Walking trail: PR 6 (Levada das 25 Fontes) and PR 6.1 (Levada do Risco)
Distance: 11 km return (to both waterfalls from the car park)
Difficulty: Medium – elevation differences and steeps
Start / End: The parking lot on the ER110 road (2 km from Rabaçal)
Height difference max/min: 1286 m (the car park) / 976 m (Levada 25 fontes)
Who is the hike suitable for? Everyone between the ages of 7 and 97. The safety fences are quite sparse, I think it is good if you are tall enough not to risk falling between the ropes.
We started our levada hike in Madeira by driving wrong. Up on the flat highlands of Paúl da Serra, in the land of yellow-flowering bushes, we ended up at a small chapel and the closed Jungle Rain restaurant. Madeira's largest valley Ribeira da Janela was nowhere to be seen. It was completely flat. We looked up Jungle Rain on Tripadvisor. The ratings of the restaurant were not flattering, despite the sun-bleached signs telling of the "fantastic animal shows" of bygone days. We stop by a small cafe. Our map was probably a bit old. A new road had been built. We should have turned left, not right at the intersection.
We set off on road ER110 again. It was not difficult to understand where the hiking trail started. Rows of cars were creatively parked on the right side of the road. We brought out our creative side and we parked along.
The valley of Ribeira da Janela spread out before us in soldis. Down there we would hike. Somewhere there would be several waterfalls.
A few years ago you could drive all the way to Rabaçal, but nowadays you either have to pay to take a minibus from the parking lot to Rabaçal or take the 2 kilometers to the apostle horses. We chose the apostle horses.
We hiked downhill on the old road, 250 vertical meters down in 2 kilometers to be exact. We pass a flooded stream, where we had to jump on rocks to get over dry land. The forest around us seemed to have been the inspiration for some of the Brothers Grimm's scariest fairy tales. Twisted branches and moss made an impenetrable fence.
Where the road ended was a small cafe. A marble plaque indicated where we were. “Rabaçal. Alt: 1065”. Here begins the real hike to the two waterfalls. We started with the shortest hike down Levada do Risco.
Levada do Risco
At the first crossing of the trail just below Rabaçal, we turned right towards Risco. The hiking trail up to the waterfall was on a wide gravel road, with a small levada on one side of the road. In fact, the levada was so thin in parts that I had to go over and see if it was still there. A canopy of tree branches arched over the trail and some passages felt like long tunnels of trees.
Water ran everywhere along the walls of the levada. It dripped from every little moss and fern. If you stopped and listened, it sounded like it was raining.
Suddenly we saw the Risco waterfall as a mirage in the snow. A sense of deja vu hit me. Yosemite falls. The double waterfall at the rugged cliffs. The sound was also at least as deafening. Yosemite falls is one of the world's most photographed waterfalls. Risco is not.
The road narrowed a little the closer we got to the waterfall and at the side of the path the witch hazel was replaced by leafy cliffs.
At the foot of the waterfall we settled down and took out our packed lunch. Nothing tastes as good in nature as a ham sandwich and some carrot sticks. A small finch sat down next to us on the stone bench. Maybe he'd be lucky enough to find a breadcrumb or two after us. Our Swedish house finches are migratory birds. The Finns here on Madeira live here all year round. Why move when you live in a green paradise with a perfect climate? I ask myself the same question. Would I be an equally searching traveler if I lived in Madeira? Probably not.
At one end of the waterfall there was a blocked tunnel and a worn red sign with the text "Prohibido a passagem". We walked up to the tunnel. There was so much water running down the mountain walls by the tunnel that it felt like it was raining. Wet, slippery and cold is a good summary. A few years ago you could continue hiking this tunnel behind the waterfall, but a landslide is said to be the reason why it is now closed. I can imagine that the tunnel was not too cozy to walk through. It was probably just as wet, slippery and cold.
On the way back to the crossroads, the atmosphere was at its best. The kids sang, jumped around on the levada and balanced bravely (but safely) on the edge of the levada. No one fell in love with life. The icy water would not have been nice to dip your feet in.
Levada 25 (das vinte e cinco) fontes
Back at the intersection where we previously turned right towards Risco, we now turned left and down towards "25 fontes". Now we had to get down to the next levada. The road went from being a fairly steep stone path to becoming a very uneven stone staircase. Most of the steps were higher than normal and I couldn't really get any rhythm into the stairs. There simply had to be two steps per step. Very inefficient. 100 meters later we were down at the next levada. Levada 25 fontes, which would lead us to the "25 fountains".
Levada 25 fontes is initially reminiscent of the hike at Levada do Risco, with stone paths surrounded by narrow, path-hugging trees. But after we pass a stone bridge (a popular coffee stop for many hikers) and hike up a fairly uneven stone staircase to a small house, life takes a more classic form. Here the walk continued on the edge of life. Sometimes the edge was 30 centimeters wide, sometimes it was rather 50 centimeters. Sometimes there were 15 meter high cliffs at the side of the levada edge. Sometimes it was a safety rail. Sometimes not.
If the hike to Risco was filled with jumping, shooting and singing, this hike became a bit more serious. As a mother, I found myself saying "careful" about every 10 meters. Actually, the levada was probably extremely safe (which we discovered by comparison a few hikes later in Madeira...), but as this was our first levada hike, it felt a little tingly in the stomach. Especially for me who is a little afraid of heights and didn't really trust the safety rails.
Some stretches we didn't have to walk on the edge of the levada, but could walk next to it. But the levada edge often felt like a paved highway compared to the alternative road on the side.
On the hike to 25 fonts, we didn't meet many people. For a stretch we had a guided group with a gruff tour guide behind us, whipping his group to trudge on without stopping, but otherwise it was just scattered showers of tourists. Once we arrived at 25 fontes, however, we understood where all the tourists were staying. This is where they hung.
We took a break and contemplated the many small waterfalls, the clear water and the fish that lived in the waterfall. We might even have a cookie or two and a sip of coffee. If a ham sandwich is extra good when hiking, dry little cookies are actually a notch better.
On the way to 25 fontes, we had passed a footpath with a "no passing" sign. We saw hikers coming down that way, but didn't think too much of it. On the way back to Rabaçal, however, it turned out that the path had been redirected to a one-way circular path over a cliff, so that you as a hiker would not have to meet anyone on the narrowest passage of the path. Pretty smart, even if it did add a few more meters of elevation gain to the hiking trail.
One thing we learned on this hike was that the boundaries of what you think is a scary levada hike are stretched very quickly. The road back to Rabaçal suddenly didn't feel the least bit scary. Even if the drop on the side of the road was as steep as before and the safety rails just as rickety.
The levada hike itself was not particularly difficult, but the stairs from levada 25 fontes to Rabaçal were felt in the legs. Sitting down in the shade with a passion fruit-flavored Madeiran soft drink in a café Rabacal Nature Spot Cafe was therefore a nice break. In the trees, (Spanish?) moss swayed in the wind, just like in the American South.
We considered for a little while actually taking the minibus up to the parking lot, but the line was long and the bus didn't run very often. So we tackled the 2 kilometer uphill to the car park. Maybe not the most fun stretch we hiked in Madeira, but guaranteed good leg exercise and not nearly as hard as the uneven stone stairs.
So, what was the combined family rating of the levadas at Rabaçal ?
What a hike! What views! Like a mix of Yosemite and Hawaii, but with a perfect hiking temperature. I could easily do this hike again! A very good levada hike to start with, as it is not too steep and no tunnels. Another advantage is that the start and end are in the same place, which makes it easier when you have a rental car.
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