When I visited Funchal, I really wanted to see at least one of Madeira’s famous levada water channels, without doing too much strenuous hiking or taking a guided tour. The easy levada walk from Ribeiro Frio to the beautiful Balcoes viewpoint was the perfect trip for us; simple to get to from Funchal by bus, self-guided and absolutely stunning.
In this post, I’ll talk you through exactly how to do this easy levada walk near Funchal on your trip to Madeira.
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What are the levadas in Madeira?
The Madeira levadas are a network of narrow, man-made water channels that were built between the 15th and 20th centuries and were started by Madeira’s earliest settlers. They were built to capture rainwater that fell in the mountains and carry it down to the fields and terraces to irrigate farmers’ crops.
800 kilometres of levadas cross the entire island, bringing precious water to plots of banana trees, sugar cane, strawberries, potatoes, tomatoes and of course the grapes that are used to make Madeira wine.
The levadas look like mini canals, less than a metre wide and around 50 to 60cm deep. Some levadas run partly through tunnels. It’s amazing to think of this work being carried out in such difficult terrain, over 500 years ago on this tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic ocean.
The Madeira levadas have been submitted to UNESCO for possible inclusion on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites; they’re currently on the tentative list. Some are better-maintained than others, but many are still in use today, either collecting water for Madeira’s hydroelectric plants or for their historic purpose, providing water for farmland.
Levada walks in Madeira
One of the most popular things to do in Madeira is hiking, particularly along the trails which follow the levadas. The trails are numbered and tend to be well-signposted, but they vary a lot in terms of length and difficulty. Some trails are suitable for self-guided levada walks, while others are so strenuous or risky that it’s advised to only do them with a guide. People have even died attempting some of the most dangerous hikes.
Nature lovers adore the spectacular scenery, bird life and wild flowers you can see on the beautiful levada trails; they’re one of the biggest reasons why Madeira is one of the world’s top walking destinations. But if you’re not an experienced hiker, the long walks, steep stairs and the need for a local guide can be off-putting. Since you’re in the countryside, many of them are difficult to get to by public transport too.
I was really not up for anything that came with a risk of death(!), and we hadn’t hired a car, so the walk from Ribeiro Frio was ideal for us. We’d done the steep hike down from Eira do Serrado to Curral das Freiras (Nun’s Valley) the day before so I was really excited for something a bit flatter!
Where is Ribeiro Frio and the Balcões viewpoint?
The village of Ribeiro Frio is to the north of Funchal, on the mountain road to Faial and Santana. The road from Funchal climbs up to Monte then through eucalyptus trees until the scenery opens up into a mountain plain with gorse bushes around the Funchal Ecological Park.
Once you start the descent down to the north coast, the slopes are covered in lush forest, with streams and even waterfalls peeking through the trees. The journey is really beautiful, and while it’s twisty, it’s not as puke-inducing as the trip up to the Valley of the Nuns.
Ribeiro Frio itself is a small village, not much more than a few houses and a couple of restaurants aimed at tourists, a tiny church and a small trout farm. The name means Cold River and a stream runs prettily down through it, with a few small waterfalls along the way.
Two levada walks start at Ribeiro Frio; the 7.4km PR10 Levado do Furado trail and the 3km out-and-back PR11 Vereda dos Balcões walk along the Levada da Serra do Faial to the Balcões viewpoint, which is the one I recommend as an easy levada walk, suitable for almost everyone.
What to expect on the walk to the Balcões viewpoint
The walk to Balcões starts beside the road in Ribeiro Frio, on the same side as John’s Poncha restaurant and a little further down the hill. The other walk from Ribeiro Frio (the PR10 trail) starts on the opposite side of the road.
At the start of the PR11 walk to Balcões there’s an information board with a map of where you’ll be going, some information about the area and reminders about how to enjoy the Madeira countryside safely and responsibly.
You can see the levada irrigation channel straightaway at the side of the path. The path to Balcões is unusually wide compared to other levada walks, which means you can overtake people who are walking slower than you are (or be overtaken if you’re me and busy taking photos of every pretty fern leaf!).
It’s a wide path, but it is a bit uneven with rocks and tree roots, and it was pretty muddy when I visited (in February, during a cold and rainy snap in Madeira). I did the walk in white trainers, but it would have been even easier if I’d worn hiking boots – not because it’s a difficult walk but because I wouldn’t have had to avoid puddles and tip-toe around muddy stretches. If you do have hiking boots, walking shoes or trail trainers with you on your trip to Madeira then they’d be a better option.
While I don’t think the path will be accessible for most wheelchair users, it is wide enough for rugged pushchairs – there was a family at the viewpoint when we were there who’d brought their young child in a pushchair.
