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Madeira by Car: Santana Day Trip from Funchal

This post will show you a drive through the green island of Madeira as we are making a Santana day trip from Funchal. We will first take the steep road up to Monte and visit Monte Palace Tropical Gardens from where we will continue to the top of Madeira, Pico de Arieiro, 1818 m. 

Pico de Arieiro is a fantastic place for hiking, as is Ribeiro Frio that has a well-known levada. After Faial we will see triangular houses of Santana, far away on Madeira’s north coast.

Santana day trip from Funchal, a triangular house

Santana houses are called palheiro by the locals

We made the trip by car which allowed us to stop and make side trips during the day. If you don’t want to rent a car take a bus from Funchal to Santana or join an arranged bus tour. Whichever way of travel you choose you will enjoy the scenes along this amazing Madeira itinerary.

Monte can be combined in a Santana trip or you can make a separate trip to Monte by cable car from Funchal.

Santana Day Trip from Funchal on the Map


Map of the drive from Funchal to Santana

As Madeira only is a small island the drive from Funchal to Santana and back only makes 100 km which is less than a 2,5 hours drive. But the more you stop the more you will see, and a Santana trip easily takes a whole day.

Our first stop was right up from Funchal: the pretty village of Monte 550 m above the city.

Monte, Madeira

Monte toboggan road, Santana day trip from Funchal

A toboggan coming down from Monte

As Google maps told us to take the straightest road Caminho do Monte uphill we happily took that road. But we had absolutely no idea how steep the road was.

Neither did we know that we were going to meet people coming downhill in wicker baskets that are called toboggans. The wicker baskets were using part of the road and every time a basket was coming down we had to give way.

Monte toboggan riding

Madeira toboggans riding downhill

Our small rental car (which by the way was brand new) had a hard time and made a terrible noise but up we went and came to Monte. I’m not sure if I’d like to take this road again. The next time we went to Monte we took another road.

Why do people come down in such a strange basket?  It’s a Madeira tradition. Round 1850 they found out that they can take visitors down this way – and to bring them up they used a train.

Toboggan is am exciting way to travel from Monte to Funchal, even if the speed on today’s surfaced road is not what it used to be earlier when the road was cobbled.

Monte toboggans and driver

A Monte wicker basket driver is called carreiro

Smartly dressed toboggan drivers, carreiros, sit below Monte church and wait for passengers. They push and steer the sled and use their shoes as brakes.

Try riding a wicker sled or walk down the road. It’s a nice four km walk down to Funchal – through garden suburbs and in a fantastic scenery.

Santana day trip from Funchal, view from Monte

Funchal, Madeira seen from Monte

Monte Cable Car

If you are only going to Monte you don’t have to rent a car for that. Just take the cable car up from Funchal’s Old Town.

Cable car from Funchal to Monte

Monte cable car takes you from Funchal old town to Monte

It is a nice ride as well. The cable car goes up the green Joao Gomes Valley and takes you to Monte cable car station. Alternatively you can take a bus from Funchal to Monte or use the other cable car line from the west side of Funchal.

Monte cable car station

Monte cable car station

I will now show you some sights of Monte. To see them all it might be a good idea not to combine Monte with a Santana day trip from Funchal. We however combined and liked it.

Nossa Senhora do Monte

Nossa Senhora to Monte, Santana day trip from Funchal

Monte’s church Nossa Senhora do Monte

Monte has a famous church Nossa Senhora do Monte from 1818, twin-towered and whitewashed – a church that has a wonderful blue ceiling.

Monte’s church is Madeira’s most popular wedding place. And it’s also the most popular pilgrim church where crowds gather in August and climb up the 74 steps – on their knees!

Monte church Madeira

The blue ceiling of Monte church, Madeira

There’s also the Capela de Coreicao, a pretty chapel on a small square. The chapel is located close to the miradouro that has fine views of Funchal and the valley.

Monte chapel, Santana day trip from Funchal

Capela de Coreicao in Monte, Madeira

Monte, Madeira; view to bay

Flower terraces of Monte

To see the Joao Gomes Valley you can go levada walking from Monte. There is a marked levada walk around the valley to Funchal’s Jardim Botanico. We tried the path a little bit and want to return one day and walk more. This time we went to see Monte Palace Gardens.

