long, and I managed to finish reading Circe, which I’d been reading for the entirety of my trip, so I was hyped about that. It also helped that I was reading as we were approaching this hellish airport, too.
I’ve heard a lot about Madeira’s airport, so I was kind of prepared for it, and I’m really grateful that I had a mostly uneventful landing. There are some extreme crosswinds that come in through Madeira’s giant mountains, and if that didn’t make landing hard enough, the tarmac is just under two miles long, and it was only recently extended. It is one of the shortest & most dangerous airports in the world, and landing is literally never graceful. A pretty sharp 180° turn is required to swing around to face the tarmac, and you’re going to touch down roughly even on a perfect weather day, and that’s before the screeching stop so that you don’t go flying off into the ocean.
I was definitely panicking just a little, but it was a mostly easy landing, and despite how nerve-wracking it was, my landing at John Wayne in California was infinitely worse. Madeira’s airport is expectedly small, but it’s really welcoming and cozy, and it was a nice way to begin my short stay there. I grabbed a taxi out to Funchal, where I quickly dropped all my things at my Airbnb and went out to find a late lunch. I ended up around the corner at Brunch Club, where I got eggs benedict, and it was freaking amazing. I was meant to go out to Calheta in the afternoon, but I was so tired from the early wake-up, air time, and scary landing, that I ended up hanging out in bed for the afternoon, and I only left to get dinner at an Indian place, Basmati, down by the water. It does seem like Madeira is going to be difficult for me to eat, like mainland Portugal was, so even more reason to return to just the Açores in the future!
I didn’t get up to a whole lot today, which was probably a good thing given the following day.
Day fourteen: April 1
Vereda da Ilha to Pico Ruivo to Achada da Teixeira
To say that I’ve been looking forward to my hike up Arieiro & Ruivo since I first started planning my trip half a year ago is probably under exaggerating. I’ve read countless blogs regarding the hike, watched videos, meticulously planned out my route, and been just all around excited for the adventure to come. I was still in Porto, I think, when the manager of the transfer service–I had a sunrise transfer booked that would drop me off at the base of Arieiro and pick me up at the popular starting point for Ruivo–reached out to me to let me know that there had been a severe landslide on Arieiro due to a storm that had recently passed through, and that they were working on alternate routes up the mountain. I was willing to hike just about anything after spending a little over a week with only city views, so I told her to keep me in the loop, and to let me know what the game plan ended up being.
I’ve read about the hike up Ruivo, and the general consensus is to not do it. It’s insanely difficult because it’s pretty much straight up the entire way with these awful, constant stairs, and while Arieiro does have a lot of that, it’s also much more gradual and unimaginably more enjoyable. But I was in Madeira for only two and a half days, so I was going to take what I got, and that was, unfortunately, hiking from Vereda da Ilha, which is 500 meters above sea level, straight up Pico Ruivo, and across to Achada da Teixeira, which is a little over a mile south of Ruivo’s summit and is where the normal people start their hike.
I was so ready to hike this monstrosity, though, that I just decided to go with it. I was picked up around 6:45AM, well before the sun had even thought about rising, and driven out an hour to Ilha with a group of other people. Some were from England and Scotland, a few were from Germany, and while I was the only American, we were all cheery to one another and excited about the hike. Our guide dropped us off at the starting point, gave us a few quick directions, and said good luck. A couple from England stayed behind to wait for me to get my gear sorted, and we started out hiking together. They were super sweet, and, in hindsight, I totally understand why they ended up leaving me behind–he proposed on top of the mountain, and we had a time limit of when we had to get up there by–I was bummed at the time when they suddenly disappeared.
Now, I know I’m a slow hiker. Like, notoriously so, and while that’s aggravating for some people, I’m never going to change the speed at which I hike because to do so would be dangerous for me, and I should have known that three hours was not going to be enough to reach the top. This hike is rated difficult, and it’s mostly straight uphill through constantly brutal stairs, and it was just definitely not something I could have done in the small amount of time allotted to us. We were dropped off around 8AM, told to leave the summit no later than 12PM, and be ready for pickup in the parking lot at 1PM. That means that, ideally, I should have gotten to the junction between Ruivo & Teixeira by, at the latest, 11:30AM, in order to be able to get up to the summit by 12PM, at least give it a quick look, and head back down. Thus, ideally, I’d like to have gotten to the junction around 11AM so I could make my way slowly up to the summit.
Well. I did not summit Ruivo because I made it to the junction at exactly 12PM, and even that was an honest to Satan miracle. I’ve never struggled like I did on this hike. I was texting my mom & dad that I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to the meeting point on time, and all I could hear in the back of my head was my brother telling me that the SOS button on my GPS tracker was serious business, but that I was about to find out exactly what kind of serious business. By the time I reached the junction, I was fully in survival mode. I had already not enjoyed any of the hike, and I was so stressed out that I couldn’t actually take in any of the views that I was witnessing, and I really did think I wasn’t going to be able to physically make it up the mountain. If I’d had five or six hours to slowly make my way up, probably, but with only three, I only stopped once, and only for about five minutes to quickly eat my protein bar and apple, as well as drink some much needed juice.