What to see on the levada walk
As well as the levada itself, there are some lovely points of interest to look out for on the walk. Not long after setting off, you’ll go through a gap that’s been cut out of the rock. There are a couple of other places where this happens along the walk and it’s absolutely magical. The stones are covered in moss and because the path winds a little bit, you feel like you’re going to disappear into the rock.
On the right hand side, there’s a view over the valley with little houses and the road winding down towards Faial. There are even a few sheep grazing peacefully in the fields. If you’ve spent most of your trip in Funchal it’s really nice to get a taste of rural Madeira. It might seem strange because so much of Madeira is so unlike the UK, but Ribeiro Frio really reminded me of parts of Wales.
There’s a lovely point where the levada and the path both cross over a mountain stream in almost a perfect horseshoe shape with a little bridge. The tinkling sound of the water trickling through a tiny waterfall is so pretty and it’s very serene.
Around halfway along the walk to the viewpoint, there’s a cute little cafe with wooden tables and chairs overlooking the valley. There’s also some indoor seating if it’s a bit damp, like it was the day we visited. They also have a toilet which you can pay to use if you’re not having something to eat or drink.
When you’re nearly at the viewpoint, you’ll turn to the right and leave the levada behind and walk along a stone-paved path to the viewpoint. If you look over the barrier stopping you from carrying along the levada, you can see the difference between the regularly used, maintained levada path that you’ve just come along, and an unmaintained path; they’re not all as easy to follow as the path to Balcões.
This last bit of path is also a good place to experience Madeira’s Laurisilva forest. These ancient, twisting trees have their own ecosystem and are a UNESCO World Heritage site.
What to see at Balcões
The path ends at the Balcões viewpoint, a small, viewpoint at the top of a cliff, overlooking one of the most astonishing views I’ve ever seen. If Ribeiro Frio was giving me Wales vibes, the near-360 degree views across the Ribeira da Metade valley is pure Jurassic Park. On a clear day you can see the peaks of Madeira’s central mountain band, with Pico do Areeiro, Pico das Torres and Pico Ruivo all visible. When I was there we couldn’t see the highest peaks, but the clouds hanging over the mountaintops were really pretty.
The mountains here are thickly wooded with Laurissilva forest and other tree species typical of Madeira, such as the Madeira mahogany and the Lily-of-the-Valley tree. There’s also lots of wonderful bird life; you’ll definitely see Madeiran chaffinches, who have learned that if they hang out here, they’ll get fed with crumbs from visitors’ hands. If you’re lucky, you might also see Macaronesian sparrowhawks, the Madeira laurel pigeon, buzzards, or kestrels.
The other animal life you’re likely to see here is a very friendly cat, who is either waiting for some tasty pickings from visitors’ packed lunches or for one of the birds to make a wrong move.
The viewpoint has a safety rail, but you should still be very careful; if you drop your phone or camera over the edge while taking a picture of the amazing view there’ll be no chance to get it back! It goes without saying that you shouldn’t try to get over the railings, and you should keep a close eye on any children who are doing this walk with you as there are some steep drops.
How far is the Balcões levada walk?
The walk from Ribeiro Frio to Balcões is 1.5km each way, so 3km in total. It took us 35 minutes each way but we did pause an awful lot to take photos and we were dodging puddles so that added on some time as well.
How to get to Ribeiro Frio from Funchal
Getting the bus from Funchal to Ribeiro Frio
While it’s easy to get to Ribeiro Frio by bus from Funchal, you will need to plan your day carefully. Ribeiro Frio is served by the number 56 and 103 Horarios do Funchal buses to Santana, but not all buses with those numbers stop at Ribeiro Frio – or even go anywhere near! Many of them instead take the faster tunnel route rather than go over the mountain.
You’ll also need to carefully plan how you’re going to get back, as very few buses going back to Funchal stop at Ribeiro Frio. It’s worth checking the timetable on the Horarios do Funchal website (choose Interurban routes and then 56 or 103) to make sure you won’t end up with an extended stay in tiny Ribeiro Frio!
At the time of writing in February 2023, the best bus to get from Funchal to Ribeiro Frio on weekdays for people wanting to do the Balcões walk is the 10am number 56 bus. This bus leaves from Funchal’s bus station on R. José da Silva “Saca”, next to the cable car station and arrives in Ribeiro Frio around 40 minutes later.
Because it is the best bus to take, it’s very popular and you should get there to queue early. There were so many people wanting to go to Ribeiro Frio when I caught the bus that the bus company put on a second coach, but that might not always be possible.
You should also get on at the beginning of the route; Google Maps suggested that I get on at a later bus stop but if the bus is already packed when it leaves the bus station then you might not be able to get on – and as I’ve already mentioned, if you miss this one then you’re going to have trouble getting to the starting point of the walk with enough daylight to see it properly.