Levada walk Monte to Quinta do Palheiro Ferreiro

Levada walk from Monte to Quinta do Palheiro Ferreiro

Monte Palace Tropical Gardens

Monte Palace

The palace of Monte, Madeira

Monte has been Funchal’s garden suburb where wealthy families escaped for fresher air. They built their quintas and palaces in Monte since the air up here was cooler than in the city and it was less noisy.

This is Monte Palace, the former villa of the English consul:


Views of Monte Palace garden

Monte Palace is famous for its huge garden that stretches down the valley. The garden is 7 ha of size and has a laurisilva forest that is typical of Madeira. There’s also a swan lake with caves and painted Portuguese wall tiles. The tiles were saved from Lisbon houses that were torn down.

Monte Palace Tropical Garden flowers



Details of Monte Palace garden, Madeira

And there is a Japanese garden with red bridges and oriental ponds and Asian plants. In total Monte Palace gardens have more than 100.000 different plants from all over the world.

Monte Palace Tropical Gardens

Japanese garden: red bridges and stone shrines

The village of Monte itself is a quiet, sleepy community high up on the hillside.  This is the central square Largo do Fonte that has an old station building that is not in use.


The village of Monte, Madeira

There was a railway line to Monte until 1939 when a locomotive exploded and travellers were killed. The whole line was closed after the incident but the old railway bridge still stands there, covered with wild plants.

Old railway bridge in Monte, Madeira

The old railway bridge of Monte

Santana Day Trip from Funchal: Monte to Pico do Arieiro

Monte, Madeira: view to Funchal

Driving on,  from Monte to Pico to Arieiro

So we left Monte and took the scenic Ribeiro Frio road uphill. The higher we got the better the views to Funchal. Monte, too, looked quite nice from above.

Monte centre, Santana day trip from Funchal

Santana day trip from Funchal: green slopes of Monte

At 700 m Monte terraces ended and we came into a woodland with pines and eucalyptus trees. The eucalyptus trees were originally imported from Australia and I could really feel the sweet smell that made be believe I was –  in Australia!

It was cloudy and a misty higher up. Clouds often hang on mountains but once you get high enough you will have clear skies again.

Sheep on the road Funchal to Pico do Arieiro

Driving from Funhcal to Santana: Madeira sheep

Australia has its bush fires. They probably don’t call them bush fires here but there had clearly been fires in many places. I wouldn’t say a burned ground looks pretty but the road was good and there were sheep and goats.


Between Funchal and Pico de Arieiro

Soon we reached the top of the island which is a large dry plateau. So different scenery and only about an hour’s drive from Funchal. To get to Pico do Arieiro you will need to make a short side trip from the main road that goes in direction Ribeiro Frio and Santana.

As we had heard the clouds disappeared  when we got higher. We had clear skies – but it was terribly cold!

Road to Pico do Arieiro

Driving on the top of Madeira

Santana Day Trip from Funchal: Pico do Arieiro

Santana day trip from Funchal, top of Pico do Arieiro

Pico do Arieiro, 1818 m above sea level

How good it is to come from a cold country, we are prepared to conditions like + 6 degrees and heavy winds! The photo shows the absolute summit of Pico do Arieiro, 1818 m. Otherwise the mountain top is 8 m lower.

Pico do Arieiro

Pico do Arieiro, Madeira

Pico do Arieiro is the third highest peak of Madeira. As Madeira is so small you can see the whole island from here, including the highest peak Pico Ruivo. Below you can see the view back to Funchal.

Funchal seen from Pico do Arieiro

Funchal seen from Pico do Arieiro

And here are the views to all other directions.

Pico do Arieiro landscape is mostly brown volcanic rocks which is a sign of the island’s origins. The island of Madeira was created by volcanic forces which you can’t tell at lower altitudes where the ground is covered with plants. But up here you can clearly see the island’s volcanic past.

View from Pico do Arieiro, Madeira

Volcanic rocks of Madeira 

Some more volcanic mountain ridges, this is the view to the northwest:

View from Pico do Arieiro Madeira

Madeira north shore from Pico do Arieiro

Walk from Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo

Walking on Pico do Arieiro Madeira

Hiking on Madeira mountains: Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo

And I was freezing!

To see more of the stunning scenery we walked a little bit on the track that leads to Pico Ruivo. Pico Ruivo is a demanding and dangerous hike that has many steep drops and rock tunnels.

Walking from Pico do Arieiro to Ruivo takes something like 2-3 hours each way and on the way the path takes two more main peaks. I’d really like to do that but today we are going to Santana.