Ruivo was pretty much a disaster for me. Sure, it was beautiful, but I wasn’t able to experience that beauty while I was panicking so much, and there were a few times that I stopped on the mountain to cry. When I finally got up to the junction, I was just so relieved that I was there with enough time to get over to the parking lot, and though I had a quick cry staring at the summit that seemed eons away, I didn’t even attempt to summit it. Unless I wanted to be stranded on top of a mountain, I had to go.
I ended up getting to Achada da Teixeira with a half hour to spare, which was probably good for my body because I was able to slow it down, sit for a while, and just try to recuperate from all that stress. My poor parents had been panicking right along with me, and it was a huge relief for them, too, when I texted that I’d made it to the parking lot. I’ve never been so unsure that I wasn’t going to physically be able to do something and so afraid of what that would mean, and I’m counting my lucky stars that I was able to keep going through the pain and fear.
As I’m drafting this, it’s the Sunday after the hike, and I’m in the airport on São Miguel waiting to go home, and I can confidently say that, upon reflection, I still would not recommend that hike. However, I would like to go back someday and hike Arieiro over to Ruivo when it’s available because I’ve heard a lot of good about that hike, vastly in contrary to what I’ve heard & experienced on Ruivo, so while I wouldn’t recommend hiking up Ruivo, I’m not ruling out Madeira altogether. I’m glad I was able to capture some pictures, though, because those, at least, can show me how beautiful it really was.
Day fifteen: April 2
Levada Walk in Rabaçal Valley
It was probably a bad idea to go on a forest walk the day following my horrific hike, but I really couldn’t fathom flying out to Madeira just to sit in my Airbnb on my last day, so I took some Ibuprofen the night before and relaxed as much as I could. I felt okay in the morning, so decided that it was safe enough for me to go, which it definitely was, I didn’t do something stupid, but I definitely need some time off now. My shins are killing me, and my hips get very lol what do you think you’re doing anytime I try to go up stairs right now. Luckily, though there were some more awful flights of stairs to climb on the walk, most of it was level walking, and it was actually a lot of fun!
It was another hour drive over to the west (?) coast of Madeira, where I got some serious motion sickness while the car was driving up these insanely windy roads toward the very top of the island, enough that I wished I’d put on my motion sickness patch that I use for my flights a whole day early. Like, had to close my eyes and put my head down because I thought I was going to throw up for the first time since I was thirteen kind of motion sickness. And while that was really wretched, and it definitely put a damper on the day, the levada walk itself was fantastic.
I learned so much about the structure of islands like Madeira and how they collect & distribute their fresh water, and it was honestly really interesting to discover. We mostly walked through a forest that was populated by heather trees, which heightened the overall faery feeling even more (not only were the trees bending and twisting toward us like we were in Sleeping Beauty’s castle, heather is well known for welcoming in faeries), and it really made the place look magical.
Our main goal for the day was the 25 Fontes, which is a massive waterfall that definitely has over twenty-five different spouts, though not too many. I saw a couple people swimming in the basin, and I was originally bummed out that I hadn’t known to bring my bathing suit, but when I went to touch the water with my hand, there was a whole school of fish on the bank, so yeahhhhh, I wouldn’t have swam anyway. And before you get all shocked with me, I grew up on the east coast, y’all, the water here is never above freezing, the Atlantic in the Açores. & Madeira is beautiful.
After the waterfall, we continued on through the levada walk until we were approaching a huge tunnel that we had to walk through. Again, I was bummed out that I hadn’t known this was part of the walk, or I would have brought my headlamp, but alas, I had to suffice with my phone flashlight, which only actually illuminated anything if I was with other people. And holy hell, but it was dark. There was an altar with the Virgin Mary dug into the rock at the entrance, and I dutifully paid my toll because I’ve seen that horror movie a hundred times, and I was not about to be swallowed hole by a tunnel demon, especially because once you turn the corner in the tunnel, that’s it. You’re in the dark with absolutely no visibility unless you’ve got a flashlight.
Luckily, we were like little ducklings following each other, and the environment was somehow not right enough for bats (I was really expecting to see some), so it was more just a creepy walk through an abandoned tunnel to go through the mountain rather than having to hike over it, which I was really grateful for.
We finished our day by driving down to Calheta, which I was infinitely excited to explore because my bisavô is from one of Calheta’s parishes, Arco da Calheta, and though we were still a ways away from it, I got to look out at the view he would have, and that felt really special, to be returning back to where it all started for our family. After that, there’s not much to say. I went back to the Indian place, Basmati, for dinner because I was afraid of upsetting my stomach, and I just wanted something that I was familiar with, and then I spent the night packing and getting ready for the following day.
Day sixteen: April 3
Flight to Boston!
And that is mostly a wrap on my journey to Portugal. As I said somewhere above, I’m drafting this while in the São Miguel airport, and I’m very excited to go home. I got a little weepy on the drive to the airport in Madeira just at the thought of being able to hold my cats soon, so I’m keeping all my fingers and toes crossed that everything continues to go well, and I’ll be home by 8PM tonight to snuggle them half to death. I have a post coming up later in the month on my reflections on traveling alone, so I don’t want to spend too much time on that here, but I will say that I’m really glad I went. Two weeks might have been too long, and I’ll definitely think about that a little more next year, but Portugal was truly beautiful, and my biggest takeaway from the last two weeks are the Açores. I can’t wait to go back and explore them again.