That Madeira airport’s runway sits on a purpose-built stilted platform above the ocean tells you a lot about the island. Scarcely an inch of it is flat; rather, it’s a place of plunging, vertiginous extremes. It is, says local-born Luís Fernandes, “a magic island”.
Hailing from the village of Jardim da Serra, north of Câmara de Lobos, Fernandes knows Madeira’s wild places better than most. He is Madeira’s most successful trail runner. “In my childhood, I lived close to the mountains,” he says. “Being in nature was always my best place. We’d go running up the trails in the spring for cherries and apples. And we’d run between the vines, grabbing grapes. It was fun – the best hobby.”
However, Fernandes only started running properly in his mid-20s. He placed second in his first race in 2012 and, in 2015, became the first local winner of the Madeira Island Ultra Trail (MIUT), a 70-mile island-crossing epic that is one of Portugal’s toughest races and which has grown, from humble beginnings, to become a notable fixture on the Ultra-Trail World Tour circuit.
The increased popularity of the MIUT reflects the changing identity of an island known for appealing to newlyweds and retirees. A different generation is discovering Madeira’s adventurous side, from its gnarly mountain bike tracks to, of course, its trail running potential. “We see a lot of younger people now,” says Fernandes. “They want to get into nature. And everyone is surprised by Madeira – almost every trail is astonishing.”
There are trails everywhere: amid the jagged mountains; along the network of centuries-old levadas (irrigation channels); through to the rare Unesco-listed laurel forests. “But I don’t have one favourite part of the island,” says Fernandes. “It’s the mix. When you’re running in the mountains and at the same time you see the ocean – it’s a feeling I can’t put into words.”
Fernandes’s top trails
Madeira has routes for everyone – from easy levadas to steep trails to make your heart pound. The Vereda do Larano, a path cut into the cliffs on the island’s east coast, is good for everyone. You get to experience everything Madeira has to offer: farming areas, water channels, mountain views, the ocean. The route from Porto da Cruz to Machico via the Larano is 9 miles and is the last stage of the MIUT.
For two oceans
Ponta de São Lourenço is Madeira’s easternmost peninsula. The trail here is short (5 miles, out and back), but up and down. You can see both sides of the island at the same time: on the north, the ocean is very aggressive; the south is calm. There’s no large vegetation but lots of flowers, depending on the season, and rocks of many colours.
For island highs
I love running between some of the island’s highest points: Pico Ruivo (1,861 metres) and Pico do Arieiro (1,818 metres). The trail between them, crossing part of the central massif, is about 7.5 miles, with many stairs and steep drops, so not good for people with vertigo. I like to go at sunrise; the clouds often sit between 1,300 and 1,800 metres, so you run through fog, then find it clear at the top and see the sun above the clouds.
For atmospheric forest
Fanal is a high plateau area covered in laurel forest. It’s so green, so wild – especially when it’s foggy. It’s like being in Jurassic Park. There are lots of trails here. You can run up from the coast town of Porto Moniz or up the Chão da Ribeira, a valley above Seixal. Take care, though – it’s easy to get lost.
Rabaçal is the starting point for the Levada das 25 Fontes (about 7.5 miles). It’s named this because there’s a lagoon at the end where you can count 25 springs coming out of the rock. It’s lovely, just listening to the water and the birds.
For tunnel running
There’s a beautiful circuit, about 11 miles, starting from the Boca da Encumeada, a 1,007-metre pass in the middle of the island. You have everything on this trail: water channels, volcanic parts, mossy forest, waterfalls. It’s similar to the Amazon. You also have old tunnels to pass through, so bring a head torch.
Sometimes trails can be hard to navigate, but in Porto da Cruz it’s easy: from the village there are three circular trail running courses (5 miles, 11 miles, 21 miles), marked with signs. These are good training runs. I prepare for races here: I start by the ocean, run to the Ribeiro Frio, do a few kilometres by the water channels, go up to Poiso (1,400 metres), and then come back down to the ocean.
For the ultimate adventure
I love to run the course of the MIUT over three days. I start from Porto Moniz and do 46km with 3,700 metres uphill; I love this part, with its mix of forests and views. Day two, I run about 26 miles from Encumeada, passing Curral das Freiras (Valley of the Nuns) and other deep valleys, and go up to the highest points. On the third day, I run from Ribeiro Frio down to the sea at Machico. It’s very difficult but so beautiful.
And for refuelling
I like to eat at Bar e Restaurante Portela À Vista, in Machico. You feel at home here. The owner prepares typical food such as espetadas, chunks of meat cooked on skewers on the fire. It’s the best location: you’re in the middle of nature. Sometimes it can get quite foggy, but I love it because it reminds you that you’re in the mountains.
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