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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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!
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.
Capela de Coreicao in Monte, Madeira
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 from Monte to Quinta do Palheiro Ferreiro
Monte Palace Tropical Gardens
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.
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.
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.
The old railway bridge of Monte
Santana Day Trip from Funchal: Monte to Pico do Arieiro
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.
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.
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!
Driving on the top of Madeira
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, 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
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.
Volcanic rocks of Madeira
Some more volcanic mountain ridges, this is the view to the northwest:
Madeira north shore from Pico do Arieiro
Walk from Pico do Arieiro to Pico Ruivo
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.
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.
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.
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 and levadas
Portela and Balcoes Leavada Walks
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.
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:
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.
Views of Ribeiro Frio, starting point of a levada walk
Santa Claus in Madeira’s winter
The Ribeiro Frio trout farm takes its fresh water from a beautifully landscaped levada:
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
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.
Ribeiro Frio 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.
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.
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!
Madeira’s terraced fields
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.
Taking the upper road from Faial to Santana
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.
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 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
More Santana House Styles
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?
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-shaped Santana storage room
Santana House Christmas Decoration
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 houses in nativity scene
Via Expressa to 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.
Santa Catarina Airport, Madeira
Soon after the airport: back in the city and ready for dinner, after an enjoyable Santana day trip from Funchal!
Back in Funchal
More on Madeira Travel
Check out my other posts on the flower island of Madeira:
- Madeira: Exploring Funchal Sights
- Driving in Madeira: Road Trip to Western Madeira
- Day Trip from Funchal: Curral das Freiras
For more information on Madeira check out the official website of Madeira Tourism: