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Monday, January 25, 2016

25 Fontes and Risco Levada Hike

Rabacal Levada
25 Fontes and Risco
Madeira Island

Section of the 25 Fontes Levada hike 
While in Madeira between all the sight seeing, a day of diving, and spending time with my family, I really only had one day to go on a levada hike in Madeira.  And if you are going to do one thing in Madeira, one thing that shows its beauty and its history, this is it.  

Before I go into the my levada walk, lets talk about what Madeiras famous levadas are courtesy of good ole fashioned Wikipedia

A levada is an open canal/ irrigation channel very specific to the island of Madeira.  Levadas were needed on the island of Madeira due to the island's varying climate.  The west and northwest parts of the islands receive much more rain than the drier southeast end of the island.  The southeast portion of the island  has some conditions better for the islands crops like sugar cane.  The levadas were a way to increase agriculture and crops on the island 

Levada on the Rabacal Trail 
The portuguese started to build the levadas in the 16th century, with the most recent levadas being made in the 1940s.  The levadas are maintained today by workers who keep the levadas clean and clear of debris.  While the levadas are a successful way to bring water to varying parts of the island, they were not an easy feat for the Portuguese who built them by hand.  Tunnels had to be dug through mountains, and levadas cut into the sides of the cliffs.  

While the levadas are an important tool to transport water, they are also a source of hydro electric power on the island. According to my tour guide, the island uses 40% sustainable energy, through hydroelectric power, wind turbines, and solar panels, a fact I was stunned by.  So levadas for water and power, but lets not forget the tourist industry.  These levadas provide beautiful walking paths for visitors on the island, and are a top tourist attraction.  There are more than 1,350 miles (2,170 km) of levadas on the island of Madeira, providing varying levels of walks, from leisurely strolls to ledges, vertigo and tunnels. 

Levada walks are a great way to see Madeira, and you can virtually find a levada walk in every form of terrain on the island, from the famous laurel forests in Rabacal to rocky mountain cliffs at Pico do Arieiro.  I only had one day to levada walk and a dozen levada walks on my radar.  Looking through the brochures, the top two walks on the island were Pico do Arieiro to the other two Madeira peaks, and 25 fontes in Rabacal.  I had already seen Pico do Arieiro, so I decided to head to a part of the island I hadn't seen yet and hike 25 fontes in Rabacal.  

In the pouring rain. 
Location of Rabacal - Levada hike 
Rabacal is about an hour drive from Funchal.  You head to Ribeira Brava, and then north to the central eastern part of the island, Paul da Serra, a plateau that makes up the flattest part of the island up at 4,900 feet (1500 meters).  This is where you will find the islands cows and beautiful views of green grass and a flat plateau.  With the fog and clouds, we could barely see the road, a very common problem up here on the plateau.  

Signs on the 25 Fontes and Risco Trail
For this levada walk, I decided to go with a guide for a few reasons.  My family wasnt able to cover the long distance so I was going to have to go on my own.  I have heard about tourists slipping and dying (sorry to be dreary) while along on levada hikes, as many of Madeira levadas are perched dangerously on cliffs, through tunnels, and in slippery conditions.  Also, with an hour drive each way, it was easy to go with a tour guide that provided transportation, and insurance.  Lastly, being in a foreign country without cell service and google maps, I decided it was best to go with a guide and relax, instead of getting lost in the laurel forests of Madeira. 
All well worth the 38.50 euros for the hike. 
The hike includes transportation to Rabacal, and a guided walk to Risco and 25 Fontes before returning back to the van.  There are no bathrooms at the trailhead or on the trail so we stopped at a cafe before and after the hike to sip espresso and use the bathroom.

When: This tour guide completed this hike on Tuesdays and Friday 
Duration: approx. 4.5 hours 
Distance: 12 km (7.5 miles)

Highest point: 1290 m (4,232 ft)

Lowest point: 900 m (2,952 ft)

Location: Rabaçal

Difficulty: Moderate
Days: Fridays (with this group)
Note: Tunnels and Vertigo

Price per person: 36,00 € ($39)

"The Levada Rabaçal begins in Paul da Serra, more precisely in Rabaçal.
From this point we can observe one of the most beautiful valleys of Madeira, the Rabaçal Valley and down to the Forest House of Rabaçal. 

We operate in full Laurissilva Forest, a World Heritage site. After a few meters of pure beauty we make our first visit to the stunning waterfall of Risco. After a break in the Risco balcony we follow our path. All around you can be dazzled by the green beauty of the forest and the sound of nature, the natural heart of Madeira Island.  We can enjoy a variety of plant species, to highlight the Tree Heather (Erica arborea), Besom Heath (Erica scoparia) and Madeira Bilberry (Vaccinium padifolium). 

