Starting perhaps with an unclouded sky, you barely reach the summit before light mists have begun to ascend from the valleys beneath you; these quickly gather, and enshroud you in an impenetrable veil.Excerpt from "A sketch of Madeira" by Edward William Harcourt, 1851
The sun fertilized with its warm rays from a clear blue sky. The southwesterly winds that had temporarily moved in over Madeira had not only brought warmer temperatures, but also absolutely fantastic weather. Not a cloud met us for breakfast on the terrace in Calheta. This was simply a day made for hiking to Pico Ruivo – Madeira's highest peak!
Madeira's mountains usually offer not only beautiful views, but also changeable weather with cold, rain and fog. Not entirely unexpected, as the levees were built to bring down the mountains' abundance of rainwater to the coast. Would we be lucky and actually get a rain free hike today? We could not see a single cloud over the mountains. However, it is said that the clouds are created in the mountains and can come from nothing. Is it even possible?
We took the cars up to Achada do Teixeira, the car park outside Santana which is 1580 meters above sea level. It took quite a long time to drive here from Calheta, close to 1,5 hours. It might not sound like much, but on a small island like Madeira, it's almost as far as you can drive to get to one place. A well-filled car park met us at the top, but luckily there were a few spaces left. Everyone out of the cars, it was time to head up the mountain.
The plan was to have lunch at the top of Pico Ruivo. We had read that there would be no service along the way, so we had packed some extra goodies in the backpacks. Pasta salad, fruit bars, cakes and maybe even some small sweets had slipped in. Then we had a few liters of water and coffee with us as well. But as usual, you can always bring more water with you.
The temperature was somewhere around 10 degrees. Unusually warm for Pico Ruivo in winter. It is not at all unusual for the temperature to drop to zero during the winter, sometimes it even snows on Madeira's peaks and on the Paul da Serra plateau. The luxury hotels in Funchal are said to have gone up here in the past to get ice for their drinks, a long way to carry a heavy block of ice.
The walk went uphill on a metre-wide, nicely laid stone path. The path was not difficult to hike, but it was definitely uphill. When I stopped and took in the surroundings, I could basically see the entire island from above. North of us we could see the villages of Santana and Sao Jorge and the view reached all the way to the horizon of the sea.
We barely had time to leave the parking lot before the landscape opened up and a beautiful valley shrouded in frozen ice appeared. We could see all the way to the radar station on Madeira's second highest peak – Pico Arieiro. Between Pico Areiro and Pico Ruivo runs Madeira's most famous hike PR 1 – a true classic among hikers. Actually, that trail was our first choice for a hike to Pico Ruivo, but after realizing that the route would both gain 1100 meters of elevation, be lined with steep drops, and take six hours round trip, it didn't feel like our first option. We who thought that the 15 meter high cliff at the levada walk 25 fontes probably felt scary, probably wouldn't appreciate an even steeper cliff...
Vegetation was more or less non-existent. Small bushes and grass lined the path and it felt like we were past the tree line, although a few taller conifers occasionally poked up.
The path was well signposted and it was impossible to go wrong, you just had to follow the path towards the top. Although the trail was uphill for most of the way, it didn't feel too strenuous. Everyone had to take the hike at their own pace. I photographed. Some rested. Some stuck on. Some enjoyed the view. An elderly couple had sat down at the edge of the cliff to rest. The sun cast light over the valley and the green volcanic rocks absolutely cried out for attention.
Still not a cloud in the sky. It almost felt like the extreme weather was a trick to make the hike a little more exciting?
We walked around the crest and Pico Ruivo finally appeared. I could see about twenty tiny little people standing on the top. We were going up there. Just a little more uphill. One kilometer to go.
We dropped some of us off in the shade of a tree by the white house before continuing up to the top. The uphills had left their mark. But absolutely right. If you feel you need to rest, then you should. Tired legs and tired knees easily lead to missteps and sprains and we had many days left of the holiday.