If you’re planning to do both the Balcões walk and the other levada walk from Ribeira Frio, you might want to get the 8.10 bus from Funchal, to give you (just) enough time to do both walks and catch the bus back.
The bus from Funchal to Ribeiro Frio costs 3.35 euros each way. You can buy tickets from the driver. Most Giro tickets (the ones you can use around Funchal) aren’t valid as the bus route to Ribeiro Frio is an Interurban route rather than a Funchal urban route.
Getting the bus back to Funchal from Ribeiro Frio
If you’ve taken the 10am bus to Ribeiro Frio, then the 13.15 (during school term time) or 13.45 (outside term time) bus back to Funchal is a good choice. This gives you enough time to get there, do the walk at a leisurely pace, spend some time at the viewpoint, have a drink or something light to eat and have a look around the village before catching the bus back.
Alternatively, you might want to make a day of it and carry on to Santana by bus (there’s one at 14.15), or get a taxi to Porto da Cruz then get the bus back from there.
Getting to Ribeiro Frio by car
If you have hired a car for your trip to Madeira, then getting to Ribeiro Frio is easy. The road is fairly wide, well-maintained and relatively quiet. There’s parking available either at the side of the road or at a small car park just south of the village. If you’re visiting Madeira at a particularly busy time of year then you might want to get there early.
Taking a guided tour to Ribeiro Frio
Lots of guided tours of the east coast include a stop in Ribeiro Frio, but not all tour companies are clear on whether they give you enough time to walk to the Balcões viewpoint and then get back to the bus. There’s no road access to the viewpoint so you’ll need a tour that stops for at least an hour (if you’re fast on your feet!) and ideally 90 minutes to be able to get there and back. The village is pretty, but I’m not sure I’d make a special trip there without seeing the view from Balcões.
This Madeira East Island Tour and Levada Walk from Madeira Seekers includes the viewpoint, as does this 4×4 tour of the east from Adventureland Madeira. Tour itineraries can change so I’d recommend checking with the company you choose that they will definitely give you enough time to do the walk.
More things to do in Ribeiro Frio
As I’ve said above, Ribeiro Frio is a tiny place, and the main reason for making the effort to go there is to do the Balcões levada walk. If you are visiting, it’s worth checking out some of the other interesting sights in the village.
Do (part of) another levada hike
If the easy walk to the viewpoint has got you in the mood for more hiking, you could do some of the 7.4km PR10 Levado do Furado trail. This hike sets off from the other side of the road to the Balcões walk before setting off along the levada. At the very start of the route you’ll cross the river that flows through the village; there’s a pretty view of some rapids from the bridge just below the road.
Visit the trout farm
The Ribeiro Frio trout farm is probably the prettiest fish farm you’ll ever see. Set at the south end at the village next to the road from Funchal, this little trout farm, owned by the local government, raises fish in open-air tanks with stone walls using water from the levadas. The tanks are surrounded by lush gardens.
See the tiny chapel
This will only take a couple of minutes, but it’s worth popping your head inside Ribeiro Frio’s tiny chapel. Dedicated to Our Lady of Fátima, it’s quite simple but has some lovely tiles. There’s a souvenir shop next door and a small viewpoint over the rushing river below.
Is it worth doing the Balcões de Ribeiro Frio levada walk?
The walk along the levada to the Balcões viewpoint was my favourite thing we did in Madeira. It’s easy and beautiful, with great views and interesting things to see along the way, and the viewpoint at the end is nothing short of astonishing.
More levada walks in Madeira
If this easy levada walk in Madeira has given you a taste for this uniquely Madeiran activity, you might want to explore some of the island’s other stunning levada trails. You should bear in mind that some levadas can be dangerous, even if you stick to official walking trails, so it’s often a good idea to go on a guided tour.
Taking a tour can also make getting to trail heads easier, particularly if you’re not renting a car, and if they can drop you off and pick you up, it’ll save you doubling back to get back to the beginning.
Some popular levada guided tours to consider include:
- PR 6 – Levada das 25 Fontes is another of the best levada walks in Madeira, but at 4.3km long and moderate difficulty, it’s more difficult than the Balcoes walk. This guided walk includes the Levada das 25 Fontes and the Levada do Risco.
- This Serra de Água Valley Levada Walk is an easy and pleasant half-day guided walk through some of the south coast’s prettiest countryside.
- Another half-day hike is this one along PR9 Levada do Caldeirão Verde near Santana, which takes in fantastic views of the magnificent Caldeirão Verde waterfall, five levada tunnels through solid rock and scenic views over north coast villages on a 6.5km walk.