Walking trail: PR 8 (Vereda da Ponta de São Lourenço)
Distance: 8 km round trip (4+4)
Difficulty: Medium – steep and gravel
Start / End: The car park at the end of the road ER 109 to Caniçal /Baía d'Abra
Height difference: 300 meters in height
Time: Expect 3 hours round trip.
Who is the hike suitable for? Anyone who can hike in hilly terrain and is not prone to vertigo. Walking shoes are strongly recommended, as there is a lot of loose gravel and sloping rocks to pass along the road.
Madeira is known as the green island, with lush greenery in abundance all year round. But there is a place in Madeira that is more reminiscent of the treeless and barren landscapes of Iceland, the Faroe Islands or Wales. The eroded volcanic rocks at Ponta de Sao Lourenco in northeastern Madeira.
If there is one hike that everyone who has visited Madeira seems to have done, it is the hike out to Ponta de Sao Lourenco. We probably didn't really understand how popular it is to hike here, I probably thought it would be more popular to hike along the levees. However, the packed parking lot at the end of the road quickly indicated I was wrong. A normal weekday in February and we were met by about a hundred cars.
The windswept peninsula has been a nature reserve since 1982, created to protect the area's unique flora, fauna and geology. Some distance from land, we can see a handful of narrow islands sticking out of the Atlantic Ocean. Thousands of years ago, the islands of Ilhas Desertas joined Ponta de Sao Lourenco and formed an even longer peninsula, but the ravages of time and the forces of weather have shattered the landscape and cut off the connection with Madeira's main island.
We start hiking the 4 kilometer trail out to the trail's turning point, to the house Casa do Sardinha. There should be a restaurant and toilets there.
The hike goes on basalt volcanic ground. In its basic state, basalt is gray-black, but exposed to weather and wind, the basalt here has changed color to rust red and mustard yellow. The landscape looks almost painted, with brushstrokes in different colors. Green, yellow and red by a turquoise sea. We stop and look out over the steep cliffs. Here you can most easily see the different layers of volcanic eruptions that formed the peninsula. A bit like a chocolate cake with different layers of buttercream, one layer thicker than the other.
We look down on the black pebble beach in the bay of Baia da Abra. Lots of seabirds circle above the turquoise sea. Can you go down here? We see people walking on the beach. Here we have to stop on the way back, a perfect place for a coffee break.
We come to a four-way intersection. We turn left to look at the view. Straight ahead, the path takes us to the end of the headland, the path to the right takes us down to Praia Baia da Abra.
There are plenty of stops along the way, one more beautiful than the other. It roars loudly from the wild waves below, almost so that it is impossible to talk at times when the wind is blowing.
In a protective wall we see a large number of slender little lizards looking forward. They are a bit muddy and I don't have time to get any of them in the picture. Although they are everywhere, they are never in front of my camera.
The road goes up and down every other time. Uneven stairs created from stone and gravel have been built into the cliffs. The steep side is protected by a thin metal wire fence, which, according to the signs, you should not lean against. Not sure if they can withstand the weight of an adult, but it feels pretty safe.
We find a flat area with stone benches and a magnificent view, perfect for a lunch break. However, we barely have time to sit down and take out our sandwiches before the first lizard climbs up our bags. The lizards are neither afraid nor dangerous. In Madeira there is only one kind of lizard, Madeira Wall Lizard, so it is not difficult to figure out what kind of species we are familiar with. We are quick to close our backpacks and shake out our jackets before continuing our hike. Neither we nor the lizards think it's a good idea to accidentally bring a lizard back to the car. We shake out the last hoodie. The last lizard jumps out.
We turn and look back at the road we just passed. We can see tiny little people walking on a cliff edge. How crazy that we just walked there, it didn't feel that steep at all when we passed by.
Out here on Ponta de Sao Lourenco the sun is shining, over the rest of Madeira clouds have rolled in. It's like the wind pushes all the clouds away from this barren peninsula. It is a mercilessly unprotected walk, without shade, without trees. I borrow a cap to protect my sensitive forehead. Even though I have sunscreen on, my face gets really hot.
I bend down and look out over the landscape from a frog's perspective. The entire ground is covered in small tussilago-like succulents. I have deja vu back to our road trip along Highway 1, with the steep cliffs, flowering cliffs and lighthouses of California's Pacific coast. Is this the same invasive Yellow midday flower found in California? Which we also found on mainland Portugal i Cabo da Roca?
Now we see Casa do Sardinha, surrounded by date palms like a small oasis. We are starting to approach the turning point of the walk, now we just have to pass by the narrowest passage of the walk first.
As you hike across the narrowest passage of the trail, you are fortunately unable to perceive the cliff that embraces both sides of the trail. Even though you understand it's steep, it doesn't feel too scary. It is only when you have passed by and you look back, that you really understand (see second picture below). It is really steep and the erosion leaves its mark every year. Wonder how long it will take for the farthest part of the peninsula to break off and become part of Ilha Desertas?
The last part of the hike you can choose the upper trail, or the lower trail. We take the lower part and pass by the place where the taxi boats go. We get a bit hungry to go back by boat, but the times don't suit, so we settle down and have a coffee at Casa do Sardinha. Here are also the nature reserve's only toilets, but we have to wait a while before we can use them. There is no water in the toilets. Twenty minutes later and 1 euro poorer after the toilet visit, we start walking back. It is not difficult to understand that they need to charge for the toilets. It probably costs a lot to run this place. Everything has to be shipped here and back, on a peninsula with no fresh water.
We turn around and walk back towards the car. We take the upper path back and we can look down on those walking along the lower trail. The sea glistens in the sunshine, although some clouds are starting to come in here on the peninsula as well.
We will return to the four-way intersection at the viewpoint. This time we take the path down towards Praia Baia da Abra. The path goes down quite steeply and is not nearly as well maintained as the main trail. The fence is broken the last bit and we have to walk a little extra carefully. Once there, we are greeted by a beach of black stones, old nets and PET bottles. There is probably not a beach in the world that does not receive its fair share of plastic on a daily basis. Not even a beach in a nature reserve in the middle of the Atlantic is spared.
We find some bigger rocks and sit down and eat some cookies. It's probably getting high tide, because the waves are fast approaching our hiking boots.
We hike up towards the main trail again and turn left. Now we are approaching the end of the hike. I turn one last time and look out over the treeless landscape. So unexpected to find a place like this in Madeira. Madeira may be a small island, but I have rarely been to an island that was as diverse. Well, by the way, the islands of Hawaii. This really is Europe's Hawaii – minus all the millions of shrill tourists, fast food trails and souvenir shops. So much better simply.
So, what was the overall family rating?
The walk to Ponta de Sao Lourenco was hot, grand, suitably long and suitably scary. One of the highlights was when one of the tweens in the party on the way back exclaimed “You know, I probably like hiking!” That's when you know it's been a good hike!
The hike is suitable for all families with children who are old enough to walk a mile on hilly terrain by themselves. We met several families with 2-3 year olds, who had to carry the children over the uneven stairs and the steep passages. Not recommended, it looked quite heavy.
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