The track looks easy in the beginning but it certainly is not like this all the way.

Walking track, Pico do Arieiro , Madeira

Pico Ruivo from Pico do Arieiro Madeira

Pico Ruivo hike from Pico do Arieiro, Madeira

There were groups of walkers, some of them well prepared and others not. Many people only walked a short distance just like we did and then walked back.

If you want to stay a night on the mountain top and see the sunrise, there is a pousada (a hotel) for that and a cafe. And as this is a tourist island there of course is a small souvenir shop for the tourists visiting. Pico do Arieiro is the most accessible of the high peaks in Madeira and even buses can drive up to the peak.

Walking track Pico Ruivo from Pico do Arieiro

Hiking in Pico do Arieiro, Madeira

Lower down it got warmer again and we could soon take off our down jackets – this felt more like Madeira temperatures.

We entered the forest zone again and soon it was all laurisilva that Madeira is UNESCO World Heritage listed for. And then, right in the middle of lush laurisilva forest we found a small village.

Santana Day Trip from Funchal: Ribeiro Frio

Santana day trip from Funchal, Ribeiro Frio

The cold stream of Madeira, Ribeiro Frio

Ribeiro Frio means cold stream. It’s both a river that takes cold rain water down from the mountains and a little riverbank village.

It looks like the village is in a rainforest, it’s surrounded by big ferns and other exotic plants. There are two restaurants, a souvenir shop, a chapel and a trout farm. And many levadas.

Ribeiro Frio trout farm

Ribeiro Frio trout farm and levadas

Portela and Balcoes Leavada Walks

Ribeiro Frio levada walk to Portela

Madeira walks: Ribeiro Frio levada walk to Portela

Two of Madeira’s levada walks start here. One of them is the 11 km Portela walk which is a demanding one. The walk starts below Ribeiro Frio’s restaurant and you can try and walk a little bit and return.

To walk the whole itinerary you will need to have a proper equipment as the path is slippery, steep and narrow in places. In that case you will have to arrive by bus, arriving by car your car would be in the wrong since after the hike.

Ribeiro Frio, Madeira

Madeira nature: Ribeiro Frio between Santana and Funchal

The other walk begins across the road. It is an easy 20 min walk to Balcoes (balcony), a lookout where you can see the valley.

Here are some views of the place where the Portela walk starts:

Ribeiro Frio levada walk Central Madeira

Ribeiro Frio levada walk to Portela

Portela walk along a river and levada

The tiny Ribeiro Frio chapel looks gleaming white and the red restaurant building has –  a plastic Santa! Because it’s Christmas time.

Ribeiro Frio chapel

Ribeiro Frio fern

Ribeiro Frio waterfall and plants

Views of Ribeiro Frio, starting point of a levada walk

Ribeiro Frio restaurant

Santa Claus in Madeira’s winter

Madeira’s Levadas

The Ribeiro Frio trout farm takes its fresh water from a beautifully landscaped levada:

Ribeiro Frio levada, Santana day trip from Funchal

A small Madeira levada

What are all these levadas? Long times ago Madeira built a huge irrigation system that covers the whole island. The meaning with it is to bring rain water from mountains to where water is most needed. The system consists of narrow canals, levadas in the local language, and maintenance paths around them. These maintenance paths can today be used for walking.

Madeira’s levada network covers all mountain slopes and there are more than 200 km of canals to walk along.

Ribeiro Frio trout farm

Ribeiro Frio trout farm

So walkers from many countries come to Madeira and are happy to walk here, and so are these trouts happy in their concrete tanks that get fresh water from the mountains.

Santana Day Trip from Funchal: Ribeiro  Frio to Faial

Driving to Faial

Santana day trip from Funchal: driving towards Faial

The hills between Ribeiro Frio and Faial look like the ones in Bali, Indonesia: the green slopes are full of man-made terraces. It was the first settlers of Madeira who built these terraces and it was a lot of work. So much that they imported slaves from Africa to do the labour  – until slavery was no more allowed.

It was hard work to gain land from the steep slopes. But they needed land to grow vegetables, fruit and grapes and to be able to live in the area.

Santana vegetables being dried, Santana day trip from Funchal

Drying vegetables in Faial, Madeira

Faial is a real farming area and they grow a lot of vegetables in the region. Above you can see pumpkins hanging in the air which must be a common way of storing them as we saw that being done in many villages. In addition to pumpkins cabbages, potatoes and carrots grow so well in Madeira that farmers can harvest up to three times a year.

