For centuries Madeira has been famous for its world renowned Madeira Wine.
Nowdays, Madeira is becoming famous for an altogether kind of attraction – its amazing ‘levadas’ a unique network of man made narrow mini-canals built to bring water from the highlands and upper north coast, down to the low lying regions of the island.
“Levada” is a Portuguese word derived from the word “levar” – which means to carry. These mini-canals are the irrigation system that delivers water from the rainfall heavy, wet regions on the north of Madeira island to the drier, sunnier and lower regions on the south. The water, captured directly from natural fountains, is stored in special reservoirs and then redirected and channeled across a wide network of winding canals. These narrow water canals deliver precious water along far distances to agricultural fields – from banana plantations, to vineyards, from fruit farms to gardens – and also to the several hydro-electric power stations around the island.
Built around the sixteenth century by the first settlers, when you walk alongside the path of these ancient canals you realize how difficult a task it must have been to build them. Many workers lost their lives in their creation and in some of the more inaccessible areas it is easy to see why. In some sections which were literally hacked by hand out of the rocks, they used wicker baskets to lower the workers down.
In the early 1900 many were privately owned. By the mid 1930s, only two-thirds of the island’s agricultural land was under cultivation and just half of that was irrigated. The undisciplined appropriation of water meant that the island’s most valuable asset was often unfairly distributed. The State was the only one that had the money to implement a major building program and the authority to enforce a more equitable system of distribution.
There was plenty of water for irrigation, and even spare for power hydro-electric stations. Thanks to the clouds driven to the island by the prevailing northerly winds they are caught by the central mountain chain, and approx. 2m (80 inches) of rain may fall in the north in a year, while the south coast may be relatively dry for up to six months. Madeira Island is actually a gigantic self-regulating reservoir. The rain seeps down into the porous volcanic ash but, when it meets the impenetrable layers of rock, the rainwater wells up again into springs. This rainwater is then channeled, otherwise it just runs down ravines and into the sea. And that is why the came up with levadas concept.
These levadas are truly a work of art and they criss-cross through solid basalt cliffs, along sheer rock walls and through lush, dense forests, valleys and mountains covering a total distance of approximately 2,500km.
The paths are originally used for maintenance of the levadas, but nowadays these are popular trails for walking and discover the true beauty of Mother Nature’s offspring here on the island of Madeira. The island is home to Europe’s oldest and largest Laurel forest, Laurissilva, and some of the rarest species of plant life can be found in various regions.
The levadas can lead you through dark and damp tunnels which at the end you will emerge into charming fairytale forest. The hidden locations of magical waterfalls that are nourishing ponds with crystal clear waters.
Walking in Madeira along the pathway of levadas will reveal the raw, unspoiled natural beauty of this wonder(is)land and unlock for you the secrets of its past.