Among many species of birds, hopefully we can find the Trocaz Pigeon (columba trocaz trocaz) a unique species of Madeira. In the end we find the 25 Fontes and its beautiful green and fresh lagoon, surrounded by vines and giant ferns. After appreciating its natural and breathtaking scenery, we go round the same track back".

I knew the weather forecast for the day was looking bad.  Like 100 % of rain bad.  But its an island, the weather changes fast,  the weathermen are rarely right, and it was my last full day on the island.  It was now in the rain or never.  I called the company and they said they will only cancel hikes on-site, as the start of the hike was an hour away and you can never tell what the weather is like.  I got in the van and we drove the hour to a cafe, and then the  trailhead in Rabacal. 

We got up to the start of the hike and it was lightly drizzling.  
The guides said go so off we went. 
We had all packed rain coats and the guides had an extra just in case. 
First part of the trail, on the way to the tunnel
Signage and view at the end of the tunnel to continue to Risco and 25 Fontes 
The hike started down a dirt road that lead to a small shack and finally, a tunnel.  It was about a 10 minute walk through the completely dark tunnel, and thankfully, our guide handed everyone a flashlight to make our way through.  The tunnel was only tall and wide enough for us to walk single file, with a pipe on one side, feeding levada water to the hydro-electric plant. 
Signage along the trail  
Following the levadas on the trail
Green hillsides of the gorgeous laurel forests

Once we were out of the tunnel, we were greeted with a gorgeous luscoius green valley, with green hills, a beautiful path, and a hand carved levada.  We followed our guide up to the first fall, Risco, as he pointed out fresh oregano, mint, and other herbs along the trail. 

Ascending to Risco 
Some parts of the levada hike involved climbing out way up slipper rocky stairs.  Be warned there is a little bit of elevation on this hike when you hit these stairs, and that the stairs are likely to be wet and slippery. 

Stairway to Risco

Following the levadas
Our guide pointed out how the levada systems work, that even without the rain, the clouds moving through this part of the island leave dew on the leaves, that then drop their dew into the levada canals.  The rainstorms help, but arent neccessary to fill the levada. 

Section where Risco and 25 Fontes separate
We reached a point in the trail where we turned to reach the Risco fall.  Once you reach Risco you will turn around and come back this way to reach 25 fontes.  

Small falls and fountains along our levada walk
Some parts of the levada hike have these rails on the cliff edge, and some do not.  In some sections where the levada was raised up and there was no railing, our guide suggested keeping one hand on the levada to catch ourselves if we fall.  The drops were steep and the footing narrow and slippery. 
Not your typical american hiking trails!
Following the levada path

Levada walk to Risco 

Levada trail to Risco  
Risco waterfall at the end of the Risco trail
Eventually, you will reach Risco where you can enjoy your first large waterfall, before heading back to the way you came to continue onto 25 Fontes.  This was also the part of the hike where it went from drizzling, to raining, to a full on downpour.  Like, no longer need to avoid puddles because you are SOAKED downpour. 

Risco Waterfall 

On our way to 25 fontes, we reached one of the most beautiful parts of the hike, and one of the most well photographed.  The levada was raised, while the trees made a gorgeous tunnel over the trail.  No picture will do this part of the trail any justice.  

Trail on the way to 25 Fontes 
After about 30 minutes, we came to 25 fontes, where the waterfall was gushing with the recent rains, and many small waterfalls trickled down into the pond around it.  The area is called 25 fontes, because it is said that 25 fountains drain into this pond.  Normally, you would enjoy your packed lunch here, but as I said, we were standing in the pouring rain, cold, wet and pretty close to miserable. The second you stopped moving you were on the brink of hypothermia.  

25 Fontes at the end of the Levada Hike
We made our way back to the trailhead, like a pack of wet rats trying to keep our sense of humor in the cold Madeira rain.  As we walked back down the trails, the waterfalls were doubling in size, and the levadas were overflowing .  

Finally we reached the van where we ate our soaked through lunch under a shelter (everyone brings their own lunch and water).  We were all sopping wet head to toe, and I emptied about a liter of water out of my pack.  Of course I was the only american, and only women in the group, and when I turn around to see what that flapping noise is, I was greeted by several men in their skivvies drying out their pants.  Yes, I have seen different parts of Europe represented by Tighty Whities.  

While the rain overall was a big bummer, it meant that the trail was virtually empty, only spotting a few hikers along the way.  According to my tour guide, this is one of the most popular trails on the island and on a hot summer day you can be sharing the waterfalls with a hundred other people.  We had the area to ourselves today. 

Even with the rain, this levada walk was an absolutely beautiful way to see the island.  The green laurel forests, beautiful hand built levada system, long dark tunnels, and several waterfalls along the trail made this an epic walk I will not soon forget.  

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