Santana day trip from Funchal, Ribeiro Frio to Faial

Madeira terraces close to Santana

Madeira terraces look amazing, it really looks like Bali rice terraces. And in between they have fruit trees: apples, pears, cherries and so on. What a beautiful non touristic region and so different from the more inhabited south coast!

Ribeiro Frio to Faial terraced fields, Santana day trip from Funchal

Ribeiro Frio to Faial terraced fields

Madeira’s terraced fields


Santana day trip from Funchal, Faial

Santana day trip from Funchal: Faial

Faial is a small fishing village with a pretty mountainside location. The small community has a restaurant and a food store where we dropped in to get some takeaway sandwiches. There was no time to sit down and eat, we had to drive on…

Between Faial and Santana you can choose between two alternative roads, the new tunnel road and the upper road that has scenic views of Faial and all north coast.

Faial, Santana day trip from Funchal

Taking the upper road from Faial to Santana

Santana Day Trip from Funchal: Santana Houses

Santana day trip from Funchal, Santana houses

Traditional Santana houses

So the reason why we went to Santana was to see the houses. Of course there was a lot more on the way but the idea came from the houses.

And here they are, bright-coloured houses with so steep roofs that they look like a tent or A.

These houses have existed all over the island of Madeira but today Santana is the only place where some houses remain. This kind of building style was first used by the earliest Portuguese settlers that came to the island in the 16th century and afterwards A-frames became a tradition.


Palheiros, triangular houses of Santana

This kind of traditional Madeiran houses are called palheiros in Portuguese.

They are nice simple houses all of which have a wooden interior. Living room and kitchen are located downstairs and sleeping area is in the loft. Originally the bathrooms were all outdoors but today they are inside the house.

Traditional Santana house

A Santana palheiro

Santana has many triangular houses along village lanes and then there’s a concentration of them in the village centre, next to the city hall and church. These are touristic houses where you can go inside. One of the touristic houses is a flower shop and the next one sells souvenirs.

Santana triangular house Madeira



Santana day trip from Funchal

I so much like to look at Santana houses! In Santana they have kept o the old building style, maybe because the area has been in isolation from the rest of the island. Getting to Santana from Funchal was a huge effort until the fast express way was built.

Santana house, Madeira

Santana house, Madeira

More Santana House Styles

Triangular Santana house, Santana day trip from Funchal

A brown Santana house

Many palheiros are bright in colour but not all. There are also brown and dark colours which look equally beautiful as blue and red. Maybe the dark ones are more original?

Santana scene

A Santana village house, Santana day trip from Funchal

A brown Santana house 

Many of the triangular buildings in Santana are storage rooms or cowsheds. At least we saw many buildings like that on hillsides and in village gardens. This one is in the village centre and has a pumpkin growing on the roof:

A thached roof, Santana day trip from Funchal

A-shaped Santana storage room

Santana House Christmas Decoration

Santana nativity scene, Santana day trip from Funchal

Christmas in Santana, Madeira

As we were visiting after Christmas Santana like every other village in Madeira had a nativity stable outside town hall. It all looked fantastic but the many small Santana houses between Christmas things are the best!

I really like this Santana Christmas scene:

Santana nativity scene, Santana day trip from Funchal

Santana houses in nativity scene

Via Expressa to Funchal

Via Expressa, Santana day trip from Funchal

Santana day trip from Funchal: Via Expressa

But like every day sooner or later it will get dark and it’s time to drive back. We took the fastest route from Santana to Funhcal which is the new Via Expressa. Here you can see one of the many Via Expressa bridges, the one over the Ribeira Seca at Faial.


The express road is very fast and before we noticed we reached Santa Catarina Airport north of Funchal. We took a moment to look at the runway that’s built on poles on the sea, to make it long enough for big planes. Imposing! And the motorway is built below the runway and goes between the poles.

Funchal airport runway

Driving below Funchal airport runway, Santana day trip from Funchal

Santa Catarina Airport, Madeira 

Soon after the airport: back in the city and ready for dinner, after an enjoyable Santana day trip from Funchal!

Funchal at dusk

Back in Funchal

More on Madeira Travel

Check out my other posts on the flower island of Madeira:

For more information on Madeira check out the official website of Madeira Tourism:

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