“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
Martin Luther King
Days like this one don’t come around so often. They cannot be planned. They just occur. Mine has just occurred and I wasn’t expecting it.
14th May 2016. This morning we rise before the sun. According to the locals, in fact, the weather in the mountains of Madeira tends to be nice in the morning and deteriorates throughout the day and we want to make the most of the views. Be prepared for everything if you decide to go up there!
Time to have a good recharging breakfast in our small hotel in Sao Jorge, a small village located in north east of Madeira island, prepared by our host Teresa. She is very friendly to us and treats more like family members than guests. Our first night sleeping in Sao Jorge we met a very nice and funny old couple from England. They talk to us about their big family and we can see clearly how much they still love each other after so many years spent together. They kindly offer to bring us to the starting point of our daily excursion with their car and we accept so we can start earlier.
Madeira is stunning. Views can be compromised at times by very dense vegetation that resembles southamerican forrests, but everytime there is a view, I can tell you, it’s magnificent! And today I want to watch the world around Madeira from God´s perspective, the highest one!
One of the main reasons I came to Madeira is the high trail than runs along the ridge between Pico do Arieiro and Pico Ruivo. It has been ranked as one of the most wonderful hiking paths in the world! And now I know why…
This formidable high-level traverse links Pico do Arieiro (1,818m) the island’s third-highest mountain, and Pico Ruivo (1,862m), the highest one. It´s famous for its stupendous drops and panoramas on all sides. I must admit there is an immediate sense of exposure. If you suffer from vertigo, this place is not for you!
The easiest way to access the trail is by driving from Santana, up to the car park in Achada do Teixeira. The drive itself was interesting as most of the time we had to navigate through thick clouds and narrow, winding roads. Everything around looked grey and silent like a thrilling scene from a horror movie. Once we stopped the car on the side of the road, I could hear nothing but the deep silence. There were no birds tweeting, no other cars, no humans along the road. I was standing in front of a thick forest covered in cloud and creepy mist.
After about 20 more minutes of driving uphill, the cloud cleared out completely. By the time we got to the car park, the sun was coming out, I couldn’t believe only minutes ago we were making our way through the cold, damp fog.
Pico Ruivo can only be accessed by foot after a strenuous hike. The continuous uphill hike was challenging and it did require a few breaks here and there. The path was well defined all the way to the top. The moment I reached my first viewing point, I could admire the island in all its beauty from coast to coast. Beautiful green cliffs were rising up from the white clouds, forming a wonderful landscape. There were moments where I hiked on narrow paths, and both sides would reveal the vastness of the ocean and floating cloud. Even for the most experienced hikers these outstanding views could make your knees tremble a little.
For most people, clouds range from being something annoying spoiling a sunny day to an unfortunate daily reality. But up here on this trail clouds take on an entirely new dimension. They may lie in valleys, enormous and recumbent, resembling lakes. They may run after each other a in angry hordes or they can surround you and you walk through them. There’s a never ending variety to be discovered and each is more intriguing than the last making this experience one of the most impressive of my life.
Our first impression of this place is already great and the best is yet to come!
Besides the fact that you just don’t stop seeing some of natures most spectacular scenery like the rugged red vulcanic rocks, the green valleys down in the precipices and the blue Atlantic Ocean in the background, you also get a chance to see some endemic birds to the island and also the most endangered seabird of Europe, the Zino´s Petrel of freira. Some species can be observed only in Macronesia islands and Madeira.
Finally you can admire also the oldest heather forest in existence. Just before Pico Ruivo, landscape gets suddenly so dramatic and surreal looking at these ancient heather trees that are many hundreds of years old. They were already here when the explorer Zarco landed on the island first time in 1419, starting the portuguese colonization.
It looks like a painting scene….
We walk up and down so many times! And we start passing through small tunnels where definitely a flash light is recommendable.
It is only a matter of seconds, you simply go round the corner and you are suddenly completely surrounded by thick clouds! It is incredible!
A few hundreds meters and again the sky is blue. Unbelievable!
Bizzarre rocks formations I can see…
Doesn´t it look like a dog´s head??
And here it comes my favourite parts of this amazing trail, that would make you speechless all the time wherever you look around.
The red colour shines so brilliant along the path!
The summit of Pico do Arieiro is visible from afar thanks to the gigantic white globe of the military radar. We are getting there but more stairs are coming!
Infinite numbers of stairs. We go up and down, up and down all the time. Our knees start suffering a bit.
The clouds come once again to hide the peaks and the trail!
We can finally see the top of Pico do Arieiro not so far anymore.
The colours are so much intense along this part of the ridge in the midday sun!
The longer I walk on this trail the more I feel like I am living a trascendental experience and I am not anymore on planet Earth. Seen from distance the radar on the top looks like a small planet and the small human figures below it look like astronauts discovering it.
Isn´t it like being in a dream when your eyes see something like this?
I have heard this path originally formed part of a packhorse route from one side of the island to the other, but who would take goods over the torturous peaks of the highest mountains? Oh my God, cannot believe it!
I can truly say that this was the most beautiful and inspiring route I have walked in my life. I’ll never forget about it! The scenery looked not only stunning, but also diverse, and the dramatic shifts in elevation let me experience a wide variety of ever- changing panoramas, terrain, weather, fauna and flora.
Sure it has been ranked among the greatest walks of the world with the paths and tunnels hidden and cut in the volcanic rocks, the stairways rising to the sky and the views spacing until the Atlantic ocean!
One song will be associated to this place forever: Stairway to Heaven from Led Zeppelin. It will echo in my mind the rest of the day.
“Death and love are the two wings that bring man to heaven”