The last stretch from the white house to the top was not particularly long, but not nearly as orderly and dosed as the road so far. Here it was a matter of getting the feet right. I mostly looked down at my feet and trudged along. My stomach had started to rumble and my two kilo system camera started to feel incredibly heavy on my neck. I put the camera a bit nonchalantly on one shoulder and trudged on, but it felt like I at least got a chronic vulture neck.
The last bit up and the whole valley opened up before me. I could see a small village at the bottom of the valley, although it had started to get a little snow between the peaks. Some clouds were also starting to come in, but they seemed to stay closer to the sea.
I trudged towards the other side of the peak. Something happened. Not like the clocks stopped, but rather as if someone snapped their fingers. The weather changed. Clouds began to form in the valley below us, as if there had been a large pot of boiling water below us. The steam just rose and rose. In just a few minutes we were surrounded by clouds.
- ”I saw on the weather forecast that it was going to rain this afternoon, we've probably just been lucky that it hasn't come yet.” says the local hiking guide next to us to his group.
I started walking down to the white house again. If it were to start raining, I would at least have time to eat lunch first.
We ate our lunch and while the pasta salad wasn't the creamiest or tastiest I've had, it tasted like a dream.
We packed up and started walking down towards the cars again. Now we hardly recognized each other. The bright blue sky had disappeared behind clouds and the landscape around us had turned into a foggy fairy tale landscape. The gnarled and dead trees we passed on the way up bent magically towards the edge of the valley in an aura of fast-moving white steam.
We passed by the hiking trail to Pico Ariero. A little steeper. A little narrower. A bit longer. When little E is a little older, we can go back and hike that trail with her. When she is big enough not to fall between the fence wires.
On the way down I understood why the road is so well signposted. We could see Pico Ruivo and aim for the summit on our way up. Now it was no longer possible to tell the front from the back. We simply wandered into the fog.
It went much faster back to the parking lot, you could say it was a smooth hike down. However, the fog was constantly in front of us like a damp blanket. Not that it was ever scary, but rather a bit chilly. The windbreakers went back on. Layer on layer is good in the mountains.
The parking lot appeared in front of us when we least expected it. Compare the picture below with the first picture from the parking lot, and you'll understand why. It is said that you should compare the weather on Pico Ruivo with a Swedish mountain hike, rather than a hike in the Alps. A little harder and a little more varied climate. I am prepared to agree.
Walking trail: PR 1.2
Distance: 5,6 km round trip (up takes 1,5 hours with some breaks, down 1 hour)
Difficulty: Easy, but with height differences
Start / End: The car park at Achado do Teixeira, 9,5 km from Santana
Height difference max/min: 1582 m (the car park) / 1852 m (Pico Ruivo)
Who is the hike suitable for? All. This hike does not have any scary drops or narrow passages, but it does have elevation differences.
NB: There is NO service after the road and nowhere to buy anything. The only toilet available is at a house just below the summit. Bring toilet paper!
So, what was the overall family rating?
Everyone enjoyed this hike, even if we gazed sighingly at the hiking trail towards Pico Ariero on the way up. Hiking to Pico Ruivo is a perfect hike for the whole family, without scary passages and tunnels. The views are incredible and the hiking trail is well maintained and orderly. So thumbs up from us! But look at the weather forecast before you start hiking, a big part of the reward is enjoying the views!
(The only thing I missed was a toilet at the car park, we all really really needed that!)
Do you want to read more?
Look into my Madeira side!
Read more about this hiking trail and many more at Madeira Tourist Office
Gunilla on the travel blog 4000 mil has made it delicious the hike between Pico Ariero and Pico Ruivo, read more about her hike before you decide which trail to take.
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Have you been here? What did you think of the destination?
Travel blogger, gastronaut, photographer and family adventurer with over 55 countries in his luggage. Eva loves trips that include beautiful nature, hiking boots and well-cooked food. On the travel blog Rucksack she takes you to all corners of the world with the help of her inspiring pictures and texts.